The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents October 2011 Return to Table of Contents
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Director Refn
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Pretty in Pink With a Head Smash

I’d come down with the flu and had taken some anti-flu drugs before meeting with Ryan Gosling about Drive, and I was high as a kite through dinner. Halfway through the meal, I asked if he could take me home, because I needed to lie down. It was like a blind date gone bad. In the car, Ryan turned on the radio, and REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” started to play. I was so out of it I started crying, turned the radio up and began singing. Then I turned to Ryan and screamed, “I know what Drive is! It’s about a man who drives around at night listening to pop music because that’s his emotional release!”

Ryan said, “Okay,” and that’s how the film was born.

I loved James Sallis’ book. It’s an existential story about a stuntman who’s also a getaway driver. He lives in Hollywood, he can’t quite deal with reality, and he goes a bit psychotic at the end. Driver is two people: by day he works in Hollywood, and at night he drives in an almost armored suit. I wanted him to be like a superhero in the making.

I wanted to make Drive an L.A. fairytale, which is what Sallis’ book is. To make the violence feel extreme, I had to make the first half of the movie very pure and sentimental, almost like a John Hughes movie. Then it goes really violent. It’s like Pretty in Pink with a head smash.

I spent a lot of time redesigning the script with Hoss Amini, who adapted the book, and Ryan. We had the whole movie on index cards, and we’d move things around on the living-room table. Then, at night, Ryan drove me around and showed me Los Angeles. We were almost living the movie as we were writing it.

I felt I would benefit from working with a Hollywood cinematographer. While talking with Tom Sigel [ASC], it quickly became clear that we had similar tastes and understandings. I explained to him that I don’t do a lot of coverage, and I like wide-angle lenses because I want depth. I wanted to go with a classical style, which I felt would give the film its own identity. Also, I’m colorblind, so I told Tom and Beth Mickle, the production designer, “I need contrasting colors, and I like a lot of red.” It was a wonderful collaboration.

There are so many movies where you see cars spin and fly. With our budget, we couldn’t even get close to that kind of action, so I wanted to see if I could define each driving scene specifically. I did something similar on Bronson, in which each of the three fight scenes had a different feel. I don’t have a driver’s license, but I’ve always been fascinated by speed, and I also have a fetish for curves, so I wanted to shoot the cars how I would see them sexually. I’m very much a fetish filmmaker; I make films out of what I would like to see.

Visually and technically, I try to make every film different. We shot a lot of Drive in slow motion because I love that language.

Shooting with the Alexa was a blessing. I don’t see it as a replacement for 35mm negative, which is a unique thing we’ll never find a substitute for, but as another canvas.

I stipulated in my contract that my editor, Matt Newman, would edit the film with me. When we make the first cut, we make the movie incoherent just to see what it is not. By doing that, you can see if there might be other ways of putting the movie together. Then we start cutting it more as planned. It’s a constant discovery process, which I like. Showing Drive at Cannes was very joyful because I’d been able to make the movie I wanted to make, which in itself is always a battle. I’d been nervous that working in Hollywood would mean I might not have the control I usually have. But Ryan had director approval, and he protected me — it was a similar situation to when Lee Marvin insisted on John Boorman directing Point Blank — and producers Adam Siegel and Marc Platt were also very respectful. There are a lot of smart people in Hollywood. I was in good hands.

Coming from Europe to make films in Hollywood, it’s almost like you’re living the dreams of all the European filmmakers who came to Hollywood from the very beginning. You can make your film within the system. There’s still hope.


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