Interview: Fetish Filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn Discusses His Pretty Woman-Inspired ‘Drive’

By  · Published on September 12th, 2011

Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s first Hollywood outing, Drive, is a successful and propulsive dive into the world of commercialism. Instead of tackling a work-for-hire type of gig, the semi-auteur has stuck to his unrelenting, darkly comedic, and playful style. The director took a simple premise and storyline, and made an 80s-inspired, pop music-fueled western about a lone samurai.

Does that sound like the atypical Hollywood picture? It delivers the unexpected, similar to how Refn does in person.

This is the second time I’ve interviewed the on-the-rise filmmaker, and he’s the type of interviewee that keeps you on your feet. Most of the time his responses are brief, to the point, and get you thinking. He always has something unique to say.

Here’s what the self-described fetish filmmaker had to say about Pretty Woman, treating actors as human beings, embracing his feminine side, and the ending of Drive:

You’ve talked about your fascination with Pretty Woman being a great Hollywood con job, and last night at the Q & A you briefly discussed how it inspired Drive. In what way?

Well, it’s more that it’s one of the few successful films that was able to make the complete illusion of a fairy tale. As a structure it’s a fairy tale, but the subject matter was so dark and morbid. But nobody saw through the champagne, and it was very interesting how they were able to pull that off. With Drive, it’s a dark-themed movie about a stuntman that’s a getaway driver and people die, but by making the first half pure champagne, it was an interesting move to think of.

Do you think of Drive as your romantic comedy?

No, no, no, no. I have to make a real romantic comedy in a classical sense.

[Laughs] There is some comedy and romance in this, though.

When I finally do the romantic comedy, there will be more comedy and more romance.

So it won’t have many kills?

No… you can’t have that in a romantic comedy! Come on! [Laughs]

[Laughs] That’s disappointing. We talked while you were prepping Drive, and you mentioned how you were watching a lot of samurai movies, and this is very much a samurai film. Did those movies heavily influence you?

Oh yeah, absolutely. A lot of samurai films have the mythology of the lone hero who has a mysterious past and comes upon people who need to be protected. It is a classic mythology story, and a lot of cowboy films have that.

Does that happen often, where the movies you’re watching while making a film influence your work?

Yeah, that’s the power of cinema; it always was a very effective medium.

You consider Valhalla Rising to be science fiction, so were there any sci-fi films you were watching while making that film?

Stalker. That movie changed a lot of things for me. I saw how you can make a science fiction movie without science.

This being your first Hollywood experience, what were a few things that stood out to you during the process?

Well, making the film was the same. In post-production, I had to talk to more people than I was used to talking to about why I was doing what I was doing. In the end, people are there to help you make your film. Essentially, it didn’t really change anything. The film wasn’t that expensive, so there was never any kind of alarming situations. The only reason that annoyed me was because I’m not used to having to explain myself, but sometimes, it’s good to do that. Maybe you’ll realize they have a better idea.

Can you give an example of a situation like that?

[Pause] No, I can’t think of one [Laughs].

[Laughs] No problem. You said at Comic-Con that the best way to deal with a bad note is to just smile and nod. Did you have to do that often on Drive?

Yeah… the thing is, I don’t do notes. I just smile and nod, and then walk away.

[Laughs] And that’s it? They don’t follow up on them?

No. The way Drive was made was hard, because A) there wasn’t a lot of money, B) I only shot specific situations, so you couldn’t change it, and C) the producers very quickly realized their job wasn’t to fight Ryan [Gosling] and I, but to protect Ryan and I from any other outside influence.

You seem very protective of your actors, especially when it comes to giving them freedom and room to create. Is it important to you to not just be that type of auteur only interested in his vision?

The auteur theory is such a strange theory, because you’re dealing with human beings. You only make good stuff if your collaborators are a part of your process and a part of your ideas, and there’s no point in fighting them or them fighting you. Even Ingmar Bergman had a lot of discussions with his actors about pros and cons. An auteur doesn’t have to write every single word, because the writer’s there to help the director do what the director wants to do, and that was certainly my case.

If you look at The Man Who Fell to Earth, that’s a Nicolas Roeg film, no matter what. It’s the same with Sam Peckinpah, Hitchcock, or Steven Spielberg. The auteur theory isn’t about who does what, it’s if the director knows what he wants to do. Everybody is there to help them, so why not utilize that? Maybe someone will come up with a better idea, so take advantage of that. God, I mean, life is short.

Even with not having a lot of money, did you still have the time to find spontaneous moments with the actors on set?

Oh, absolutely. You always go for that.

Is that why you don’t storyboard, so there isn’t a calculated feel?

Yeah, they shouldn’t be restricted from the beginning, and they should be open. They should be able to play around with their movements, and then figure out what works. Plus, storyboarding means I have to sit down and rethink everything.

But do you usually have a good idea for what you want, visually?

Sometimes, and sometimes not. Sometimes I don’t know anything until I see it, and sometimes I have a specific idea I’d like to tell.

What was an idea on Drive that you wanted to tell?

For example, him putting on his mask, walking up to the pizzeria, and looking through the window while the song Oh My Love plays was certainly something I knew I wanted. The scene in the elevator was certainly something I wanted, as well. Usually, it’s easier when dialogue is related to the scene, because dialogue is very much for the actor, if they feel comfortable for how they talk and how they move.

Being a fetish filmmaker, characters seem to get an excitement or some kind of thrill or jolt from on violence from violence. What draws you to that idea? 

I don’t know. I guess, it’s just primal in many ways. There’s such a similarity between sex and violence, and it’s hard sometimes to separate them.

So, your violence isn’t inspired by movies in that way?

No, it’s more impulse.

Do you go off impulse for which settings to use in your films? At Comic-Con, you discussed how important they are to your work.

Well, if you’re not shooting at a studio, then your location is very vital. For one, you’re making pictures of things that look interesting. I like to work with industrial sites, buildings, and cities. When John Ford shot the plains of America, he was obsessed about those places, and he would make them look interesting.

How much do you see yourself in your characters?

Well, you draw a lot off yourself. Any fetish person is an extension of what they are interested in, in a way. Each character has their own identity. It’s a very different character. I think there’s more of a similarity between One Eye and Driver. They have no past.

You talked a lot about your feminine side last night. How do you feel it influenced Drive?

Well, I’m a man, so it’s easier for me to approach male characters. I prefer female characters, but I always end up with male characters. Then again, a lot of them are very feminine. Maybe there’s a mixture there.

Why do you prefer writing female characters?

Because women are more complex than men.

[Spoilers From Here On Out]

At the end of the film, is Driver going to rescue Irene and take her away?

No, at the end of the film, Driver drives on. He already rescued her, he stopped the bad guys, and he will roam the wastelands to new adventures.

Have you given any thought to future adventures he’ll go on?

Drive 2.

[Laughs] I actually wouldn’t mind seeing that. 

Well, I haven’t gotten there yet. If I ever do a part II…

[Laughs] Would you seriously consider a sequel?

You know, the world works in mysterious ways. That’s all I can say.

Drive opens this Friday. You should go see it. We suggest carpooling.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.