In director Luis Prieto’s experience, when you set out to shoot a druggy crime drama in London’s legendarily cocaine-fueled nightclub world, odds are you’re going to find yourself surrounded by more than a few people sniffing actual Bolivian marching powder — not just lines of prop coke for the camera’s sake.
He made that discovery while filming “Pusher,” an English-language remake of 1996’s Danish gangster smash of the same name directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, the Scandinavian auteur behind “Drive,” last year’s critically hailed, Ryan Gosling-starring noir-thriller.
In “Pusher,” which arrives in theaters Friday, Brit actor Richard Coyle portrays Frank, a mid-level dope dealer who’s uprooted from his comfortable existence of booze, strippers and key bumps after botching a major score. The character must raise 55,000 pounds tout de suite to repay a drug debt or find himself in the Serbian mob’s cross hairs.
Setting much of the movie amid the bombastic chaos of London’s club circuit serves as Prieto’s effort to make “Pusher” — an independent production that cost about $800,000 — “feel like a nightclub, almost like a musical.”
“We couldn’t afford extras so we were shooting in real clubs from midnight to five in the morning; there would be at least 1,000 people,” the director explained. “And while we were trying to get the scenes, people would be drinking, dancing. Some people would really be doing drugs. By 3 a.m., guests would be really wasted.”
“In that way, we really got the world we wanted to capture,” Prieto added with a laugh. “Some unexpected realism!”
Drafting on Refn’s Hollywood hotness quotient — the movie’s ads and trailer trumpet “from executive producer Nicolas Winding Refn” — “Pusher” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month to generally enthusiastic reviews. In Act I, “Pusher’s” slick imagery flashes by like a fever dream until Frank must set right his drug debt with a series of increasingly desperate measures.
At that point, the film shifts into a different gear, alternating between paranoia and rage: a nasty piece of Brit-crime business propelled by a techno soundtrack by British electronic dance music duo Orbital.
But to hear it from Prieto — a CalArts graduate whose short film “Bamboleho” won scores of international film festival prizes and whose 2009 romantic comedy “Meno Male Che Ci Sei” became an unexpected blockbuster in Italy — he didn’t leap at the chance to remake “Pusher.”
Approached by its producers at Vertigo Films two years ago, the director initially had some serious reservations.
“I felt it’s much too great a film to remake,” the Spanish-born Prieto said by phone from London, a day before traveling to Los Angeles for the movie’s American debut. “It’s a masterpiece. I felt it was an honor. But it was too much.”
They eventually convinced him to read the reboot’s script by Matthew Read. And finally registering the producers’ willingness to allow Prieto to create an original take on the material rather than follow in Refn’s original Copenhagen-set “Pusher” template, Prieto agreed to sign on.
“I told them, ‘If you let me shoot my “Pusher,” I’ll do it.’”
He transferred the action to London and beefed up Frank’s relationship with his drug-stashing stripper girlfriend Flo (British supermodel Agyness Deyn).
Although the director was eager to make his own mark, as homage to Refn and in a gesture to his legion of art-house followers, Prieto, 42, insisted on casting Croatian character actor Zlatko Buric in the role of Milo, the Serbian drug lord who hounds Frank for most of “Pusher” — the same role Buric indelibly inhabits in all three films in Refn’s “Pusher” trilogy.
Buric surprised Prieto by claiming a kind of selective amnesia.
“I said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t do what you did 15 years ago. I want you to do something different. A fresh take,” Prieto recalled. “He started laughing. ‘Don’t worry. I don’t remember anything I did 15 years ago. We were doing drugs the whole time.’”
Chalk that up to certain directorial choices Refn made on the early films when he was fresh out of film school and still believed, as he told Prieto earlier this year, “if you’re doing a movie about cocaine, you use real cocaine.”
(In an interview with the U.K.’s Guardian this month, Refn echoed that refrain. He was quoted as saying that while filming “Pusher” he insisted on “all the cocaine on set being real”; a publicist said Refn was unavailable to speak with The Times).
Prieto says Refn remained encouraging and steadfastly hands-off throughout production, only visiting the set once — on the way back to Denmark after winning an award for best director at the Cannes Film Festival for “Drive.”
Prieto felt pangs of performance anxiety as the two sat down to talk “Pusher” but soon the Danish director put his mind at ease.
“After a while, he says, ‘Luis, you’re doing great,’” Prieto recalls Refn telling him. “’Just remember, this is your film.’”
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