One of the most surprising (and, thus, thrilling) things about Drive is the way the score plinks keys in our brains that open aural pathways to strains both familiar and strange in our movie music memory. When I ran across this incredibly in-depth interview with writer-producer-musician Johnny Jewel in Box Office Magazine I pounced on it primarily because I hoped to find some reference to a chime-like synthesizer theme in once scene that brought back a tingly rush of association with a climatic epiphany in 1983’s Risky Business. (The scene in Drive I mean is when Ryan Gosling’s ‘Driver’ sees his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her son in a grocery store aisle they first day they connect. If you see it again — or for the first time — watch for that grocery scene and listen to the music when he lays eyes on her. See if you don’t agree it’s an homage to Tangerine Dream as Tom Cruise launching into full-throttle nighttime pursuit of his dark obsession in Risky Business).
Well, the few seconds of synth I hoped Johnny Jewel might talk about aren’t mentioned in this interview at all. But no matter. There’s an enormous wealth of fascinating material here. It’s a rare treat to see musical choices so precisely explained. As many have noted, the decisions Jewel and Refn made for the Drive soundtrack sometimes feel so wacky it made me wonder if it wasn’t intended to be borderline kitsch. (Nothing wrong with that, as far as I’m concerned.) It felt to me like some of the campy choices David Lynch makes for the incidental music he throws into his films to bend scenes into unexpectedly ironic configurations.
I want to quote a dozen things from this interview with Johnny Jewel, but I’ll only pick up on one or two points in hopes that it’ll whet your appetite to go read the entire piece.
Johnny Jewel: For Bronson, I never talked to Nicolas. I think the music supervisor and the editor that Nicolas works with were really into B/E/A/T/B/O/X [Glass Candy’s second album] and I believe that’s how he found out about Glass Candy. And so that was a typical licensing thing—it was just something that existed that they used in the movie. And when the movie came out everybody was freaking out, and I was like, “What’s the big deal?” But I didn’t know that they were going to use the song three times in the film, and so then I understood why people were tripping out. It was cool because “Digital Versicolor,” is such a sick track. And when I did the album sequencing for B/E/A/T/B/O/X, I was thinking of the industry and how it all works, and how everything is frontloaded with iTunes, where the catchy songs are at the top of the album because of the scroll down nature of viewing stuff on a computer. I was really into the song and I thought that would be a perfect closer, but I knew that it would get overlooked, because it was the last song on the album. But I did it anyway because that’s where I thought it belonged. But because of the movie, this song has now gotten a lot of recognition, which is crazy to me because I don’t really watch movies looking for music to listen to, you know? But a lot of people get really turned on to music that way, and I never realized that until Bronson because I saw what a difference it made with “Digital Versicolor.” People really felt like the song connected with the film.
Anyway, on the day of one of our Los Angeles shows last fall, my assistant got all these emails from all of these Hollywood people saying, “Nicolas is working on this new movie in LA. He wants to meet Johnny. He wants Johnny to do the soundtrack. Ryan Gosling wants to meet Johnny.” All this business talk is actually funny, because I watch movies but I live in my own kind of world, so I didn’t know who Ryan Gosling was. I’d never seen one of his movies. Then I met him at the LA show, and I met Nic who said, “We want you to do the whole soundtrack,” and all this stuff.
…We went over every inch of the movie. Nicolas is super specific. When he first told me he wanted to use “Under Your Spell,” he went through the whole Jewel catalog because he couldn’t get hold of me, so he was really set on using those tracks. I was like, “Really?” because I could not picture it, especially with the spoken part in the middle. But when I saw the movie, I understood it. Because he has a 7 year-old daughter that he’s reading the Grimm’s fairy tales to right now, and he’s really into the idea of the movie being a fairytale, he was really into the fairytale aspect of the lyrics with the picture, like sort of speaking for it. And I feel for the College track “Real Hero,” it’s the same idea, but it was a little too blunt because it’s almost too literal, especially since you hear it twice in the movie. But when I saw it with “Under Your Spell,” I got chills, because it’s a real song—”I fell in love and then I was sick”—and it’s used in the movie in the exact same way that I was feeling it when I wrote it. He definitely got the nuance of the song, and understood what it was supposed to mean, and he wanted to give that emotion to the viewer, that same feeling.
…But we talked about music in terms of color, because I always think of musical tones not in terms of base, mid range, upper-mid and treble, but in terms of water, earth, air, fire—you know, the basic elements. So we were talking about things like, I felt like this part of the movie, for this particular scene, it shouldn’t have bass, because bass is like an earth tone which is usually used for something more sinister or emotional. But that particular scene was more ambient and dreamlike so I felt like we should music in the upper register, like floating clouds, rather than something that would weigh it down. We talked about those kind of details, specifically in terms of the movie, and I’m not sure if in the final cut this is something that comes across because this was something they were sort of struggling with in the editing room in New York. But Nic wanted to do this whole thing where sometimes the music is abstract and you are in Driver’s head and he’s isolated—obviously, until he falls in love. And then it would be a specific thing where it’d be like, “Okay, it’s abstract,” and then it shifts to where it’s now the sound in the room, but it’s still the same music, so it’s like tonally, there would be this sort of drift. You’re in his head and now you’re out of his head, watching him. He knew exactly what he wanted. They really, really worked hard on it. Nothing was like tacked-on. I mean, we had a 30 minute conversation about how loud his keys should jingle in the hallway.
…I have a lot of weird rituals. One of the first things I did was I took the book and I highlighted all of the phrases, things like “last day,” “sanctuary,” all of these different phrases from the movie that stimulated my brain, and I’d print those words really big and put them on the wall. Or while I’m writing—this was sort of like a mantra—we were drawing pictures while watching the movie every day. Because everything I do is like going into this camp mode where we would cut ourselves off. I was watching the movie while taking a bath, I was watching the movie while eating, like every day. Because there was only so much time and I wanted to know the movie inside and out, and I can’t be watching the movie while I’m actually writing. While I was actually trying to figure out melodies and things like that, I had to watch the movie as much as possible. We drew almost like every scene—there’s like 150 of them—so we drew so much, and then I forgot about them and then stumbled across them a couple of weeks ago.
Those are some of the best bits, but please, if you have the time and interest, check out the rest of the interview at Box Office Magazine. Even the parts that don’t seem to directly involve Drive are full of great insight.