Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive may have a simply propulsive title, but to quote my friend and fellow critic Matt Lynch, “there’s an ocean under all the bloody pavement.” The level of depth in the film remains fascinating considering how genre pictures of this ilk usually separate emotion and violence, ignoring how one organically affects the other. Yet Drive handles movement, angle, and timing with the same nuanced precision as its complex characterizations and subtext. The grim and bloody tale of Driver (Ryan Gosling), who becomes embroiled in a lethal criminal web to save his next-door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), takes place in a Los Angeles defined by neon streetlights, serpentine roads, and glowing interiors. But the kinetic physical geography and sudden bursts of violence only makes Driver and Irene’s silent displays of emotion all the more harrowing, all the more human. One week prior to Drive’s theatrical opening, and mere hours before the epic Southern California blackout, Slant talked with Winding Refn about the film’s inception, its potent juxtaposition of light and dark, and his own burgeoning artistic relationship with actor Ryan Gosling.
Drive feels born from the cold aesthetics and rhythm of 1980s genre films by Walter Hill and Michael Mann. What about these professional, closed-off universes inspired you as a filmmaker?
Actually, Drive is more born out of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales more than anything else. The book that James Sallis wrote is really great and unique, almost like a script. It’s about the adventures within a sort of mythological city, and I wanted the film to feel like a fairy tale that the Brothers Grimm would write. It’s much more in the vein of that material than anything else.
Ryan Gosling’s Driver is your second lead character in a row, after Mads Mikkelsen’s silent turn in Valhalla Rising, to express emotion primarily though violent action instead of words. What does this silence say about them as characters/warriors and their relationship with the threatening world around them?
I’m very much drawn to men of action, people that don’t talk but react. The action defines them as characters. By having these characters silent it makes them much more dangerous, but also much more pure, romantic, and enigmatic. Their characters become an emotional expression more than anything else.
Early in Drive, Driver befriends Irene and her young son Benicio. For me, their sun-drenched moment in time together is the most important sequence of the film because it influences every emotional motivation to come. Why was this glimmer of light in a sea of darkness so integral to you?
Because the darkness would not work without the light. The darkness and the psychotic behavior that Driver would eventually express would not work if you didn’t have the champagne purity of the beginning. There has to be a balance. You need one if you’re going to have the other, and that’s very important to the film. Action and violence and all those things are mechanics, so if you’re not emotionally invested they have no meaning, other than that they are very loud.
The lighting contrasts in Drive really stand out, sometimes noir, sometimes fully lit moments. What kind of approach did you and your DP Newton Thomas Sigel take in regard to the various lighting designs for the film?
Well, I’m color blind so I can only see contrast colors, so everything in the film has to have that contrast. Most of the film is shot with wide-angle lenses, like Valhalla Rising, and Bronson for that matter. Each movie I want to see the background more than anything else, you know, the framing of an image. I want you to see what’s behind the actor, what’s going on behind the character action. The movie was shot in seven weeks so we didn’t have a lot of time, but I’m used to it. I actually hired [Thomas Sigel] because of his anger. And we didn’t storyboard, so I would work with the actors to see what makes them comfortable, and then I would photograph it the way I wanted to see it.
Physical corridors, like dark streets, long hallways, and interiors, such as Shannon’s cramped auto shop, seem to corral Driver in a certain direction. Did you want his story to feel fated in some sense, like so many other superhero stories?
Yeah, it’s almost like a tale with a tale. If you look at the way Driver is photographed it’s almost like there’s another image around him, an image within an image.
So the blocking of the actor must have played a role in that.
Yes, and when you work with great actors it can come very smoothly. The more they feel comfortable, the more they feel that their performance is as true as possible to their character, the more they gives themselves over 100%. That’s when the audience will become engaged. Without that emotion from the actors, the audience will not respond, and the film will not be enjoyable for them. Being a director is actually very easy because your job is to inspire everyone else to give his or her very best. A director cannot, and should not know everything. But a director should know a little bit about everything. You should know a little of everything to a certain degree, and then work with other people to harmonize it and help you, whether it’s music, sound, acting, or camera.
Watching Drive, I was fascinated by the consistent importance of physical trajectory: the angle with which Driver takes a turn in his car, the way a knife penetrates the skin, the threat of a bullet being hammered into someone’s skull. Can you talk a little about this motif?
It’s hard to explain it because I’m a fetish filmmaker. I create images that I would like to see myself without always understanding it. I make films in this manner, creating stories that I want to see based on these impulses.
How important is iconography to you in your films, the idea of symbolism, the image as a reference point?
Very much, but it’s not that my images are supposed to be a secret reference to something. The people that know me very well can read into certain situations that are very much apparent, indicative of who I am.
Considering its potent title, one might think Drive is all about movement. But I’d argue this isn’t just a film about cars or chases, but the closeness inherent to elevators, masks, smiles, and even murder. Why was this sense of intimacy so essential to you?
Because it’s a love story. Driver’s psychotic behavior would never work if you didn’t know what he was protecting. If people did not fall in love with each other there would be nothing to fight for.
What is it about Ryan Gosling the artist and Ryan Gosling the man that you find so fascinating as a director? What does he bring to the table no other actor can deliver?
There are many different reasons. He’s a terrific guy, a very dear friend of mine, and a kind person. He is a superman. As an actor, he has many talents, but one of the most unique is that he’s one of the few performers who can say a thousand words without saying one word of dialogue. Expressed emotion just pours out of him without even doing anything. Very few people have ever been given that ability. You can count them on one hand.
How did you come about Ryan Gosling as an actor? Had you seen any of his films before meeting him?
I hadn’t seen all of his movies, but my wife really liked him, and I listen to her all the time. Ryan and I have a very telekinetic relationship, we’re like one mind.
You have a countless number of high-profile projects in the works. What do you look forward to most working in Hollywood? What artistic fears/concerns do you have going forward?
Well, the next movie Ryan and I are doing is called Only God Forgives, which is a film we’re shooting in Malaysia. It will be a traditional Nicolas Winding Refn film, in that I will write, produce, and direct it. Then, if it all works out we plan on doing the remake of Logan’s Run afterwards. I’ve never worked on a film that I didn’t have complete control, so it’ll be interesting to see about Logan’s Run. I feel very comfortable with the people who are developing that film. More than anything else I’m here to make my kind of film, and my job is to inspire people to see it.