Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn has developed an international cult following since 1996 with edgy, viscerally exciting movies like “Pusher,” “Bleeder,” “Fear X,” “Pusher II,” “Pusher III,” “Bronson” and “Valhalla Rising.” His success led to a chance to direct an American film starring Harrison Ford, which brought him to California for discussions with the star—as he noted during a recent Dallas interview about his new film “Drive,” a thriller starring Ryan Gosling as am emotionally distant stunt man-getaway driver whose relationship with a woman (Carey Mulligan), her child and her ex-con husband places him—as well as his mechanic boss (Bryan Cranston)—in the crosshairs of the mob, led by an avuncular Jewish fellow (Albert Brooks) and his partner (Ron Perlman).
“I never had an interest in Hollywood. I was perfectly content making my kind of films, like ‘Bronson’ and “Valhalla Rising,’” Refn said. “I don’t need any other canvases.
“But I postponed my own movie to go and do this Harrison Ford movie, and I was so angry that I’d fallen into this Hollywood trap—getting stuck in some development hell and not going anywhere. But then God had a special reason for me to be there.
“It’s a very similar situation to when Peter Yates did ‘Bullitt.’ It was Steve McQueen who brought ‘Bullitt’ to Yates. In ‘Point Blank’ it was Lee Marvin who insisted on John Boorman to direct.
“And here it was the same situation. It was Ryan who had wanted to do this, and he insisted that it was going to be me. He just knew my movies—I had never met him.”
Refn’s first meeting with Gosling, however, did not go quite as planned. “It was kind of strange, because I was in the process of trying to do this movie where I was killing Harrison Ford, because he dies in the role in the movie. But that movie was going haywire—like typical Hollywood. And I met with Ryan, but I had a very high fever, and I was only in L.A. for a few days. I took these flu medicines just to get through the day, and when I met him I was high as a kite, which didn’t make the meeting any better. You know, Hollywood is all about meetings.
“We met at a restaurant, and I was so out of it I can’t remember much of that night, other than that we didn’t really talk a whole lot. I was so incoherent, and he was really trying to have a normal conversation, being very interested and courteous. And I was like ‘Yes, no.’ So it was like a blind date on a disastrous route.
“Halfway through dinner, I said I needed to lie down, because I’d been with Harrison Ford all day, and sitting there with Ryan was too much for me. So I asked him to take me home—because I don’t drive a car, so he had to drive me back to my hotel. I’d read the script, but I couldn’t remember it. So we hadn’t really talked about it—we talked about music a little bit. Anyway, on the car ride back we were sitting in silence, and Ryan turned on the radio, because that awkwardness was unbearable. And REO Speedwagon, ‘I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore,’ started—and I always loved that song, so I turned it on very loud in the car—very arrogant, in a way—and started singing it. And I started to cry.
“So I had tears rolling down my cheeks, completely lost in the song, and I was high and couldn’t come down. And I was missing my wife and kids, who were in Copenhagen. I was just totally out of it. And for the first time I looked at Ryan—during dinner, I was just looking at his profile—and I turned to Ryan in the car, and I yelled—I screamed, because the music was so loud—‘I got it. I know what “Drive” is. We’re going to make a movie about a man who drives around at night listening to pop music. That’s his emotional release.
“And that emotion is what started the film. It meant going back the script…and adapting it into my kind of fetish. And I read the book at the same time, which is about a stunt man. And the script, when I read it, was not about a stunt man, it was just about a getaway driver. And I said, ‘We have to do this movie about a stunt man—this is the key.’ So the stunt man story went back in and [screenwriter] Hossein Amini moved into my house in L.A. and we constructed the script. And I would drive around at night with Ryan listening to music and going to eat at late-night cafes. We were basically living the movie.
“It was almost devised like a Grimms fairy-tale structure,” Refn said of the film’s final shape. “I was always very interested in telling a story like a Grimms fairy-tale. Actually the most inspiring movie in my mind as I was making ‘Drive’ was ‘Pretty Woman’—how they had taken this very strange, morbid story and made a Cinderella, kind of Yellow Brick Road structure that nobody saw through. I was always very impressed with that. So the idea was to make a movie that in the first half is so champagne and so soft and so pure and so uncomplex, that when it switches, the driver becomes a hero, but he’s always been psychotic, so when violence kicks in, it’s inevitable that they will die very extremely, because that’s what heroes do. They protect the innocent and kill, in a very moral justice, when it comes to evil. That’s essentially what fairy-tale structure is like. The evil characters in Grimms always meet with great violence when they die. When it comes, it comes very fast and quick. So it’s the aftermath which is sometimes more shocking.
“Once [financing] was in place,” Refn continued, “I moved to Los Angeles, and got a house with my family, and I wanted everything then. This was going to be a Hollywood experience—I wanted it all. I wanted the swimming pool and the orange trees and the extravaganza of Josef von Stroheim—you know, what an ego!”
After thus conflating Josef von Sternberg and Erich von Stroheim, two of Hollywood’s most oversized personalities, Refn continued: “Unfortunately, I had a wife and children, so I couldn’t sleep with any actresses. And I don’t do drugs anymore. But everything but that was going to be it. So one of the conditions was that all the actors who wanted to be in the movie had to come to my house and kind of pitch themselves to me, one on one. I was very lucky that people had liked my other films.
“Albert Brooks I’d wanted to be in the movie, but I’d never met him, so I needed to know if it was going to work, so he came to my house. It was quite interesting, and I really knew that was going to work out—plus he’d never kill anybody, so that was a funny twist. And Bryan Cranston I had to woo a little, because he has so many offers. But that worked out. Carey Mulligan, originally that part was written for a Hispanic woman. In the book it works very well, but I just couldn’t get it to work in my mind in the film version. I kept on struggling, because in the script the love story has been upped—in the book it’s more in the background. I was looking for an actress, and I couldn’t find anybody that clicked with how I saw the driver. And I got a call asking if I’d see Carey, and I said yes, and the minute she came by I was, ‘You’re it.’ I just knew from the get-go that she’d work.
“Ron Perlman called me from New York, and told me all his life he’d wanted to be an Italian gangster, even though he was born Jewish. I said, ‘Okay.’
“So I was extremely fortunate…and experiencing that means I have only good memories of Los Angeles—being allowed to make the film I wanted to make and Ryan protecting me, and I had very smart producers who, I realized, weren’t going to take anything away from me, they were just there to try to help me. [It was] un-Hollywood filming in Hollywood. They took the chance in gambling on me, which you have to respect.
“At Cannes, it was a great experience, because for the first time everybody saw the finished film, and it was very moving,” Refn added (no pun intended). It was especially satisfying, no doubt, because he was awarded the festival prize as best director.
“Drive” also established a close working relationship for Refn with Gosling. “He’s a very, very dedicated actor,” he said, noting how Gosling had actually taken a car apart and rebuilt it in preparation for the part. “Which is a wonderful experience—to be with somebody who’s equally as consumed in what they do. Right now, I’m doing another movie in Asia, my own production, with Ryan Gosling again. And after that we’re set to do the remake of ‘Logan’s Run,’ which is of course as Hollywood as you can get.” Gosling is set to play the lead.
“I’ve become much more comfortable coming to America and Los Angeles and making films,” Refn noted.