I can't fucking wait for you to see DRIVE. I had such a visceral, primal reaction to seeing the latest film from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn that all I could think of while watching it was that I wanted to share this feeling with an audience of like-minded individuals, which is exactly what I did a couple of weeks ago with a packed hosue in Chicago.
And it's not just the punctuation moments of violence that are going to get your blood racing. DRIVE is loaded with surreal performances, including one by Ryan Gosling as an almost speechless stunt car driver who has a side job of being the getaway driver for criminal types. I love these idiots that equate talking with acting. The very reason this is one of Gosling's most compelling performances is because he barely speaks. If you see this film and your first reaction (or any part of your reaction) is that you wished Gosling spoke more, you really need to stay away from me.
Back to Refn, the man hasn't made a bad movie in my estimation, at least of the ones I've seen. My first exposure to him was the legendary Danish films known collectively as the PUSHER trilogy, which spotlight actor Mads Mikkelsen better than he's ever. After lesser-known works (in the U.S., at least) like BLEEDER and FEAR X (with a truly compelling performance by John Turturro), Refn blew the roof off his own artistic achievements with BRONSON, starring a then largely unknown actor named Tom Hardy. If you haven't seen BRONSON, I dare you to watch it without flinching. Next up was VALHALLA RISING, again with Mikkelsen, a tough film to explain but not to understand. Drug might help, but I loved it stone-cold sober.
Refn is said to have many film in pipeline (including a remake of LOGAN'S RUN, starring Gosling, but I'm not sure how close to happening that really is). More likely are two other projects: ONLY GOD FORGIVES, also with Gosling and Kristen Scott Thomas; and I WALK WITH THE DEAD, a sex-fueled work starring Carey Mulligan (who is also in DRIVE). Both are based on screenplays by Refn. Whatever he's up to next, I'm in. This guy is a true visionary, something of a fetishist, and a great talker, especially in front of a crowd, as we discovered after the DRIVE screening. You should be warned, there are some mild spoilers about DRIVE scattered throughout the interview, but very little that I think will disrupt your enjoyment of the film. Please enjoy the wild and wacky Nicolas Winding Refn…
Capone: Hello, again.
Nicolas Winding Refn: Good to see you. Last night, that was a great reaction [from the audience].
Capone: I thought so. We had some good questions. You touched on it a bit last night, about the character of The Driver about how he’s sort of a person in transition, someone becoming something else. I think that’s actually the case for your last two films, where the lead character has been someone who’s sort of been transitioning into something that he was not before. What are you getting at there?
NWR: I don’t know. I think that dramatically, I have always been very fascinated by people that know that they are meant for something else, but they can’t define it. So they have to go through a certain journey to understand that eventually what they will become was always what they were meant to be, and through that they then will understand more about their own existence. Isn’t that weird that I can actually verbalize that?
Capone: But it’s not just a journey, it’s a trial by fire.
NWR: Well you know, there has to be an obstacle.
Capone: We talked also last night about the idea of finding an actor who was willing to find other means of expression beyond talking. And when you contrast Ryan [Gosling] with someone like Bryan Cranston's character, who can’t shut up most of the time, it’s even more challenging. I know you said that Ryan sort of wanted to work with you, but how did he convince you that he could do that?
NWR: He didn’t have to convince me. I know it from the beginning.
Capone: He does kind of have that quality.
NWR: Because he has a very rare gift that very few actors have, he can say a thousand things without saying anything.
Capone: Do you plan on letting him have more dialog in your next film?
NWR: I’m really interested in people who don’t talk a lot. What I liked about "Charles Bronson" [the charcter in BRONSON] was always he acted, he didn’t talk about it. People we admire, act they don’t talk, and it’s a bit similar. Do you remember in THE SEVEN SAMURAI, the opening when the old man is doing the duel with the younger man?
Capone: Oh yeah.
NWR: The younger man is very flashy and very arrogant and he pulls the sword up like this, and the old man just takes one small step, the man charges and the old man goes [simulates a short, swift sword move].
Capone: That’s right. You handle excessive violence maybe better than just about anyone right now. You have really turned it into an art form again.
NWR: Cronenberg is pretty good at it too.
Capone: Oh no, he’s good, but his is a little different, more organically based. Yours is about blood; you mentioned last night that you wanted “red red red.”
NWR: “More red!”
Capone: But his is more anatomical I think, and yours is blood, but are there certain films that you throughout the years have said, “That’s a film that handles violence, excessive violence in a way that I appreciate.”
NWR: The greatest movie that has ever handled violence was THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE for me, because it’s the movie that gives you more images but you never see them in the film.
Capone: That’s true, yeah.
NWR: It’s all about perception.
Capone: Yeah, but that’s not the case with a lot of what you do. You actually show it. I think of that scene in the elevator, because there’s a boot stomping action and we get that that's what happening but you don't show it. “Okay, I get it.” And then you have that one last little parting insert shot with the head just exploding under that final stomp. I was thinking, “Okay, we didn’t have to see that, but I’m glad we did.”
NWR: Well, I think that could only work and it needed to go to that level because the other part needed to be so champagne. So you had to go from one extreme to the other extreme.
Capone: It also helps to really explain why Carey Mulligan is now scared of The Driver.
NWR: She's seeing another part of him that again was always there and by getting that out of him, he actually frees himself from this world where he functions as a human being, but yet he can’t have what he wants.
Capone: I seem to remember an interview with you, where I remember you also referenced CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST as a film that you admired.
NWR: CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is one of those unique movies in the sense that…I mean the cannibal genre in itself is a pretty extreme genre and it’s like this niche. I guess DR. BUTCHER, M.D. [a.k.a. ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST] is the most extreme example, because it has both zombies and cannibals. Do you remember that one?
Capone: Oh yeah.
NWR: I love that film. But CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has an extremely terrifying documentarian feel to it, and of course it’s very similar to Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi’s MONDO movies, which kind of started that trend. Did you know Jacopetti just died?
Capone: No I didn’t.
NWR: He was 90 years old. And I’m a huge fan of that MONDO genre. I collect the soundtracks, posters… But CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has always been very unique to me, because I find it extremely unpleasant, because it’s so oddly cold and distant and yet very well made technically. And then it has this very strange logic. It is the ultimate found-footage film, and I mean even the music gives me the creeps. I met Ruggero Deodato a few times since, and he’s a very nice Italian man. I guess he was crazier in his younger days.
Capone: All I remember of that movie is that they kill a lot of animals in it.
NWR: Well that was the norm of those films back them, because that was free blood, you know? There’s all of that kind of controversy about the piranha scene that was lost or not shot or whether it existed at all. I spoke to somebody recently that said they found some kind of footage because I think they're doing a new edition now, a “final” edition.
Capone: Okay, the “final” final edition?
NWR: The final countdown.
Capone: What inspiring thought process made you realize that Albert Brooks would be right for the role of Bernie Rose, and then that story you told last night about meeting him for the first time.
NWR: Well I had always liked him, and when I mentioned him to Ryan he was like “That would be the fucking best. That would be so cool.” So of course, I wanted to meet him to see if Albert and I even had some kind of language we could talk on, and he came to my house, which of course was one of the rules--everybody had to come to my house. It’s a Joseph von Stroheim complex, because I wanted the whole Hollywood experience. I wanted a house with an orange tree, a swimming pool, under the Hollywood sign. I wanted that whole extravagant lifestyle with assistants and big cars and all of that when it comes to that.
So he came in the morning and he was very… He is quite a physical man you know, he’s big, and I just knew instinctively that this man has a very interesting prospective on many things. In the book, the Bernie Rose character is essentially a mob boss, which is not that interesting for my film version of it, so I wanted to make him into a movie producer who used to be a gangster--a lot of them are. So he’s very molded on those independent producers that would come in the early '80s, right before the big change took over and squeezed everybody out there were people. There were laundering money, but still had vanity and passion in what they were doing, but essentially it was all mob operations. So the idea was always that he would be laundering Nino’s money through his films. So we talked a lot about that idea that I had, and Albert is a volcano of emotions, and I could sense there was so much going on within him that even though he had never killed anybody or played a bad guy, which was one of the reasons in the first place why I thought about him, but also I realized that this guy, if he didn’t kill somebody soon, he would kill somebody. And that’s how I could make him physically very violent, because he would be very menacing, because you don’t know when Albert Brooks is going to kill you, you just don’t turn your back to him.
Capone: He’s so fatherly sometimes and comforting…
NWR: …compassionate and nice. And he means well, and on top of that of course, he’s such a fucking good actor. Ryan and I, every time we had to do scenes with Albert, we would spend half of the time laughing, because he was so funny.
Capone: Everyone I tell about this movie I say, “Your ideas about Albert Brooks are going to literally change with what he’s capable of and what he can do,” If for no other reason, that’s one of the greatest reasons to see this film.
NWR: Right. He’s so good in it.
Capone: He’s terrific. Talk a little bit about the humor in the film, because he is a source of humor at times, not the only source, but do you think humor is important in a film that is this intense?
NWR: Yes, you always have to have a little bit of humor in a film, even if it’s the Frank character in BLUE VELVET or if it’s Malcolm McDowell’s character in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Whenever you have to have extreme context, humor will automatically be part of it, because it will always become comical unless you find the balance where it becomes satisfactory.
Capone: Los Angeles is a character in the film, and the idea that by exploring these places that aren’t the touristy spots means you actually get to see a really beautiful city, especially at night. Those opening shots of Los Angeles at night are stunning. And combining those images of Los Angeles with that electronic music takes me back a little.
NWR: The first thing I did a lot after arriving in L.A., after we got our house, was that Ryan and I would drive around at night a lot and he would show me the city and show me his L.A., and he would show me also where the book would take place--I highly recommend the book. And he would tell me about the L.A. River that has these kinds of green oases at different places. So it was very interesting to view L.A. through his perspective on it.
Then when I got time where I had to do production setups, I mean the book takes place in Echo Park, so that’s where I wanted to shoot it, and I found an old gutted hotel building, or actually the line producer had. I was trying to see if I could have her [Carey Mulligan's character] live high up, because in L.A. it’s always shot within houses, but I had this idea that she would live in a high rise and have the view of L.A. behind her where she’s like a princess in a castle. So they found a gutted hotel that was going to be made into condominiums and never got made where we could build their apartments in. I wanted to shoot the movie as much chronologically as possible.
Then the mechanics shop was basically a place I was taken to just to look at picture cars, because that’s where they rent movie cars from, and when I went there I was like “Oh we're shooting here, and just make sure nobody touches a fucking thing.” So in that area, I found the pizza parlor or the race track, and then there was downtown L.A.
I very quickly eliminated all of the tourist sites, which are also very expensive to shoot in, even though there were certain people that suggested I do that, I was just like “Why? That’s been done to death.” Also, they are not actually that aesthetic, but when you get past to the other parts of L.A. that aren’t used so much, L.A. is a beautiful city. It’s very, very beautiful in its own nature and haunting and mystical and something like a spaceship. But the one thing I realized was the city looks like the '80s. [Laughs] It has never left the '80s, so no matter what you do it could look like the '80s. You can change the cars around, but still it has an '80s vibe to it
Capone: But even that doesn’t help, because the cars in this film are all vintage, so you don’t know when this is happening.
NWR: And then of course you combine that with electronic music, but electronic music that is very much rooted in Euro pop of the late '70s or early '80s, which again give you a throwback, but I didn’t mean to do that, because that sound is becoming very progressive in independent music today with many bands that are really taking that to heart, that whole Euro pop, especially in Europe.
Capone: But then you add that font in your opening title sequence, and you can’t tell me you weren’t thinking a little '80s with that.
NWR: Well, it wasn’t so much that. I remember when Mat [Newman, editor] and I were playing around the opening, because we cut the movie at my house and it was a bit like “God damn, that’s like PRETTY IN PINK or PURPLE RAIN.”
Capone: You said RISKY BUSINESS last night.
NWR: We stole it from RISKY BUSINESS. It’s literally stolen from RISKY BUSINESS. I guess we changed the font a little.
Capone: It looks like the PURPLE RAIN font to me.
NWR: Equally as good.
Capone: I’m not complaining, believe me. The car chase sequences are such a great combination of these really low-to-the-ground camera POVs with that guttural, ugly soundscape that you’ve created. You referenced a film last night…
NWR: It was Claude Lelouch, it was a short movie where he has placed the camera basically on the ground of the car almost and then he would drive really fast through Paris at five in the morning. It’s a very exhilarating and suspenseful and very simple setup, but it’s just simplicity and the sound itself that just makes it so amazing, and when you don’t have the money to do what a lot of the bigger movies have, you then have to make your weaknesses into your strengths and not just try to do the same thing on a low budget, because you will never succeed.
Capone: Did you say last night you aren’t much of a car enthusiast?
NWR: I don’t have an interest in cars.
Capone: You’re not a car fetishist?
NWR: I don’t know anything about cars, I wouldn’t know where to turn the key on.
Capone: Who did you rely on to sort of select the cars for the film?
NWR: Well I would select cars purely on what I thought looked good, aesthetically. I don’t have an interest in them, but I can see what is interesting and what is not. Then Ryan, his Malibu car, he would then take it apart and put it back together, just because he thought his character would be able to do it.
Capone: I saw BRONSON I believe it was at Fantastic Fest in Austin a couple of years ago and I remember I was sitting very close to the screen, which is just a big mistake with that movie, because it’s just so in your face already. But seeing where Tom Hardy has gone even in just the couple years since that film, what do you remember seeing in him when you cast him in that?
NWR: Well what’s interesting about Tom was that because I had made the film very theatrical, we needed an actor who had a theatrical background really to pull it off, to understand stage performance. Also what was interesting about Tom was that there was a very strong mix of very feminine behavior and very masculine behavior. O course, what Charlie goes from is very masculine to being very feminine, because he chooses art as his artistic expression through violence. Essentially art is a feminine thing. And [Tom] a very nice guy, I like him and he’s a chameleon and a great actor.
Capone: He seems very capable of killing Batman in that movie. You mentioned that mix of the masculine and feminine with the music. You said you wanted to counter that very masculine car thing with this very feminine pop sound. But you weren’t trying to soften it, were you?
NWR: No, again it was having extremes, one end of the spectrum to the other end and nothing in between. So the audience is automatically emotionally thrown in different directions constantly. You can never predict what’s going to happen, because there is no middle ground.
Capone: That’s true up until the very end, you really don’t know what’s going to happen or who’s going to live or die. I love what you said last night also about your use of slow motion, admitting that “Slow motion can be a dangerous tool.”
NWR: It can be a very dangerous tool. I mean when I did VALHALLA RISING I thought it would be interesting to shoot a whole movie in slow motion. I did shoot that whole movie in slow motion and then I realized that was probably not the best idea, but then I had everything in slow motion and what I would speed up, I would speed up, but it certainly gave me an interesting language to work with, because I had everything one speed and then I had the other speed. So I became very interested in slow motion language.
Capone: I didn’t want to ask this last night, because if I was wrong I didn’t want to embarrass myself, but I’ll ask now. The scene where Ryan comes into the makeup trailer to get the mask, there are a row of women's casted masks behind him, and at least one of them looks like Christina Hendricks with a big hole in the back of her head. Was that a head you used for the motel scene?
Capone: Oh my God, I should have said something.
NWR: It was actually all three heads.
Capone: You know, I thought it was more than one, but then somebody said last night, “I remember seeing one.”
NWR: There are three.
Capone: Yeah, there are three heads lined up. I remember that, but I only thought one of them was her. I didn’t notice it the first time, but I noticed it last night.
NWR: It’s a movie within a movie.
Capone: That’s great. That’s such a great meta reference. That is fantastic.
NWR: It’s very precise that you saw that. Very impressive.
Capone: That’s awesome. I’ve actually been a big fan of cinema from Denmark for many of years now and I kind of got pulled in because of the whole Dogme 95 movement, which fascinated me. You are not specifically of that generation, but I got to talk to Susanne Bier earlier this year, right after she won the Oscar actually, and it really feels like there’s a thriving film scene there. I’m basing that on what just gets to this part of the world, but I feel like there’s a great community there that there aren’t in a lot of other nations.
NWR: Well, it’s not so much of a community, there’s just been a lot of investment in cinema.
Capone: Well that can build a community.
NWR: Yeah, of course that builds a community, but it’s more like that there’s a lot of money floating around. The Danish Film Institute is very respected and always in the media, and of course when you have people like Lars Von Trier and people like that, who is a great powerhouse of creativity, it just helps everything you know, when there is money there is accessibility.
Capone: There’s a big difference, but you're not necessarily working within that system at this point anymore.
NWR: Well my new film is partly funded by the Danish Film Institute.
Capone: The one with Ryan? The next one? What’s it called again?
NWR: ONLY GOD FORGIVES. It’s a script I wrote.
Capone: Can you tell us anything about it?
NWR: It’s about a Thai policeman who believes he’s God, and a gangster who is looking for a religion to believe in.
Capone: Do you associate much with the other filmmakers form your country?
NWR: No, not really anymore. I mean I didn’t go to film school, I dropped out. I didn’t do all of those things, which pretty much is one of the things that really bonds a lot of the people back home. They have all gone through college, which I dropped out of, and that can alienate you in many ways, and then I don’t have the time and I don’t go out anymore. I’m here all of the time. [laughs]
Capone: That’s right, you are over here living your Hollywood lifestyle.
NWR: And after this I’m going to Toronto and then New York and then Rome and London.
Capone: Is Toronto for the festival or just to promote the film?
NWR: It’s for the festival.
Capone: Okay, so the film is playing at Toronto, that’s great.
NWR: And then I go to New York and then I go to London and I go to Rome, and then we move to Bangkok.
Capone: Wow, so you really are living the jet-set lifestyle.
NWR: It goes with the Von Stroheim complex…
Capone: That’s right, well it was great to meet you. Thank you so much.
NWR: Right, well I will see you later, and thanks for last night.