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An absolutely fascinating filmmaker for years now, Nicolas
Winding Refn deservedly sees his biggest American release today. His
full-fledged noir, DRIVE is stunning at every turn with some of the film’s most
affecting moments being bits of unflinching violence and captivating menace
amidst quiet stoicism and romance (both for a girl and L.A.). Refn spoke with
FANGORIA about DRIVE and working through his own infatuations within the film
and his previous work.
In DRIVE, “Ryan Gosling stars as a Los Angeles wheelman for
hire, stunt driving for movie productions by day and steering getaway vehicles
for armed heists by night. Though a loner by nature, Driver can't help falling
in love with his beautiful neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a vulnerable young
mother dragged into a dangerous underworld by the return of her ex-convict
husband Standard (Oscar Isaac). After a heist intended to pay off Standard's
protection money spins unpredictably out of control, Driver finds himself
driving defense for the girl he loves, tailgated by a syndicate of deadly
serious criminals (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman). But when he realizes that
the gangsters are after more than the bag of cash in his trunk-that they're
coming straight for Irene and her son-Driver is forced to shift gears and go on
FANGORIA: It’s exciting that DRIVE is very much a noir.
NICOLAS WINDING REFN: Oh yeah, but it’s in the niche of, it’s
not just L.A. noir which is a niche itself, but it’s what I call the neon noir.
Very few films are in that genre, just like there’s a little genre called
sci-fi neon, which is LIQUID SKY.
FANG: And it’s based on a novel, which is apparently very
REFN: It’s great. The book is 100 pages. My approach was to
adapt the book, not page by page, but emotion by emotion, very much like
Kubrick had done A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. So the script was very much 100 page
FANG: Is the book itself already basked in the aesthetic of
neon noir, or was that a choice on your part?
REFN: It automatically has that. The book is a lot about
movie mythology, but I also had this idea about a superhero in the making, of
how one man who doesn’t know why he doesn’t, but he can’t belong in the real
world, because at night he puts on a costume and drives around. He doesn’t know
why maybe, until through the course of the film he becomes the hero he portrays
in cinema. So he becomes the superhero he was meant to become. He even has the
satin jacket with the scorpion on its back, which is automatically a symbol.
FANG: Being the film is so infused with L.A., how do you
feel about the city and working and living there?
REFN: L.A. has always been very strange to me, but one of
the reasons I wanted to do the film was also to experience the mythology of
L.A.; to do a movie in L.A. about cars and stunt guys, which is very much an
L.A. thing. I had a certain condition with how I wanted to live. I wanted to
have a house in the hills, a swimming pool, an orange tree. I wanted to relive
that whole movie mythology of European filmmakers moving to Hollywood and
making films. That goes back to the 20s. I had a great relationship with Los
Angeles, and being there over the course of ten months, my wife and my kids
really loved it. I can’t even drive a car. I don’t have a license. That really
handicaps you, but in the end, I have very fond memories of L.A. I like going
FANG: You seem very taken with icons.
REFN: A lot of my films are about transformation, I’ve come
to understand over the years. That it’s about transforming of the lead
protagonist from what he thinks he is into what he has to become.
Transformation is very dramatic, so that automatically heightens the tension in
a drama because coming from where you start to where you land is movement and
film is about, or drama is about, movement of emotions.
FANG: DRIVE evokes such a wide spectrum of emotion, whether
being wrapped up in the Driver and Irene (Carey Mulligan), or being hit by the
very stark turning point. How do you achieve that explosiveness in a landscape
where people have seen so much at this point?
REFN: It’s an interesting question because there’s always
the take of, “Well, now we have reached the limit.” Being a genre movie fan
since I was very little, I’ve certainly scene all the violent films, action
films and horror movies, I could get my hands on. I don’t see as much anymore,
I’m more selective because I have a family that needs my attention and they
should have it and I’m pickier because I want to use my time very specifically.
A few years ago, prior to making this film, while I was writing ONLY GOD
FORGIVES, I had started to read a lot of Grimm’s Fairy Tales to my eldest
daughter. I remember thinking, “God, it’d be interesting to make a movie
completely like a fairy tale, very archetypal, very much like VALHALLA RISING,
the kind of larger than life appeal.” Grimm’s tales were always very short, no
more than three or four pages, and it always about protecting the innocence and
the romanticism of the innocence from an evil antagonist. So Ryan, the Driver
is the knight and Irene is the innocent farm girl that gets caught in some kind
of trouble because of her innocence and her purity. Albert Brooks is like an
evil king and Ron Perlman is a dragon, and Bryan Cranston is the helper of the
knight. So they all became archetypes.
People react on emotional contrast.
Violence is a physical form, you can see it and you can be shocked by it, or
you can be not shocked by it, but if you’re emotionally not connected or
interested in it, then it really doesn’t mean anything. Then you can say, “we
have reached the limit.” If you’re emotionally engaged in the characters then
you will automatically be affected by the violence and because my idea with the
first half of the movie has to be like a John Hughes movie. I grew up in the 80s
where John Hughes movies were my view into the world of love and innocence and
dating and all those things that you’re introduced to as a teen and all the
problems of being in love. So SIXTEEN CANDLES was very much my introduction to
that world. I wanted to make a John Hughes movie and then halfway through it,
it all goes terribly wrong. So, it’s like PRETTY IN PINK, with a head smash. When
you do that, the violence then becomes shocking and disturbing. There’s never a
limit, it’s just about how do you do it. Do we really need another rock n’ roll
band? Well, strangely enough, somebody figured out how to play a chord that different
way so suddenly it becomes refreshing.
FANG: Do you like working with the blood and practical FX
that comes along with it?
REFN: I’m not an expert on FX because I never could afford
them, really. I do find them irritating because I don’t want to do insert shots,
so you always have to figure out how you can do it in a more advanced situation
with a perfect set-up where it doesn’t just become like some of the great
70s/80s films where it’s about the inserts. All the great horror movies and
gore movies and splatter films were things that were done extremely well
visually, in combining explicit violence with a visual tour de force. So it
becomes more like a trick. With the advancement of technology, you can then
combine things. I am a believer in old school prosthetics as the most
effective. I do think that just works the best, so I was trying to do that as
much as possible.
FANG: Noir often takes on weirder qualities, especially
something like KISS ME DEADLY (which we had been previously discussing), and
there seem to be almost surreal Lynchian points in DRIVE, most especially when
the Driver is threatening the thug with the hammer as all the strippers just
gaze on, or when he puts the mask on. He’s alone on a beach with someone, and
it’s totally captivating and nightmarish.
REFN: That was the kind of sense where women of that world,
are used to knowing, “you don’t tell, keep your head down, let it pass.” It’s
interesting because it almost becomes like an audience for him; like a
theatrical audience. I took it from ONLY GOD FORGIVES where there’s a similar
scene, but different in context. I thought it would be interesting to try it
out here and see how it works. It gives it that almost kind of oddness and yet it’s
With the mask, he puts on his full costume to become the
avenging angel he was always meant to be, he just didn’t know how to become. He
was a man who was stuck between light and darkness. That’s when he becomes
Driver the superhero. You can see there’s a new superhero called Driver and he
wears a satin jacket with a scorpion on its back and he protects the innocent and
he roams around the wasteland in a car. The music for that scene when he looks
into the pizzeria is from the Jacopetti film, FAREWELL UNCLE TOM which was one
of the last Mondo movies that Jacopetti and Prosperi did. So that was a little
wink to the Italian subgenre of Mondo movies. It’s one of the most extreme
films ever made, FAREWELL UNCLE TOM and I remember even spending $200 on eBay
just to get the soundtrack. So I always knew that song would be playing.
FANG: The music in the film has already become something of
a phenomenon among audiences, especially the Kavinsky track.
REFN: I chose the song very early on, and the idea that I
wanted this very retro Euro sound in the film. I’m from Europe and I thought it
was a great combination of automobile fetish and then this kind of music which
is not usually combined with mechanics. Also, all my films, I try to find a
piece of music that will define the movie. So here, because he’s half man/half
machine, yet he drives a car that’s vintage, my idea of Kraftwerk and when they
started making electronic music in the 70s, they used very crude, almost
antique machinery now, but made very beautiful, almost naïve sounds and so the
idea of an electronic score was already in my mind before we started shooting.
FANG: You brought up Mondo and your love of genre itself,
are you interested in making a something that’s more explicitly a horror film?
REFN: Absolutely. I’ve been trying to make a horror movie
for fifteen years, still working on it.
FANG: Where would your own interests in mythology,
iconography and transformation take you into horror?
REFN: The trick with horror is that there have been so many
good horror movies. I always get stuck halfway through writing it, but over the
years, I have enough where I know that I’m circling something and I even have
the title and the money, because it’s part of a two picture deal where ONLY GOD
FORGIVES is the first one, but I haven’t come up with the ending. It’s called I
WALK WITH THE DEAD and it’s about sex. I just want to do a movie about women.
It’s my same fascination with wanting to do WONDER WOMAN.
FANG: Do you feel like you haven’t touched on women enough
in your previous work?
REFN: Well, my films are very feminine, but they always seem
to be about men, which is strange because I don’t really have an interest in
men. I’m not a “guy’s guy.” I don’t do sports, I don’t hang out. I only have
girls and I worship women, so I have to get out of my guy world and into a
woman’s world and maybe the transformation is on its way.
FANG: Do you find yourself interested in where Driver goes
REFN: All my films have open endings, because I believe the
audience then travels with what you do much longer because they will make up
their own conclusions. So it’s like you want to know the answer, but you don’t.
It’s like having sex and never climaxing. If life could be like that, it would
be the best. Sometimes, in my earlier films, I maybe went a little too far or
it didn’t have the same effect, but I think here that was the approach.
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