Drive: Making of Action Thriller (Part One)

“Drive,” which stars Ryan Gosling, world premieres this week at the 2011 Cannes Film Fest.  FilmDistrict will release the film in the U.S.

Director Nicolas Winding Refn has been a major figure on the international film circuit since making his debut at the age of 24 with the gritty 1996 gangster pic PUSHER. In its technically brilliant and tonally sophisticated mix of black comedy, high tragedy and viscerally effective action, Pusher not only initiated a landmark trilogy in the crime genre—a franchise currently being remade in English by Vertigo Films—it also showcased the singular vision of Denmark’s biggest break-out success since Lars von Trier. Refn’s international reputation has since been buoyed by the critical acclaim and cult following that came in the wake of U.K. crossovers BRONSON, a bare-knuckled, convention-busting biopic of the infamous English criminal Charlie Bronson, which spotlighted a brilliant performance by Tom Hardy in the title role; and VALHALLA RISING, a muddy, bloody Medieval epic elevated to the level of religious art.


Based on Refn’s past achievements, Ryan Gosling approached the director about a forthcoming adaptation of James Sallis’ pared down, page-turning pulp novel Drive. Refn thought that the novel’s Los Angeles setting and stunt-driver story line made for a particularly cinematic scenario, and he appreciated Sallis’ breakneck narrative economy and signature brand of noir-ish existentialism shaded with sardonic humor. In the figure of the book’s nameless protagonist (known only as Driver), Refn saw an opportunity to simultaneously deepen his dramatic interests and dramatically expand his audience.

“Driver flows into characters I put together for BRONSON and VALHALLA RISING,” says Refn. “These larger-than-life, ambiguously god-like figures. I’m very interested in the dark side of heroism, how that unstoppable drive and righteous adherence to a code above the average person’s can shade into something that is quite psychotic.”

Though Ryan Gosling’s early successes as a child actor and breakout role in THE NOTEBOOK had made him an extremely bankable talent, the actor has repeatedly eschewed conventionally commercial projects in favor of emotionally and technically demanding roles. With critically lauded performances in THE BELIEVER, HALF NELSON and BLUE VALENTINE, Gosling has proven himself to be one of his generation’s most hardworking and ambitious young stars.

“I was really intrigued by the role of Driver because the performance demanded this very complex dramatic counterpoint,” Gosling explains. “On the one hand, he’s really self-contained, really laconic. There’s an economy of movement in the way he carries himself, an economy of words in the way he speaks. He keeps his cards close to his chest and there’s an almost poker-faced inscrutability to his reactions. All of which ties into his character, because this is the kind of mechanical self-control he achieves in the flow-situation of driving. Nic kept saying to me, ‘The Driver is half-man, half-machine.’

“On the other hand,” Gosling continues, “Driver is literally psychotic, you know? A Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver-kind of character. Beneath all of that eerie outward calm, there is this reservoir of raging energy and hair-trigger violence. It’s like when you’re cruising in an automobile and the ride feels so smooth, so stable, so safe—then another car crosses your path. BAM. All that energy, all that mass-times-velocity momentum, is released in a flash of physical violence. And that’s basically the character of Driver. He navigates around most obstacles with some very flawless trick-driving, literally and figuratively escaping without a scratch. But when the moment of impact unexpectedly arrives, it is violent and it physically slams you. The challenge is making the audience feel that tightly-coiled energy when Driver is ticking along as smoothly as a stopwatch.”

“Ryan is a real rarity,” says Refn. “He has the charisma and good looks of a leading man and the gravity of a Method-trained, master class performer. For the role of Driver, the film needed an actor who could convey the explosive violence and emotional loneliness of that lone-wolf character, yet also make his personal transformation through love authentic and believable. Few movie stars have that range. Ryan is one of them.”

For the role of Irene, object of Driver’s affection, Refn cast Oscar-nominated actress Carey Mulligan (AN EDUCATION, PUBLIC ENEMIES, WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS). Mulligan had been a fan of BRONSON and VALHALLA RISING and had even mentioned to her agent that she wanted to work with a director like Refn, but it was only after she expressed interest in the script that she learned who was helming the project. Mulligan’s enthusiasm was matched by Refn’s, who immediately ordered small rewrites of Irene’s backstory so he could cast Mulligan.

Mulligan explains her interest in the part: “Irene’s character was a challenge because she’s really the pivot point for the film’s secondary plot, which is literally about the love triangle between her, Driver and Irene’s husband Standard but dramatically is about where they’ll all end up in the most meaningful sense. And it’s not an easy decision for her! Driver certainly seems like Irene’s knight in shining armor, but Standard is drawn very sympathetically, as someone who’s made mistakes but is genuinely trying to turn his life around. Plus she’s loved him since she was 17! So to be able to play those two impulses off of one another, especially after Standard and Driver form an uneasy alliance, gave me so much to work with.”

Says Refn: “Since I was a teenager, I’ve been a big fan of Sixteen Candles. I’ve always wanted to remake that film one way or another and, in a very unlikely way, I’ve done that in DRIVE. Carey has all the intelligence and charm of a young Molly Ringwald. The romantic scenes she has with Ryan make for a very delicate and beautiful contrast to the brutality in the rest of the film.”

Oscar Isaac, one of Hollywood’s hottest up-and-coming headliners, was chosen for the role of Irene’s ex-convict husband Standard. A classically trained Juiliard Graduate who first gained attention for his Shakespearean stage performances, Isaac broke through to mass-audience awareness with his villainous turn as King John in Ridley Scott’s ROBIN HOOD. Vanity Fair called that performance a “spotlight stealing” act, but Isaac likes to think of himself as a team player. “DRIVE has such an amazing ensemble cast that it really humbled me to be a part of it,” he says. “Ryan and Carey have such chemistry on screen, there are times I found myself thinking, ‘Heck, I’d dump me for Ryan too!  And you probably could have guessed this, but Ron Perlman and Al Brooks are two of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. Watching them weave that humor into serious dramatic performances taught me a lot.”

The character of Shannon—Driver’s one-man mechanic, agent and manager, as well as the closest thing he has to a friend—went to Bryan Cranston. Cranston first gained a cult following through his recurring roles on sitcoms like “Seinfeld,” “The King of Queens” and “How I Met Your Mother,” but his career took a turn towards more serious dramatic work with the starring role on the critically acclaimed cable drama “Breaking Bad,” a performance for which he’s received three consecutive Emmy Awards. Says Cranston, “One of the things I love about classical film noir, which DRIVE is similar to in a lot of ways, is how unforgettably vivid the supporting roles could be. Writers and directors would tuck these amazing little character studies into the margins of the film—figures who weren’t necessarily heroic, or sympathetic, or even likable—and they’d cast the roles with distinctive character actors who made the scenes come alive. That’s how I saw Shannon: he’s this big dreamer who’s come up short, someone whom Life has literally crippled, and his pathetic desperation is palpable in even his happiest scenes. I think the role as written is such an amazing little miniature, I loved tackling it.”