CANNES 2011 Q&A: 'Drive' Director Nicolas Winding Refn

Nicolas Winding Refn - Photocall Head Shot - 2010
Florian Seefried/Getty Images

The Danish filmmaker talks to THR about bonding with Ryan Gosling, discovering L.A., and coming to Cannes for the first time.

Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, who cut his teeth on genre movies like the Pusher trilogy, set in the underworld of Copenhagen, is making his first visit to the Cannes with Drive. Based on the novel by James Sallis, the movie, which will be released stateside by FilmDistrict, is set amid the towers of the redeveloped downtown Los Angeles. Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt driver, moonlighting as a getaway man by night, who finds himself on the run after a heist goes bad. Refn, the son of film editor Anders Refn, who has worked on many of Lars von Trier’s movies, spoke with THR film editor Gregg Kilday about filming his first film in the United States, striking up a partnership with Gosling and living large in Los Angeles.

The Hollywood Reporter: Drive was in development for a number of years — at one point Hugh Jackman was to have starred in it. How did you become involved?

Nicolas Winding Refn: I came on to it because Ryan Gosling wanted to make it with me. That’s initially how it got started. I had never met Ryan, but he’d seen my films and he basically arranged to meet me in Los Angeles. I happened to be there because I was trying to do a film with Harrison Ford, which was dying on the vine. But I met Ryan and that just led to us doing the film together.

THR: What interested you about the material?

Refn: I was interested in why Ryan was interested. That kind of led to the character of the driver. And that kind of got me into the whole concept. Then, I read the book on top of that, which I really, really liked. Of course, I had a very different view toward the film. So I moved to a house in Los Angeles and we started working it out. And we emerged with an 81-page script.

THR: That sounds like a very lean script.

Refn: Well, I didn’t have a lot of money to work with, so you have to keep it lean. Another thing, also: The driver is a very silent character. He was more about his behavior.

THR: Ryan Gosling’s got a reputation as a respected indie actor. With this movie and the upcoming Crazy, Stupid, Love, it looks like he’s moving up into leading man territory.

Refn: Besides Ryan being a great actor, he’s also a movie star. He’s just awesome, but so am I, so we were both awesome together. We had a great time.

THR: How did you go about casting Carey Mulligan. This also sounds like a very different role for her?

Refn: Originally, I was casting for a Latino actress, because that was in the book, but then I got a call asking if I would meet her. She came by my house in L.A., and the second she came through the door, I knew it was going to be her. She’s fantastic. The story is about a man who by day is a stunt car driver and by night a getaway driver. He never stays in the same place for a long time. He’s always on the move. And he moves into an apartment, where she lives across the hallway. She’s a single mom, because here husband’s in prison, and they fall in love. The husband has a debt to the Mafia, the driver has to come in and save the day, and everything goes haywire.

THR: It sounds like a classic film noir set-up.

Refn: The book is very much about film mythology. So I leaned on that style. It’s L.A. noir. One of the reasons I did it was because it would be fun shooting a Hollywood movie in Hollywood.

THR: Did you spend a lot of time scouting the city?

Refn: Since I don’t drive a car, that automatically made me look at different areas of L.A. I would drive around a lot with Ryan, looking at stuff. Ryan knows L.A. very well, so that was great as well.

THR: Sounds like you and Ryan really bonded on this.

Refn: Absolutely, Ryan is essentially the person who gave me an opportunity to make this film. We really hit it off, and that’s always good because making films is a very emotional experience. So we were really into it so much that that we said we must make another one, and so we’re going to do Logan’s Run.

THR: So how did the shoot go?

Refn: Seven weeks was a tough shoot. You’re really under the gun all the time. I only had X amount of dollars, and there was nothing left beyond that. But in a way that’s what I come from, how I’ve made my earlier films. So it was in the same territory, just a little bit bigger. But I did want to live whole the whole Hollywood life of a house, a swimming pool and an orange tree. Assistants, everything that came with it. Let me put it like this, I had great classic Hollywood experience. I loved it, and I think Hollywood survived me.

THR: Though you haven’t had a film in the festival, have you been to Cannes before?

Refn: No, I’ve never been to Cannes. I’ve only been to Venice. What’s interesting about Cannes, you can actually be in a situation where you have a movie that has all the potential of winning, and then some strange film from Kazahhstan comes along, and it’s such a masterpiece, it surprises everybody. The uncertainty, the unknown makes it exciting.

Nicolas Winding Refn Vital Stats
Nationality: Danish
Born: Sept. 29, 1970
Festival entry: Drive, In Competition