Drive into darkness: Nicolas Winding Refn takes the wheel for Cannes award-winning action drama

It’s tough to reconcile 41-year-old Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn’s calm, thoughtful voice and baby face with the bleak, brutal worlds he explores in movies like the Pusher trilogy, Valhalla Rising and the criminally underrated Bronson. His new Drive, the story of a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway driver, is a hypnotic exercise in soothing stasis and sudden, brutal violence that earned him a best director award at the Cannes Film Festival. That’s no mean feat under any circumstances, but especially impressive given that Refn has failed his driving test eight times.

If family were destiny, Refn would have had no choice but to enter the film industry: His parents are editor/director Anders Refn (Nordic provocateur Lars von Trier’s frequent collaborator) and photographer/DP Vibeke Winding; his late uncle, Peter Refn, was also a filmmaker. Refn’s stepfather, Thomas Winding, is a screenwriter, and his half-siblings, Kasper and Sara, are, respectively, a composer with dozens of film credits and a sometime editor.

And to top it all off, Refn is married to actress Liv Corfixen, the daughter of cinematographer Teit Jorgensen. And yet Refn’s childhood dream was to be a toy designer…yes, you read that right. a toy designer. “I still love toy shops and collect toys,” Refn says.

Born in Copenhagen, Refn spent several years in New York with his mother and stepfather, arriving in 1978—just three years after the city had barely avoided going bankrupt. It was still dirty and dangerous and thrilling. “Oh, God, yeah,” Refn remembers. “I mean, I was a little too young to experience what they call the golden age of New York—but my New York was the New York of the early ’80s, when I was 12, 13, 14 years old and could use the city for what it could offer, and I always feel the ’80s get a bad rap because everyone focuses on the ’70s. Around 1981 and ’82, the post-punk era, things became more about the medium than the attitude.”

Back in Denmark, the teenage Refn quickly found himself in the classic teenage funk: restless, hating high school, uncertain what he wanted to do with his life. “I never decided to be a filmmaker…for a long time, I didn’t really know what I wanted. One thing I do remember is seeing [John Cassavetes’] The Killing of a Chinese Bookie at the Danish Cinematheque and thinking, ‘If I ever start making movies, that’s the kind of acting I want.’

“So I figured maybe I should become an actor. I auditioned for the American Academy of Dramatic Art and got in, but I hated the school—I always hated all my schools—so I ended up breaking a table and got kicked out. Which was great because if I had stayed, I would have gone insane. But when I look back, it was a great lesson in terms of directing actors, because if you’ve done it—even a little—you understand what they’re going through.”

Refn made his bones with Pusher (1996), the story of a none-too-bright ex-con (Mads Mikkelsen) trying to escape the mean streets you just know are going to eat him alive. Gritty, taut and almost dizzyingly propulsive—think Run Lola Run minus the flame-haired Franka Potente—Pusher was a high-profile success, but it sent Refn into another funk. After making a second film, Bleeder, he once again looked to America. “I was in my late 20s and I was very nihilistic and very off-centered… I was just in a very bad period in my life, believing all the hype people wrote about me after Pusher,” he recalls.

“I moved to the U.S. in hopes of making a feature with Hubert Selby, Jr. I had always wanted to work with him, but this was before Darren Aronofsky made Requiem for a Dream…a lot of people thought Selby was dead. I tracked him down to his small apartment in West Hollywood and said, ‘I want to make a movie with you and I have this idea.’ And he said, ‘Okay, sure.’ So we started doing it.”

The result was Fear X, Refn’s first film in English, a thriller that starred John Turturro as a man whose search for the truth behind his wife’s apparently random murder unravels his life. It was a rare misstep, a moody but unsatisfying exercise in genre deconstruction and confounding viewer expectations, but a turning point for Refn.

Fear X is the movie that still haunts me, because I failed on that film. But in a way, I had to go through it to get to where I am now: It forced me to go back and complete the Pusher Trilogy, which enabled me to go out and make the films I’m doing now. But I miss Hubert every day. We became very, very close… You know, we tried to write the movie for a year and a half, because it was hard to get financing. I spent a lot of time with him—I mean, I was there when his mother died. I dedicated Pusher II to him. He was very important to me.”

Its failings aside, you can see the roots of Drive in Fear X, from the hyper-stylized look to the systematic subversion of genre conventions: Both are thrillers stripped of thrills, nightmarish stories that seem to unfold in slow motion, movies whose profoundly American stories are viewed—and distorted—through a thoroughly European lens, an interpretation Refn is willing to endorse with the gentle disclaimer, “I don’t see that myself, but I understand what you’re saying. Maybe the good thing about Drive is that I was ready to make it the right way. When I was making Fear X, I was younger and it came out to be only half of a good movie, half the movie I wanted to make.”

Drive, which Film District is releasing on Sept. 16, opens with a nightmarish heist-gone-wrong sequence and doesn’t stint on the vehicular mayhem the story demands. (Refn calls such set-pieces “the biggest pain in the ass” and laments, “It’s difficult to do car chases when you don’t have any money.”) But, like all his films, Drive is rooted in slow, subtle character development. The nameless, taciturn driver played by Ryan Gosling (who introduced Refn to the source novel by Arkansas-born neo-noir crime writer James Sallis) and Carey Mulligan’s wary young mother, who falls in love with him even though her husband is about to be released from jail, are its center, But the supporting characters are just as vivid, especially the Jewish gangsters played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman.

“I always wanted [Brooks] in it, but I’d never met him and wasn’t sure how it was going to work out. Then he came over to my house in L.A. and he was so angry that I knew he could play Bernie. I told him, ‘I just have to change him a little bit to make him more like you.’ The character of Nino was completely made up between Ron Perlman and me, and came out of Ron saying that when he was young he always wanted to be an Italian gangster. Nino came from the idea of somebody who really wants to be something he’s not.”

Refn’s next project is Only God Forgives, another crime picture that’s set in Bangkok, and after that he may take on a big-budget remake of Logan’s Run, the dystopian ’70s sci-fi picture about a future in which no one is allowed to live past the age of 30. The movie’s biggest fans concede that it’s deeply flawed, but Refn thinks he’s figured out a way to make it work. Which would be? “Ahhhhh, well that’s a secret,” he says slyly.