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An Interview With Nicolas Winding Refn, The Director Of Drive

He was late because a car crashed into him.

by Louisa McGillicuddy
23 September 2011, 3:00pm

It’s far too early on a Monday morning, and I’m in the basement of a recording studio somewhere in Soho, waiting for Nicolas Winding Refn. Nicolas is on his way to talk to me about his fancy pants new movie, Drive, for which he won the best director award at this year's Cannes film festival. The plot centres around a guy who's name is 'Driver’ (Ryan Gosling); an elusive LA grease monkey leading the sort of double life that'd give Don Draper cognitive dissonance: Movie stuntman by day, sociopathic get-away driver by night. Driver's fine doing that, but things get complicated, as they things always tend to in films, when Driver falls in love with his beautiful, next-door neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and is offered a job he can't turn down.

The film has been described by some as ‘neo-noir’, ‘existentialist’, ‘art-house’ and 'as violent and as funny as fuck', and I can see elements of Mulholland Drive, the films of John Hughes and Taxi Driver in it, too.

Anyway, Nicolas is running a bit late. His PA tells me that someone has crashed into the back of his car, while on their way back from the BBC studios. That’s right. Nicolas Winding Refn. Cars. Dangerous driving. Drive. Talk about life imitating art!!!

   VICE: So Nicolas, I heard you had a bit of car trouble on the way over here? Isn’t that funny? Because you’re promoting your film called Drive? Which is all about cars?   
   Nicolas Winding Refn     : Yeah, funny. It was fine,  really nothing, I’ve had plenty of those things before.

Was Ryan Gosling driving the car?
No. That would have been interesting though.

Good. I’m glad he’s ok.
It was actually much more exciting at the BBC…

What happened there?
Well, apparently... in fact, let me get Donna. Donna!

I think this studio might be soundproof…
Really? [pauses] DONNA! [Donna the PR lady comes in] Donna, can you tell Louisa the story of what happened this morning?

Donna, the PR lady: Ah. Well, we went on BBC Breakfast, and Nicolas had never seen it before. So, on the way there we said, “Nicolas, this is early morning entertainment, you have to be very well behaved.”

Nicolas: And I was…

Donna: And Carey Mulligan, who was there as well said, “Nicolas, you have to be very well behaved.”

Nicolas: And I was!

Donna: But you said "fuck", Nicolas.

Nicolas: The presenter goes like, “So how do you do this action, it suddenly comes out of nowhere?” And I said, “Well, it’s like fucking.”

Donna: I’d never seen Bill and Sian look so…Anyway, you can imagine, we had to turn it around pretty quickly. Carey basically did the rest of the interview.

Nicolas: I mean, I thought the UK was supposed to be more liberal about this kind of stuff than the States.

I think we are, just maybe not before breakfast.
I guess so. [Link]

So, there’s an amazing supporting cast in Drive: Carey Mulligan, Christina Hendricks, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston. But, I heard you were originally casting porn stars for Christina’s part?
Yeah, I was casting for porn stars in LA, and I couldn’t find anyone who could really pull it off. Then, I got a call asking if I would want to meet with Christina. I had never seen Mad Men, I didn’t know who she was, but when she came to my house, I found she was such a powerhouse of a woman. I gave her the part right away. I just knew this was going to work out. And afterwards, my wife and I went back and watched Mad Men, and now we’re both total Christina fans. If I ever get to do Wonder Woman, she’s the prototype; she’s the perfect woman.

Isn’t that what happened with Carey Mulligan, too?
Yeah, Carey Mulligan was an odd one, because I was looking for a completely different type of actress. In the James Sallis book, she is written as Latina. So, I was meeting with all the great Latina actresses, but I couldn’t make up my mind. I couldn’t fall in love with any of them. And then I got a call saying would I meet Carey? And again, I’d not seen An Education but my wife had and Lone Scherfig who directed it used to babysit me. So I was like "Sure, come by," but I didn’t think I would have anything for her. She came a few days later, and the minute she walked through the door, I was like, ‘You’re it.’ I think it’s because I realised I wanted to protect her; I could understand Driver’s motivation better.

She does have a really innocent-looking face that you want to protect. I love her little chipmunk smile.
She’s brilliant. There’s so much in her that the camera loves. When you have her and Ryan, around each other, that’s enough to tell a love story. She made the movie, literally. So you get these strange phone calls, and one thing I’ve learned is: take the meeting, take the meeting! You never know what’s going to happen.

Ryan Gosling said that Drive is like a John Hughes movie if somebody smashed someone’s head in. Care to explain that a little?
Well, I’m a huge John Hughes fan, and I grew up in the 80s, when his films came out. So, my introduction to what you’d call ‘cinema love’, that illusion of love, was Sixteen Candles and Molly Ringwald. That’s what I said to Ryan: “The first half of this movie is like a John Hughes movie, it’s Pretty in Pink with a head smash.” Because John Hughes would make films about falling in love without the complications, and that’s essentially what the first half of the movie is about. Love without the complications. But then he has to protect her, and it goes in the exact opposite direction.

When it comes to violence in the film, I was actually shocked not at how explicit it was, but at how many people in the cinema were laughing at it. How do you use violence in your films?
Like sex. It’s all about the build-up. Violence is a mechanical device, it has no function if you’re not emotionally engaged in it. And so, the more you are into the love story between them, the more the violence will pay off. And because the love story is so pure, the violence needs to be really explicit to balance it. It’s a bit like a Grimm’s fairy tale.

Going back to the John Hughes influence, the soundtrack also reminded me of watching those films. Was electronic music a deliberate choice for a film about one man’s obsession with this machine?
When I make a film, I always try to define it as a piece of music. For this movie, I wanted an electronic score because I felt it counterbalanced the masculinity of the car world. It had to be very feminine, almost antique, electronic sounds. So, I would listen to a lot of Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, really 80s stuff throughout the whole process. Then I had Cliff Martinez emulate the sound of that kind of ‘Europop’ that would again make the film counter its very masculine, American mythology.

You also stripped away lots of the dialogue from the original book for the film. What role does silence play in this movie?
Silence is the loudest sound in the world. Without silence, there is no noise. It’s a bit like photography; the light reminds you of where the shadows are, and vice versa. I’ve always worked a lot with silence in my films. It forces the audience to concentrate on what they’re seeing, because silence is pure emotions, it has no logic, it goes straight to the heart.

Awesome. I heard you were gonna remake Logan’s Run, can you tell me a little bit about that?
Well, Ryan and I, cause you know we have a telekinetic relationship…

Yes, I’ve heard about that.
… we’re doing a movie at Christmas called Only God Forgives. And then if it all goes well, we’ll go off and do Logan’s Run. But it’s such a huge, massive design and we’ve been trying to make it for so many years. I’ve thrown everything out and started all over again. So we’ll see. But I’ve always been very fascinated by that movie. And, when the chance came about I was like, “Yes! I really want to make this.”

And you’d definitely like to keep working with Ryan?
Well, so far it’s working pretty well.