Drive arrives in cinemas this week dragging serious weight. Based on the book by James Sallis, this supremely cool, unexpected take on the 1970s crime thriller stars Ryan Gosling as a character known only as Driver. A Hollywood stuntman moonlighting as a getaway driver for LA’s criminal underworld, Gosling’s character is cool and unruffled to the point of impenetrability, at least until he falls for his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), a devotion that leads him to try and help her husband escape the wrath of the mob, with disastrous results. Its central character is surrounded by a handful of bravura supporting turns from the likes of Ron Perlman and particularly Albert Brooks, whose performance as a blade wielding mob boss is already attracting Oscar talk.
Drive is so successful because of the way it rebuilds familiar elements into something fresh. Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof it recalls classic influences – like early Michael Mann and Walter Hill’s The Driver - without resorting to pastiche. Going places stylistically and thematically that remain constantly surprising, it is often shocking in its brutal violence. It is a natural progression for Nicholas Winding Refn, the Danish director who from the brutal criminality of the Pusher trilogy to the Norse horror-fantasy of Valhalla Rising has made a habit of creating fierce, distinctive takes on genre films.
Refn’s inventive biopic Bronson featured a breakout performance from rising star Tom Hardy. But while Drive may similarly propel Gosling onto the A-List, Refn is similarly making the step up. Winner of the best director prize at Cannes for Drive earlier this year, the film has put Refn in a position to develop further Hollywood projects with Gosling, including a big-budget remake of the 1970s science-fiction classic Logan’s Run. But one senses that this fascinating, off-kilter director is unlikely to change his personal, very unusual approach to cinema anytime soon.
FAN THE FIRE: Drive was a project that you developed very closely with Ryan Gosling, wasn’t it?
NICHOLAS WINDING REFN: Well I think that the way it all started was that Ryan called me up and asked if I wanted to do a movie with him. We met and it was a very interesting meeting because it led to us realising that we could actually work together. We had very telekinetic behaviour together. The idea of doing movie about a stuntman was interesting, and I had an idea about a guy who drives around at night listening to pop music, and those aspects evolved until we could actually make the movie Drive. So once you have that emotional connection with a leading actor, it becomes very easy to communicate in much the same way as you conjure alter egos, and the film becomes very much a collaboration between the two of us going down this road. Also because I shoot my films in chronological order it continues to build, and change and alter itself all the way through.
FTF: One of the unexpected pleasures of Drive is its soundtrack, which is full of early 80s pop plus the likes of Kavinsky as opposed to the more cold, gritty sounds that you would expect from a film in this genre. What was the process behind that?
NWR: Well I wanted that Europop feel, which was very feminine and from the early 80s, to contrast with the masculinity of the stunt-world, this car-world. I had this idea of Kraftwerk, and I would listen to Kraftwerk a lot because it gives me ideas as I don’t do drugs anymore. I’m fetishistic person, so I essentially make up images that I would like to see in a movie, and that’s also one of the reasons why I shoot in chronological order, so that it constantly evolves within me to what it ends up being. I chose some of these pop songs, one of them being Kavinsky, because it was a great way to define the movie I felt. And then Cliff Martinez, the composer, emulated the sound of these songs with his actual score for the movie.
FTF: How important were the classic 1970s genre films that Drive instantly recalls, films like Walter Hill’s The Driver?
No, I used a lot Grimms’ Fairy Tales was my main source for looking at was really important to me. But I believe that Sallis had seen The Driver and that it inspired him to write the novel. So there’s an indirect influence, and I’m a huge admirer of Walter Hill, it kind of went hand in hand in the end.
FTF: The film has a very tactile feel in the way it captures the feel of driving around LA, and in the physicality of the violence, which is again almost fetishistic isn’t it?
NWR: Well I don’t analyse my own stuff because I’ve always afraid that if I analyse it I will find faults and get obsessive, and I’ll start changing it and it will become something completely different from what it should be. I learn to make films purely on instinct, so I can always say it’s all about what I would like to see, and I can leave the rest to the experts.
FTF: The film features moments of calm, and even tenderness, that are broken suddenly by explosive violence. It’s very jolting at times. Was that important?
NWR: It’s not that it was important, it was a natural evolution. It was a great way to play myself through Ryan.
FTF: The film is filled with incredible turns from its supporting actors doesn’t it?
NWR: Supporting casts are equally as important as the lead because they are the ones who support the lead, and if they are not good it brings everything down. What’s good about Ryan [Gosling] is that as an actor he’s so understanding of the other actors and what they need to help them, and we were part of their process as well so it was very collaborative from everybody involved, and it became almost like a community. We were almost always staying at my house in LA, and that was where it was created out of. We even cut the movie at my house.
FTF: That is especially the case with Albert Brooks, who plays completely against type as a knife wielding criminal boss. Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston are also fantastic. How did they all end up working on the film?
NWR: Albert Brooks I always wanted, so I went for him right away, and he was interested. I met with him and he was a very specific man, and that’s when I came up with his whole knife fetish. So again it was a collaboration between me and Albert. Ron Perlman put in a call and asked if he could be in the movie. So did Christina Hendricks and Carey Mulligan. Bryan Cranston I had to really pursue, because Brian with Breaking Bad has a lot of choices. I would have to do some extra wooing but I was able to get him onto the movie, and again I said ‘what would you like to do with this character,’ really creating him from scratch. If you’ve got good actors, use them. Take advantage of their need and their willingness to be a part of it. That’s what directing is all about, inspiring everybody else to give their best.
Drive is out in the UK tomorrow