Nicolas Winding Refn on Ryan Gosling and Drive

Nicolas Winding Refn goes in-depth about his philosophy on filmmaking and the difference between stylish and stylized.

By Zachary Wigon

In an era where genre films are so popular they dominate not only Hollywood but arty independent cinema as well, it’s nice to see an inverse domination occur: a Hollywood genre film overrun with the formalist precision and stylistic emphasis typically reserved for art movies. Such is the case with Drive, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s first American production.

Ryan Gosling / credit: FilmDistrict

After wowing European and American art-house audiences with his two latest artistic portrayals of violence, Bronson and Valhalla Rising, Refn was contacted by Ryan Gosling as a potential director for an adaptation of the James Sallis novel Drive. Fast-forward to the present, and Refn’s career is headed toward uncharted heights for a Danish filmmaker (except those heights of auteur-land annexed by Lars Von Trier). Refn and Gosling hit it off spectacularly, and the two now have not one, not two, but three rumored projects they are working on: a boxing drama called Only God Forgives, set in Thailand; a remake of Logan’s Run for Warner Brothers; and, supposedly, a romantic comedy written by Albert Brooks.

Once viewers see Drive, the mystery over this Dane’s rapid rise in Hollywood will be dispelled. Drive is one of the most beautifully directed action movies this critic has seen in recent years – perhaps, ever. With a stunning formal dexterity that allows for both a precision of framing and minimalist tension in some sequences, alongside expressionistic slow motion with chiaroscuro lighting and dreamy synth-pop music in others, Refn’s stylistic gifts are on full display throughout the film. It’s almost as if Gus Van Sant circa Paranoid Park decided to make an action movie.

Gosling & Refn / credit: FilmDistrict

The film’s pulpy narrative centers around a Hollywood stunt driver (Gosling) who falls in love with his neighbor (Carey Mulligan). When that woman’s husband gets released from prison, the Driver agrees to help him pay back a debt to some gangsters. Albert Brooks shows up as the bad guy, in one of the most bizarre against-type casting choices ever. Though the excellent supporting cast includes Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, and Bryan Cranston, the anchor of the film is Gosling’s performance, which is stoic and inward and very different from anything he’s done before, but which, as usual, displays his limitless gifts as an actor.

Gosling & Mulligan / credit: FilmDistrict

I spoke with Refn recently at the Bowery Hotel. Before I even had the chance to start the interview, amidst initial pleasantries, Refn asked me:

Nicolas Winding Refn: Did you like the movie?

Tribeca: It’s the best film I’ve seen all year. [pause] I haven’t seen Shame yet. But I’m sure this’ll at least wind up in the top three.

Nicolas Winding Refn: Cool.

Tribeca: Really excellent. One of the reasons I loved it – and the first thing I wanted to ask you about – was the formalism. You do a lot of interesting stuff in terms of abstract lighting, like in the elevator scene, where the lightning artificially changes – as well as how you play with diegetic and non-diegetic sound, specifically with some of the music. How did you conceive of some of the more formalist sequences?

Nicolas Winding Refn: The elevator sequence came up a week before I started shooting. There was another part of the movie that I couldn’t get to work. That scene was originally going to take place in the garage of the building. It seemed boring – I didn’t like the location. I talked to my editor about it. I always talk structure with him first. We thought, Why don’t we move it into a different location? And he said, Why don’t we do the elevator? That worked out well, because it’s much more frightening, because [Carey Mulligan] can’t get out. She’s much more in danger. I wanted that feel. The idea of them kissing, and the light changes – I’ve had that idea for 20 years in my head. I always wanted to do a movie where two people are doing something, and then we pass through something – the camera passes through something, and when it passes, it’s an alternate universe. Either the character’s perspective or the audience’s perspective has changed. And then they kiss and they’re illuminated by one spotlight in darkness.

Nicolas Winding Refn / credit: FilmDistrict

I did something similar in my second film, a small Danish film. Here, he smashes the guy’s head in, but it’s like he needed to do something that would counter the violence. Ryan and I were saying, What could he do? We’re very telekinetic, Ryan and I. And we realized he could kiss her. But the lights have to change; it’s almost heightened realism. It’s like his imagination of what it would be like, kissing her, even as he is kissing her, and he’s kissing her goodbye, because he has to go to the dark side to protect her. I loved shooting that scene.

Tribeca: It’s almost as if you’re using the tools of the medium to present the scene less as reality than as how the moment feels. You’re using the form and abstracting from the moment how it feels to him, so you have to present it in a more expressionistic fashion.

Nicolas Winding Refn: Well, pure emotions have nothing to do with logic. Filmmaking is not reality. It’s fiction. You can make films that mirror reality, you can make films that use reality as a tool, but we are not making documentaries. We can never achieve what documentaries can do, and vice versa. This movie was very much structured like a Grimm’s fairy tale. When he does what he has to do, it’s in the world of heightened reality. The minute you do that, it is pure emotions. It’s what we project. We no longer think of reality or logic; it’s beyond that. That’s important, because I’m a fetish filmmaker. Fetish is about what you want to see. Not what is right or wrong, just what you want to see. I make films based on what I would like to see.

Carey Mulligan / credit: FilmDistrict

Tribeca: You say that films are not reality, and I agree. But what’s interesting is that you have to pick and choose your moments of abstraction, right? I mean, if you did your whole film the way you did that elevator scene –

Nicolas Winding Refn: Then people are detached. It’s a balance where you have to figure out when. Like if you go see a movie, and you’re alienated the first twenty minutes, it’s hard for you to be pulled back in. There’s a big difference between stylish and stylized. Stylish is a reaction to emotional thought. Stylization is a concept before the emotion. Stylization alienates, because it has no emotional content.

Tribeca: Right, because it comes before the content, so it may not be appropriate.

Nicolas Winding Refn: I would say, it’s better to make things stylish. You say, I have this emotion I want to evoke, now I want to make it visually interesting using sound and images.

Albert Brooks, Christina Hendricks / credit: FilmDistrict

Tribeca: Can you tell me a bit about how your filmmaking philosophy developed?

Nicolas Winding Refn: Well, I never went to film school, I got kicked out of acting school, so I don’t have what you would call an academic approach. I’m happy I didn’t go to film school because I don’t think I would have survived it. I believe film is an artform, and you learn by doing. You can be shown tools, but the theoretically right thing to do doesn’t make something interesting.

The biggest influence I ever had in my life was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I saw that when I was 14 down at the Cinema Village. Seeing that was like going into an abstract artform – film was no longer about conventional storytelling, three acts – it was about evoking emotions that you didn’t normally get – cinema could be just sound, or still images. I remember thinking: Whatever that is, that’s what I want to make.

Tribeca: It’s so refreshing to see a genre film – I don’t know if Drive is really a genre film –

Nicolas Winding Refn: It is.

Tribeca: You think so? Because I think you transcend that with what you do, formally.

Nicolas Winding Refn: Oh yeah, but what’s interesting about the film is that it’s like a fairy tale. Fairy tales are genre stories, but it’s what’s in between the lines in fairy tales that are interesting – it’s what they represent. What they’re metaphors for. It’s bottomless.

Ryan Gosling / credit: FilmDistrict

Drive opens on Friday, September 16. Find tickets.

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