I recently sat down with director Isabel Coixet, and actors Patricia Clarkson and Sarita Choudhury at the Crosby Hotel in New York City, to discuss their
new film “Learning to Drive.” The film, written by Sarah Kernochan, is based on the autobiographical New Yorker short story by Katha
Pollit, a long-time political columnist for the Nation.
Wendy is a fiery Manhattan author whose husband has just left her for a younger woman; Darwan is a soft-spoken taxi driver from India on the verge of an
arranged marriage. As Wendy sets out to reclaim her independence, she runs into a barrier common to many lifelong New Yorkers: she’s never learned to
drive. When Wendy hires Darwan to teach her, her unraveling life and his calm restraint seem like an awkward fit. But as he shows her how to take control
of the wheel, and she coaches him on how to impress a woman, their unlikely friendship awakens them to the joy, humor, and love in starting life anew.
My conversation began with Isabel Coixet and Sarita Choudhury
Isabel Coixet’s award-winning film credits include “Demaisiado viejo para morir joven,” “Things I Never Told You,””My Life Without Me,” “The Secret Life of Words,” “Paris, je t’aime,” “Elegy,” “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo,” “Yesterday Never Ends,” “Another Me,” “Nobody Wants the Night,” as well as documentaries, including “Invisibles.”
Currently, Sarita Choudhury can be seen on Showtime’s “Homeland.” Her film credits include “Admission,” “Gayby,” “Midnight’s Children,” “Generation Um…,” “Entre Nos,” “The Accidental Husband,” “Lady in the Water,” “The War Within,” “Mississippi Masala,” “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love,” “She Hate Me,” “Just a Kiss,” “Wild West,” “High Art,” “The House of the Spirits,” “Gloria,” and “A Perfect Murder.”
Tell me about the process of how “Learning to Drive” came about.
We started talking about making this film with Patricia and Ben Kingsley when we were making “Elegy” (directed by Coixet, starring
Clarkson and Kingsley) and we got along very well and we wanted to make another film together. Patricia discovered the short story by Katha Pollit, and she
gave it to me and I thought it was wonderful. And then we got the screenwriter Sarah Kernocha involved. The film is a comedy but not a classical comedy. It
was a very difficult film to pitch because you know financiers and producers want something they can put in one box and you can’t with this film. It was a
long process. It took nine years.
Some Words Unspoken and the Intimacy of the Camera
There is always this romantic feeling underneath [subtext], I think there is that possibility. You have to be true to your words. If they are true, you
will have to stick to your words.
That’s what happens with people you meet. No you were my inspiration don’t make me your inspiration.
I love Henry James. There is a possibility of romance in the air. My romantic side is always excited when I see something like this.
I had so few words in the film. In a way, I kept the words because I had to know not to say them. For us the script — the situational was also in the
script; the languidness. It was because Isabel holds the camera. There was a pace created to it. When you’re acting you can feel where the camera is, but
when the camera is at the end of Isabel’s hand and she’s moving it, it almost creates an intimacy between you and the camera, and you and the actor.
There’s a pace you normally don’t get in film. You didn’t know when she was on your face; you had to keep acting like acting in the theatre.
On The Lack of Women Directors
There are so many articles about it. I’m always afraid to play the victim, to complain too much. I know there is an inequity with men and women directors.
This is an issue in the world. I always say, (Coixet smiles) we have to ask for more salary to make up for all these years and maybe if we ask for more
they’ll give us the same as a man.
I want to put my words where my mouth is by producing female directors; they are amazing talented people. I’m producing three short films and a feature
documentary. That’s what I do.
I just did a young woman’s short film; there is something about her that’s brilliant. I’ve done two short films. I can’t change the caste system and I
can’t do the voluntary work I need to be doing. Film is no different from the world, like Isabel said. That’s our work, to get every woman involved. And if
a man is brilliant, let him in too.
I then asked Patricia Clarkson about her involvement with “Learning to Drive.”
Academy Award® nominee and Emmy Award-winning actress, Patricia Clarkson, has worked extensively in independent films. The National Board of Review and the
National Society of Film Critics named her Best Supporting Actress of the Year for “Pieces of April” and “The Station Agent.” Her many film
credits include “The Maze Runner,” “Last Weekend,” “Friends With Benefits,” “One Day,” “Easy A,” “Shutter Island,” “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” “Elegy,” “No Reservations,” “All the Kings’ Men,” “Lars and the Real Girl, and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
What attracted you to the project?
I loved the Katha Pollit story in The New Yorker; it serendipitously came to me. I love Wendy, I love this character. I was nine years younger at
the time, but I still felt I knew her. I was relentless trying to get this film made with producer Dana Friedman. I found it an equal dose of funny and
tragic. I liked the almost commedia dell’arte aspect; this absurd situation and finding the tragic comedy. A woman who is brilliant who lives a great life
— she has everything, but “forgets to look up,” and then meets a man who has experienced tragic loss. They have disparate worlds. I found it a
quintessential New York story, but it’s also universal. It’s an independent film, but it’s not independently-minded.
Some Final Words
The disparate worlds about which Clarkson refers to in regard to her character, Wendy’s relationship with Darwan [Ben Kingsley] — the life of a
financially successful New Yorker compared to the immigrant’s struggle, was a thematic element that I further discussed with Coixet and Choudhury. As
Choudhury said to me, Coixet’s visual choices of her character, such as the moment when she watches feet walk by her basement apartment window, feeling
trapped, underscore the poignancy of this fish-out-of-water situation. Coixet captures these elements with a delicate balance of both drama and comedy.
Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting at Purchase College SUNY, and presents international seminars on
screenwriting and film. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City
Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. www.su-city-pictures.com, http://su-city-pictures.com/wpblog