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Because many of the credits on the viewed print were not completely discernable, the credits above do not necessarily reflect onscreen credits. The film was based on the Jeremy Larner novel Drive, He Said, which takes its title from the quote "drive he sd, for/christ's sake, look/out where yr going," excerpted from Robert Creeley's poem "I Know a Man" and paraphrased by the character "Gabriel" in the film.
According to a biography of producer-director Jack Nicholson, in 1967, casting director Fred Roos had read Larner's novel and approached Nicholson, who agreed to the write the script and possibly direct the film. Nicholson also entertained ideas of playing Gabriel, a revolutionary who expressed some of his own resentment about the American political system and culture. When California-based BBS Productions, having garnered success with the popular counter-culture film 1970 Five Easy Pieces (see below), starring Nicholson, offered to let him direct the film of his choice, he chose Drive, He Said. Although Nicholson was an uncredited co-director of the 1963 film The Terror (see below), Drive, He Said marked his first solo directorial debut. He went on to direct only two other films, Goin' South (1978) and The Two Jakes (1990).
Following his choice of Larner's novel, Nicholson then cast many of his longtime friends, including I. J. Jefferson, screenwriter Robert Towne, Harry Gittes, Lynn Bernay and Bruce Dern. Producer Bert Schneider hired Roos as an associate producer for the film. A June 20, 1971 New York Times article stated that Larner and Nicholson significantly altered the plot of the novel for the script. According to his biography, Nicholson did not co-write the script with Larner, but only made script revisions.
Although Drive, He Said was shot primarily in Los Angeles, CA, a modern source speculates that some location shooting took place in Eugene OR. The film marked the first onscreen appearance of actor David Stiers, who previously had been an offscreen voice in THX1138 (see below) and the film debut of star William Tepper. The film also marked the first screen appearance of basketball star Mike Warren, who was also featured in the 1971 film Black Chariot, which was released after Drive, He Said.
According to a May 13, 1971 Los Angeles Times article, Drive, He Said was originally given an X rating. Columbia Pictures, which had not received an X rating yet for any of its productions, protested the decision. On May 26, 1971, Variety reported that the MPAA then assigned the picture an R rating, requesting no scene deletions, noting that, although the film contained explicit sex scenes, they were neither "titillating nor prurient."
Shortly after the film's release, Drive, He Said was pulled from circulation. Several reviews claimed that the film was incoherent and insulting to social protest, which the film portrayed through the increasingly paranoid and unstable Gabriel. Many reviewers, however, praised Nicholson, an avid basketball fan, for the film's many basketball sequences. The Nicholson biography claimed that the critical reviews and the film's poor reception during its May 1971 premiere at the Cannes Film Festival caused Nicholson to withdraw the film from distribution, although it did open in many cities in the U.S. in June 1971.
A June 16, 1971 Hollywood Reporter article stated that WGA West, Inc. filed suit for an injunction and $10,000 in damages against Drive Productions, Inc. and Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., alleging that advertising for the film did not contain proper screen authorship credits. The outcome of this suit is undetermined.