Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn steers a Los Angeles crime thriller with his latest movie, and he's shooting his next one in Bangkok
The film may be called “Drive” but it’s no high-octane action flick of the “Fast and Furious” genre. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s crime drama, which is loosely adapted from James Sallis’ 2005 novel of the same name, picked up the Best Director Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
It’s unusual for a film of this genre to be recognised by the Cannes jury but Refn’s unusual style impressed the judges and landed him the trophy.
American actor Ryan Gosling plays an unnamed Hollywood stuntman known simply as “the Driver” who moonlights as a wheelman for robberies. Things change when he befriends Irene (Carey Mulligan), a woman raising her son alone while her husband is in jail. When her husband is released and has a problem with thugs, the Driver agrees to help him with a robbery, a decision that leads him into a dangerous and life-threatening situation.
“Essentially it’s a love story about a man doing everything to protect the woman he cares for,” says Refn, who is now in Bangkok preparing for his upcoming project “Only God Forgives” that will be shot mainly in the Thai capital.
Refn says he intended “Drive” to be a little like a Grimms’ fairytale with a plot that had the knight, the maiden and the evil king. But at the same time, it had to fit Hollywood’s mythology.
“The story is like a lone gunman comes to town to help the innocent; you know, the American syndrome,” he says.
He started his filmmaking career at home in Denmark then moved to London and on to Hollywood. There he met Gosling, who brought him the “Drive” project.
The actor very much influenced the film and supported Refn to make the film his own way by using his powers in the Hollywood movie community.
“I’m a fetishistic director. I make films that I would like to see even though I don’t understand myself why I want to see them that way,” he says.
An independent project with a low budget, “Drive” offered Refn plenty of opportunities to create distinctive action scenes. Big budget explosions and special effects are replaced by beautifully designed car chases and fights that are shockingly violent but bring to mind the stylised action scenes of yesteryear.
The most memorable scene takes place in an elevator and combines a tender kiss with a brutal fight. Yet it provokes no shock, only sadness.
“Violence is an act of frustration for him [the Driver]. He kisses her to say good bye because he knows what he has to do next will make him to lose her forever. But he has to do because he has to protect her,” he explains.
Refn built a reputation for extreme violence and unique action sequences from his very first film, the Danish release “Pusher” but points out that it is very different from violence, American style.
“But all directions have something interesting in them. I don’t think one thing is better than the other; I think whatever suit the movie is fine,” he says.
“Violence in American movies tends to be more real, straightforward and conventional. There’s no spiritualism involved like there is in Asian movies.
“I personally like Asian films like Korea’s ‘A Bitter Sweet Life’ and ‘Old Boy’,” Refn says. He even pays tribute to “Old Boy” with “Drive”, having Gosling use a hammer in the same manner as the hero of the Korean film.
The Hong Kong movies made in the 1990s by Tsui Hark and John Woo are an influence too, Refn says.
“The violence in Asia is more extreme but there’s a surreal fantasy notion too.”
For now, the director and his family are living in Bangkok. He enjoys travelling and says he feels at home when living abroad.
“Only God Forgives” is about an ex-policeman who believes that he is god and a gangster looking for religion. The gangster will be played by Gosling. Meanwhile he is casting Thai actors and scouting locations around Bangkok before starting to shoot in February.
The idea of making a film in Bangkok came up when he visited the city as a guest of the Bangkok International Film Festival a few years back. He later returned with his family for a vacation.
“While we were living in Denmark, I knew Thailand was the favourite destination of Scandinavians and I really didn’t want to come here,” he recalls.
“Then Bangkok became the city where I wanted to make the film. I find the city very cinematic. Bangkok is a mixture of LA and New York and an endless puzzle. I don’t know how people can figure out the streets,” he says.
Like in “Drive”, most of the night scenes for “Only God Forgives” will be in shot with a US$4 million budget. There’ll be action scenes too but they could feature muay thai rather than car chases.
“I want to show all sides of Bangkok. It’s very important because it gives more roundness to the city,” he says.
_ “Drive” opened in cinemas yesterday. It’s playing at Major Cineplex, including EGV, Paragon and Esplanade, as well as House on RCA.