Nicolas Windng Refn, director of Drive, doesn’t himself drive. He has failed his driver’s license test eight times. Yet the heralded Danish director came to Los Angeles, the city of cars, to make a film filled with some of the most authentic and exciting car chase sequences seen on the screen in years. The irony seems palpable, but not to Refn, who won the director’s prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and has received a best director nomination from the Independent Spirits Awards and BAFTA, England’s equivalent of the Oscars. “Drive is not about cars. It’s about the man who drives the cars,” he says, referring to the existentially enigmatic character played by Ryan Gosling. “He’s an anti-hero superhero, which is what all great superheros are,” he observed.
In Drive, Gosling’s character has no specific name, much like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in Fistful of Dollars. He’s usually referred to simply as Driver. And, indeed, he spends a lot of time behind the wheel. During the day he’s a Hollywood stunt driver, while at night he drives getaway cars. But after a bank heist goes wrong, he’s suddenly drawn into a nefarious underworld of thugs through his friendship with a sweet waitress, played by Carey Mulligan. The movie features an escalating series of high-octane car chases that harken back to 1960s’ films like Bullitt starring Steve McQueen.
Refn – known for directing Bronson, a 2008 prison movie about a notorious British criminal – assembled a top-flight team of collaborators for Drive. They created the film’s look – highly stylized naturalism. The film’s director of photography is Newton Thomas Sigel, known for working with director Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects and X-Men along with Oliver Stone on many of his early films. Drive editor Matt Newman who cut Bronson serves as a kind of right hand to the director that extends beyond the editing suite.
Production designer Beth Mickle and costume designer Erin Benach came recommended by Gosling who had worked with both on Blue Valentine. Mickle is nominated by the Art Directors Guild for best production design on a contemporary film; and Benach is a Costume Designers Guild nominee, also in the contemporary film category.
Cliff Martinez, the film’s composer, is known for his soundtracks for films directed by Steven Soderbergh including Traffic and this year’s Contagion.
Drive, based on a crime novel of the same name by James Sallis that is set in Los Angeles, was also filmed entirely in L.A. – not always the case these days even when the locale is L.A. – using local industry crews. It benefitted from California’s film tax incentives program. “That helped with the financing, but I make movies not based on where I can get the money but where the story fits,” said Refn. He has high praise for the professionalism of those who worked with him. “L.A, has the best crews in the world, and the best facilities,” he declared. “There’s a reason it’s the film capital of the world and not just financial.”
As for the look of the film, Refn notes that because he is color blind, “I need very strong contrasts, and I also like the use of the color red,” he noted. “But overall, I was into a natural, unforced look but with fetishistic elements.” The director does not storyboard, and decides how he wants a scene shot when he arrives at the location. “I also like to shoot films in chronological order. It’s more involving not just for the actors, but for the entire crew.”
Drive was shot digitally. Sigel used the Arri Alexa camera for the first time, impressed by its ability to capture scenes in available light and low-light situations. The camera was often outfitted with wide-angle lenses, which are touchy, but Refn likes them because of their depth of field. “I like to be able to see the details of the production design,” said the director. Handheld camerawork was avoided. Car scenes were filmed with a “biscuit rig” – a camera car rig developed for the film Seabiscuit (2003), which allowed a precision driver to steer the car, freeing Gosling to concentrate on acting.
For the car chases, Refn says he watched a lot of films for reference but two films stood out. “It came down to The French Connection or Bullitt or a combination of the two,” he observed. “Every stunt coordinator to a man mentioned these films, and no others.”
“The pressure was enormous filming the three car chases,” said the director. “It’s more fun to edit than to film car chases.” Each car chase was designed to have its own character and psychology, and also be cumulative in terms of excitement. The first chase takes place at night through downtown L.A. as Driver evades the cops and drops two thieves off. The second chase, meant to be the most traditional, is shot in daylight and starts when the heist runs into trouble. The third and most exciting chase was filmed near the beach north of Malibu.
Drive was primarily shot on location, in and around downtown Los Angeles. Production designer Mickle worked closely with DP Sigel to scout appropriate locations such as the town’s financial district, which is deserted and menacing at night. The nearby Park Plaza Hotel served as production central. What sets were needed were built in spaces at the hostelry as well. One was the colorful strip club dressing room with walls entirely covered in mirrors that provided Sigel’s camera with an abundance of tricky reflections.
The elevator where one of climactic scenes in the film takes place was a set constructed at the end of a hallway. To give the illusion that the elevator was stopping at different floors, the art department would change the appearance of the walls.
Refn moved into a house in L.A. which itself became a production hub as well as a home for his family. He had screenwriter Hossein Amini move in and also members of the cast. They would work on the script and film all day, then watch films, edit or drive around at night. “I brought my editor Matt Newman with me from Europe. He’s my most important collaborator and he’s there from the start,” said the director. “We go through the script together, and analyze and pre-edit the film. We have a very special relationship.”
When it comes to the actual editing stage, Refn is also very hands on. “My father was a film editor and my mother was a photographer so you could say I was raised on an editing table,” he said. “Images and the cutting of images were part of my upbringing.” Shooting ended in November 2010. With Drive set to debut at Cannes in the spring of 2011, editing had to be done at a breakneck pace. The first assembly took three weeks and the editing was completed in eight weeks.
As far as wardrobe, “Ryan feels what he wears is very much part of his character,” observed Refn. Gosling worked closely with costume designer Benach. One particular item of his clothing, the silver satin quilted jacket with a scorpion embroidered on the back, was inspired by 1950’s mass produced jackets from South Korea that he had come across. The scorpion was a reference to Scorpio Rising, an iconic 1960s’ short by director Kenneth Anger, a Refn favorite. Even a minor touch like Gosling’s driving gloves were inspired by ones worn by Steve McQueen in Bullitt.
Gosling’s apparel in the film is already influencing the world of fashion. GQ magazine recently did a feature on his outfits, including an interview with Benach. And a clothing company is selling copies of the scorpion jacket on the web.
The insinuating score by Martinez has undertones of 1980s’ Eurodisco, and also includes songs from that era. “This is the kind of music I remember and still really love,” said Refn. However, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has ruled that the soundtrack is ineligible for an Oscar nomination because of technicalities relating to the credits for two other composers who supplied short stretches of the score.
Up next for Refn are two more films with Gosling, who has become one of the most in-demand and charismatic actors in Hollywood. Only God Forgives, filmed in Bangkok and now in postproduction, is about a police lieutenant and a gangster who settle their differences in a Thai-boxing ring. That will be followed by the long-planned remake of Logan’s Run, about a future dystopia where no one is allowed to live beyond the age of 30, that Gosling has long championed.