Nicolas Winding Refn
“Ryan’s dialogue was so reduced, which can be difficult for an actor. When you take away their dialogue, you handicap the actor and take away their movement…So they have to use parts of their body to communicate, which is harder than it looks. But a way to do that is to keep everything inside, so gestures and moves tells the story. But very quickly, people compensate, and move faster, and bigger, and more facial gestures, where they try to emulate something. But because we’re making a movie, the camera sees, it’s enlarged basically. So with Ryan, because he’s such a unique actor, all you had to do is go over and hug him and hold onto him until he would let [go] into the hug. And I would say, “Keep it all inside, and go with God.”
“All my films are very feminine. Art is a feminine medium, and it’s a way to counter masculinity…I do look at myself as a feminine filmmaker, which makes me very masculine.”
When I walked out of the theater after seeing Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film, Drive (2011), I was immediately consumed by two thoughts: First, I’ve never seen anything quite like this, and then, wait I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this before. I was confused and excited that a movie had nudged at both my tired storage bin of character schemes and plot twists and my hunger for novelty in cinema. The almost cartoonish gratuitous violence in the film was so Tarantino I thought if I checked the bill again I might spot his name in the fine print, while the slow, unseeming and gradual plot line felt very in tune with a Coen Brothers piece.
Then suddenly, it came to me – Lynch. The dark, almost terrifying moments so obviously mirrored by an almost pitch black screen. The burden of being left alone with your fears and worst thoughts in a bitter silence, then led away from your solitude by strong musical overtures. The relief brought on by a romantic moment instantly violated by a new, sharp angle you never saw was there. Indeed, the part of me that thought I had been in Nicolas Winding Refn’s world before was clinging to the memory of my lustful, treacherous visits to the many houses of David Lynch. I had been in this nightmare, I had lived this whimsy.
Ironically enough, perhaps the most unique components of Drive are in the extremely clichéd, yet entirely self-reflexive references it lays its foundation upon. From the details in the opening scene – the camera quality, the angles, the music, even the incredibly dated, pink font of the credits – we are thrust back into a 1980s cop drama. We are offered a “hero” who is quite literally the strong and silent type; he is our cowboy – a man of few words, inherently good, chewing on a thread of wheat (in our case a toothpick) with a stern squint in his eye. He is mysterious and we want to know more. In some ways we will, but in so many we will never. That’s how most of the characters tend to feel, just distant enough to make our fists tense up.
Similarly, Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) offers a surrealist take on a classic crime thriller setup. The tension is constant and the comfort we take in tiny fragments of genuine human connection are swiped from beneath us at every chance. A gentle kiss will betray us, just as it will in Drive. There is an air of the unknown in each of the characters, yet their fears are ours. We can breathe when they can and when they falter, so too does our faith in justice.
In almost every film, there is a story to tell. The magic, of course, is in how much we are allowed to know, when we find it out and the way it is revealed to us. In these two cases, the stories Nicolas Winding Refn and David Lynch wanted to tell were different, but their magic comes from the same crisp white gloves and broad-brimmed top hat. The moody tone and looming air of tragedy in each propel these films into a kind of dreamscape, where as time goes by nothing really seems plausible anymore, but the funny thing is after a while, we don’t even care.
I spoke earlier of Los Angeles for a reason. As I cruised down the recognizable streets of L.A. in Ryan Gosling’s point-of-view shots, I felt as though I had driven straight down to the city grid from the winding, aerial path that is Mulholland Drive. It was as if the very car accident in the opening of Mulholland Drive had not taken place and the vehicle instead drove straight onto Refn’s set almost one decade later (Mulholland Drive was released Oct. 26, 2001, and Drive was released Sept. 16, 2011).
Both films reference careers in Hollywood (Gosling’s character is a stunt driver and Naomi Watts’s persona is an aspiring actress). Both films rely heavily on aerial shots of the cityscape as well as iconic buildings and locations in the city. These films live and breathe a city that comes with heavy expectations, and both directors conquer these unforgiving associations. These are stories about Hollywood, by Hollywood, but they really have nothing to do with Hollywood at all. We are able to indulge in the fantasy, but we are forced to forget what we ever wanted in the first place, and that is the illusion I’ve waited so long to see again.
Art is meant to penetrate you. Violence doesn’t have to be an act of physical violence, it can be emotional violence, and it doesn’t have to be destructive, which can be a violent emotion, but not necessarily a bad one. The DNA of art and war is very similar. It’s two very powerful forces in our world that takes up a lot of our time; but, where war destroys, art inspires. In my film I always approach violence like sex. It’s all about the build up. The climax itself is a mechanical procedure that we as an audience know is not true, so my job is to make the build up so engaging so that whatever happens in front of us actually affects us, but it only affects us because we believe the emotion before it.
The characters that I go through a lot in my movies, violence is part of their catharsis. They have to go through extreme pain and suffering in order to obtain what they’re meant to be.
“I love the language of silence. Like the character in Vanishing Point who is essentially also very existentialist in his silence. The great heroes are always more silent, from that to the Man With No Name to The Samurai and Shane. There’s a mythology. The man who’s always more silent is always the one who’s unpredictable.”