Drive, the new film from FilmDistrict and Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, tells the story of a Hollywood stunt car driver (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a wheelman and discovers there is a contract out on him following a robbery gone bad. The movie is violent, yet stylish and emotionally gripping, and is being hailed by critics.
For the film’s sound team, led by supervising sound editor/designer Lon Bender and supervising sound editor Victor Ennis from Soundelux, Drive presented many unusual sonic challenges. Although tacitly an action tale, the film is also highly cerebral, alternating between moments of intense realism and surreality as the audience is drawn into the main character’s head.
The relationship that developed between Bender, Ennis and their crew and Refn was also unusual. The director worked hand-in-hand with the sound team on the production of the soundtrack. “Nick wanted to be involved in every aspect of the film,” said Bender. “He spent several days with me in my studio and it was a lot of fun. It gave us an opportunity to dig deep into the sound. We brought in new sounds and took things out. We built the sound in a way that was completely organic and natural. It was wonderful.”
One thing that became apparent early on was that Refn was not interested in using sound in a realistic way. No attempt was made to replicate the authentic sounds of the film’s hero car. Rather, the director was aiming for an “emotional truth.”
Bender explained that in one of the film’s opening scenes, the driver is transporting two robbers from a holdup, and initially, he attempts to elude police by proceeding slowly and blending in with other cars. But then he is spotted and all hell breaks loose. “The car suddenly comes to life,” said Bender. “It accelerates, decelerates. The car is shifting, which is unusual because Driver’s hand is on the steering wheel. The car is an automatic!
“It doesn’t matter, because it’s an exciting scene about the visceral experience of escaping through the city streets. Nicolas didn’t care if the car was automatic or standard transmission. He wanted the audience to strap in and take a ride with Driver.”
Refn’s attitude toward ambient sound was also unconventional. According to Bender, Drive has a deliberately “thin” soundtrack as Refn chose to exclude traffic and other off-camera environmental sounds in order to focus on what is going on inside his characters’ heads. “Nick felt that the characters are having an intimate experience and anything happening off-screen that wasn’t intimately tied to the story would take the audience’s ear away from what is really going on,” he said.
Bender found Refn’s circumscribed approach to sound liberating. He recalled that in one particularly taut scene, a character is shot in the head in a bathroom and a restrained approach to sound helped ratchet up the tension. The sound team’s initial approach was to draw down the sound as a way of signaling a pending threat, but during the editing and mix (conducted at Sound One, New York, by re-recording mixers Roberto Fernandez and Dave Paterson), they found that it wasn’t working.
“Instead of projecting forward with the sound, indicating that something bad was about to happen, we kept everything normal,” Bender recalled. “Then at the last possible moment, as the gun goes off, the sound drops to nothing. You simply hear glass fall away as the bullet passes through a window.”
A similarly counter-intuitive approach was applied to a scene in an elevator where Driver, sensing he is about to be attacked, acts first, viciously assaulting his would-be assassin. “Driver forces the man to the floor and begins kicking his head in,” Bender said. “Rather than play the scene for more and more gore, we brought it back inside his head. We hear the sounds of his breathing. We hear his body react. The audience begins to understand his desperation and, by the end, they are on his side.”
“Although there are some exciting car chases in this movie, it’s not really a ‘car chase,’ movie,” Bender explained. “It’s about a character and his relationship to the world. And it’s about a car that transports him through life.”
“From a sound perspective, the film is sometimes soaring and intense and at other times, it forces you to lean forward and listen intently, but it all adds up to an experience you will never forget.”