In recent years, very few movies have come along that make you feel like you’re part of the action. Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE is one of them. After seeing the film, it comes as no shock that he won the Best Director award at the Cannes film festival this year. It’s an adrenaline rush and a privilege being a passenger in our stoic protagonist’s car. Being a man of very few words, Driver’s actions speak volumes in this new neo-noir thriller.
Ryan Gosling stars as a Los Angeles wheelman for hire, stunt driving for movie productions by day and steering getaway vehicles for armed heists by night. Though a loner by nature, Driver can’t help falling for his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), a vulnerable young mother dragged into a dangerous underworld by the return of her ex-convict husband Standard (Oscar Isaac). After a heist intended to pay off Standard’s protection money spins unpredictably out of control, Driver finds himself driving defense for the girl he loves, tailgated by a syndicate of deadly serious criminals (Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman). But when he realizes that the gangsters are after more than the bag of cash in his trunk – they’re coming straight for Irene and her son – Driver is forced to shift gears and go on offense.
How the script attracted Gosling goes all the way back to his formative years:
“My personal feelings about the script were two things: I always wanted to see a violent John Hughes movie. I thought if PRETTY IN PINK had a head smashing, it would be perfect. On top of that, when I was a kid and I saw FIRST BLOOD, it put a spell on me that I thought I was Rambo. I went to school the next day with my Fischer-Price Houdini kit filled with steak knives and I threw it at all the kids at recess. I got suspended, as I should have been, and I’m sorry. My parents then put a leash on me and said ‘this kid can’t watch movies because they put a spell on him.’ I could only watch Bible movies, National Geographic movies and Abbot & Costello – even though all those kinds of movies are violent. When I read this script, and I was looking at the character acting like a maniac, I thought ‘this is a guy who’s seen too many movies.’ Because he was a stuntman, it seemed we could go deeper into that idea – that he had seen too many films and had basically become the hero of the movie of his life.”
So the search for a director with a similar vision began. Producer Marc Platt, who had been the one to give Gosling the script, wanted to produce the film with him as well.
“He said I could have any director I wanted and he’d support it. I had to find the right director.”
How the visionary Refn came to be attached to DRIVE, an adaptation of the James Sallis pulp novel, was based purely on the power of his previous works and the audience reaction they elicited:
“His films are deeply rooted in mythology. They feel like fairytales. And I felt like this should be a fairytale since it’s set in LA – a land based on fairytale and fantasy. Driver (in his mind anyway) is more like a knight, Irene is the damsel in distress, Ron Perlman is the dragon, and Bernie Rose is the evil wizard. His films are like Grimm’s Brothers fairy tales, and they are also very personal. He only shoots what he wants to see and I appreciate how personal they are. They have a real identity. They don’t try to please anyone but him. He doesn’t shoot anything that he doesn’t find erotic. I wanted this movie to be something that had personality, and also that you wanted to be in the movie theater to see. When I saw VALHALLA RISING, and the main character cuts open the other guy and starts showing him his own guts, everyone in the theater was hitting each other, laughing, and freaking out. Whether you liked it or not, you were happy to have seen it in the theater.”
The picture has a distinct and hip retro style – from the slightly grainy, low-lit look reminiscent of ’70s films like VANISHING POINT and THE DRIVER, to the new-wave neon-pink script used in the credit sequences, to the sublimely perfect ’80s-style synth score. That aesthetic began to take shape early on, during a pivotal moment in the development process:
“This wouldn’t have happened if REO Speedwagon didn’t come on the radio when I was driving Nicolas home from our first terrible meeting. Suddenly REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” comes on the radio. He starts crying and singing this song to me at the top of his lungs. And he said, ‘This is it! This movie is about a guy who can’t feel anything unless he’s driving around listening to pop music.’”
That moment turned DRIVE into a real labor of love for the actor and director.
“The movie was conceived in my car. He and I creatively mated, we had this movie-baby, and we had to raise it together. The film is a great representation of what the process was like. The way we made the movie informed how it was. We’d shoot all day, then go home and edit it. We’d drive around listening to music – going to the 101 diner to talk about life and music. That would influence what we shot the next day. It had this dreamlike quality while we were shooting it. That’s what the movie feels like. Something happened in the car and we were chasing that the whole time.”
Gosling also has high praise for his co-stars in the film. Not only does he affectionately call Mulligan “my partner-in-crime,” but he tells a wickedly funny story about filming one difficult scene with Ron Perlman.
“Perlman is just an endless well of great lines. For instance, I’m trying to drown him in the ocean. Every time I’d push him into the water, the tide would go out. I’m just pushing his face into the mud. The wave comes back, knocks us both over, and we have to start again. We do it all night until the sun comes up and he tears his ACL. When we finally get the one shot we need, he stands up and says to Nicolas, ‘Yo, Nicky! That was the one. And if you don’t like that, you don’t like ice cream mutha fucka!’ He does this snap and he limps back to his trailer.”
As for Albert Brooks, who turns in a marvelous performance as the villainous Bernie Rose,
“He’s the only one we wanted to play this role. He had to do it. He not only plays that part but he owns that character.”
Even though Gosling kept his badass driving gloves and satin scorpion jacket, that doesn’t mean the actor took any more baggage from Driver off set.
“I’m not a good enough actor to become a character and be that character for the duration of shooting. What I can do is turn up the parts of myself that are like that character and turn down the parts that aren’t. What I have in common with that character is amplified while shooting. In this case, it was very peaceful because the character was very introverted.”
While he may have done some of the cool stunt driving for the film, surprisingly it wasn’t Gosling’s love for cars that fueled his desire to make the film.
“I never really cared about cars. I still don’t. I worked on this car I drive in the movie so I have an affection just for it. And even it rubs me the wrong way. I worked with this guy Pedro (a lovely guy) but he changed my transmission on the last day of shooting – the day I was gonna finish the car. It really stings because I did everything on the car except for that and he knew it. He thought it was really funny and it cut me.”
It was Gosling’s positive filming experience with Refn that made him want to continue to further their working relationship.
“His films have a very strong identity. What I feel so lucky about is that he and I share the same fantasies. We can both make a film that’s personal to us and not have to compromise. I think that’s rare. I find that in Nic and Derek [Cianfrance], who did BLUE VALENTINE and just did THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. I feel very fortunate to have found them and now make more movies with them. There’s no point in making a movie if you’re not on the same page as the director, if you care how it turns out. I used to think you needed conflict, that you were supposed to be combative and out of this conflict came creativity. But I don’t believe that anymore.”
Up next for Gosling is the aforementioned THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, another film about a stunt driver with a criminal streak – however, he warns that the similarities end there.
“I didn’t make this [DRIVE] about stunts and going fast. I just wanted to make a film about driving ‘cuz I like to drive but I don’t have to tear through town. I like being in a car – that you can get out and not remember the trip. As far as PINES goes, I’d always had this fantasy about robbing banks but I’m scared of jail. So I’ll never do it, but I would if I didn’t have to go to jail. I had this fantasy that I would get on a motorcycle and drive it into the back of a U-haul parked around the corner. The cops would be looking for a guy on a motorbike, not a U-haul. I told this to the director [Derek] who said ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! I just wrote a script about that!’”
As for breaking up a potential crime-in-the-making last month, perhaps Gosling does take home more of his character than he thinks. Was it Driver’s heroic side that helped him to defuse that now-infamous street fight? Gosling flashes a sheepish grin laced with embarrassment:
“Um, no. That was just stupid.”
DRIVE opens nationwide on September 16.