Transformer, Singular: ‘Drive’ Sings the Body Electric

Blood isn’t red in Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film Drive, out now in theatres across the country. Blood per Refn is scarlet-crimson-carmine, the color of a femme fatale’s lipstick, cherry and ketchup at the same time. It’s also all over the place. Extravagant violence fuels Refn’s narrative, giving Drive a nightmarish quality totally dissimilar to the giddy gross-out hijinks of, say, a Tarantino picture. Such super-saturization is indicative of the film as a whole, which plays out as a kind of duel between various binaries: silence and noise, stillness and rapid action, innocence and psychotic cruelty, man and machine. Drive recalls the work of Douglas Sirk and Nicolas Ray as much as it does Michael Mann, and as such explodes the genre of the “car movie” even as it distills it to its essence.

Refn, when asked to discuss the creative process behind the film, makes it clear that this constant interplay between extremes is no accident. The Danish director, best known to American audiences for his recent features Bronson (starring a volcanic Tom Hardy) and Valhalla Rising, sat down with PopMatters recently to talk about his inspirations, collaborators, and aesthetic strategies and how they shaped his explosive new feature, and he made it clear from the beginning that Drive‘s territory is that of the larger-than-life.

“This movie was really inspired by Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” he says without hesitation, handily disregarding my citations of possible film noir influences. This mythological inspiration led him out of the woods of Northern Europe and straight to Los Angeles, a setting certainly imbued in its own peculiar brand of the extraordinary. “That’s what I wanted to do, set a fairy tale in Los Angeles. I’d long had this idea of the whole illusion of Hollywood, the mythology of filmmaking, and the mythology of film characters,” a notion that translated into the grand figure of the film’s eponymous “Driver”. This protagonist, brought to astoundingly visceral (and almost exhausting) life by golden boy Ryan Gosling, is so seemingly inhuman he lacks even a name: instead, he is given a signifier that implies all action. Refn links Drive to Bronson and Valhalla Rising through their demonically-heroic central figures: “I think they [Drive, Bronson, and Valhalla Rising] have a common theme which is they’re all about characters that transform themselves,” he says, choosing another verb, like “drive”, that suggests a vector of forward momentum.

That momentum results, in the case of Driver and Drive, in a transformation from innocence to mercilessness, but also perhaps from machine-like indifference to deep love and compassion. When asked how he sought to craft in Driver a likeable and empathetic figure, he brings up the character of Irene, played with stirring quietness by Carey Mulligan. “You automatically gravitate toward the purity of the love story in the first half. What’s innocent about Driver is his love for Irene and that justifies all of the action and violence later on. He has to do what he does in order to protect her; he does all of this for her” and thus, Refn claims, for an awakened sense of self. “All of this [action], for what is essentially the love of his life, is self-preservation.”

When it came to finding the right actors to make his characters’ emotional arcs legible, Refn found himself playing a relatively passive role. Ryan Gosling, in fact, was the principal instigator of the entire project. “Ryan was interested in a script being developed [from James Sallis’ novel], and we were interested in working together for a long time,” Refn explains, going on to add that as the project developed in increasingly “fetishistic” ways, Gosling’s bankability in Hollywood became a greater and greater asset. “It was definitely a good situation to be in,” Refn notes. “I had the power of the star to protect me in making the movie I wanted to make.”

Of course, in Gosling, Refn has found more than a star, but a creative partner with whom he was capable of a nearly supernatural symbiosis. “Ryan and I have what I call a telekinetic relationship, we can actually read each other’s thoughts. If we’re across the room, he can read my thoughts and I can read his thoughts, so we have a very… mystical relationship.” Gosling’s approach to portraying Driver seems to mirror the telekinetic energy that apparently fed the shoot: Driver is a nearly-silent figure whose emotions and motivations would be positively inscrutable were it not for Gosling’s psychic magnetism in the role.

The actor, whose star-power and thespian credibility are reaching new heights at the moment thanks to highly-buzzed turns in pieces like Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine and George Clooney’s upcoming The Ides of March, establishes complex relationships with his co-stars through the tiniest movements: a winking glance at Shannon (Bryan Cranston), his employer and mentor of sorts; the apprehensive warmth in a gesture toward Irene’s son Benicio (Kaden Leos) while taking him for a driver in his car; a confused mingling of childish wonder and protective authority as Irene lets him venture inside her apartment for the first time. His physical presence as Driver shows no trace of an actorly crutch or even a general approach to the character: in the slouching against a wall, chewing of a toothpick, manhandling of a shady character who bites back information, he simply merges into Driver.

Refn surrounds Gosling with an arsenal of Hollywood hot items and magnetic character actors, many of whom sought the director out personally for the chance to work on the film. Casting Irene was proving difficult until Carey Mulligan took the initiative to contact Refn. As he explains it, “I was meeting a lot of actresses for that role and I couldn’t make up my mind. I was frustrated because we were ready to start production and I didn’t have an Irene, but I got a call if I would meet with her because she had told her agent that she wanted to work on a Refn movie. I had never thought of her, but the minute she came through the door, I knew it’d be her. There’s just something about her that just works for the character.”

Ron Perlman, an arresting screen presence in the role of mob villain Nino (who Refn concedes was “underwritten” leading up to production), had a distinctly personal pitch for why he was suited for the part: “He called me, he wanted to play Nino as a jewish gangster because he said, ‘I’m a Jewish man but all my life I wanted to play an Italian gangster!’” Bryan Cranston, on the other hand, Refn claims he “needed to woo a little bit,” as the Breaking Bad actor has been fielding numerous offers as that show continued its critical and commercial boom, but soon after meeting with Refn he was sold on playing the crippled, Falstaff-reminiscent Shannon. Refn was unfamiliar with Mad Men bombshell Christina Hendricks when she approached him for the part of stripper/crook/all-around bad girl Blanche, but she convinced him quickly. “Christina came to my house to pitch herself in the role of Blanche. When she came by she was so endearing and nice, very creative. I’d never seen her work or anything she’d ever done, but I liked the way she looked… she has a great personality.”

When I ask him about his actual directing style once production actually begins, Refn turns severely humble: “I don’t go overboard, I don’t do anything, I basically just show up!” he laughs, and claims that his primary concern on the set is just making sure the actors are comfortable in the moment. The vivid character turns by Perlman, Cranston, Hendricks and a grandly-menacing Albert Brooks serve as irrefutable proof that Refn’s worry-free approach to guiding them works wonders.

In addition to the skills of his heavyweight ensemble, Drive‘s operatic narrative arc is made legible via a super-sensory approach to sound and color. Drive takes advantage of its setting through an intoxicating neon color palette, sparkling Driver’s deadly nighttime sojourns through the streets with loud pinks, golds and greens, reflected constantly off shiny metal and thick glass. It’s a decidedly atmospheric and affected approach, but it still makes Los Angeles look sexier on the screen than the city has in years. The audience is further seduced through Refn’s musical choices, which recall the swooningest heights of the 80s teen romance flick, in all its synthesizer glory. Says Refn: “Kraftwerk was the main musical inspiration, and that led me to this whole synthesized sound that came out of Eurovision. The songs featured in the movie are new songs, but have a retro feel, of an older period.” In rhapsodizing about his sonic inspirations, he makes clear the importance of music in his creative process as a whole: “I always try to look at a movie as if it was a piece of music, and if it was, then what piece of music would it be? And I would use that to help me writing and shooting and editing. Electronic music was my choice this time, but I wanted it to be very feminine and very sparse, but still very much rooted in technology at a certain stage, almost like sci-fi sounds.”

This interplay between soft femininity and hard textural electronica thus further colors both Driver’s transformation and Drive‘s fluctuating relationship to the action movie as a genre: there is something different here, quiet but dangerous, an emotional tenor that alters the stakes of everything we see. The violent acts Driver performs with greater frequency as the film barrels toward its conclusion are certainly disparate from his growing love and compassion for Irene and Benicio, but are they not also borne out of that love and compassion? The rivers of blood that wash the screen might seem to contrast, in a cruel or even sickly comic way, to the heartfelt declarations of love wafting through the speakers of the theatre, but they nonetheless enter the audience’s nervous system at the same time, bonded together even when they are independent.

In his transformation (from machine to man? from passivity to activity? from apathy to overwhelming emotion?) Driver finds himself capable of astonishing compassion and astonishing cruelty at the same time. The rays of sunlight that caress him, Irene and Benicio on an afternoon outing practically smell of ambrosia, and the blood he pummels out of his enemies’ skulls is of a seemingly bottomless crimson. Drive is a fairy tale, all right: it deals in reds and golds, of soaring highs and desperate lows, of good and evil all coiled up inside one nameless figure. It is, in a word, sensational.