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Nicolas Winding Refn calls himself "a fetish filmmaker." For the Danish director behind the new film Drive, which opens Friday, that means putting images and sounds up on a screen to satisfy just one person: "I make films based on what I want to see, purely and simply."
Based on his new movie, that would seem to be bright lights, fast cars and a white satin jacket stained a bright, bloody red. Refn's previous films, including the dark-ages epic Valhalla Rising and Bronson, about a British convict, are resolutely masculine, obsessed with the balance between stoic survival and brutal violence. To that mixture, Drive, which stars Ryan Gosling as a mechanic and stunt driver who moonlights behind the wheel of a getaway car, adds romance and a big helping of dreamy pop: scenes of Gosling driving through the streets of Los Angeles are soundtracked by melodic, synth-based songs and Cliff Martinez's shimmering score.
Gosling's driver begins the film as a ruthlessly proficient, almost mechanical character. But as he begins to fall in love with a single mother who lives down the hall played by Carey Mulligan, the film's tightly controlled but gently humming electronic soundtrack echoes the character's tentative emotional awakening.
Refn says that before he filmed Drive, he hadn't spent much time in Los Angeles, but he and Gosling developed the film while driving around the city, listening to songs on the car radio. And as he explains, the songs on the soundtrack were chosen to mimic and enhance both the isolation and the emotion of sitting behind wheel of a car, closed off from the world passing by outside.
Was there a particular song that's on Drive's soundtrack that was key for you in establishing the sound of the movie?
Nicolas Winding Refn: "Yes, the song that basically explains the movie is the College song ("A Real Hero"), because that, just by [coincidence], had a lyric that also described my idea for the movie. To me it was the story about a character, the protagonist, who lived in two worlds. By day he was a human being and by night he was a hero."
He's so reserved and so controlled through the majority of the movie — there's almost a third thing, which is that he might also be part robot.
NWR: "He's more half machine, half man. And those two worlds conflict because he doesn't know how to transform himself into one or the other until he realizes that he has to blend himself into becoming a superhero, which he was always meant to be."
It seems like that's a very lonely thing, judging from the sound of the songs in the movie. There are no big cathartic moments.
NWR: "No, it's all about being isolated and not knowing why. And using music as a way to express your emotions, like almost a way for you to cry."
So once you had singled out that song, did that help you to choose the rest of the songs in the movie?
NWR: "Well, then it basically was: 'What else would work?' And my editor, Matt Newman, who is a very good, close collaborator of mine — I always wanted an electronic score, but I'm not an expert — but he is, and he was very good at finding suggestions that I would then choose from. And one of them was ["Nightcall" by] Kavinsky, which I'd never heard of until he played it for me, which I really really liked. And that basically started that whole fascination with Europop, because I essentially wanted this whole Eurovision sound."
Like the song contest?
NWR: "Yeah, it was a certain kind of pop that was made in the late '70s and early '80s in Europe, that would mostly come out of Germany and Italy and so forth, a little bit of the U.K. You know, pop-ish, electronic sounds that came out of the whole Kraftwerk electronic wave of the late '70s. So when I was making the movie — because I always try to figure out what kind of music a film would be that I make — I would use that music to give me inspiration. A bit like a fetish. It would give me images because I don't do drugs any more. The electronic score was something I knew I wanted to use, and I listened to a lot of Kraftwerk when I was developing the film, and while I was shooting it. And then in [post-production], we would find these songs, and then I would have Cliff Martinez emulate the sound of it."
It's funny you mention Eurovision, because the soundtrack is very international. There are musicians from Brazil and France and Canada and the United States and yet it fits very well within the setting of Los Angeles at night and the idea of being alone in your car. Was there some idea of Los Angeles that you were trying to illustrate?
NWR: "What's interesting about L.A. is that it basically feels like a city that never left the '80s. Everything about L.A. — the architecture and the feel of the city — it just feels so '80s in all it's aspects. The lighting, the kind of golden glow aura is very '80s appeal. And a lot of the stuff came out of ideas I had while listening to music. Like the white satin scorpion jacket came out of listening to Kiss's 'I Was Made For Loving You' like 1,000 times over and over again in a car."
There's a scene where one of these emotional electronic songs plays on a stereo at a party. Did you feel like it was music that the characters would actually listen to?
NWR: "Well, it wasn't so much about what they would listen to, but the film would give it a kind of mood, kind of like a John Hughes movie. He always was very good at using his music to really underscore the emotion, and something that I really wanted to do on this movie was to keep the song playing until the end, so that music did not just become sound bits in scenes, just to have noise in the background, but they actually became their own identity, and hence became more important for the scene."
So do you feel like the music is there to inform the characters' emotions?
NWR: "Music is the most important tool a director has to work with. Because music enhances emotion. and any kind of art form is about expressing and enhancing emotions. And what's good about music is that it's so pure. It's pure emotions. I mean the first movies for many years were just pictures with music. So it's based on that combination."
And it lets you do something that most don't, which is have long dialogue free scenes of people just driving around.
NWR: "Listening to music, which is what me and Ryan did."