Nicolas Winding Refn: 'When the chance came, I stuck the knife into Lars von Trier'

The maverick director can bear a grudge. Luckily, for his new thriller 'Drive' the Dane had some Hollywood muscle in his corner. He talks to James Mottram

Sitting in a back room at the 02 venue in east London, Nicolas Winding Refn is munching through a big bag of popcorn. It's a teasing image, for the one thing this Danish director doesn't do is multiplex movies.

From the gutter realism of the Pusher trilogy via the brutality of prison bio Bronson to the frankly baffling Viking saga Valhalla Rising, nobody could ever accuse him of churning out mainstream fodder. "Life is short," he confides. "I just want to make films where this is what I wanted to see at this particular time in my life."

Adapted from the James Sallis novella, Refn's latest, Drive, may be the closest he's come to a commercial vehicle. It's the story of an unnamed Hollywood stuntman (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a getaway driver, and its thrilling blend of high style and ultra-violence wowed arthouse crowds at the Cannes Festival in May, where Refn won Best Director. But with a cast that includes Carey Mulligan and Mad Men's Christina Hendricks, Drive has the potential to catch the eye of the multiplex audience – which explains why Refn's about to go on stage to introduce a surprise screening at the local Cineworld.

"I felt, after Valhalla Rising, it would be interesting to go to Hollywood and do a more conventional studio movie," he explains. As it turns out, Drive was not first choice. Postponing a planned Thai western, Only God Forgives, Refn was all set to make The Dying of the Light until he and star Harrison Ford came to blows over the script (by Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schrader) and it fell apart. "I was so annoyed at having postponed my own film for that fucking experience of nothingness," he spits. "I was like, 'What a fool I was!'"

What a contrast Drive proved. Ryan Gosling, its star, had been given carte blanche by the producers to cherry-pick his director, so he approached Refn, who calls it "circumstance" that the young actor called. Little did Gosling know, but Refn was suffering from flu at the time and was "high as a kite on medication" at their first meeting. "It was like a bad blind date," he laughs. So ill was he, he asked Gosling to drive him home. "I felt like the girl who wasn't going to put out."

What followed is an anecdote that the 40-year-old Refn will surely tell again and again. Driving in silence, Gosling turned on the radio out of desperation. On comes REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling". Refn slowly starts crying, then belts out the chorus to this classic, before muttering: "I got it. The movie is about a man who drives around Los Angeles at night listening to pop music!" In fact, Gosling's character spends most of his time absorbing police radio broadcasts, but no matter – music is one of the keys to unlocking this film.

Refn compares the film to German techno pioneers Kraftwerk and the "champagne song" that is Prince's "Purple Rain". But then he's also influenced by Brat Pack classic "Sixteen Candles" ("I felt the first half of Drive should feel like a John Hughes movie") and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï – channelling all these disparate influences into a sleek sample of retro cool. With its pared-down plot, stripped back dialogue, and neon-bathed visuals, the only surprise is that Refn claims not to be inspired by Walter Hill's The Driver, in which Ryan O'Neal played a similar nameless, tightly wound wheelman.

For Refn, Drive was more than just another film. "I wanted to live the mythology of what it was like for a European to come to Los Angeles to make a movie," he says. He resides with his wife, actress Liv Corfixen, and their two children, in a home close to the Hollywood sign and, for once, the Dream Factory was granting wishes. "I was so ready to fight. I thought I was going to be in one of those classic stories, which you always hear, where they basically tear you to pieces. But I was under the protection of Ryan. Just like John Boorman had Lee Marvin to protect him on Point Blank and Peter Yates had Steve McQueen on Bullitt."

If Drive proved a remarkably positive experience, Refn can also revel in the fact that he left Cannes with his reputation intact, unlike fellow Dane Lars von Trier, who was declared persona non grata by the festival for (jokingly) professing Nazi sympathies. "I was repulsed by what he said," Refn declared at the Drive press conference. Von Trier is rumoured to have called him a "little shit" in reply. I put this to Refn. "It's probably true," he shrugs. "He once sent me a text saying that one day I would stab him in the back ... and the opportunity arose in Cannes, and I stuck the knife in."

There's shared history here – Refn's father Anders edited several of Von Trier's films, including Breaking the Waves – and you sense Refn is a little jealous of his fellow countryman's pre-eminent status in Denmark.

When his parents divorced, the eight-year-old Refn moved with his photographer mother from Copenhagen to New York. He stayed for nine years. "I moved back [to Denmark] in '87, when crack, Aids and corporate America had destroyed what was famous about New York," he says. "But I consider myself very lucky that I got to experience the city before that."

It's this love of the era that drew him to Drive. "I am from the Eighties. I'm not from the Seventies. I didn't do the Nineties. I am from the Eighties." What is less clear is what got him directing. While he grew up on film sets, he's never picked up a camera. "I don't know anything about technology," he sighs. "I wish I did. I never handled a camera. I feel so stupid, not knowing anything." You won't even see him around with a stills camera – which is odd, as Refn is dyslexic, didn't learn to read until he was 13, and claims to process thoughts in images.

After an aborted spell at the Danish Film School, Refn made his acclaimed 1996 debut Pusher – but then it all went wrong. His second film Bleeder was overlooked while his third, Fear X, an English-language horror starring John Turturro, flopped. "I always felt that was a movie where I let myself down," he says. "It haunts me. But again, if I hadn't gone through that experience, I wouldn't have done Pusher II and III." Made back-to-back, Refn saw them as starting over again. Even then, he was flat broke. "I had to come over to England and do a Miss Marple," he laughs.

Now, in the wake of Drive, Refn's career is no longer stalled at the lights. Next February, he is scheduled to make his western, Only God Forgives – to feed his fetish for Thai food, Bangkok and collectible Asian toys, he says; he will then reunite with Gosling for Logan's Run, a big budget studio remake of the 1976 sci-fi starring Michael York. Is he nervous? "With Drive, it was all about me and Ryan," he says, with unshakable confidence. "With Logan's Run, it's all about me, Ryan and Warner Brothers. So you understand those terms and then you make it on those terms."

No wonder he's got the popcorn at the ready.

'Drive' opens on 23 September

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