Interview: Director Nicholas Winding Refn on Fueling ‘Drive’

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CHICAGO – Nicholas Winding Refn is a name you’re going to need to remember. The stellar director of “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising” will go from cult icon to cinematic hero with the release of this weekend’s “Drive,” one of the best films of 2011. Starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, and Ron Perlman, “Drive” is a stunning modern fairy tale that is going to have a loyal, devoted audience. The multi-talented director sat down with recently to talk about his award-winning film (Refn took Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival), Michael Mann, “Pretty Woman,” “Point Blank,” and Albert Brooks’ need to kill. You’ve never seen the movie with a crowd?

NICHOLAS WINDING REFN: I had to do that at Cannes. It was required of me. You can leave after you enter the auditorium but you’re expected. I would think it would be a fun movie to watch with a crowd. Are you too critical?

REFN: It’s always hard to be judged. Do you think ALL audiences are judging?

REFN: Maybe not actively but people always react to what you do. You become so obsessed with people’s reactions that they can spiral out of control in your own mind. I admire filmmakers that can NOT be affected by somebody coughing. It doesn’t mean you don’t like it. Has it gotten any easier with each movie? Will it be better in 20 years?

REFN: A lot of it has to do with being “done.” I can no longer control it. If I can’t control it, I should no longer be a part of it.

Photo credit: Film District Isn’t the audience experience and reaction part of the filmmaking process?

REFN: Afterwards. It’s great. All the people who come up to you and like it. It’s such a relief. Last night, there were so many nice people. But I’ve had terrible experiences. I remember at Venice — we were not in competition — Valhalla Rising was in midnight screenings, which means 1AM on the Lido and you can’t get home. So nobody shows up. It was half-full. And then, at the press conference, which was at the same time as some big Hollywood movie — it was basically empty. You felt so worthless. But those things can change. When I came to Toronto with the movie, it was completely opposite. But I am very sensitive.

Photo credit: Film District Does it carry over to critics? Do you read reviews?

REFN: The kind of films I make…”Drive” is the first movie I’ve made where it was a major release domestically — press junkets, posters, marketing. Before that, it was me traveling around to every country and talking to journalists. So, critics and journalists became the way to market the movie. If small films don’t have that, then they will die. It’s the last thing we cling in — you champion certain films and there’s a little breathing room before we’re crushed by the machine. It’s not so much that I read them but they’re a necessity. And I’m very interested in people’s opinions. This movie has drawn a lot of comparisons to other works. Michael Mann’s films, for example. Is that something that bothers you? Or do you find those takes interesting?

REFN: I don’t think about it so much. There’s a tendency to compare that makes certain people more comfortable when they write or critique. It’s a safe arena to view the product from. Because I make genre movies, there’s parallels to genre movies. Michael Mann, Sergio Leone, David Lynch, Tony Scott — the list goes on and on. We make films about heroes in circumstances and, so, it’s a normal technique to say we’re alike. But, how can you complain? Were any of those perceived inspirations conscious?

REFN: No. That’s what amuses me. The biggest inspiration for drive aesthetically was “Scorpio Rising” and, structurally and thematically, was “Pretty Woman.” Why is that?

Photo credit: Film District

REFN: Prior to a few years ago, I started to read Grimm’s Fairy Tales to my oldest daughter. I thought I might want to structure a movie like a Grimm’s Fairy Tale — sparse setting, few characters, extremely emotional. With “Drive,” James Sallis’ novel is a brilliant piece of literature and only 100 pages, is very much about the mythology of Hollywood. It’s about a stunt man having issues with reality. So, for me, I saw a way to, with my relationship with Ryan, make the story into a fairy tale. The driver is a silent knight or hero who enters the situation when a woman’s innocence is in trouble. There’s always a farm girl or a princess. She needs a savior. Albert Brooks is the evil wizard. Ron Perlman is the dwarf. They’re all archetypes gleaned out of other people and settings. The only movie that I felt in recent times that was able to take a strange, twisted theme and spin it into a “Cinderella,” fairy-tale arena [was “Pretty Woman”]. Talk about perception. And how you can twist perception. With “Drive,” it was that kind of thing — half the movie is my John Hughes ode and then, when he goes psychotic, it gets dark in its themes and action. And you just have scenes of Driver killing people. He goes beyond logic. He doesn’t just kill one or two. He kills everyone. And gets enjoyment out of it?

REFN: Satisfaction. This is what he was meant to be. His love for Irene is transformed into extreme violent behavior. In Grimm’s, once the maiden is saved and the bad guys have retribution, it was very violent and explicit. Grimm’s was a way to translate the book. And he’s so determined when he needs to be. He drives or he waits. There’s little middle ground.

REFN: It makes him unpredictable. He doesn’t have normal human conditions. If you need him as a human being, he will be a human being. If you need him as a hero, he will be a hero. The transformation is always something I have been very interested in. Most of your films I would say.

REFN: All of them. I realized that on this trip. [Laughs.]

Photo credit: Film District What does Ryan bring to this that other actors wouldn’t?

REFN: He came to me wanting to do the film. He had heard about it and wanted to do it. It’s similar to “Point Blank,” where Lee Marvin took it to John Boorman. And this has a familiar language [to “Point Blank”]. Or Steve McQueen insisting on Peter Yates to do “Bullitt.” Ryan had control and could dictate who he wanted to do with it. He was MY hero. He protected me. Did you work together to fill out the rest of the cast? Why Albert?

Photo credit: Film District

REFN: Albert was an idea I had early on as an instinct. You get kind of a list of actors in Hollywood and he wasn’t on the list. It was a leap for a lot of people. I had this instinct that it was going to work. So, I wanted him. When Ryan and I talked about it, we thought it could be a fun approach. I had never met him. I had to meet him before I would cast him. He came to my house to meet. I’d only seen him in earlier movies. It was interesting because I had an idea that he would be a movie producer/gangster. He would be one of those late ’70s producers who were really crooks. In the book, he’s just a gangster, more like the mob. I felt it would be interesting because it would add this underlying film world — illusion world that they both come from. So, Albert and I were talking and I could sense that he was a powerhouse of emotions. This guy had never killed anybody and never played a bad guy, which was refreshing. What really pushed me into saying “you got it” was that all of the emotion through him, eventually, he was going to kill somebody. [Laughs.] So, I thought, let’s put it in this movie. Then, when I assembled the whole cast, I would meet with them separately or sometimes in groups, we had a lot of fun sessions where we would improvise very ideas. So, you have a collaborative process?

REFN: Absolutely. Plus, I shoot in chronological order. Wow. All of your films? You do that for the sake of the actors?

REFN: Yes. All of the techniques/gimmicks that you can do in cinema will only really work if the emotions of the actors are there. Everything we do is to help the actors with their emotions. When you took the film to Cannes, did you expect such a positive reaction?

REFN: I learned to leave those thoughts out a long time ago. You’ll be gravely disappointed. I love the way L.A. looks in this, which I think is one of the reasons you’re drawing the Mann comparisons.

REFN: He’s the only one who really uses it. It’s HIS city. In New York, you have a list of directors who are famous for using it — Scorsese, Allen, Lumet. There’s a whole group. L.A. doesn’t really have a lot of people who use the city as it is. Michael Mann is one of the few examples. I don’t live in L.A. What’s special about L.A.? Why is it cinematically interesting?

REFN: It was a condition. If I had moved to Detroit, we would have had double the budget. The movie is ABOUT movie mythology. And L.A. is a strange city. Once you get past the tourist sites, it’s a beautiful and strange city. When Lynch did “Mulholland Drive,” I thought it was a weird view of L.A. that was inspiring. When you see a lot of L.A., you get the feeling that the city has never left the ’80s. People tell me this is a retro movie and I say, “It’s not, L.A. looks like that.” I love the undefined time period of the film.

REFN: That’s what fairy tales are.

See this fairy tale as soon as possible when “Drive” opens in Chicago on September 16th, 2011. content director Brian Tallerico

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