Nicolas Rinding Refn had his breakthrough at the age of 24, and was known in his native Denmark as “l’Enfant Sauvage” (The Wild Child). He’s made marvelously violent art films, particularly his latest, Drive, which star Gosling described as like a John Hughes film with head smashing, but that Refn says found its mixture of romance and gruesome violence from Grimms’ fairy tales. Refn was kind enough to talk to us about the the film, but—like the main character, “Driver,” from his latest film—may have been most revealing in some of his silences.
Nicolas Winding Refn: Did you like the movie?
The L: Yes!
Aren’t you turning the tables a little? Aren’t I supposed to ask you questions?
Why’d you like the movie?
I’ll tell you after the interview.
OK, so this is really your American movie, with some very American influences. I’m wondering, is some of your casting—of Albert Brooks and Russ Tamblyn for instance—acknowledging some the movie’s influences?
No. Albert Brooks I wanted because I always thought it would be interesting to do a film where he kills people.
What was it about him or his style of comedy that made you think that?
Well, nothing really, because I had only seen his movies in the 80s when I was young. But the concept of him is very interesting.
What is that concept?
There’s just something about him. I just had an instinct, but I had to meet him to see if it would work out. He came to my house and he was such a Powerhouse of Emotion that I knew that he would kill somebody within ten seconds. And I knew very specifically that he would kill someone with a knife. So I came up with a knife obsession.
One of my favorite shots in the film is when he’s washing his knife in the sink.
Because it shows how mundane his life is.
Also it shows the daily rituals of the obsession.
Yeah, he does this in his sink, like it’s so banal…
But there’s not a connection to his role in Taxi Driver?
Oh, ok… And what made you decided to cast Russ Tamblyn?
Because I was looking at Gun Crazy regarding the drive scenes. And I remembered that he was the boy. And I was looking for who to play the doctor, and I thought, my God, Russ Tamblyn! I’ve got to bring him back. Because he’s so good.
I thought it might be connected to Twin Peaks.
He’s great in Twin Peaks.
Well, the music in the film reminds me of three things: 1) John Hughes movies, specifically Sixteen Candles, 2) Twin Peaks, especially the Julee Cruise and more ambient love songs, and also 3) the human heartbeat.
Well every time I make a movie, I try to think of it as a piece of music as I develop or write it. It gives me ideas because I’m essentially a fetish filmmaker, I make images that I would like to see. And I don’t do drugs anymore, so it gives me ideas… Well, actually I never really did drugs. [Interviewer laughs] Well, on Drive, I had a character who was half man, half machine, with no past. That’s very mysterious so the music has to be really ambient-like. But it has to have a beat, because of the heart of the engine. So I was listening to a lot of Kraftwerk, and they always had a tempo when they were making electronic music in the 70s and early 80s, and I would use that as inspiration when I was developing and writing the film, and while shooting and so forth. And in editing, I found these songs that were inspired by that Eurovision sound that came out of Kraftwerk and had emulated it.
What do you mean… the heart of the engine?
It’s like saying for instance, if you were to cut Driver up his heart would look like an engine.
I see, so it’s a sound somewhere between a human heart and the roar of an engine?
Can you talk to me a little bit more about Sixteen Candles, which you’ve mentioned often in the press? I used to be a little down on John Hughes, but I caught the end of Sixteen Candles recently and it’s great; it’s really abstract.
It’s SUCH a good movie. He was making movies at the time for teenagers on their terms. And he’s actually really good at it. He was also really good at using music and casting. And on top of that, he was always very interested in putting obscure music into very mainstream movies, and was a frontrunner for this style that we see so often later on. I think he’s very underrated. Like Frank Tashlin, who made The Girl Can’t Help It. They were very mainstream directors who were actually making very good films. And Sixteen Candles, when I saw it when I was young, was my introduction to the purity of love, the illusion of love, in movies. What we aspire to.
The purity of love is the illusion of love?
Because it was not complicated, there was no flesh, nothing that made it… normal.
So the purity of love is the illusion of love?
Where did the scorpion on Driver’s jacket come from? Is that in the book?
Where did that come from, then?
It was something that Ryan and I came up with.
We’re very telekinetic.
So you just looked into each other’s eyes and then… handed the costume designer a Scorpio?
There was no conversation about it?
Is one of you… a Scorpio?
No, but we’re both scorpions.
We are who we are. [Interviewer's note: Gosling is such a Scorpio.] But it all started because I wanted a white satin jacket to illuminate at night.
It’s so beautiful with the car lights. I’m curious, what were your first impressions of Los Angeles?
Just from driving around?
I was there so rarely. I just thought it was a very strange place.
But what about from movies? Did you have an impression of it from that?
Not really, because LA doesn’t have what New York has, which is a genre in itself with New York as a character. So when you’re in New York, you’re thinking of these past movies.
New York movies?
Yeah. LA doesn’t have that.
I thought the helicopter shots in the film of LA overhead were really interesting. It was important for you to show LA from that perspective?
Yeah, it was important to show that it was like a Never Never Land. This land is an illusion. It’s very poetically beautiful, and it’s not how you usually see Los Angeles. This sprawled-out city that’s really all about illusions.
Oh, I see, so that’s the perspective in the film. Not any one character looking out the window, but the whole illusory fairy tale city from overhead.
You spent some time in New York when you were young, didn’t you? Would you ever make a movie in New York?
Sure, I would love to make a New York movie.
Is that in the works?
Ryan and I are trying to convince Albert Brooks to write us a comedy that takes place in New York.
A comedy? That’d be great. Tell me, is it true you’ve failed the driver’s test a few times?
I’ve failed it eight times.
Eight times! What trips you up? Parallel parking?
I don’t know, I just couldn’t make it. I don’t like to drive, I have car phobia.
Car phobia. What are you afraid of?
I think it’s the power and the danger.
How much power you have? Not the other drivers?
Yeah, and also the power of the car. How dangerous the car is.
I’m curious, do you think of Quentin Tarrantino as a contemporary, as a sort of genre filmmaker?
I like his films that I’ve seen, but I would say my contemporary is more like Gasper Noé. Also I would say I’m very inspired by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Do you know who that is? Have you seen his movies?
Yeah, I’ve seen his movies. Holy Mountain… and El Topo.
It’s more influenced by that than Lynch, who you mentioned before. Alejandro is a friend of mine.
Does he read your tarot cards?
He did a tarot reading for Drive.
What he’d say?
He said, You will travel with the movie.
And it came true?
I’m here! And I was in Paris, and Toronto, and LA, and London, and Rome.
You didn’t expect to?
Not really, no.
You thought you were making a more modest film?
I’ve learned not to expect anything, because you can never live up to your fantasies.