Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” was one of last year’s great success stories, that somehow few people seemed to know about. Although it built buzz to a deafening crescendo in between its first appearance at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and its theatrical release in September, most of the din came from within the industry, and even though its $70 million haul more than tripled the cost of making it, a less than $100 million film scarcely registers among folks looking for nothing short of a cinematic phenomenon. But as the year drew to a close, Refn’s film gained a cache among critics and its modest but fervent audience that guaranteed it would be seen, appreciated, and most importantly, shared for years to come.
As “Drive” arrives on home video this week in a similarly modest and yet stunning Blu-ray, The Playlist caught up with Refn via Skype from the Thailand set of his next film, “Only God Forgives.” In addition to digging a little deeper into the conception of “Drive,” Refn discussed his collaboration with star Ryan Gosling, and examined the film’s meaning to him, both creatively and personally.
How do you feel about the reactions people have had to the film?
For a movie like “Drive,” it’s pretty amazing that it can be pulled off as successfully as it did.
Did you have any reaction to the woman who filed the lawsuit about the marketing of the film?
Sometimes Jerry Springer was not incorrect how he described America.
Which was how?
Well, enough said (laughs). I think that I come from a society where you just can’t sue people because the sun is not shining, and I don’t know how to respond to that situation. Because to me it’s so strange – it’s surreal.
How comfortable are you talking or thinking about the awards-season prospects of a movie you made?
Well, your priority Number One is just to make a movie, and hopefully it’s good and you’re proud of it, and that is just plus, and plus, and plus — those are the first three categories you search for. And then you hope for the best. I mean, we got into Cannes, which was a great, pleasant surprise, and we won at Cannes, and then we got nominated for Best Foreign Movie in the U.K. So who knows? The sky is the limit, but in the end, most importantly I was able to make the movie I wanted to make, and my mother very much liked it. And so does Ryan’s mother, so we’re happy.
One of the aspects of the film that works best is that odd combination of a stylized, fairy tale aesthetic and retaining a visceral edge that kept it grounded it in reality. How tough was that to maintain?
Well, that’s what’s interesting about the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales, and in general, great fairy tale stories like Hans Christian Anderson’s – they’re rooted in a form of reality that you can connect with. Emotionally they are metaphors for deeper feelings within society, and it’s hard to tell you specifically other than you have to go with what feels right – what you as a filmmaker believe in and are connected to. Essentially when you make a movie, you’re an audience of one and you have to look at it like that; hopefully there will be more of you out there, more clones that like what you like, but that’s what you can only do. But the Grimm fairy tales — that were probably the biggest inspiration for how the movie was created — were always rooted in a reality, and even though it’s heightened reality, it was always essentially a love story about good and evil. And that’s something that is accessible to everybody everywhere.
At what point do you populate that archetypal story with specific details – to preserve that core idea while adding in idiosyncrasies that distinguish and enhance your characters?
Well, that becomes almost the technical design, the DNA and structure and design of the movie. But a lot of it, of course, comes from the casting; it’s about finding the right people for the right parts. It’s huge, because once you have that, you have the backbone, and that’s the reason it was so hard for me to find an Irene, for example, who originally in James Sallis’ novel was a Latin character. And I met with so many great Latin actresses, but for some reason, I couldn’t connect, I couldn’t feel, and I didn’t know why until Carey came into my life and I could see that I could fall in love and I wanted to protect her. And that’s why in the end…essentially I was making a movie about what I would do and the purity of love between my wife and myself. That was kind of my illusion – that in the end if I was to be this movie as a person, then I would be Driver, and my wife would be Irene, and my deepest, deepest consciousness was always rooted in that. That was the heart in my mind. I didn’t say this out loud, I didn’t bring it up; it’s such a mystery that you can’t really discuss it until it’s done, because then in hindsight you can think back upon it. But in the end, I’m a fetish filmmaker: I make films based on what I would like to see.
If you see the film as a representation of your love for your wife, how literal is that metaphor, since what he has to do is destroy the chance for the two of them to be together in order to show her how much he loves her?
Which is true, absolutely. And the film is not autobiographical of my relationship with my wife, but it represents the deep love that I have for her.
Watching the scene in the elevator, I was reminded of the rape scene in “Once Upon a Time in America,” as if Driver knows he has to destroy the chance for the two of them to be together in order to protect her?
Well, Sergio Leone is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. I was very fortunate some years ago to meet his wife in Spain. His wife was a lot younger than him, so my wife Liv which actually means life in Danish, we sat down with her in Spain, and my eldest daughter was there. I only had one child at that point. And we had coffee and talked about Sergio Leone with his wife. But we had a translator because she didn’t speak a word of English (laughs).
How much do you have to be on the same page as your collaborators? In interviews, Ryan described Driver as a person who believed he was a werewolf; is that a perception the two of you shared?
It’s vital that the main actor and the director share common ground…it’s vital and I think what worked so well for Ryan and I is that for that because of our experience in the car ride and this strange magical date that we had, we became one person. It was like we had a telekinetic relationship and we became one; so yes, Ryan, the character is a man who deep down within is a werewolf because deep down he’s a man who’s psychotic, but he’s also a man who’s two people – he’s one person by day and one person by night. So Ryan’s analysis is completely correct in how he verbalizes it; I may verbalize it in a different way, but the core is exactly the same DNA. And that’s what makes for a great collaboration, and I’m sure if you speak to other collaborators, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro or James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock, I’m sure you would get the same kind of answers. That’s why it’s so important to find your leading man – it’s like your leading man is your alter ego as a director, and your leading man is almost like creating Frankenstein. He’s somebody who switches on the light bulbs, but he can only switch on the light bulbs if the light bulbs represent what he wants to be deep down, or his longings or needs.
It’s like a heart – it needs blood to pump, so in a way it’s like sexual. Filmmaking is very sexual, because it’s about working with your collaborators as intensely as a sexual experience, figuring out what the other person likes, needs, and can contribute to the emotion that you’re trying to build. That’s why for me it’s always been the actors, the photography and the editing; of course everything starts with a great story arc, and comes into a great script, and so forth. So that’s more how it’s constructed. But once you have a script that your leading man likes and can see, and your photographer can help you visualize it and your editor can help you structure it, those are your key people essentially. And of course, everybody’s important on a movie; every function is needed. It’s like a puzzle – everybody needs to add something; but there’s a hierarchy of how it plays out. But it’s all about expressing emotions, and that’s why filmmaking is a director’s medium: the director is the auteur, the author of the movie, whether it’s based on a book or somebody’s idea or what the fuck (laughs). Essentially it is the film director who is the author, and everybody is there to help the film-director-author and contribute to his vision, as they call it in Hollywood. I call it the creating.