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Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn share the ride

For 'Drive,' the seemingly opposite men bonded over time spent cruising Los Angeles in a car.

September 15, 2011|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Director Nicolas Winding Refn, left, and actor Ryan Gosling collaborated on the movie "Drive."
Director Nicolas Winding Refn, left, and actor Ryan Gosling collaborated… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

There are many ways an actor or director might unwind after a long day of shooting. Some might head for the bar; others will fall right into bed.

But when Ryan Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn would wrap 12 hours of shooting on "Drive," their new thriller about a man who cruises around Los Angeles, they'd do the last thing you'd expect: They'd get in a car and cruise around Los Angeles.

"We would just drive for hours, talking and listening to music," Gosling, who always took the wheel, recalled as he and Refn sipped tea recently at a Beverly Hills hotel. "And I would say, 'This is what we want to capture in the movie, this feeling of being in a trance in a car with pop music playing,'" he said, the Canadian-born Gosling telling another non-native Californian his thoughts about the very L.A.-drenched film they were making.

At the end of their drives, the pair would usually end up at the 101 Coffee Shop, a Hollywood eatery a few blocks from its namesake freeway. Once there, they'd talk about — what else? — driving.

A stylish and often dreamlike mood piece with flashes of a 1980s aesthetic, "Drive," which opens Friday in Los Angeles, romanticizes and occasionally criminalizes the activity many of us dread most about Southland life. Inside their vehicles, characters seek peace, make escapes, find romance and commit murder.

But to say "Drive" is about automobiles would be like saying "Rocky" is about boxing rings. Over its ethereal electro-pop score, "Drive" probes themes of loyalty, loneliness and the dark impulses that rise up even when we try our hardest to suppress them.

Opposites attract

Born in Denmark and raised in New York, Refn is a director of outsider genre films including the so-called Pusher trilogy, about a group of Scandinavian drug dealers, and the British-gangster biopic "Bronson." Though Refn is in many ways the opposite of the much more Hollywood Gosling, the two are set to collaborate on as many as three new movies together, including a remake of the 1976 cult hit "Logan's Run."

In "Drive," Gosling's taciturn character — known only as Driver — has a stable if isolated life. He's stuntman by day and a getaway-car driver by night, and when he's not engaging in one of those two gigs, he logs hours in the garage of a loser-ish mechanic (Bryan Cranston) or tinkers with engines and other auto parts at home.

Driver's routine is shaken up when he meets Irene (Carey Mulligan), a young mother who lives in his apartment building in the MacArthur Park area. The two begin a tentative but tender relationship; Driver also establishes a rapport with Irene's young son.

The idyll, inevitably, doesn't last. When Irene's semi-estranged husband is released from jail and set upon by thugs, Driver, out of a mixture of love and loyalty to Irene, agrees to help him with a robbery that will get the thugs off his back. (Hossein Amini's script, adapted loosely from James Sallis' lean noir novel, tends to impose a kind of sideways moral code, even if those who abide by it are rarely rewarded for their efforts.)

Soon Driver is caught up in a dangerous scheme involving a pair of ruthless gangsters (Ronald Perlman and Albert Brooks, the latter in what may be a career-reinventing performance). They're the sort of characters who exact revenge by shoving forks in the eyes of those who wronged them, prompting Driver to think on his feet and often with his fists.

"I wanted to play with the classic notion of a fairy tale," Refn said. "Driver protects purity, and yet he can slay evil in the most vicious ways possible."

The film in fact is characterized by moments of shocking violence; the movie's edginess won it plaudits at this year's Cannes Film Festival, where it was one of the more gory titles ever to play the prestigious competition section. Among its jaw-dropping scenes is a brutal beating in an elevator that makes Irene see Driver in a new light and might do the same for how audiences view Gosling.

Also upending those perceptions of the Oscar nominee is how rarely Gosling, normally known for verbally dexterous parts, actually speaks in the film. Like a vintage Steve McQueen character, Driver can go without words for minutes and never utters more than a short sentence or two at a time — an approach that Gosling said he improvised at the start of production.

"After 'Blue Valentine' and all the press and all the talking for that movie and in that movie, I was tired of talking," the actor said, referring to his role in the 2010 romantic drama. "We also wanted to create an atmosphere of being in the car and the spell it puts you under, and talking pulls you out of that spell."

He added, "Plus Nic was listening to his iPod on set, even during takes, so the idea of talking didn't seem important anyway."

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