Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn was born into a film family—his father, Anders Refn, edited Lars von Trier’s Breaking The Waves and Antichrist, among others, and his mother, Vibeke Winding, is a still photographer and cinematographer. The younger Refn burst onto the international scene with 1996’s Pusher, a gritty foray into Copenhagen’s criminal underground. When his first English-language film, 2003’s Fear X with John Turturro, failed at the box office, Refn’s company fell into bankruptcy, forcing him to make two more excellent Pusher films, 2004’s Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands and 2005’s Pusher III: I’m The Angel Of Death, to climb out of debt. (His travails are chronicled in the 2006 documentary Gambler.) Now liberated from financial problems, Refn has been turning out sharp, violent, innovative genre fare at a prolific clip, including the 2008 biopic Bronson, about the world’s most notorious inmate, and 2009’s Valhalla Rising, which follows the mythic adventures of a one-eyed mute warrior during The Crusades.
Venturing to Hollywood for the first time, Refn won Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for Drive, a retro action thriller that evokes the minimalist force of classic Walter Hill or William Friedkin films while giving Los Angeles a distinct ’80s ambience. Ryan Gosling stars as “The Driver,” an expert wheelman who works as a getaway driver, grease monkey, Hollywood stuntman, and would-be stock-car racer. After forming a tentative relationship with a neighbor (Carey Mulligan), Gosling gets roped into a heist job with her ex-con husband that puts him on the wrong side of some dangerous local gangsters, played by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks. Refn recently spoke to The A.V. Club about his anxieties about working in Hollywood, his unusual approach to casting and shooting, and making movies in foreign places.
The A.V. Club: I was surprised to learn you only recently saw Walter Hill’s The Driver.
Nicholas Winding Refn: It was one of those movies that’s been hard to get for so many years for home entertainment. It was one of those on the list to watch. Once I was in prep, I tried to see as many L.A. movies as I could to get an idea. I saw Thief as well, which is also a great movie. A lot of those kinds of films.
AVC: To Live And Die In L.A., was that in there?
NWR: I remember To Live And Die In L.A. I saw that in the cinemas when I was young in the ’80s. I remember the poster. It’s a great poster.
AVC: I was thinking also of the opening titles [of Drive].
NWR: Me and Mat Newman, who edits all my movies, we stole that in the editing table from Risky Business.
AVC: Drive existed as a project in Hollywood before you came on board. What state was it in when you came to it?
NWR: It was owned by Universal, which had bought the book. There is a really, really, really smart and clever producer called Adam Siegel who had read the book many years ago, and I don’t know how he had gotten Universal to buy it, because the book is a 100-page existentialist novel about a stuntman in Los Angeles. I guess Universal didn’t get high on that, so they wanted to make it about a wheelman, which is a very small part of the book. Hossein Amini was hired by Universal to adapt it into a franchise concept, like The Fast And The Furious, and I believe it was designed for Hugh Jackman to star. But in the last six years, it never got made. They never greenlit it.
When I heard about it, it was through Ryan Gosling, who had read a draft of the script and had gotten very interested in it. He came to me and asked if I would make Drive with him. At that point, the script maybe was for a different kind of filmmaker, but both Ryan and I felt that we could do something with this. I really liked Hoss Amini, who been working on it for so many years, poor guy. Drafts among drafts among… he was like at the edge of his rope, basically. So I met with him and we did a lot of restructuring, in England, where he lives. And that was easy for me, ’cause I live in Denmark. And then we moved to Los Angeles, and he would fly out and live with me in L.A., and we would continue dissecting it. Ryan would then be part of that as well, which was great, because Ryan and I had a very telekinetic relationship. Then the other actors I had along the way would come in and be very much part of the script’s evolution. And then we went off and did the movie. I shoot my films in chronological order, so again, it was a constant evolution of the story and the script. You can kind of say the film is what it is. That’s essentially the end.
AVC: Is there a reason you shoot in chronological order? Does that cause problems?
NWR: It’s always difficult with production. All my films previous to Drive had been shot in what I call 100-percent almost-chronological order. Where Drive is like 80 percent. The reason why it didn’t go 100 was that I just simply couldn’t afford the last remaining pieces. I could afford what I call “the emotional chronological order.” So nobody would die or leave the movie in the middle of their shooting schedule. It would always be the end. So there was a build-up as much as possible.
AVC: So it’s really about the performances, in terms of the rationale for shooting in order?
NWR: Yes, because everything we do is about the emotion of the characters. We believe the better the emotion, the better the movie.
AVC: This is the first film you’ve done based on someone else’s script.
NWR: Well, it’s the novel; I wanted to make the novel. The novel is what really got me high, because Universal eliminated that whole stuntman world, which was basically what the movie was—what the book was about. That was the first thing Ryan and I said, what we wanted to make the movie about. All that came back in. Of course, it had a domino effect on many other aspects of it, and we kind of cleaned it up more and more and more. And then we started shooting, and of course we would then rewrite on set and change things, because when you shoot in chronological order, you can just adapt to the situation and have much more flow with it, and be creative all the way. You’re not following a manual, which to me is very boring.
AVC: You added aspects to Gosling’s character, but the script still feels very stripped-down.
NWR: It was. The shooting script I handed in was 81 pages, and from then on, Ryan and I and the other actors just started eliminating lines while we were shooting.
AVC: Was there a sense when you were on set that you could carry something across without needing that line?
NWR: We would meet every morning, whoever was in the scene, and we would say, “You wanna say this? You wanna say that? You wanna say this? You wanna say that?” And a lot of the time, I would always go for “less is more.” I had just done Valhalla Rising, which has no dialogue, basically. I love the language of silence. Like the character in Vanishing Point who is essentially also very existentialist in his silence. The great heroes are always more silent, from that to the Man With No Name to The Samurai and Shane. There’s a mythology. The man who’s always more silent is always the one who’s unpredictable. Ryan was very much seeing The Driver as a man who wouldn’t have a conversation unless he meant to have one, so you eliminated all small talk automatically. That, of course, was a great way to take everything out that had to do with that, which is unnecessary anyway, just filler that you don’t need. People talk nowadays like it’s the end of the world. We don’t do radio plays or plays. We do movies, which is about what you see. Or what you don’t see.
AVC: There’s also this dynamic in the film where “The Driver” contrasts with other characters who talk more. Bryan Cranston, for example.
NWR: Bryan Cranston had a very underdeveloped character, originally. But he was instrumental in how he would voice him and be a guy who was always talking, always a bit nervous, always having anxiety attacks. His way to communicate was through dialogue, which was a good counter to The Driver, which is the exact opposite. And Bernie Rose [Albert Brooks’ character] is a man who talks in monologues. The most essential part was, the love story between Carey and Ryan had to be very minimalistic, because it had to be about the purity of love. She was the innocent that he had to protect, and it could never get complicated. It was always about striking that fine balance where it still felt romantic, but never got into what I would call “normality.” Because if it got into normality, the illusion of love will disappear. And therefore the heightened realism that this world takes place in wouldn’t work.
AVC: Some of the supporting casting choices, specifically Cranston and Ron Perlman and Christina Hendricks—each one is part of a highly acclaimed television show. Is that how you came to cast them? Are you a fan of these shows?
NWR: I had never seen Mad Men prior, and I had not seen Sons Of Anarchy. I had seen Breaking Bad, and I’m probably the biggest fan of Breaking Bad in the world. [Cranston] was the actor I basically went straight for, and I had to woo him, because Bryan has a lot of opportunities. One of the conditions was that everybody had to come to my house to meet me. So when Bryan came, the character was very underdeveloped, and I said to him, “Look, we are here to create him. What would you like to do?” And that led to very good conversations. Then, of course, I didn’t hear anything, and knowing that he was in demand, I called him. Again, it was my good producer friend Adam Siegel who said, “Maybe we should just give him a call.” I called him, and at the moment I called, he was sitting with a blank piece of paper writing pros and cons of doing Drive or not. He said, “Well, since you’re calling, there must be meaning, so I’ll do your movie.”
With Christina Hendricks, it was a bit more by chance. I’d never seen Mad Men, so I didn’t know who she was. My wife had seen photos of her and said she was very beautiful, but I was actually casting porn stars for that role. I was trying to work in a more reality arena for a character like that. But I couldn’t find anybody that could pull it off acting-wise, as I had hoped. I get a call asking me if I’d meet with her, and I was like “Yeah, sure. She can come to the house in the morning if she wants to.” And she did, actually. She was so nice and interesting and fun. I don’t cast people on casting tapes or auditions; I cast them when I meet them. I liked her so much, she was such a powerhouse of a woman that instinctively I just knew it would work.
Ron Perlman called me from New York, saying—and I have of course seen a lot of Ron Perlman’s work. That was probably the most underdeveloped character. He was really more like some guy in the background. And Hoss had written a very beautiful scene with him meeting Bernie and Nina in a pizzeria, where they kind of confront each other with their own dilemmas. And Ron Perlman has this beautiful line where he says, “I’m a 65-year-old man, and Bernie can still pinch my cheek like I’m some kind of kid.” So Ron just called me and said that he was born a Jewish man—and in the movie, Bernie, Rose, and Nina are these Jewish gangsters in Los Angeles—“but I wanted to be an Italian gangster ever since I was very little.” That was like, [snaps] that’s it. That’s a great angle on the character, because it counters Bernie, who I’d made into a movie producer. In the book, they’re more conventional mob gangsters. I felt in the movie, they need more to be human beings and also people involved in the movie industry one way or another, because the film’s about movie mythology. The Driver is out of movie mythology. That was Ron.
And of course, the biggest strange situation was Carey Mulligan, because in the book, she is Latina, because he moves into a Latino area. The love story is a very small portion of the book, but that wouldn’t work for the movie. The movie needed the love story to be everything. It needed to be the heart of the movie. I was casting a lot of men and a lot of fantastic actresses, but in my mind, the way it had worked out, I just couldn’t get it to click. I’m a fetish person. I make films based on what I would like to see, not always understanding it, but what I would like to see. The other producer, Marc Platt, called me and said he’d gotten a call from Carey’s agent, asking if I would meet with her. He knew that it was a bit, you know, in the other direction than that I was looking at, because she was from England and she was blonde and completely the opposite person that I was searching for. I’d never seen An Education, but my wife had seen it and said she was very, very good in it. Again, “Sure, come by.” It was kind of weird. What were we gonna talk about, really? In my mind, I was looking for something else, but you never know. Everybody said “She’s a wonderful person,” and she turned out to be a wonderful person. The minute she came through that door, it was just me and my assistant in the house, I was like, “You’re it.” There was something for me that said, “I want to protect her.” And that is what The Driver does.
AVC: What about Albert Brooks? Were you not casting him against the sort of roles he had played in the past?
NWR: No. The way that Hollywood works, especially with the financiers, is that you get lists. And then you talk about these lists. The people on theses lists are great talent, but a lot of them are the same, because you’re getting the same list everybody else looks at. So sure there were a lot of actors who could play this part, very well, but again there was nothing that would say “Cling!” I’d always had a fascination with Albert Brooks and I liked him when I was younger, his movies. Ron and I talked a lot about it, “Wouldn’t it be fun to have Albert Brooks in the film?” Albert then came to my house to meet about the part and he had read the script when he was a mobster and one of the first things I said to him was “We have to make you something else.” But when I met him, he was such a powerhouse of emotions. It was just me and him, and I could just sense that this man not having killed anybody or been a bad guy before was itself refreshing. And then at the same time there was so many emotions in Albert, so many things, nuances and he was almost being scary. He says he was acting when I speak to him now, but I just knew that this guy was going to kill somebody eventually, so let’s put it in the movie. I was very, very blessed in terms of who I had to collaborate on this film.
AVC: Drive seems similar to the Pusher movies, in that it centers on a character who isn’t at the top of the food chain, and is forced into a situation where he doesn’t have many choices. Is that where you want to be when you enter a crime picture?
NWR: It’s always good drama when you take a protagonist, a hero, a lead character, and put him in a situation where there’s this ticking clock that he will eventually come out of his comfort zone and things will go really wrong. How does he deal with it? It’s a very simple structure of drama. It’s a very accessible structure of drama. Then it just becomes what you fill it with. But I’ve always liked characters that because of the circumstances, have to transform themselves, and in the end, it’s inevitable that what they end up becoming is what they were meant to be. Take, for example, Pusher II, which is a movie about a son [played by Mads Mikkelsen] who all his life wants his father’s love, but realizes he needs to kill him to free the sins of the father from him. What plants the seed for him is realizing he has his own child, and the responsibility of that suddenly forces him to take action. And it’s a happy ending, even though it’s a dark ending, but for the character, it is what he was meant to become. It’s almost like he achieved his true meaning. And Drive is similar in the sense that The Driver was meant to become a superhero, and he’s denied all these things—relationships, companionship. And why would he be denied that? It was because he was meant for something greater.
AVC: You’ve been making movies in a lot of different locales. This is in Los Angeles, you’re shooting in Bangkok now, and Bronson was shot in Nottingham.
NWR: The home of Robin Hood.
AVC: It’s pretty clear that drawing out that locale is an important part of the film process for you. How do you go about doing that? Drive feels like a film made by somebody who knows the city very well, but you’re not a resident.
NWR: I don’t know this city at all.
AVC: Was it based on films?
NWR: No, no, no, no. All the locations are really based on Ryan driving me around in L.A., showing me where the book takes place, showing places of L.A. that he really likes. For example, he told me about this L.A. river where there’s this oasis, things I would never knew. While we were developing the movie, Ryan and I, we were also living the movie; we were living The Driver’s world. There was Echo Park, where the book takes place, and then we shot in the Valley because it had a mechanic’s shop that I really liked. So in the end, it was always based on locations that I liked, and then we would find the rest of the main locations, like the mechanic’s shop and The Driver’s apartment, downtown L.A.
AVC: When you came to Hollywood to make this movie, was there any question about how much control you were going to be able to have over it?
NWR: Well, that was always a gray area. Coming from a world where I have total autonomy was, of course, very frightening to me. But I knew first of all that Ryan would protect me. He had come to me asking to make a movie. So right there, he was my hero. At the same time, you’re also nervous because there’s also a lot of people you have to deal with before, on smaller scales. So some of it is, you can get contractual conditions, like it had to be my editor Mat Newman to cut the movie, or we had to agree on key people, and blah, blah, blah. I had a Karl Rove attitude coming in, like, “When are they gonna stab me in the back?” I had nothing to lose, so I was going to go all the way. So I was maybe very aggressive when I came in, which is not a great way to start any relationship.
But I quickly realized that Marc Platt and Adam Siegel, who produced the film with me and the financiers, weren’t there to take anything away from me. They were there to help me. It was almost like, “Hang on, it can’t be that easy.” I’ve only heard horror stories. I’ve never heard of a successful ending, and I was always being warned before I left, but for some reason, Ryan and I were cocooned into our little world to make this film, and when the Cannes acceptance came up, there was deadline pressure, and there wasn’t a lot of money to make the movie with. There was very little coverage, like a Hitchcock movie. There was also a way that inevitably, this was how the movie was going to be, no matter what.
AVC: Wasn’t it an advantage to be that close to Cannes when you were finishing the film? This way, you don’t have that larger window where people can mess with it.
NWR: There were a lot of circumstances that led to a happy ending. It was very moving in Cannes, because it was the first time everybody saw the final product combined with the sound and images, mixed sound and created image. Everybody was there because we had been so much under the gun, and seeing the reaction from the financiers and my producers was relief, because you want them to be happy. You want them to be proud of what they invested in and fought for.
AVC: After the screening, I heard a lot of remarks like, “It’s a great film, but Cannes doesn’t go for this kind of thing.” Is it gratifying to get some respect for that type of film?
NWR: It was good in the sense that it wouldn’t be messed with now. That was one relief. There are certain individuals—and I won’t name any names—that weren’t as helpful at certain stages, but they were also neutralized, and I will say no more. Again, coming there and having Robert De Niro giving you an award [Best Director] was a strange circle. That type of existential male with a mysterious past that used violence to justify good acts, it’s of course a classic character, but when De Niro played it in Taxi Driver, it was a very refreshing modern take on it. So the guy that had personified the type of character Ryan played ends up giving the award for Best Director. It was just me and Ryan there, and it was great. It was very moving between us, because we both really felt we had given our best. I always say I had a first-class super-cool wonderful Hollywood experience. It showed me there are a lot of very clever film people in Hollywood. Hold on, let me put it like this: There’s some smart people in Hollywood that understand that maybe when you have the right circumstances and you have the building blocks, it’s better to leave it alone.