In recent years, the action movie genre has been quite paint-by-numbers. The box office ticket receipts continue to pile up, but the creativity is missing. Take the recent smash hit Fast Five, for example; vastly entertaining and replete with impressive stunts and high-impact sequences, the latest entry into Vin Diesel’s career’s lifeline franchise also has little in the way of unique visuals—it’s basically just frantic camerawork that captures explosions and crashes in focus. Which is fun and all, but, for the true cinephiles out there, the artistic void is in need of action-proficient filmmakers willing to flip the genre on its head with palpable imagination.

That’s where Nicolas Winding Refn comes in; after 15 years’ worth of internationally distributed and critically adored genre flicks, the Danish visionary is making his mainstream Hollywood debut with Drive, the new Ryan Gosling-starring heist-gone-awry movie that opens this Friday, and, as of now, is a shoe-in for our annual, year-end “Best Of 2011” list. The film, for which Refn won the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival this past May, centers on an introverted getaway driver (Gosling) who falls for his warm-hearted neighbor (Carey Mulligan) while running afoul of ruthless gangsters (played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman). And, by “afoul,” we’re referring to Drive’s skull-crushing stompout, exploding head, and eye-gouging with kitchen utensils.

Drive doesn’t have the most original set-up, granted, but Refn’s visually potent style uplifts an otherwise conventional crime thriller into a piece of unrelenting cinema that bursts with '80s musical influences, silent romance, and artfully executed carnage. Fortunately, while making Drive, Refn was allowed to bring his acclaimed eccentricities to his first Hollywood production; take one look at his riveting Pusher action/crime trilogy, or 2008’s loony yet stunning jail-set biopic Bronson, or 2009’s hypnotic Viking epic Valhalla Rising, and you’ll see a distinctive mind at work.

Which is always welcome in mainstream cinema. Complex recently chopped it up with Refn to discuss how Ryan Gosling single-handedly picked him for Drive, what he owes to both John Hughes and The Brothers Grimm, and why the most effective violence isn’t always the most visible.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

Complex: Right after you made Valhalla Rising, you decided to transition into Hollywood for the first time in your entire 15-year career. What prompted the decision at that time?
Nicolas Winding Refn: At that time, I had gone to Hollywood because a project came about with Harrison Ford, called The Dying Of The Light, about a CIA agent, but that never really emerged, unfortunately. And it’s too bad, because it would have been really cool; he was going to die in it, and I wanted to kill Harrison Ford. [Laughs.] I thought that would have been a great way to make my formal Hollywood introduction. But it didn’t happen—that’s Hollywood for you.

I thought it would be interesting to try something in Hollywood after a movie like Valhalla Rising, which I was really pleased with, personally. But also, I was afraid that if I did another film of that kind right after it I would just repeat myself. So I had to put myself in a situation that would force me to do something different, and where else would that be but Hollywood?

How long did it take for you to come across Drive as a potential project at that point?
Well, it was a pretty quick process, actually. Everything was falling apart in the Harrison Ford movie. And, as everything was coming undone with The Dying Of The Light, Ryan [Gosling] called me and asked if we could meet, and we met, and that meeting started the idea for us to do a movie together. Ryan had a script, the one for Drive, that had a character which really appealed to him, and excited him, but the movie itself wasn’t heading in the direction that he thought it should, so he decided to meet with filmmakers he thought could make the movie he saw in his head. And he was a fan of my films, particularly Valhalla Rising, so he reached out to me, and here I am.

When he first presented Drive to you, it was a much bigger-budgeted project, right? With Hugh Jackman attached?
Yeah, it was something that people intended to be like The Fast & The Furious, a big action movie of that nature.

Is that the script that you initially read?
Yeah, I read that earlier Universal script that was meant to be much bigger, extravagant, and a huge a franchise. Neither Ryan or I wanted to do that, but we still wanted to work together. So, through our meeting, I had this big catharsis that led to me seeing the movie as the story of a man and a car, a guy who drives the car listening to pop music, and the pop music is his only kind of emotional release. That’s definitely not what the original script was. [Laughs.] Like everybody else, I see the big studio movies from time to time, and they look good, but those aren’t the kinds of movie that I seek out, really. That’s just never been my thing.

Throughout Drive, it’s clear that you were able to have the creative freedom and control every step of the way; for a big movie with an A-list actor, it’s completely unlike anything else coming out of Hollywood, where directors often have their visions compromised. How were you able to avoid that?
Well, I think it had to do with the unique situation that Ryan Gosling personally wanted me, and only me, to make the film, and he would protect me so that I could make the film that I wanted to make. It was a very similar situation to when Lee Marvin wanted John Boorman to direct Point Blank, and when Steve McQueen wanted Peter Yates to do Bullitt; I was in a very, very good place with Drive.

It was the best possible situation that I could be in, and then I also had some very smart producers and very smart financiers who realized, very quickly, that Ryan and I were so telekinetic that we knew the exact film that we wanted to make, and there wasn’t any way that we could do anything but that movie. They realized that they were just there to protect us, essentially, and make sure that we got what we needed.

And one thing you definitely brought to the movie that’s unique is its soundtrack, which I’ve heard you call “neon-pop.” The songs—Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” and College’s “Real Hero” in particular—have been jammed into my head ever since I saw the movie, and I’m sure that will be the case for everyone who sees Drive once it opens. How’d you settle upon the songs you wanted to prominently feature in the movie? It’d be a totally different film without them.
Well, I first heard those when I was editing the movie. We were cutting the movie at my house, and my editor was there; we were editing the movie and it felt like we were missing something. Then, when I found those songs, we didn’t have to emulate the feel and sound that we were looking for—those songs embodied the film’s mood perfectly, so we started editing the film with those playing in the background. I had to cut the movie to those particular songs; it kept me in the right state of mind.

You’ve cited John Hughes as a major influence for Drive, which is an interesting comparison to make for a movie that’s as visceral and violent as yours is, but the song choices really do evoke that old '80s feel.

 
Like a Grimm’s fairy tale, [Drive] had to be extremely pure in the beginning, but then it had to be very dark and moralistic at the end.
 

I’m a child of the '80s, so I used to regularly see his movies, and I love all of them. They had a real impact on me at the time, and they still do, really. At that time, filmmakers were allowed to use really interesting music in mainstream movies; he was really cool with things like that, and I always felt it could be interesting to use music like that, to use pop songs like that, really play them out, and give them true meaning to a movie, rather than just being background noise. For Drive, we needed the songs to dictate emotions and really bring you into the mind of The Driver; he’s a unique and complicated guy, so the music itself had to be unique and complicated.

One unique aspect of the film is the romance between Ryan Gosling’s character and Carey Mulligan’s character; it’s an unspoken, quiet connection, with little dialogue and mostly looks and wordless chemistry, and it works really well. And, in turn, a song like “Real Hero” does a great job of filling in the blanks, so to speak, when they’re not talking themselves.
They have a relationship that’s like one out of Sixteen Candles. The thing is, at least how I see it, you can’t talk about love—you can only feel love. So, all of the dialogue needed to be eliminated, almost, because if they talk, it wouldn’t be magical, and their chemistry really needed to be magical for it to truly work. And, also, that was necessary to justify the psychotic behavior that The Driver jumps into later in the movie.

It’s always difficult for any actor when you take away their voice, because that’s what they’re so used to using in scenes, and relying on, so I was fortunate to have great actors like Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. It wasn’t something new for me, though; in Valhalla Rising, there was no dialogue, so that’s the kind of language I’m really interested in, anyway. It was great to continue that in Drive. Actors just have to approach their material in a different way, but it’s great because it’s like exercising muscles that you don’t usually put so much attention to, like gestures, movements, and posture. It becomes so much more telling; you can’t say what you’re feeling with words, so you have to find other ways to do so.

 
All of your films, Drive included, have been pure visual exercises. Growing up as a fan of movies, did you always respond more to films on a visual level and less in terms of scripts and narratives?
Well, I think it comes from me being dyslexic. My writing has always been more out of the need to write a movie, rather than me being a good writer. I didn’t learn to read until I was 13, so, automatically, images were always my understanding of storytelling. That’s something that was embedded into me at an early age, so I’m naturally more attracted to the look and feel of a movie, which isn’t to say that I don’t pay attention to the story, as well. But I’m always trying to tell a story as visually as possible because that’s how I enjoyed stories.

A scene like the elevator sequence in Drive, for instance, has no dialogue, just a series of stunning visuals and graphic imagery—that’s a prime example of how the film conveys so many ideas and emotions through images rather than words. For that sequence specifically, which starts off with Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan kissing tenderly and culminates with him kicking a guy’s head into putty, was the idea to blur the line between sweet romance and brutal violence?
Yeah, I structured the movie very much like a Grimm’s fairy tale. Like a Grimm’s fairy tale, it had to be extremely pure in the beginning, but then it had to be very dark and moralistic at the end. One part needed the other part to justify the circle. So, it was very important that the first half was really pure champagne, and the rest was pure psychotic behavior, and the scene in the elevator represents that; it starts off as something really pure and beautiful, but then it erupts into a psychotic explosion.

You can say that again. It’s easily the sickest head-smashing movie scene since the infamous fire extinguisher shot in Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible. You actually consulted Gaspar Noé on how to best execute the stomped-out head, right?
Yeah, I called Gaspar, and then we met in Paris, and, there, he told me how they had done it in Irreversible. I figured, “Might as well ask the master of that kind of thing,” you know? I’m not an expert in shooting with effects, so he was very helpful in telling me how they had done it, and how I could do it, as well. Though, I definitely didn’t beat his scene. I still think his is better, but I have a kiss and he doesn’t. [Laughs.]

Yeah, in your scene, we see the gore but it’s not so overtly shown, whereas in Irreversible he holds the camera directly in front of the guy’s head as its being crushed. In that respect, his is tougher to watch.
[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s something else.

That sort of implication is key throughout Drive, actually; was your intention to not show all of the violence so directly before the camera like that, and use more implication?

 
Art is an act of violence, and the more emotionally engaged you are in a piece of art, the more violent it feels.
 

Well, it’s always a balance, where implying can sometimes be stronger than showing. Because there have been a few killings in the movie up until then, I needed to make sure that things were shown in the right order. That’s why in the final death scene, between Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Driver, I wanted it to be shot in shadow. You have to know when it’s right to show the violence, and when it’s better to, say, use shadows, because shadow allows the viewer to use their imagination more, which then allows them to generate deeper emotions than just revulsion.

Implication is key in the scene where Driver, holding a hammer, bum-rushes a thug inside the strip club, with the lineup of topless hot chicks sitting around him. It plays with the viewer’s expectations; we see the hammer, and know that Driver is there for revenge, so we’re on edge waiting to see him use the hammer, but you withhold that visual. The scene is so intense that you don’t even notice the naked girls.
The girls become this strange mix of sex and violence that’s pleasurable. The women become the audience, in a way, and he’s performing this psychotic behavior in front of an audience. And he’s so pure in his actions, and he’s so right about it, that it can be viewed as a piece of art.

The film, as a whole, is a piece of art, with images that seer into the viewer’s head, like the sight of Ryan Gosling stalking Ron Perlman’s gangster character while wearing a creepy bald mask. Were ideas like that ones that already existed in the original script, or were those ideas that you brought to the film?
The script went through a huge transformation, so a lot of this was made up along the way. The Driver wearing a mask was our way to show that The Driver has completed his own transformation into becoming his own superhero. The movie, if you think about it, is about a man who transforms himself into a superhero and fights the bad guys, and superheroes need their own costume. The mask is his.

And also that badass jacket he wears, with the orange scorpion across the back. I wouldn’t be surprised if dudes started wearing similar jackets after seeing the movie—it’s no joke. What was the inspiration behind the jacket’s look?
That jacket came out of me listening to the KISS song “I Was Made For Loving You.” Driver had to have a satin jacket that was like an armor, and the image of a scorpion evokes that sort of protection, I think. And, for some reason, the jacket feels like it fits perfectly with that KISS song. I can’t really explain why. [Laughs.]

A lot of the press surrounding Drive has labeled it as this ultra-violent movie, which, in some respects, it is, but, really, most of the violence is kept off screen. Would you consider the film to be extremely violent?
I think that art is an act of violence, and the more emotionally engaged you are in a piece of art, the more violent it feels. So, of course, the body-count is not as high in my film as it is in many other movies, but maybe what people are confusing is the physical violence with the emotional violence in the movie. So that can give you, the audience member, images in your head that aren’t necessarily there in the film, but it’s also much more satisfying because then the film has really touched and penetrated you. If that’s the case, then I’ve done my job with Drive; I want people to see it and leave feeling that kind of emotional impact.

Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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