Drive's Nicolas Winding Refn

The Danish director talks Gosling, the '80s and his stylish retrothriller.

Nicolas Winding Refn, director of Drive

Nicolas Winding Refn, director of Drive

Sure, spiritual-minded aesthetes cheered the coronation of Terence Malick's Palme d'Or winner, The Tree of Life, at last May's Cannes Film Festival. But the truly soulful picture in the competition lineup was Drive, a tightly wound thriller starring Ryan Gosling that clinched the Best Director award for Danish filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn—whose films such as Bronson and Valhalla Rising have consistently infused grindhouse material with deliriously rich human insight. Calling from his Copenhagen home, the cult director took us behind the scenes.

Once upon a time...
"I was reading Grimms' Fairy Tales to my daughter, and I remember actually thinking, Maybe I should try to tell a movie exactly like one of these are told. They usually have archetypes, they're full of symbolism, and they're always about protecting innocence and purity. That's essentially what Drive is: a fairy tale in Los Angeles, with Ryan Gosling's character playing the role of the knight."

The men with no names
"In the book [by James Sallis], the driver's backstory was essential to understanding certain situations. But I felt that if you explain him, he was no longer as interesting. It's like Sergio Leone's Man with No Name gunfighter: People who don't have a past automatically become a hero, because you read things into them. I did the same thing in Valhalla Rising. You never learned where that guy came from, either.
"One of the things I realized over the years is that my films are very much about transitions. All my characters go through a self-transformation, and the driver transforms himself from a cipher into a protector, someone who wants to keep Carey Mulligan and her child safe. I like doing those things with my characters, because it keeps knocking the audience off balance."

Clothes make the man
"Ryan wanted that specific kind of late-'70s, early-'80s satin jacket his character wears; it reminded me of the rock group Kiss. The original one had eagles on it, which reminded me of sports-car art. Then Ryan and I were out with the costume designer and I was talking about Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising, which was the first movie I showed him when we started working together. It opens with the image of a scorpion, and suddenly, Ryan and I looked at each other and said, 'Scorpion!' We found a jacket that had a scorpion on it; that's what we ended up using. Oh, and the gloves—I became a little fetishistic regarding the sound of the driving gloves. Every time Ryan moved his hands, I always amplified it much louder in postproduction, as well as the sound of the car's motor. I really like the sound of a motor."

I love the '80s
"My editor suggested the film's font...he stole it from Risky Business. It also reminded me of a film that made a very big impression on me when I was young: Pretty in Pink. John Hughes's movies were very much my coming-of-age films, and I think Drive has a lot of him in it. It's like a John Hughes movie where heads get smashed.
"I always felt the '80s got a bad rap, because everyone talks about the '70s as being a golden age. But I remember seeing Liquid Sky and David Lynch's films back then, so it wasn't like there weren't creative things happening. And of course, you've got Michael Mann. He was fucking fantastic! It's a great neglected period of cinema."

Hooray for Hollywood
"I wasn't ready ten years ago to work in Hollywood. But I am ready now, because it feels right. It was a strange situation with Drive, because it all came down to Ryan. It's similar to when Lee Marvin insisted on John Boorman for Point Blank, or when Steve McQueen insisted on Peter Yates for Bullitt. And yes, our Logan's Run remake is happening. I'm supposed to deliver the script for it by the end of the year. Then Ryan and I are doing the Western Only God Forgives right after Christmas. But you think Drive was a fetishistic movie? Wait until you see our Logan's Run."