“Every great movie has five things: violence, romance, a great cast, American mythology, and a 90 minute running time.” So says Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director known for his violent and meticulous films Bronson and Valhalla Rising. His latest film, Drive, is his American debut, and stars Ryan Gosling as a LA Driver who does movie stunts by day and robberies by night (read the review here). Filled with a 1980s grunge sensibility smashed with a high-art European style, Mr. Winding Refn won the award for Best Director at Cannes for his film. He spoke after a screening last night at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Bamcinematek. Here is a sampling of the insights he brought to his creative process, as well as the greatest bromance ever told:
Mr. Winding Refn almost killed Harrison Ford:
I was in LA working on a movie with Harrison Ford called The Dying of the Light. It was a wonderful script about a CIA agent who goes on an existentialist journey and then dies at the end. If I could do a movie where Harrison Ford dies, I could contribute to society. I had gone to Los Angeles to work with him. We would hang out, but then he was like he doesn’t want to die. But then there’s no movie, Harrison! I was so angry for buying into the illusion of Hollywood, I didn’t want to do it.
On how him and Mr. Gosling had the worst first date ever, which led to the project:
Out of the blue, I got a call from Ryan Gosling asking if I wanted have dinner with him. I had never met him, so I was like why not?—if Harrison doesn’t want to die, maybe you want to die. The only problem was I had a very high fever because I had gotten sick on the plane. Harrison got me these anti-flu drugs that they have in this country that helped put the fever down, but the only problem is they made you as high as a kite. So I’m stoned out my mind and I got to meet Ryan. That morning a script had arrived from Universal, written by Hossein Amini called Drive, but I didn’t read it because I was so stoned. So I went to dinner and I was the chair. I couldn’t turn, so I was sitting in profile because I couldn’t move…This man had an aura of an unbelievable proportion. He was very interested in how I make my films and had seen all of them, and was very enthusiastic. I was feeling very euphoric so halfway through I say will you please take me home. It was like a blind date gone wrong! He said sure, I’ll drop you off. So this dinner which hadn’t amounted to anything but “you’re great, I’m great, yea!” We’re sitting in the car, driving along the freeway in Santa Monica, which is a very long ride, in silence—blind date gone wrong, and no action. So we turn on the radio and its soft rock, REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore.” So here I am with Ryan Gosling and “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” and you know when you’re high you need to turn the music really, really loud. And I’m getting into the song. I’m from the 80s, and I remember this pop ballad, so I start singing along. And I can’t sing to save my life, and Ryan Gosling is driving this car, not saying a single word. And guys we’re pretty weak when we’re ill. So I’m missing my family and my kids and Harrison Ford won’t die, so I start to cry. Tears are rolling down my cheek and it’s flowing out of me and Ryan is just sitting in the car driving. I’m a Finnish filmmaker so I make films based on what I like to see and ideas come to me in the strangest of places, but right there I had an idea to do a movie. I turn to Ryan for the first time and he’s a very good looking man, and I scream at him, since the music is so loud, “I got it man! We’re gonna make a movie about a man who drives around at night, in a car, listening to pop music, cause that’s his emotional relief!” Ryan turns to me and looks at me and says, “Cool…I’m in.”
On going independent:
I went back and read the Universal material and it was great but it wasn’t my kind of movie, and I read the novel by James Sallis, which is a wonderful piece of literature. I wanted to make the book, cause it’s very different from what Universal was making, which was a $60 million franchise. It had no stuntman story and a lot of sex and it was gonna be Hugh Jackman. Ryan and I wanted to do it so I started changing the script so it could be something I could work with, and Universal didn’t want to do it. So we went to independent financing and it was very little budget, but that was great because that’s what I was used to, and I could control that.
On the inspiration for the film:
I’m a child of cinema of course, so I’m exposed to cinema, but I was really influenced by Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I had been reading Fairy Tales to my daughter a few years before and a lot of stories are based on them, like Pretty Woman, where you take a very dark theme and basically change the concept. And this movie is basically making a movie about a man who’s psychotic. So you start the film with a love story about purity like a John Hughes movie, and then he turns psychotic and kills everybody, it’s like a scream movie…It was an incredible experience—it was not an expensive movie, and we only had seven weeks to shoot the entire film, including all the action. The script I wrote at the end with Hossein was about 88 pages, and we ended up shooting about 60 of them. I was cutting out dialogue constantly.
On the film’s hyper-stylized lighting:
I’m actually color blind, so everything has to be in contrast. This is heightened reality, so you should use your tools to underscore that. You have to find that balance where it doesn’t become stylization. There’s a difference between stylish and stylized. Stylish is something that comes out of an emotion. You have a thought and you want to represent it in a stylish way. Stylization is you come up with a concept and you try to hold this emotion that comes out of it.
On why he constantly hugged Ryan Gosling:
Ryan’s dialogue was so reduced, which can be difficult for an actor. When you take away their dialogue, you handicap the actor and take away their movement…So they have to use parts of their body to communicate, which is harder than it looks. But a way to do that is to keep everything inside, so gestures and moves tells the story. But very quickly, people compensate, and move master, and bigger, and more facial gestures, where they try to emulate something. But because we’re making a movie, the camera sees, it’s enlarged basically. So with Ryan, because he’s such a unique actor, all you had to do is go over and hug him and hold onto him until he would let into the hug. And I would say, “Keep it all inside, and go with God.”
On the film’s 80s music and electronic score:
I wanted a very electronic score in the movie because it would underscore that Driver is half-man, half-machine, and he drives a machine that’s an antique, and an electronic score would have a craft and sound that’s a very feminine pop from the masculine interior of the car. Art is essentially based on two emotions: sex and violence. The further you can pull them apart, the further tension you pull between them. So it was having the feminine side of the music combined with the extremely masculinity of the car world and the stunt world, and the mythological America hero, which is very masculine…There wasn’t a fight, nobody liked [the music]! They were Americans and they were like “What the fuck is this? How about Moby?” They wanted Chemical Brothers, which is so 90s. They wanted something youth sounding. In the end, they saw the light. Now, cause everyone loves it!
On the influence of Walter Hill’s The Driver, which has some similar plot elements:
I had never seen [The Driver] because it’s very hard to get on DVD so I got in LA when I was shooting the movie. But I think Sallis had seen it and that was the inspiration for the book. So in a way I was ripping off the movie without having seen it.
On hi strange relationship with Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of El Topo and The Holy Mountain:
I’m very close with Alejandro, and I had gone to Paris last year to be christened by him as a spiritual son. There he gave me a tarot reading on the movie. And he said you will travel with the film, and before I left, I said what should I do if they come at me in Hollywood, if they try and change the movie from me. And he said just smile and nod. I did a lot of smiling and nodding and it worked.
On using graphic violence and the laughter it can provoke:
Anything graphic at that level will provoke laughter because it is absurd and bizarre and far out. So that will be a natural reaction. We did a screening at New York Times club and it was seniors and there was no laughter. So I think it depends on who you are. But any reaction to it is an interesting reaction. I guess I’m attracted to violence because it’s my fetish. There’s something very cinematic about it and primal, so I try to make it emotionally engaging. Violence works like sex—it’s all about the build up to the climax. The better the foreplay, the better the payoff is going to be. And violence has the same DNA. It has to be very graphic because it digs into hyper reality, and that goes back to the Grimm’s Fairy Tales with the retribution factor.
On eliminating the back story from the novel:
I eliminated all his back story because I wanted him to be a mythological character. Not having a past made him a mystery, an enigma, and he represented the needs of the other characters—they all needed to have a reason to have a driver in their lives. But it also made him more romantic, more pure because you would interpret his behavior as more of an enigma. When he becomes more violent and dangerous, it’s more surprising and scary because you never saw it coming. There is a kind of sense this is a transformation movie. Nobody offered me any of the superhero movies in Hollywood, so I went and made one myself. So I wanted to make a movie about someone who transformed himself into a superhero at the end, and whatever comes of that.