“Drive” hits theaters today (September 16), and director Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylized, synth-soundtracked action flick is one of the best things you’ll see this year – just trust us. We were blown away by the story of Driver (Ryan Gosling) – a stuntman by day and a getaway wheelman by night – who falls for a vulnerable neighbor in peril (Carey Mulligan), and finds himself embroiled in a twisted heist involving her husband (Oscar Isaac). Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman and Christina Hendricks deliver in top-notch supporting roles, and Albert Brooks is absolutely menacing as the villainous Bernie Rose.
The movie is chock full of elaborate stunts, which got us thinking – what was it like to coordinate the action of “Drive”? We sat down with Darrin Prescott, the film’s Stunt Coordinator and Second Unit Director, to find out. Darrin has been a member of the stunt crew on 95 films, including “Independence Day,” “Blade,” “The Matrix Reloaded,” “Spider-Man 2,” “The Bourne Supremacy,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”
Prescott enlightened us with behind-the-scenes knowledge of his work with Refn and Gosling, the collaboration involved in pulling off many of “Drive’s” sequences, and various other tricks of the stunt industry trade.
MTV: Talking to you is kind of meta – you were the stunt coordinator on a movie about a guy playing a stunt coordinator.
Prescott: [Laughs] Yeah that was kind of funny – it was a bit different for us, for sure.
How did you get into the stunt industry – was it always a dream of yours?
I kinda grew up, like most kids, just jumping your bikes off of stuff and doing stuff that all kids do. My dad got me into motorcycles when I was pretty young, and my parents took me to the drive-in to see the movie “Hooper” with Burt Reynolds. I was probably 10 at the time, and that’s all I wanted to do. I thought that was the greatest job ever. And from that point on I wanted to be a stuntman.
In “Drive,” Ryan Gosling plays a stunt driver by day and a getaway driver by night – have you or anyone you know been involved in using your talents for other purposes?
[Laughs] No, not really. Back in the early days when I was becoming a stuntman, we used to rent cars and then go and find empty parking lots and learn how to slide the car and stuff like that, and then we’d bring the car back and the tires would be bald and we’d have rubber all over our faces and stuff – and we’d just turn the car back in.
Did you get your security deposit back?
Yeah we never had a problem – they’d inspect the car and we’d stand in front of the tires so they couldn’t see that they were flat.
There are a few behind-the-scenes moments in “Drive” that show Ryan Gosling as the driver on various sets – as a stunt driver, how authentic are those? And even specifically when you were on set, did the stunt crew serve as a sounding board for creating a more realistic atmosphere?
Yeah, Ryan came out and did a lot of driving himself – we put him through a stunt driving training course. The guy who doubled Ryan is actually an instructor at probably the best stunt driving school there is. And he ran Ryan through a lot of the paces. Ryan is probably one of the best actors I’ve ever trained – he’s a phenomenal driver, he did really well. As far as the actual choreography of the action goes, myself and my team would conceptualize different things based on what Nicolas had told us. We would take little matchbox cars and show him on a table what we’d like to happen, and we’d hone it in from there.
How hands-on did Ryan get when it came to doing his own stunts, and aside from that, how do you handle – say – an actor who wants to be more involved in stunts but really can’t handle it? Where do you draw the line?
Well it really depends. Like I said, Ryan was really handy. It’s something that we basically qualify on the day. I know by taking him out – and with other actors – how much I can get out of them safely, how confident they are, how well they listen, and things like that. It all depends – if we’re not going to see Ryan driving, then there’s no reason for Ryan to do it, there’s no reason to take the chance. He may be able to go down the road and throw a 180 or something, but when they put a whole lighting package on the hood of the car and he can’t see – there’s a lot of things that come into play.
It’s probably really helpful, too, that in some of the scenes Ryan was wearing a mask.
Yeah, it helped for sure – but the double couldn’t see anything out of the mask, it was funny. The eyes were horrible.
That’s kind of dangerous, then, isn’t it? For a guy who’s driving a car on set to not be able to see?
Yeah, a little bit. We cut the eyes out so he could see better, and this is a guy has been on my team for a long time and if he says he’s comfortable then he is, and if he’s not then we need to fix something.
What about working with Nicolas – what was that like? He has a very original aesthetic, specifically with some of the slow-motion stuff. How did you plan for that?
Yeah – he had a tone that he wanted for the film…I was the second unit director, so I shot a bunch of the driving sequences, and we sat down together and he had discussed what he liked from different movies – he’s got a great vision, we’d go through shot by shot and he’d tell me what he wanted and I used every trick in the book to try to make it look fast and to make it work, but he’s very specific with what he wants – and that makes it easier for me.
What are some of those “tricks in the book” you’re talking about, as far as making driving scenes look faster?
Well, he wanted to shoot pretty much everything on a super-wide lens, which can slow everything down as far as car chases go. So we ended up driving a lot faster than we would’ve normally. And then we had to play really close to camera and move camera quite a bit – so the camera is never static. We also used a lot of foreground elements, a lot of wipes. We would take the cars – when you see them leave the pawn shop and they’re racing down the street – a lot of those cars they’re passing are actually parked, they’re not even moving. So it shows more of a speed differential. But we were cookin’ pretty fast – there are certain camera rigs we used, and we pulled out as many of the stops as we could. There was a point where we were just throwing handfuls of dirt out onto the road so it would kick up dust and add something to the frame to add speed to it.
There are a handful of major driving-related action sequences in the film – which was the most challenging for your team to coordinate and shoot?
Probably the most challenging was the pawn shop scene. Just because Nicolas wanted it really wide, and we didn’t have a lot of time to shoot it. And they wanted a stunt that had never been seen before, which is not uncommon. That makes it challenging. “Drive” wasn’t a $150 million picture that we could go out and rehearse and test and rehearse and test, so me and a couple guys on the team came up with an idea for a stunt…and the problem is we only had enough money for one test and we set everything up and did the test and it didn’t work. It didn’t come off even remotely close to what we wanted. So we went back to the drawing board and everybody sat around the table and we said, “So here’s how the gag went – if we had more money, we’d test again and fix what we know went wrong and try and suss it out,” and they said, “Well we don’t have any more money.” And I said, “Well I’m happy to make the changes and do it on the day, but everyone has to be on board with the fact that we don’t know what we’re going to get for a wreck.” And Nicolas said, “Great – we’ll do that!” And we came in and the stunt didn’t go the way we expected it to go, but nonetheless it was so cool – I’ve never seen a wreck happen like that. And Nicolas ended up loving it. That’s the one you end up seeing in slow motion behind Christina Hendricks’ head in the car, and it was just really different and organic. But it was definitely a challenge setting all that stuff up with the time we had…and that particular driving maneuver is pretty cool, where the guy goes from reverse – it’s a reverse 270 out of a corner – and they held it all in one shot, which I really like.
So – for that particular scene – from the moment of conception to testing to shooting – what “tight” time period are you talking?
It was all kind of tight, because you have to figure out what these cars are going to do so then you can then give them to the special effects department and they can build cages. So it all needs to be agreed upon early. We only had a few days to conceptualize what the chase was going to be. I think we had…maybe a couple days to shoot the car chase. It was really tight for everything we wanted to do at a few different locations.
Frankly, that – to me – is the most memorable car chase scene in the movie.
Thanks! It’s kind of nice – it’s been getting a lot of props. I’ve done the bigger budget movies, and I don’t want to say it’s easier – but we go and do a “Bourne” or something and we’ve got months to shoot that second unit, and for people to look at this one and to say it stands up is really kind of cool. We certainly weren’t the budget of a “Bourne” or a “Fast and Furious.”
It sounds like you had a lot of say in the way that these action sequences unfolded – is every director as flexible and collaborative as Nicolas was with “Drive”?
It’s definitely a director-to-director basis. Nicolas is so egoless in his directing – the nice thing about him is he knows what he wants, but he’s open to suggestions within that scope, as long as you’re on the same tonal path as him. We would sit down and discuss – for example, the elevator fight, or a lot of the car stuff, and really dial it in, and he was just a pleasure to work with. That whole opening car chase – the slow car chase – a lot of people just couldn’t get their heads wrapped around it, and Nicolas held to his guns and said, “This is gonna be cool – it’s in the tension, it’s not in the speed – we’re gonna build tension from inside the car.” And it worked, I think…it’s a little different.
It did work – and it’s interesting that you bring up the fact that discussing the logistics of a slow-paced stunt scene can be as challenging as those of a higher-risk scene.
From the stunt standpoint, it wasn’t that hard because there wasn’t that much stunt work in it, but from a choreography standpoint – to make it interesting – that was challenging.
And you mentioned the elevator scene too – along with the pawn shop scene, it’s really quite pivotal.
Yeah that was another one that Nicolas was quite open to. Originally, they were supposed to leave the elevator and there was this whole fight outside the elevator, and we all discussed how cool it was that he kisses her and then – the flipside to it – where he just snaps and takes that guy out, and her leaving and the elevator closing. It was a great collaborative process with Nicolas holding to what he wanted, ultimately, but letting people weigh in on it. It’s not a big fight – we wanted it quick and dirty, and for Ryan to be just kind of violent, like he snapped.
Have you ever been asked to perform or coordinate a stunt that you felt uncomfortable with, or straight-up refused to do?
I have not…there’s some things that’ve been proposed where I’ll find a different way to do them. Knock on wood, I have a great safety record – no one has gotten hurt on anything I’ve ever done and I’d like to keep it that way. There are things that come along that directors or producers want or something’s written and we’ll find a way around it, whether we have to do it in cuts…there are a million tricks to get what they want.
I really can’t imagine having the burden on my shoulders of not only my crew’s safety, but also that of huge A-list actors.
There are definitely nights that I don’t sleep that well. I try to lay it all out ahead of time – we’ll go out and scout something and we’ll talk about it a million times, and you try to stress the danger zones and you’ll show up on the day and the DP wants to put a cameraman and an operator in a precarious spot, and there’s contingency plans that you have in your pocket. The problem is that people are so used to seeing things go right, they’ve almost become too comfortable. You have to prepare for the worst-case scenario. And with actors it’s tough, too. That’s where I’ve had the most trouble – not with Nicolas, he was great, but with other directors where they want to put the actor in as much as possible. If a stunt man breaks his hand or breaks his arm or something like that, it’s a big deal, but it’s not going to stop the show. If Ryan Gosling or someone like that breaks their arm, it’s all over the news – it’s everywhere. It’s way easier to do the stunt than to coordinate it.
Tell us what you think of the stunt work in “Drive” in the comments section and on Twitter!