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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