Even though it has been snubbed by the Oscars this year, Drive - the “fairytale” stylishly directed by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn - is still one of my top 5 favorite 2011 films. The movie (screenplay by Hossein Amini) is based on the 2005 James Sallis pulp-novel of the same name.
In addition to the understated, top-notch acting caliber of its two main stars Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, Drive has another winning combination - its minimal but effective script, its pulsating Eurovision soundtrack of synth-based melodies, and its haunting film locations … showcasing the gritty, real-life neighborhoods of Los Angeles rarely mentioned in guide books.
One of the reasons Refn agreed to direct Drive was because its setting is in L.A. “I wanted to live the life of a European filmmaker in Los Angeles, coming to a city that I didn’t know, that I only knew from cinema and mythology,” Refn recalls in his interview with Movieline. “So that was the idea—to create a movie about traveling into something I didn’t know.”
Refn picked the Valley, Echo Park and downtown L.A. as the three main film locations for Drive. “Because I didn’t have a lot of money to shoot the movie with I decided to come up with these three hubs, where I would shoot the film: one was in Echo Park, one was in the Valley, and one was in downtown L.A,” shares the director. “That’s how when you do these low budget movies, you always have to think economically. So I decided that those were the places where I would find the locations within.”
“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,” states Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC, the movie’s director of photography in an intereview with American Cinematographer.
Without further ado, let’s visit Refn’s Los Angeles. Here are 12 of the film locations featured inDrive.
1. The Los Angeles’ Park Plaza Hotel Apartments
The film location used for the apartments where Driver (Gosling) and Irene (Mulligan) live are in the Los Angeles Park Plaza Hotel Apartments, located across from MacArthur Park. It was once an old hotel and has often been used as film locations for movies.
Driver’s and Irene’s apartments were built from scratch to function like practical locations. The film crew also placed a common hallway with doors opened into the actual apartment sets.
Here’s Irene sitting in the hallway between her apartment and Driver’s.
The set’s windows lined up with the Park Plaza’s real windows, providing a view of downtown L.A. Refn said the views of the park were the reasons why he chose the building. If you watch the movie carefully, you’ll notice that Driver’s window faces a sweeping view of Westlake Theatre and downtown.
Here is the interior of Irene’s apartment.
The colors used in Irene’s apartment (as well as other film sets in Drive) were inspired by Sigel’s location scout photos 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.”
Address: The Park Plaza, 607 South Park View Street, Los Angeles, CA 90057
2. The Elevator
If you’ve seen Drive, you will forever remember the elevator scene.
“There’s a scene in every one of my films that is the heart of the movie, and in Drive it’s the elevator scene,” says Refn. “It was a way to tip the viewer to Driver’s essential dilemma. You don’t know if it’s his fantasy or his reality, and he doesn’t quite know himself.”
Refn came up with the idea for the elevator scene a week before they started principal photography. “The original idea was something more conventional, like a shoot-out in the parking lot,” said Refn. “But I just couldn’t get it to work, so I was very irritated and frustrated. I also wanted them to kiss, so the idea of putting it all in an elevator ... was much purer because it’s basically the whole movie in one little movie.”
At one end of the corridor in the Park Plaza, the crew created an elevator set. To give the impression that the elevator was moving from one level to another, the art department redecorated the fourth floor hallway right outside the elevator to make it look like various different hallways from different floors.
For scenes of the elevator open to the parking garage, the crew actually reconstructed the elevator set in the basement garage of the Los Angeles City Center Studios (film location of Mad Men coincidentally).
Address: L.A. Center Studios, 1201 W. 5th Street, Los Angeles CA 90017
3. Staples Center
At the beginning of the movie, Driver helps two robbers get away after a break-in at a huge electronic store. He then skillfully navigates the busy streets of L.A. at night, leaving far behind police cars and helicopter.
He ends up at the crowded parking lot of the Staples Center and successfully blends into the crowd and disappears. The scene at the parking lot was filmed on location at the Staples Center.
Address: Staples Center, Pico & Cherry St., Los Angeles, CA
4. Big “6” Market
Driver saw his neighbor Irene and her son Benicio at a market in Echo Park. Her car stalls in the market’s parking lot and he gives them a ride home. That’s when their friendship begins. The market where the scene was filmed is a real local market called Big 6 Market, located a few blocks from Driver’s and Irene’s apartment building.
Here’s Driver inside Big “6” Market when he spotted Irene and Benicio, shopping down the aisle.
As he’s leaving the market, he saw that Irene’s car has broken down and offered her and Benicio a ride home.
Address: Big 6 Market, 550 S. Rampart Boulevard, Los Angeles CA 90057
5. Picture Car Warehouse (Shannon’s Garage)
Driver juggles several jobs at once. By day, he’s a stunt driver for the movies and works at a garage owned by Shannon (Bryan Cranston). At night he drives getaway cars. Shannon’s garage is where Irene drops off her car after it breaks down and accepts a lift home from Driver.
Picture Car Warehouse is the film location for Shannon’s Garage. It was the first location chosen for the movie by Refn himself. “It really came by chance; I was out there looking at some of the picture cars that we could use in the movie, and I just loved the location,” shares Refn. “I said, ‘This is where we’re shooting the mechanic’s! This is going to be Shannon’s place.’ And there was just one rule to the production team: Do not move a single thing. It was completely, leave it as it is. The only thing I did was I had the production designer paint the wall blue instead of green, because it stood out more in contrast. I’m color-blind, so everything has to be very contrasted for me to see.”
Address: Picture Car Warehouse, 8400 Reseda Blvd, Northridge, CA 91324
6. L.A. River
As he drives Irene and Benicio home after she drops off her car at his garage, Driver decides to take them to one of his favorite driving spots, along the concrete banks of the L.A. River.
This cool location was Ryan Gosling’s idea. “Nic wanted something different and romantic for [Driver and Irene] to do. I’d heard that you can actually drive up the L.A. River,” said Gosling. “So we tried it, and it worked—until we got to this one spot where out of nowhere there was this patch of shrubs and trees and you couldn’t go any further. There was no reason for it to be there. It was kind of magical.”
On the same location, Refn adds “I was trying to figure out what kind of places [Driver] would take Irene and Benicio, and Ryan told me that the L.A. River was an interesting arena. So we went there, and then he told me about the oasis of green. I found one, and it was perfect. He knows L.A. extremely well.”
In the movie, this peaceful, golden afternoon (my favorite scene from Drive) is accompanied by the melodic, hypnotic tune A Real Hero. I could watch this scene over and over without getting tired of it. It’s quite magical.
Address: L.A. River near Reseda and Victory boulevards, Reseda
7. Saugus Speedway (Racetrack)
The racetrack in the Valley is where Shannon introduces Driver to Bernie for the first time. The film location is a former race track called Saugus Speedway.
“It was an abandoned go-kart and race car kind of area, which was gutted,” shared Refn. “It was going to be shut down or something. [Shut down locations], they’re so easy to shoot in! When you don’t have a lot of money, you try to make it very easy for yourself.”
Address: Saugus Speedway, 22500 Soledad Canyon Road, Santa Clarita CA 91350
8. MacArthur Park
The park where Driver meets with Irene’s husband, a thug, and Blanche, a female accomplice (Christina Hendricks) is MacArthur Park (formerly Westlake Park).
Built in the 1880s and named after General Douglas MacArthur, MacArthur Park is Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument #100. Wilshire Boulevard splits the park in two. The southern portion has a lake, while the northern half has an amphitheatre, bandshell, soccer fields, and playground along with a city recreation center. Since the 1980s, MacArthur Park has been the scene for much gang violence.
Address: Corner of W. 6th Street and S. Park View Street, Los Angeles, CA
9. Vincenzo’s Pizza (Nino’s Pizzeria)
One of the most graphic scenes of the movie takes place at Nino’s Pizzeria where Nino (Ron Perlman) uses as his office. We’re first introduced to Nino’s Pizzeria when Shannon comes to ask Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) to invest in Driver for car racing. The real life restaurant standing in for Nino’s Pizzeria is Vincenzo’s Pizza on Balboa Boulevard.
“[This scene] was shot in the valley, and it was difficult to find because I wanted a real ‘New York’ kind of pizza shop, where you walk in from the street to get a slice. But also a place that basically looks like a front for something else,” said Refn. “Most of the places in L.A. were more like restaurant-oriented, where being a New Yorker you’re used to just walking in and getting a slice. I wanted that feel more, because Nino (Ron Perlman) is, you know, a Jewish man who wants to be an Italian gangster. That’s why Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) calls him Izzie; that’s his real name. It was 100 percent [practical]. I like to find practical locations because it helps the actors a lot, to recreate everything.”
Address: Vincenzo’s Pizza, 11045 Balboa Blvd, Granada Hills CA 91344
10. Santa Clarita Elks Lodge (The Pawn Shop)
When Driver tries to help Irene’s husband Standard get out of an old debt, he agrees to drive the getaway car for pawn shop robbery. The pawn shop is actually a lodge off of the Sierra Highway in Santa Clarita. Since Refn and his crew had to shoot in the Valley area where the production hub was, the lodge was a perfect location for filming.
“I had to be on the outskirts of the city, and I wanted that kind of hillside, blue sky, almost a Western feel to it. Not an urban environment.” said Refn.
To make the lodge fit the scene, they added a sign to its exterior.
Address: Santa Clarita Elks Lodge, 17766 Sierra Highway, Santa Clarita CA 91351
11. The Pink Motel
One of the more violent scenes takes place in the motel where Driver and Blanche hide out after the pawn shop job goes south. Refn chose the Pink Motel to be the film location because of its dated, eye-catching interiors. The Pink Motel is no stranger to Hollywood. It has been the film locations for movies and TV series such as Dexter, The OC, and The Whole Ten Yards.
“The motel was hard, because so much action goes on. It was called the Pink Motel, which has been used in a lot of movies. But I really liked the motel rooms, so I decided not to do any exterior shots so nobody could know where we were actually shooting,” shared Refn.
“It’s a very classic old hotel, it looks like something from the ‘50s or ‘60s. The day we shot there, which was the first time we shot anything, was the hottest day in L.A., so it was pretty unbearable. I was told afterwards [that the Valley is hot], nobody told me about it!”
Address: Pink Motel, 9457 San Fernando Road, Sun Valley CA 91352
12. The Great Wall Restaurant
Toward the end of the film when Driver has a meeting with Bernie, the rendez-vous was filmed at The Great Wall Restaurant in the Valley. “I wanted a New York-style Chinese restaurant, which is hard to find in L.A., especially in that area,” shared Refn. “But I was lucky. I liked the whole red velvet walls, the authentic Chinese artifacts. Once I saw it I was like, ‘This is it—we’re shooting here.’ It was completely functional. We had lunch there; it was very greasy, so you knew you were in China.”
Address: The Great Wall, 18331 Sherman Way, Reseda CA 91335
Refn on Filming in Los Angeles
Nicolas Winding Refn - who is well-known for his “resolutely masculine” films - loves his experience filming in L.A. He shares in an interview with NPR: “What’s interesting about L.A. is that it basically feels like a city that never left the ‘80s. Everything about L.A. — the architecture and the feel of the city — it just feels so ‘80s in all its aspects. The lighting, the kind of golden glow aura is very ‘80s appeal. And a lot of the stuff came out of ideas I had while listening to music. Like the white satin scorpion jacket came out of listening to Kiss’s ‘I Was Made For Loving You’ like 1,000 times over and over again in a car.”
Refn found the real and practical neighborhoods of L.A. more interesting and beautiful than the mainstream iconic locations in the city. “I don’t like Sunset, that’s my least favorite place in L.A.; it’s like shooting Times Square in New York, it doesn’t do anything for me. I’m much more interested in what L.A. is in reality, and I would always go to things that I thought looked more interesting.”
Gosling and Refn took many drives around the city together, discussing all the locations where the book would take place. “Whenever I felt it was right, the moment between us, that’s when I would go back and recreate that emotion,” said Refn. “So it was very much like living the character as we were going through the process.”
“I’m very much a fetish filmmaker in the sense that I just shoot what I would like to see,” said Refn. In this case, Drive - the coolest movie in 2011 - is Refn’s love letter to L.A.
Filming in California
For information on filming in California, visit the California Film Commission’s website.
PHOTO CREDITS: All of the above images with black borders are screenshots taken from Drive.