Flixclusive Interview: Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive

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Following our interview with Drive star Ryan Gosling, we’re excited to bring you another with the film’s director Nicolas Winding Refn. Thankfully this didn’t take place with both of them in the same room, because if the video I’ve included at the end of this post or the famous red carpet kiss are any indication, they’re uncontrollable together.

Our conversation took place in a hotel restaurant in New York. He seemed to be exhausted from his promotional tour, and preceded the interview nervous about which sushi spot would be ideal to move on to after. Once the questions got rolling, Nic received a second wind at the mention of his wife and daughters. For your update on all things Drive, Logan’s Run, and Wonder Woman, read on.

What happened to Frank? What happened to Tonny? What Happened to Milo? (Each a main character of the Pusher trilogy)

Ugh.. That’s the open ending. Sometimes not knowing is better. But all my movies have open endings.

Ok, the real questions. I don’t think I’ll look at darkness the same way after Drive. Does the pollution of Los Angeles really make the sky so starless or did you tweak that to express the character’s feelings?

No, that is the way LA looks… It’s dark and it has some kind of strange golden aura because of the light, the sun and how it reflects off the city… and it makes everything very much more dreamlike… It’s basically a city of illusions.

(Nic Refn, a Danish director, has a voice that falls somewhere between Werner Herzog and Col. Kurtz. Nowhere is it more apparent than here.)

A lot of your characters embrace violence as a defense mechanism. Even Lenny from Bleeder, the most sensitive man I’ve ever seen in a motion picture, claims The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as his favorite film. Is that primal nature something inherit in all males, even the affectionate ones?

Yes, I believe primal nature is inherit in all men… That’s what fiction heightens. It’s a way for us civilized folk to get emotional relief.

Even though you didn’t write Drive yourself, as you typically do, this really feels like another one of your babies. What changes needed to be made to the script when you were recruited by Ryan Gosling?

When Ryan and I decided to make it, it changed a thousand times because I can only change what I wanted to do with it. I’m not the best filmmaker in the world… but I’m the best filmmaker at the films I make.

Did you go to the novel it was adapted from looking for material?

A lot, Actually, yeah… compared to the Universal script I went back to the book much more with Hossein and kind of started taking things that I like out of that, made it my own, basically made a new version of the script… [Hossein] is a wonderful writer, a wonderful collaborator.

(Hossein Amini was nominated for an Oscar for The Wings of the Dove.)

People often speak of your characters in terms of their ethnicity. It’s not Radovan’s sense of humor, it’s Serbian humor (Radovan of the Pusher trilogy). Here, you’re depicting two definitively Jewish characters, the unmade Mafia man and the ex-Hollywood producer. Are these just demographics or are you more concerned than other directors with race as a subject?

No, it’s part of LA… and I thought it was interesting because it’s a crime world that is not very much explored… especially the idea of Nino, being a Jewish gangster wants to be Italian… I thought that was interesting.

Kavinsky was also on the soundtrack for the videogame Grand Theft Auto…

It was!? That song!?

Not that song.

But another Kavinsky track…?

Yes, in a game about a hyperviolent driver navigating the crime element while struggling to be a better man. There’s also a touch of 80’s mentality shared by Drive.

Wow…  I’ve never played the game. I didn’t know that.

But you have named a lot of late 70’s, early 80’s film inspirations for this. What non-film interests informed how you made it?

Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

I did read that you came up with how you wanted to treat these characters while reading to your daughter. The Fairy Tale thing is a pretty big dead right now. Three competing Sleeping Beautys, three Little Red Riding Hoods, four Snow Whites…

Yeeeah, but that’s their problem.

Would you ever make a straight Fairy Tale?

No. I would use the language… but I wouldn’t want to interpret one specifically… It’s not a genre I would avoid, I would just use it in my own way.

People are talking a lot about Shame after it’s debut at the Toronto Film Festival, a sure-to-be NC-17 film with explicit sex scenes. You’ve talked about wanting to make a film with its star, Carey Mulligan (Who is also in Drive), that has a lot of sex in it.

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet, but it’s true that me and Carey have talked about doing another movie.

Do you think people are assuming that will feature graphic sexual situations because of the unrestricted way you depict violence, or because of the hype around
Shame?

I haven’t seen it, but I don’t want to do a movie with sex scenes. I said sex… not sex scenes. Sexuality has no pleasure in its explicitness to me.

What do you think, then, of fellow Danish director Lars Von Trier’s plan to make Nymphomaniac a pornographic film, at least in part.

He’s old.

Are you not a fan?

I am a great admirer of Lars von Trier… I haven’t seen any of his movies lately.

Were you told in a meeting that if you get Logan’s Run right, Wonder Woman is on deck?

I… believe that’s a rumor that’s flying around.

Would you be interested in making a straight superhero film?

Only if it’s Wonder Woman.

Christina Hendricks?

…I think by the time I get to make it ah… it’s too late.

Bronson with breasts?

I believe when you’re doing Wonder Woman you’re doing a film… (laughs) that’s so expensive… that it has that mass appeal, but so is Logan’s Run.

How do you make those franchises true Refn movies? You’ve never made a film that wasn’t quintessentially one of yours, and DC Comics franchises typically give their directors more freedom only in a sequel.

It doesn’t concern me.

Would Logan’s Run be rated R?

I doubt it… but then that’s the trick. How do you make a movie that gives the illusion of being something else?

You were 26 when your first film was released?

In Denmark? I made it when I was 24 and it was released when I was 25.

What do you wish people had told you back then?

(Long pause) I don’t look at it like that… I look at it more as: this is what I felt was right then, but things changed… Elia Kazan (director of On The Waterfront) said to me when I was 25 “My advice to you is do it your way” and I’ve lived by that creed ever since, both… for the wrong reasons and the right… I was having dinner with him in Stockholm. We were actually having ice cream.

How many movies are you making with Ryan Gosling?

Two, to begin with. Logan’s Run and Only God Forgives, we shoot…in… right after this week. It’s an action movie.

Moreso than Drive?

Well, I don’t know about that, we’ll have to see. It’s about a Thai police lieutenant who believes he’s God, and a gangster looking for religion to believe in.

Does he find it in the policeman?

You will see.

Was it the first meeting with Ryan that you described at Comic-Con the moment you know he would become the next Mads Mikkelson of your career.

(Mikkelson has appeared in half of Winding Refn’s pictures, but is better known as the Bond villain who’s tear ducts leak blood.)

It started with it and then we made the film together. It became very apparent that we were telekinetic.

Were you seriously considering taking Drive before that meeting, was it taken out of courtesy?

You take that meeting out of courtesy. It was supercool. He’s a really wonderful man. A nice guy.

And a risk taker.

Which speaks my language… Some of the risks he’s taken are just amazing. Blue Valentine… what a performance, wow. What a great movie. Half Nelson, terrific.

Did you see Crazy, Stupid, Love?

Not yet.

He’s a comedian.

I know.

Some of that can be seen in
Half Nelson but a lot of people view that role, and also his role in Drive, as being untested ground for the actor, and in both cases he succeeded. With Drive, as an action hero, but there are some really funny moments between him and the child…

You need humor, always, to break up the tension.

But those scenes are almost entirely silent. In the entire film, actually,  characters are communicating everything to us and each other without actually saying much of anything. Would that have been possible in a longer film?

I wouldn’t have make it long.

What’s the longest movie you’ve made?

100 minutes… and it was too long. Fear X I think was a little long… or maybe it was the first Pusher. I can’t remember.

I was actually glad I hadn’t seen your work before Drive, because I was able to view it in order during the week leading up to Drive. I recognized your wife in that little role in Fear X after she’d starred in Bleeder… all of those films are blended, will Logan’s Run follow the same patterns.

(Nic Refn is illuminated twelve times by the mention of his wife.)

I think when you obsess about certain things you can never escape it.

and this duality between violence and devotion…

It’s who I am.

I love the stories of you and your wife, about how she’s very controlling, of how she insisted you meet with Carey Mulligan. She sounds very much intent on keeping you in good health. You know how hard that’s gonna be when you start taking on franchises like Logan’s.

It’s tough, yeah.

Does she get worried?

Once in awhile.

Are your daughters old enough to come out here with you to see America?

No, but we’re moving to Bangkok in August… for the next movie.

Could you write for another director?

I wouldn’t know how to. I’m not the best writer… but I’m the best writer for me… or the people I work with have to write for me. I’m an audience of one, hoping the rest of the world will love it. That’s the only thing you can do.

I believe the world will embrace
Drive.

Do you think so?

(Refn seems genuinely concerned.)

Well, I know people will embrace the the film but it’s impossible to guess what larger audience appeal might be. Your work is an acquired taste. Everyone is going to see Drive with its amazing casting choicesbut that includes the lowest common denominator…

No, I think it’s good that there’s more people. Opens up their… you know, the audience is a smart audience. I don’t believe that people are lowest common denominators, I think that we can make films that are just bad… but I think an audience is very sophisticated when it comes to every one of these, but people just want to be wooed, and surprised, and emotionally involved.

Whatever happens, Drive will have a following, just as Bronson has had, it’s sort of a cult following. People still talk about that film, share it with each other… but Drive seems like more of a patient character study, would you agree?

Yeah, it’s more like it spun out of Valhalla Rising. Some French critics called DriveValhalla Rising in a car” when I was there last week.

The trailers for Drive make it seem like a faster film, more along the lines of Bronson.

Yes, it gets them in. Hopefully they will be surprised, wooed, and entertained.

I really loved those trailers but they kind of give a lot away.

That’s because you know it. Normal people don’t know that. They just want to see something that’s value for their money.

I will say those moments often have more impact in the full movie. I knew when the gunshots were coming but still jumped three feet from my seat. Is that just excellent sound design?

Yes. Silence! Silence comes from noise and then noise becomes so much more shocking.

Mads Mikkelson, can we expect more?

Yes.

Of course, but soon?

I don’t know. It looks like I’m pretty booked up.