The American Society of Cinematographers

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Return to Table of Contents October 2011 Return to Table of Contents
Drive
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Director Refn
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
ASC Close-Up
Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC and director Nicolas Winding Refn craft a violent fairytale on the streets of Los Angeles.


Unit photography by Richard Foreman, Jr., SMPSP. Photos and frame grabs courtesy of Film District.
It’s day 11 on the shooting schedule for Drive, the first Hollywood movie from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who made his name on the international stage with such projects as the Pusher trilogy, Bronson (AC Oct. ’09) and Valhalla Rising. Refn has invited AC to the set, built on the fourth floor of Los Angeles’ Park Plaza Hotel. With a blanket wrapped snugly around his waist, the director leads the way down a faux-brick hallway that opens into a room featuring four mirrored walls outlined with vanity bulbs — the dressing room of a strip club. It’s time, Refn says, “to place the girls.”

Based on the crime novel by James Sallis, Drive revolves around the unnamed Driver (Ryan Gosling), who spends his days as a Hollywood stunt driver and his nights behind the wheel of getaway cars for members of the Los Angeles underworld. In order to protect his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), he agrees to help her ex-con husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), pull off an easy heist. But when the job goes horribly wrong, Driver has to cut a bloody swath to guide Irene to safety.

“It’s almost a mythological story, not a story about today or yesterday or tomorrow, so it was important that the movie have an almost indefinable time period,” says director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC. After Drive was in the can, Sigel spoke with AC by phone from the U.K., where he was shooting Jack the Giant Killer for Bryan Singer.

Drive marks Sigel’s first collaboration with Refn, and the cinematographer recalls that when he was approached about the project, “I took a look at Bronson and was really impressed. It was clearly a film with a limited budget and limited resources, but it had a very strong vision from the director.”

“I met with a lot of wonderful cinematographers — that’s the good thing about Hollywood, they’re all out here,” says Refn. “But when I met Tom, I really dug his energy, and his background as a documentary filmmaker made me confident we could make our seven-week shooting schedule work. Plus, his first film as a cameraman was Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising!”

Refn often cites avant-garde filmmaker Anger as an influence. “The first visual reference I showed Ryan in regards to Drive was [Anger’s] Scorpio Rising,” he says. “Ryan asked, ‘Why are you showing me a movie with a lot of guys working on motorcycles?’ And I said, ‘It’s how it’s shot — the sensual, sexual nature of it, the fetish, the objectification. That’s what we should try to go for.’”

In addition to Anger’s oeuvre, Refn and Sigel were inspired by the look of location-scout photos Sigel snapped using the Hipstamatic app on his iPhone. “There are some color palettes in that program that reference retro photographic looks, like Kodachrome or Ektrachrome,” says Sigel. “I showed Nicolas some of the photos, and he wasn’t certain of the strange tonalities, but he really responded to the vibrancy of the colors. We designed a lot of sets and costumes to make use of that kind of vibrant palette.”

Early in his month-long prep, Sigel decided to shoot with Arri’s Alexa digital camera. “We had a tight budget and very little time, and I was intrigued by the look I could get shooting available light downtown,” he explains. “I did some driving tests with the Alexa, and it blew me away in terms of what it could do with existing light.

“I rated the camera at 800 [ASA],” he continues. “I think the myth of digital is that you underexpose because it can’t hold the highlights like film. I find that when you underexpose digital more than a little bit, very often you increase your noise level significantly. What’s extraordinary about the Alexa is that even if I pushed the sensor to 1,600 [ASA] there was very little noise, and I could actually underexpose quite a bit without introducing noise in the blacks. The dynamic range was mind-boggling.”

The cinematographer adds that he typically shot nights and interiors around T2.8, and day exteriors around T8.

Clairmont Camera in North Hollywood provided the camera package. Sigel shot most of the picture using the 15-40mm Angenieux Optimo zoom lens. “I also used Cooke S4 primes for the daytime car interiors, and Zeiss Master Primes for the nighttime car interiors.”

He kept filtration to a minimum, although he occasionally employed a Tiffen Soft/FX filter (in either 1⁄2 or 1 density) for diffusion.

“Nicolas really loves wide lenses, like the 18mm and 21mm,” says Sigel. “That’s a challenge when you’re trying to get a lot of work done in a short period of time. You tend to want to set up multiple cameras and have the telephoto lens pick off close-ups while you’re getting a two-shot, but we limited that approach as much as we could.

“Whenever there was a fight or an act of violence, we’d get two cameras on it so we didn’t have to repeat that action over and over,” adds the cinematographer.

Sigel operated the A camera, and Greg Lundsgaard served as B-camera/Steadicam operator. “I’d worked with Greg before,” says Sigel. “He’s got a good eye, and I’m very confident in what he does.”

By the time Sigel joined the production, it was a given that the entire shoot would happen in and around L.A. The Park Plaza Hotel became one of the production’s hubs. The location provided ample space to build the strip club’s dressing room, the design of which grew out of Sigel’s preproduction discussions with Refn and production designer Beth Mickle. Sigel recalls, “I mentioned that on Frankie & Alice, we created a dressing room that had tables at different angles, so when we shot we got layers and layers of detail in the mirrors. Nicolas took that idea one step further and said, ‘Let’s make it all mirrors.’ So we basically made a mirror box — it reminded me of a Lucas Samaras sculpture — and it was just lit with practical light.

“We had one shot where we had to do a 360-degree camera move,” Sigel continues. To avoid seeing the camera’s reflection in the mirrors, “key grip Alex Klabukov created a rig from the ceiling that was almost like a helicopter blade — the camera sat on it and spun around above the actors, just barely out of shot.”

As the crew prepares to shoot in the dressing room, Refn places the extras playing the strippers and gives them directions. In the scene, Driver enters the dressing room and takes a hammer to the hand of Cook (James Biberi), the club’s proprietor, and then throws him to the ground, demanding information about the heist that went bad. As the violence erupts, some of the strippers make a speedy exit, while others stay seated around the perimeter, waiting for the outburst to subside.

For much of the scene, Sigel and Lundsgaard sit tucked in a corner of the set, rolling two cameras. Lundsgaard keeps his camera trained on Cook, Sigel follows Driver, and as the actors move through the frame, the bare bulbs positioned around the mirrored walls occasionally flare the lenses. “The globes were 40 or 60 watts, and they had a sort of mauve color,” says gaffer Anthony “Nako” Nakonechnyj, one of Sigel’s longtime collaborators. “We would turn off globes we didn’t see to increase the contrast, and we could dim them down if they were too bright or were flaring the lens.”

The Park Plaza also housed Driver’s and Irene’s apartments, which were designed to function like practical locations. A common corridor was constructed, and doors along the corridor opened into the actual apartment sets. Additionally, the set’s windows lined up with the Park Plaza’s real windows, providing a view of downtown L.A.

 

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