A Boy And His Car — Discussing Drive With Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC

Between the release of The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, director George Miller speculated on the reasons for his postapocalyptic, Outback-based series’ popularity. He suggested that since guns were outlawed in Australia, natives to that land had a tendency to take out their violent impulses on the roadways. But that hardly accounts for the success of the films stateside, where cars and gunplay go practically hand in hand, whether on rural backroads or the highway.

Ryan Gosling stars as Driver, a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a wheelman.

With director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, now in release after earning the filmmaker a Best Director award at Cannes, a Hollywood stunt driver who moonlights as a getaway man (Ryan Gosling) has developed his skills to such a degree that the car becomes an extension of the driver’s will. The motivations of drivers with a distinctly anti-heroic bent can vary from “defying The Man” to “when this last job is done, I’m out of it”—well-worn characterizations for cinematic men of action.

Grist for many memorable (and some not-so-memorable) ’70s-era films, drive movies have ranged from 1971’s nihilistic Vanishing Point (directed by Richard Sarafian and photographed by a pre-Chinatown John Alonzo) and Walter Hill’s stylishly minimalist The Driver (with Philip Lathrop as director of photography) to the original, gloriously cheesy Gone in 60 Seconds (written, directed and produced by one H.B. Halicki, who also essayed the lead role while acting as stunt coordinator), with fare like Richard Fleischer’s The Last Run occupying the middle of the road (despite cinematography by Ingmar Bergman’s longtime collaborator and future Woody Allen DP Sven Nykvist).

Director Refn’s well-recognized style, often emphasizing shorter lenses that encompass the scene, has previously graced his Pusher trilogy and the more recent Valhalla Rising, while 2006’s Bronson drew raves for star Tom Hardy (Refn both wrote and directed these features). The aforementioned Vanishing Point, which might be as distinctive and iconic to car-and-driver flicks as The Parallax View was to the political paranoia genre, was among the films viewed by the director with director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC.

“I was told Refn was a fan of my work when I got the script, which I liked,” the cinematographer reports. “I had enjoyed Nicolas’ previous film Bronson, while cast-wise, Ryan Gosling [Driver] and Carey Mulligan [Irene] are as good as it gets. The actors were more important to me and of greater interest than the car aspect, but we did manage to look at a few car movies during the abbreviated prep period, which took place while Nicolas was resolving a lot of casting issues. I do wish I’d had more time with him up front, but we were able to do a lot more referencing of other pictures on set while shooting.”

We wanted Ryan to be able to do free driving, but to still be able to bring out textures and drama to the lighting.
—Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC

Sigel’s roster of credits includes a bevy of Bryan Singer-helmed projects that include The Usual Suspects and the first two X-Men features, plus the Gulf War drama Three Kings. For this project, his own inclination for experimentation with new technology dovetailed with the director’s visual approach to the film.

According to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC, the ARRI ALEXA’s image quality let him see further into the shadows, so he tried to create more contrast to make the image more cinematic.

“When I came on, Refn already had an idea for how the film could look, based on his view of L.A., especially at night,” explains Sigel. “There was a fairly limited budget on the film [reportedly $13 million below the line], but I mentioned being interested in getting the brand-new ARRI ALEXA, which I thought could capture this look he was after in available-light situations.”

Sigel doesn’t regret the choice. “There was a bit of time spent figuring out how best to use the ALEXA,” he says, “not so much a debugging period as going through a learning curve. We had to figure out a pipeline and the kind of color correction that was necessary before seeing how much we could push it. I used a trendy new iPhone application called Hipstamatic, which lets you change lenses and films very quickly, allowing me to take a whole range of shots that I presented to Nicolas for ideas on color balance that would celebrate what he wanted to see, which was often the mercury-vapor/sodium-vapor qualities of urban Los Angeles at night, coupled with tungsten, Kino Flo and HMIs in various apartments and workshops that were found locations [production designer Beth Mickle built only two sets, for Irene’s apartment and a strip club]. ALEXA’s image quality let me see further into shadow than I might otherwise want to, so sometimes I’d create more contrast to make the image more cinematic.” Citing the film’s need for a “clean look,” Sigel avoided filtration, employing only very light Soft/FX for a few select shots.

Christina Hendricks as Blanche.

Along with the camera, Sigel obtained Cooke S4s and Angénieux Optimo lenses from Denny Clairmont (ALEXA can utilize PL-mount or Panavision lenses), while the lighting package came from Evan Green at Paskal Lighting. “ALEXA can capture in a variety of ways, using internal drives, SR tape or the Kodak system, though availability and cost ruled out the latter,” Sigel reports. “So we went with tried-and-true tape and didn’t have any tech issues with that choice, and utilized a 4:1 compression ratio throughout.”

Sigel elected to utilize Baselight’s Truelight system on set, which allowed cameras and monitors to be calibrated for precise color values that could be maintained throughout post. “Their box was set up in line at our digital imaging station so that we could ‘rough in’ certain basic looks in the morning, then tweak it over the course of the day, setup to setup,” says the DP. “Then all of that information got sent to FotoKem with the original version of what we’ll call a digital negative, so it could have our adjustments from the day applied. I had a good working relationship with Mark Van Horne [FotoKem director of production services] there, and he oversaw transfers to make sure we weren’t veering off-track. Even though we weren’t able to afford color-corrected dailies, per se, this approach worked quite well overall.”

According to DP Sigel, actors Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan were the main reason for doing the film and were of greater interest to him than the car sequences.

While nearly all of the film features a naturalistic approach to lighting, a memorable encounter in an elevator steps out from that level of reality. When Irene faces a menacing situation, Driver reveals his darkest colors. “He goes over the line in defending her,” admits Sigel, “but just before he acts, there’s a moment when we put in a lighting cue [with gels and dimmers] that lets the movie go to a fantasy place for just a moment; you could call it heightened or stylized reality, I guess. He takes her hand, gives her a kiss, and in this moment, you see what might have been between them; then it reverts back to the cooler elevator lighting, as he does what he needs to do, going way beyond the call of duty. This moment, when Irene sees him go psychotic, changes her perception of him and alters her notion of trusting him or thinking about ever being with him.”

Out on the mean streets of Los Angeles, Sigel labored to capture Gosling’s driving scenes in a manner that retained as much character from the city as possible. “We wanted Ryan to be able to do free driving, but to still be able to bring our textures and drama to the lighting,” he explains. “We built a roof rack with small lights—LEDs, 100-watt lights, maglites. We could dim them by remote control, which let us play the lights on the roof rack to match the backgrounds, letting it seem like the streetlights were lighting the actors. Then we had some shots where we didn’t need to amplify what was really there. We were shooting pretty much wide open, and when he’s at a stoplight, he really is lit by the red light; as it changes to green, so does the color on his face.”

Director Nicolas Winding Refn sets up a scene.

While Gosling handled all the driving for which he could be insured, there were still instances when other methods were required. Allan Padelford Camera Cars’ innovative Biscuit Rig has been updated (used for racing scenes in Seabiscuit), and Biscuit Jr. was utilized on Drive for both dialogue and chase scenes. The car with the actor is placed on the rig, which has its own driver-controlled system that can be set up in various positions out of frame, and it’s equipped with a deck capable of carrying a Technocrane.

Drive has three major car sequences, none of which, per the director’s wishes, features handheld shooting. “Each of the car actions has its own signature look,” Sigel relates, “which was based on the point at which we were in the arc of this character’s story. When you first meet him, as he picks up two guys who just robbed a store, it’s all very subjective. The camera movement was designed to take place inside the car, all told from the driver’s perspective, usually over his shoulder when he was watching for police cars, or occasionally looking at Ryan to see his reactions.”

Instead of building on the old film language of Hitchcock and Rear Window, this sequence relies largely on single shots. When Driver (and the camera) just begins to glimpse a police cruiser entering the next intersection, he immediately pulls his vehicle to a stop behind a parked vehicle. The classic viewpoint shot/reaction shot approach is unnecessary because the viewer sees with the character and can observe his action, giving the sequence a real-time immediacy. This use of sustained takes on scenes featuring multiple levels of interest is also finding favor with stereoscopic shooting, where rapid cutting can cause viewer distress.

Refn works out a scene with Gosling. For the movie, the actor handled all the driving scenes for which he could be insured.

The second car chase, taking place in the desert during broad daylight, comes about when Driver helps Irene’s husband. “It’s a job he probably shouldn’t have taken,” Sigel opines. “That segment really recalls ’70s-era car action, with a lot of high-velocity car-to-car shooting—and then Nicolas puts his unique turn on things, so we start turning things around expectations-wise. While being pursued, Ryan’s character spins a 180 and winds up going backwards, in the process luring the other car into a big crash. It wasn’t ever just about homage to past films because we would always kick it up beyond that.” For slow-motion moments, a Phantom high-speed camera was employed.

The film’s final car sequence has Driver acting as pursuer. “We did that focusing on the car as a character, a living, breathing predatory form,” Sigel states. “The angles chosen emphasize that aspect, and so the grip crew were rigging speed rail all over, and we had a lot of car rigs. One we used was the Ultimate Arm, which is a remote-controlled crane sitting atop the chase vehicle. It was an extremely flexible and useful tool, with one person operating the crane while another handles the head for panning action.” Performance Filmworks’ Edge system, featuring a gyro-stabilized R/C head operable via joystick, wheel or pan bar, was also utilized.

Occasionally, a claim is made that crews work harder on inexpensive films, but Sigel steers clear of such claims. “I try to put all my energy into every show, regardless of budget,” says the DP. “The way people work on the set doesn’t grow out of economy, but it does show up on screen. Knowing we’d have limited ability to build sets, we all tried to bring the colors Nicolas wanted into our locations and costumes. Getting as much of this as possible in front of your lens means that much less work in the DI to get the material to look as desired. [The digital intermediate was performed at Company 3.] I’ve worked with [colorist] Stephen Nakamura previously, so that was easy. After we were finished, the producers decided to bring the day exterior looks back to something a little more normalized, so colorist Tom Poole wound up doing a polish on it.”