A one-man army. That's how Nicolas Winding Refn describes his approach to filmmaking. Until now, that is, when he's finally starting to have faith that the other people onboard are actually there to help him carry out his vision. It was on the shoot of "Drive", which is in the run for the Palme d'Or in Cannes, that the pieces finally started falling into place for him – despite all the warnings against working in Hollywood and all the horror stories about meeting resistance and losing creative control.
"I love things that are way sentimental and I always wanted to do an action adventure in L.A. 'Drive' was perfect that way."
Shot in Los Angeles, "Drive" happened when the film Refn was supposed to have directed with Harrison Ford fell through. Instead, he got the opportunity to adapt James Sallis's novel "Drive" after a meeting with the Canadian actor Ryan Gosling. Gosling, who was Oscar-nominated for his supporting role in "Half Nelson" and is considered one of the hottest new names in international film, wanted Refn to direct the adaptation. This was the start of a fruitful collaboration that also gave Refn a chance to bring in a number of other actors he wanted to work with.
In "Drive", Gosling plays a Hollywood stuntman moonlighting as a getaway driver in Tinseltown's criminal underworld. Refn has a cool cast supporting Gosling, including Carey Mulligan, of Lone Scherfig's "An Education", and veterans like Albert Brooks and Ron "Hellboy" Pearlman, along with Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks, who have achieved worldwide fame in recent years for their roles in the TV series "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men". Even the tiny images Refn shows me on his iPhone, as we sit in a Copenhagen café, convey a heady atmosphere of pulp, noir and L.A. romance.
HAPPY IN HOLLYWOOD
"Of course I had heard all the horror stories about working in L.A.," Refn says. The director moved with his parents to New York when he was a small boy, returning to Copenhagen at age 17.
"Everyone kept telling me about all the restrictions I'd be under as a director, which definitely went against everything I'd been doing. But once I met Ryan, it just felt right to make "Drive" and, as I saw it, it had to be shot in L.A., even though it was expensive and difficult and we didn't have a lot of time.
"I came in with all the classic apprehensions, but I can't say it wasn't fun or I didn't get to do what I wanted or it didn't turn out the way I wanted it to. I had a very positive Hollywood experience that way. Or," he laughs, "Hollywood had a very positive me-experience."
Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn on the set of "Drive". Photo: SF Film
A FEVER DREAM
With its stuntman protagonist, "Drive" is a furiously paced action-drama that taps into the whole mythology of Hollywood. Hossin Amini's screenplay, from Sallis's novel, made Refn think of a film like "The Stuntman", by Richard Rush. Other titles, like "Point Blank" and "Bullit", popped up as we talked about European directors with Hollywood accomplishments. Refn is fine with being a European away from home. Especially, if he gets to do the kind of genre films he loves.
"An advantage of working in genres is they do well commercially, while nothing keeps you from trying out several different dimensions and levels at once. Working in genres is satisfying artistically and, after all, it's only a plus that genre films find distribution.
"I love things that are way sentimental and I always wanted to do an action adventure in L.A. "Drive" was perfect that way. The book is pretty experimental and jumps around in time and space. The film doesn't, though it does have the sense of a fever dream," Refn says. His last film, the epic Valhalla Rising, was in fact hailed by critics for its hypnotic visuals.
TRAINED IN CANNES
While Refn got an early taste of Danish and international success with his "Pusher" trilogy, "Drive" is the first film he takes to Cannes. But the prestigious festival once offered Refn his first lessons in the close connection between film art and the film market.
"I had my first real encounter with the film industry when I was young and worked at Cannes for several years in a row as a film scout for my uncle. There, I learned that films are things that are bought and sold, and if people aren't hooked within the first ten minutes, they leave. That was really educational. Of course, you want to make great films, but films are also a commodity for an audience," Refn says.
Four years into his career, he got a brutal crash course in the financial realities of film production. Hailed as the great Danish hope after his first feature Pusher, he went bankrupt when his ambitious thriller "Fear X", starring John Turturro, flopped.
Refn describes his film "Bronson" as mirroring his own evolution as a director. Bronson, the notorious British prisoner Michael Peterson, had a tendency to wreck everything around him until he finally realised he was going nowhere and changed his life around. Today, Refn thinks he has become better at not obsessing over his films and accepting that, if a project won't budge, it's probably better to move on.
SCANDINAVIA IN THE WORLD
With the prospect of walking the red carpet in Cannes and a fistful of exciting projects in the pipeline, the future is looking bright for Refn. Working with Gosling was a pleasure, the director says, and they are hoping to repeat in a remake of the sci-fi film "Logan's Run", about a future society where everyone is required to die at a certain age.
But first he is relocating to Bangkok in August to do preproduction on his next film, "Only God Forgives", a Danish production and the first of a pair in a deal with Gaumont and Wild Bunch. Meanwhile, he is writing a screenplay for a thriller, "Walk With the Dead".
"I certainly hope to be able to move back and forth between projects and countries, because it gives me so much inspiration and energy. A lot of good things are happening in Scandinavia, where you find some of the best Film Acts in the world. But it's also important not to have this 'us vs. them' mentality, and think in terms of new possibilities instead. A lot of us are leaving to make films in English because, let's face it, it's the dominant language. But that doesn't mean we don't take something Scandinavian with us. In that sense, it's easy to think of "Drive" as a Scandinavian film, too, and not just an American film."
Drive is produced by Bold Films, Odd Lot Entertainment, Seed Productions and Marc Platt Productions.