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To Live and Die in L.A.

Danish cult director Nicolas Winding Refn goes Hollywood (sort of) with Drive

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Nicolas Winding Refn loves the ’80s, but didn’t try to emulate them in Drive.


From the hot-pink opening credits to the pulsing electronic score to the white satin jacket that Ryan Gosling’s character wears everywhere, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive charges off the starting line like a throwback to early ’80s neon noirs such as Michael Mann’s TV series Miami Vice or William Friedkin’s Mann pastiche To Live and Die in L.A. Albert Brooks even plays a character who, before descending into Los Angeles’ criminal underworld, produced such movies, a character who looks like Mann. But a telephone conversation with Refn, doing press from a hotel suite in Washington, D.C., reveals some other, less typical influences on what promises to be his breakout film in the States.

Refn, best known here for the Pusher trilogy and last year’s trippy, violent Viking saga Valhalla Rising, insists he didn’t set out to create a retro homage. “The reality is that Los Angeles, if you get past the conventional tourist sites, actually looks like something from the ’80s—it has never really progressed since then,” he says. “Combine that with an electronic score that’s very much rooted in late ’70s/early ’80s Euro-pop, and that can really give it that feel.” Asked about Brooks’ resemblance to Mann, he laughs: “I never thought of it like that, but it’s an interesting analysis.” Pause. “Michael Mann could probably play that role. I should have thought of that.”

Drive’s script, written by Hossein Amini, is based on a 2005 hard-boiled novella of the same name by James Sallis about a laconic, never-named movie stunt man who augments his studio income by driving getaway cars for whichever L.A. criminals can meet his fee. A fetching neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her young son tempt him out of his self-contained slipstream, with the usual noir-style consequences. It’s the kind of story that fits a first kiss and a brutal beating within the same bravura scene, but Refn makes the source material sound almost incidental to the germ that inspired the film.

“Two years ago, I started to read Grimm’s Fairy Tales to my eldest daughter,” he says, “and I remember thinking it could be interesting to make a movie like a fairy tale. And when I got hold of James Sallis’ book . . . L.A. is itself a sort of mythological landscape, and I thought it could be a great backdrop for this fairy-tale structure, all these characters, these archetypes.”

When word of the project first emerged, many film nerds assumed that Refn was paying his respects to The Driver, Walter Hill’s 1978 noirish thriller about a never-named getaway driver. Refn says he hadn’t seen Hill’s film until right before he started shooting Drive (“But I enjoyed it immensely”). The most important cinematic touchstone for the new project was somewhat less obscure.

“Probably Pretty Woman was the biggest inspiration for me,” he says. It wasn’t so much the blockbuster’s romcom shenanigans that proved influential, he says, as the way that it took an unromantic subject—prostitution—and spun date-movie gold from it. “Pretty Woman was the only film, in my opinion, that had taken the fairy-tale nature to its heart,” he says. “And of course, fairy tales have a lot of darkness looming within them, yet they’re able to have this extreme sentimental purity, but it works because it’s extreme [at both ends].”

But, unlike in Drive, no one gets his head kicked to pulp in Pretty Woman.

“Well, you didn’t see the outtakes, I guess,” Refn jokes.

Refn’s thematic ideas and acknowledged inspirations (which also include Kiss’ “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” and avant-trash filmmaker Kenneth Anger) would be only so much pretentious back-story if he didn’t combine them to deliver something compelling onscreen. Sallis’ fleet noir plotting and Refn’s adroit action sequences keep things racing along, and far from fairy-tale simplicity, finely shaded characters emerge from beautiful work by Mulligan, Brooks, and Gosling, elevating Drive above the dimbulb action most multiplex audiences have come to tolerate and accept.

The emotional involvement the film generates is especially impressive since Gosling’s performance is, on the surface at least, almost nonexistent. Refn says that he and Gosling talked a great deal in preparation for Drive, but that when it came time to shoot, his direction to the actor was noir terse: “Just, ‘Keep it all inside.’ Keep all energy inside. Very simple.”

Gosling’s performance—his mere presence in the cast, really—all but guaranteed Drive a higher profile than all of Refn’s previous films combined. And while Refn is working on more Hollywood projects (including a remake of ’70s sci-fi fave Logan’s Run), he doesn’t see Drive as a big Hollywood move, or very different from his previous work. It’s just another film he was lucky enough to get made and get seen.

“It wasn’t like I set out, like, ‘OK, how can I get a wider release?’” he says. “But, sure, having a 2,000-print release of a movie that you made the way you wanna make it is very satisfying.”

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