Finally out now after weeks of advance hype, 'Drive' tells the story of an unnamed stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a wheelman-for-hire, navigating criminals through the streets of Los Angeles while armed only with his wheels and his killer tunes. If it sounds like a story that could only happen in Hollywood, it is: from an opening chase scene that ends at the Staples Center to a closing confrontation at a Chinese restaurant in the Valley, 'Drive' puts the Los Angeles you don't normally see on film front-and-center. For director Nicolas Winding Refn, that was totally intentional.

"What's interesting about L.A. is that it's an incredible visual and beautiful city, but it doesn't have -- for example -- it's own niche like New York films have," the director told Moviefone. "Some very interesting filmmakers use New York's background so iconically that it almost becomes a character in the movie. L.A. doesn't have that as much, so it was almost -- for me -- much more unknown territory. Which was interesting because it makes you more creative. It's like being a stranger in a stranger's land."

Refn was that stranger before 'Drive': He never lived in Los Angeles, and found shooting locations during night drives with star Ryan Gosling. As such, the Denmark-born filmmaker didn't have specific L.A. films in mind while making 'Drive,' though at least one has stood out recently.

"I think in terms of both the movie and using the city -- so vital and so interestingly -- I would say probably a movie like 'Thief,'" Refn said, recalling the 1980 Michael Mann film which he saw for the first time a couple of months back. ('Thief' bounds from Chicago to Los Angeles.)

"What I like about Michael Mann is that Michael Mann reminds me very much of a Western director. He would make Westerns, I feel. He would use the landscape of L.A. like a Western. He's always been very good at photographing L.A. like L.A. should be seen. As a unique place. It was always hard to define L.A. because it doesn't have the same familiarity that other urban cities have, like New York, Paris, London, Rome. They have a lot of things in common, whereas L.A. is unique."

Which makes you wonder why more directors haven't decided to take advantage of the wonders that exist in Hollywood's backyard. All of the films Refn highlighted as successful L.A. stories -- 'Thief,' 'Shampoo,' 'Short Cuts,' and 'Live and Die in L.A.' -- are from a bygone era of moviemaking.

"Unfortunately, it all has to do with money and tax breaks," said the director, disappointedly. "One of my conditions [for 'Drive'] was that we had to shoot the movie in L.A. If we shot the movie in Detroit, I would have almost double the amount of budget."

Don't expect Refn to get as lucky with his planned reboot of 'Logan's Run.' "That's a tax thing," he said when asked if 'Run' would shoot in Los Angeles. "That's Warner Bros. decision. Unfortunately, it's not even creative. It's a tax decision. If you can believe it, movies have become about tax decisions."

'Drive' is out now. For more on Refn and his relationship with star Ryan Gosling, watch the latest edition of Moviefone Unscripted.

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images