Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley star in the Spanish director’s first film she says is ‘feel good.’
Spanish director Isabel Coixet makes her first feel-good drama with Learning To Drive, about a recently divorced writer (Patricia Clarkson) who finds the strength to move on, physically and emotionally, under the tutelage of her Sikh driving instructor (Ben Kingsley). The film premiered on Tuesday in Toronto’s Special Presentations programme; CAA reps US rights.
You had previously collaborated with Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley on Elegy, so had you developed a shorthand when working together or did you face any challenges in directing them with new material?
The experience of Elegy was really different because, in a way, those two characters have similarities with Ben and Patricia as actors and as people, too. This time, Ben is doing a real creation. This is just the second time he plays a character from India. The first one was in Gandhi. That was many, many years ago and I know he was reluctant to take the role because this iconic vision we have of him playing Gandhi…you still go with him to the restaurant and people say, “Gandhi!”
But I think he enjoys this thing with open arms. He was living with these people in the Sikh community in New York and he was willing to explore this character and to become him. This film is also an homage to Patricia, to her resilience, to her talent, to her sternness, to her craziness. She has been trying to make this film for ten years now. She had so many ideas and so many visions and images of this character. My main work was to edit this universe and shorten it to create a Wendy who was not a character who was all over the place, but very specific. I think we are a good team. I think we have to do another film together. A Western!
In what respects is Learning To Drive unlike anything you’ve previously directed?
It’s my first feel-good movie after all these years. In 2003, I was here to present My Life Without Me and that was a film that was a tragedy with touches of comedy and this is a comedy with touches of tragedy, so I guess the universe is trying to tell me something and I’m listening. All my films are full of big dramas, big subjects, and this is the first time it’s just a story about friendship, about little, tiny discoveries about yourself, just tiny adventures. But it was very rewarding. I was looking to do something like this for a long time. But it’s also very difficult to fall in love with a script. Since I write most of my films, it’s always difficult to have a very clear point of view when you get the script material from someone else. Patricia gave me the script seven years ago, when we were doing Elegy and she gave it to Ben Kingsley too and we loved the story. I was very touched about the very subtle way the story addressed things that are very much relevant when I read the script seven years ago and that are still relevant today, like how we see someone with a turban and we have these ideas about those people, but people are different from the stereotype we have in our minds.
How did you avoid turning the character of Darwan into a cultural cliché?
It wasn’t a cliché in the script and we met a lot of taxi drivers. Once you get past the fact that you’re just telling them an address to drive to, and you talk to them, it’s very easy, and people become human beings, not just people wearing turbans.
Did you familiarize yourself with Sikh culture in preparation for the movie, and if so, what did you learn that surprised you?
I have to confess I didn’t have any idea. In Spain, in Barcelona, I think there are maybe 10 people of the Sikh culture. We had a really amazing advisor. We went through several ceremonies. I attended two weddings, both of which were very different. One was for very rich people and one was for poor people, and it was interesting to see how they relate to each other. Also, the respect for women is very important. You enter a temple and you see men and women praying separately, but then, at lunchtime, they are together. Men and women are cooking and it’s a very different culture than what I had in mind.
In what ways are the main characters’ respective philosophies reflective of Eastern and Western culture?
There is a strong sense of community in Eastern culture. Even the people who are not properly religious; all the families relate to each other through the temple. The temple is a social place, too. Wendy is also a quintessential woman from New York who went to Brown University or Columbia. Both of them are products of another era. There are more things they have in common than the things that separate them, and that’s what they discover in the end. But the film is not a new age-y film about “You have to meditate.” It’s not a Peter Sellers movie where you’re a guru and all that.
Your editor on Learning To Drive is Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s frequent collaborator. How did she come to work on the film and what did she contribute?
I think Thelma had a very clear vision of the film from the beginning. We argued sometimes, but I think we had an agreement. She has an incredible eye, and she also contributed the sharpness of the film, the rhythm. I’m always fighting against rhythm and she has an incredible sense of the pacing of a scene and the rhythm, and for me, I learned a lot working with her.
What inspirational qualities did Katha Pollitt’s autobiographical essay and Sarah Kernochan’s script possess that convinced you to make this film?
Katha Pollitt’s essay is a jewel. When I read it, I was deeply touched by it, probably because I learned to drive after breaking up with the father of my daughter. Driving was something he was doing the whole time so I didn’t have to do it. I know, in America, 13-year-old kids know how to drive, but in Europe, you don’t have to. If you live in a city, it’s something you don’t do. I think people like me who are control freaks; we find it really difficult to learn how to drive. So when I read Katha Pollitt’s story, I had an instant projection. It’s a very subtle way to talk about a break-up without talking about a break-up. It’s an incredible story about exploring and getting to know someone you don’t know anything about, who is from another world, and I think the script that Sarah wrote really captures the essence of Katha’s story.
In what ways does driving become a metaphor for life?
Darwan’s character makes it very clear: when you’re behind the wheel, being in the now is what matters, not the rest of what’s going on in your life. And the fact you can focus on something very specific and not wonder about the million things going through your mind helps you in life, and it’s true. When Wendy has overcome this fear of driving, she knows she can be independent.
Why New York, where driving is nigh impossible?
Yeah, it’s true, because I had a very difficult time driving in New York. Also, making that film during summer, being in that car for so many hours, carrying the camera, wasn’t easy. But I like difficult things. In the original story, the character played by Ben Kingsley is from the Philippines, and here, he is from the Sikh community, and I think that was very interesting because in New York, half of the taxi drivers are from Punjab. It also lead us to explore a community in Queens that you never saw on film before. Since the original story happened in New York, we didn’t find any reason to set it elsewhere.
What’s next for you?
Nobody Wants the Night is a film with Juliette Binoche, Gabriel Byrne, and Rinko Kikuchi. We shot in Norway and Bulgaria. It’s set in 1909 and focuses on the wife of Robert E. Peary, the man who discovered the North Pole, and what happens when his wife goes to the North Pole to search for him. We just finished the shoot and I’m editing that right now.