Ever since “Drive” rode off with the best director trophy for Nicolas Winding Refn at the Cannes Film Festival, the elegiac neo-noir caper picture starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan has held critics and media tastemakers in its thrall. Few crime films have ever arrived in theaters on opening weekend with this much art-house credibility, let alone Oscar buzz.
Then again, “Drive” is not your average gangster picture. Among its most striking elements is a lyrical, fable-like quality, due in large part to the film’s lengthy scenes in which Gosling’s getaway driver and his married love interest, played by Mulligan, communicate volumes without any dialogue. Shot largely in close-up, the film’s vast stretches of silence — accompanied by Cliff Martinez’s haunting score — are among its most riveting and eloquent sequences.
Screenwriter Hossein Amini brought a remarkable restraint to his adaptation of James Sallis‘ novel about a stunt driver who becomes entangled with a cabal of L.A. mobsters. It took Amini several drafts of the script and nearly seven years to follow his instincts and go minimal on the dialogue. Amini remained the creative constant and passionate champion of the source material throughout the film’s many iterations during its protracted development. The project gained renewed momentum when Refn and Gosling signed on. The three of them then established a shared vision for the film that paved the way for a fruitful and challenging collaboration.
During an illuminating and insightful conversation, Amini retraces the detours, dead ends, and creative epiphanies he encountered over the course of his long and winding journey to bring “Drive” to the big screen.
Word & Film: The film is striking for its use of vast stretches of silence as a tool for some incredibly engaging and powerful storytelling. How did that creative decision come about?
Hossein Amini: The model I had always used to pitch this to the studio was Alain Delon in “Le Samourai.” I loved the idea that he said nothing. This film was originally written as a more mainstream studio movie and there were obvious demands for backstory, and more dialogue came back in. So the second draft got a bit fatter. I was much less happy with it. But when Nicolas and Ryan came in, we sort of went back. It became an independent movie and we felt we could go all the way and focus on what was wonderful about the book. We stripped down the dialogue. And then in the shooting, Nicolas and Ryan and Carey stripped it down even more because it seemed to fit. I think cinematic storytelling is about the reaction to dialogue rather than dialogue itself. What interests me is dialogue that’s about the subtext, as in when something’s said, the scene becomes more about the reaction on someone’s face. And I’ve always loved that style of writing. When I was at school I always worshiped Harold Pinter. I love the simplicity of his writing and how it fits in with the story.
W&F: What were some of your creative touchstones beyond Alain Delon? I also saw shades of Michael Mann’s “Thief.”
HA: Yes, Michael Mann is one of my favorite filmmakers as well. Originally when I wrote it, it was more like a Western. I kept thinking of “The Man with No Name” or “Shane.” But then when I spoke to Nicolas he started talking about fairy tales. And that really comes through in the way he directed Carey Mulligan; I realized he was directing her as a fairy-tale figure.
W&F: The actors seemed to inhabit these roles so naturally, they felt so organic and lived in. How was that achieved?
HA: We had a very unusual process. I ended up sitting in a room with each of the actors and going through their part scene by scene, line by line. Sometimes it was painful because they’d say, “We don’t like this” or, “This doesn’t work. So in the last two or three months before shooting, I actually started to shape the parts around those meetings with the actors. I had never had that experience before where you have every scene challenged and attacked by an actor and waking up the next morning and having to rewrite it based on those meetings. But it was fantastic. I would really recommend it to any writer. They’re all such fantastically talented actors, much of what they came with was gold.
W&F: What was Ryan’s specific take on his character?
HA: There was one meeting where we clashed on something. He was being very gracious and he said, “You’ve written this part and I have to be that person and we have to meet halfway.” Ryan brought a geekiness and innocence to the part. It’s really with his facial expressions. For example, when he first meets Carey Mulligan’s husband, the way I’d written it, there was almost a standoff between these two men. But the way Ryan played it, he was aware but almost seemed innocent to the other guy’s jealousy and aggression. He had this smile on his face. It’s fantastic the way he gave his character this almost autistic combination of innocence and otherworldliness and he really inhabits his own world where he doesn’t see the subtext to what other people are plotting. That’s an actor’s genius in bringing something so complex to what’s on the page.
W&F: At this point in the history of movies, it’s hard to write an original chase scene. And yet this movie has three stunning car chases. How did you go about writing those?
HA: The chase scene at the beginning is an eight-page scene. That one came about through a meeting with the head of security at Universal. I asked him, “If you really wanted to get away from the cops, what would you do?” And he said, “There’s no such thing as getaway drivers these days because of police helicopters. There’s no way of escaping from a helicopter because they’ve always got the visual on you.” So then we came up with the idea of the Staples Center. And working backward from that, we came up with the idea of the game and you don’t know why he’s listening to the game. So it became like a chess game. The idea was to have the first one showing him as a chess master. The second one is him trying to get away – it was like a duel between two cars. And the third one was an execution – he was murdering someone. In the script they were all eight to ten pages long. I thought they all had to tell a story.
W&F: The film is violent but almost no guns are used. Why?
HA: I think it was a conscious decision not to have him use guns. In the book the lead gangster was a guy who used knives as opposed to guns. I love crime movies but more the ’40s noirs, which were really about character.
W&F: No sex in the movie either.
HA: We all felt the chasteness of “Drive” was so important. The models were “Shane” and “Pale Rider,” which were similar in that a guy comes in and meets a married woman. But he’s got his own outdated chivalrous notion that if a woman is married you don’t make a move on her. For that reason, the scene when she puts her hand over his went from a kiss to a touch.
W&F: In the scene where they kiss in the elevator, it almost seems like the kiss unleashed some animal nature.
HA: Yes, that’s my favorite scene in the movie and it wasn’t scripted. He just combined two scenes. On that day he wasn’t happy with the way it was playing and he came up with this.
W&F: It sounds like it’s going to be tough to find a project as satisfying as this one.
HA: There’s a passion project I’m working on, a Patricia Highsmith novel called “The Two Faces of January.” I’m adapting and planning to direct it as well. I learned so much and it was so great to work with a director and learn to trust the actors and how integral they are to the process. James Salis, who wrote Drive, wrote a fantastic essay about Patricia Highsmith. So it comes full circle. He’s one of the great American writers not enough people know about.
W&F: Is Viggo Mortenson still playing the lead role?
HA: Yes. And after learning how important the actors are to the scripting process … Viggo is very busy. My plan is to chase Viggo around the globe to get his input.