Learning To Drive Interview with Isabel Coixet

Acclaimed Spanish director Isabel Coixet reunites Elegy co-stars Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley in Learning to Drive, a comedy that deals with love, loss and finding the strength to move on.

The film, which I got a chance to see at its world premiere at last week’s Toronto International Film Festival, is based on Katha Pollitt‘s 2002 essay in The New Yorker in which she recounts the story of her friendship with a Filipino driving instructor who helped her find the right direction in life after a failed relationship.

Coixet’s journey with the film first started whilst on the set of Elegy seven years ago after Clarkson gave her a copy of Sarah Kernochan‘s screenplay. Inspired by Pollitt’s essay, Learning to Drive follows Wendy (Clarkson), a newly single New York-based book critic who learns to drive under the guidance of Darwan (Kingsley), a Sikh man who is nearing an arranged marriage with a woman (Sarita Choudhury) he has never met. Together they help each other to find courage within themselves, whether that’s in facing a new chapter of independence or in Dawan’s case, building a new relationship.

The story resonated on a personal level for Coixet, who immediately knew that she wanted to collaborate with both Clarkson and Kinsgley once more to bring this story to the big-screen. “At the time I was going through a separation with my daughter’s father and I didn’t have a driver’s license,” she said. “The script gave me the strength to move forward and the push I needed to learn to drive.”

I had the fortune of speaking to Coixet during a TIFF roundtable interview, where she discussed the challenges of getting the film made, the cultural issues analyzed in the story, the process of translating the article to the big-screen and more.

Q: How did you decide about the choice of the actor? we heard you’d been waiting for Patricia Clarkson.

A: First of all I think I have a very good relationship with Ben Kingsley. I think he can play anything. I think we needed someone who could give a real dignity to the character because this is a character who could be a parody, who could be a caricature. And I knew with him, this character will have dignity. Also, I knew about the chemistry they have together. Patricia wasn’t a big character in Elegy, but I love the scenes they have together in the film. I was convinced he can make Darwan a very memorable character.

Q: He said he had never been to Richmond Hill or met a Sikh character. How did you get him to use his imagination to play the Sikh character?

A: It’s incredible. I remember one time I said, “But, Ben, what do you do? I mean how you, you know, how you work?” And he said, “I just sit down and watch people.” When he sees someone, he can play it.

Q: Why did the film take so long to get made? Was it stuck in production hell for a long time? Or did you not get everyone together at the same time?

A: You know, let’s face it. Everybody loves the script. Everybody loved the humour, sensibility and all these things. But financiers and producers now, they are looking for cookie cutter things. Even if it’s a period film, it has to be a film like…If it’s a comedy, it has to be loud. If it’s a love story, it has to be between young people. There is love in the story, but it’s not a love story. It’s just, you know, adult people having adult problems and facing life challenges. It’s not about Stephen Hawking. It’s just about very simple things, and I think financiers know nothing about the world and about movies. They want a replication of what they have seen before. That was so difficult until the people from Broad Green Pictures came. This is their first film, and they were seeing the thing with fresh eyes. I have been in so many meetings with producers and financiers before. And he’s like, “But why did they not fall in love?” That’s because that’s not the story. “And why is she not Jennifer Lawrence?” This is not what it is. You have to keep fighting about making films which are at least current with their premise.

Q: About the appeal of the film, was the age of the characters an issue? Was that one of the main reasons it was so difficult to be made because they were older and not younger characters?

A: Yes. I heard that from more than two financiers, “Why are they not like…Why is this actor not from Slumdog Millionaire?”

Q: A lot of directors and filmmakers, though, would cave at that point and say, “Okay, I want to get this film made, so I’ll do what you say.” How in this industry do you stick to your guns to make the film that you want to make?

A: Because I’m stubborn. When you don’t stick to your ideas and don’t stick to your principles, you’re fucked. I know because I did a film that was destroyed by a big company. That will never happen to me again.

Q: I wanted to know if Katha Pollitt had any input during the creative process even though her original story was slightly altered because it was a Filipino character.

A: Filipino character, yeah. Katha was with us in the shoot. She was very happy with the script. Even if the character is completely different, I love her essay. I love her writing. I think it’s always very elegant, very — I don’t know. There is a light in the way she writes. But I think the core of her story, it’s in the film. I really think so. Every night I read the character, the story, before going to bed. That really helps me to know what we’re aiming at and what was my point of view about this character, about the journey they go through.

Q: Has she seen an early cut of the film yet?

A: She was there yesterday in the audience. That was the first time that she saw it, and she really liked it. She was really, really happy and after all these years..

Q: What’s the advantage of being the cinematographer as well? What’s the advantage of operating the camera?

A: You know, I just get bored. I don’t think you can concentrate well. I’m so used to operating the camera. I think you waste a lot of energy trying to explain to an operator what you want. It’s also much more fun. They’re naked and you’re there and you’re like, “Oh my God. They’re naked. Ah.. They’re sweating. Ah…” I always try to make the audience share the intimacy of the characters, and I think the fact that I operate the camera, it’s easier for me — it’s easier to share the intimacy with the audience.

Q: But it’s typically such a male dominated field — the camera track is usually all masculine. Did you feel at the very beginning of your career that you were sort of going out to unexplored territory as a woman?

A: At the beginning they try to patronize you but not anymore. So, you know, it’s good be a woman of a certain age. They’re becoming younger and younger and they can say whatever and I will just… *growls*

Q: Given that Jasleen, the wife of Darwan, doesn’t know any English, don’t you feel the need of using their own language, Punjabi?

A: It was one of the things we discussed endlessly. In July we were prepping, and we were shooting in August. Ben was in another film; Sarita was in Homeland. It’s one of those things I regret because I think that would have been the right thing to do.

Q: What kind of research actually went into finding out about the community or the culture?

A: The screenwriter [Sarah Kernochan] worked with our Sikh advisor and I think they had meetings every week for years. He was with us the whole shoot. We went to three weddings, several ceremonies, lots of restaurants in Richmond Hill. I don’t pretend to know about Sikh culture. I know at least what are the things they don’t feel comfortable about. I was always telling him, you know, “Let me know if someone will feel offended or someone will feel out of place, just let me know.”

Q: Do you think there are any clichés in the whole immigrant story about them being profiled racially or the arranged marriage piece of it? In North America right now there’s a sizable Sikh community that’s very successful. Even in Toronto, so what do you have to say?

Q: Everybody, at least in that community in Richmond Hill, they were saying every day someone says something. Even comments like, “Sikh people, they think they are peaceful but they are not because we read about this fight in the temple and all these things.” But for me it’s not just about this community. It’s about this hypocrisy in the United States, where people are driving cabs and they are cutting your grass and cleaning your house and taking care of your children and they don’t have papers? For me, since I’m not American, I live in Spain, that’s nuts. You’re controlling and making people just stay in their class and you’re not giving them a way to escape their class.

Q: We just asked Ben about this lesson we learned in the movie that it’s not too late for anything. So, you’ve just made a horror movie [Another Me] and now this one. Is it a speed you need to go on in your career and not leave anything undone?

A: I’ve been involved in projects for years where after two years of endlessly researching and development, they’re in the drawer and I don’t think they will be out of the drawer. The horror movie you mentioned was a film I barely recognize as mine because they changed everything they can change in the film. They recut and re-recut. That was a hell in pre-production, in production – no, not in production, but in post-production it was the worst experience of my life.

As I told you, you know, this film [Learning to Drive] has been — I read the script for the first time seven years ago. There was a moment I thought, we will not do it. So when there was an opportunity to do it, I said yes, and they will not change the script, no, okay, let’s do it. The film [Nobody Wants the Night] I just did with Juliette Binoche and Gabriel Byrne, it’s a script a friend of mine brought five years ago and we were trying to find money for the script forever. It’s basically the story of a woman, Juliette Binoche, who’s the wife of Robert Peary, the guy who discovered the North Pole, going to search for him in the North Pole — that’s the story. There is a love interest? No. Adventure? Yes. But there’s lots of things. Financiers, they look for Transformers 4, and I wouldn’t be happy doing it. Maybe, the robots, they fall in love and they are desperate. Yeah, maybe, but that’s not the case.

Q: You seem very honest about all of this in a way that a lot of other filmmakers wouldn’t. I guess they’re scared of criticizing the industry for how that will affect their career down the line. Is it important for you to stick to your principles and do you hope that other people will take your lead?

A: Whenever I don’t stick to my principles, I get fucked up. As a woman you always feel you will feel weak and you will feel like a victim if you say, “Oh, they changed my film,” so you don’t do it. Thank God I’m doing more films. What I like is the rush you have when you’re behind the camera and you see a gesture and you can capture it – I’m living for this rush and that’s what I like.

Learning To Drive premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2014.