Director Isabel Coixet (“Elegy”) and screenwriter Sarah Kernochan (“Nine and 1/2 Weeks”) talked with journalists in New York this week about their latest film, “Learning to Drive,” which stars Sir Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Jake Weber, Sarita Choudhury, and Grace Gummer. (Read my interview with the cast and Paula Schwartz’s report from the premiere.)
Kingsley plays a Sikh driving instructor who is hired by Clarkson’s character to teach her how to drive for the first time in her 50’s.
Producer Dana Friedman brought the project to Kernochan and asked her to write the screenplay with Patricia Clarkson in mind. Based on an essay by Katha Pollitt, Kernochan was tasked with turning a sparse piece of writing into a full story with a dramatic arc. Writing for Clarkson, however, was a gift.
“You can hand Patty the part of a difficult woman, a complex woman – the kind of part that you don’t really see very often,” Kernochan told us. “She would recognize every layer, she would render it as a whole, and somehow, through her most obnoxious, abrasive moments, you would see the humanity. She embodies all of that. I knew she could pull it off and not turn audiences off for the length of the picture.”
Kernochan avoided cliches in the script, and it doesn’t have the usual three-act structure. “I originally conceived it as following the five stages of grief from denial to acceptance, so there’s an odd structure to it,” she said.
Her research included getting to know the Sikh community. One particular man was her doorway in to learning about Sikh culture, and the two have remained good friends over nearly a decade.
Kernochan credits much of the final result of the film to its editor, triple-Oscar-winner Thelma Schoonmaker, who works with Martin Scorsese. “Everyone considers her the top. She’s lionized, and it almost never happens that Scorsese doesn’t have something for her to do,” Kernochan said. “And it just happened when Patty Clarkson called him and said, ‘Do you have an editor to recommend?’ she [Schoonmaker] was available and had been complaining to him that she was available because she likes to live in the editing room. And she turned it [“Learning to Drive”] into what it is. It’s tight, it’s funny, it’s touching – all the things that it was meant to be.”
Kernochan readily admits that she never thought the movie would get made. It went through eight directors, and each of them wanted changes to the script. “Director number seven backed out about a month before pre-production, which was a problem because Sir Ben and Patty only had the one window when they were both available,” she told us.
“And Isabel Coixet happened to be in L.A. So, in one weekend, she was hired, and she was finishing another movie. So, she walked in when pre-production had already been under way two weeks. She just hit the ground running. I don’t know how she got through it, but she was number eight. And that’s how many times I wrote that script. And do you know what version we shot? Number one.”
Coixet said it was difficult to get the film financed because the people with money in the industry want franchises. She joked that she didn’t know what a sequel to “Learning to Drive” could be except perhaps “Learning to Park.”
Even though by necessity, the screenplay had to divert extensively from the original source material, Coixet stayed connected to Pollitt’s essay. “I read that essay every morning before going to the set,” she said. “Even if the characters are different, and he [the driving instructor] was Philippine in the story. But the spirit and the core of that thing always stayed with me.”
She had high praise for all of her actors in the film but confessed that neither Clarkson nor Kingsley are good drivers. “I think it’s the only thing he does not do well,” she said of Kingsley.
Coixet never went to film school and is the camera operator for all her films – a very unusual practice in the industry. Shooting a film with so many scenes in a car was a special challenge for the director. Within the limitations of shooting in that small space, she tried to film each scene with subtle differences, she said.
As a female director, Coixet has certainly dealt with sexism in the industry. “Yesterday, this very important journalist from a very, very important paper asked me, ‘So, now you hit 50, all your films are going to be about 50-something relationships?’ OK, I didn’t scream. I didn’t punch him in the face, which was exactly what I wanted to do. But I was like, you would never ask that of a man – never,” she said. She speculated that no one would ever ask Stephen Spielberg, “So, now that you’re 70, you’re only going to do films about people in nursing homes?”
Coixet said she believes in being proactive, however, rather than playing the victim. This is why her production company produces films by women.
Meanwhile, Kernochan is a Renaissance woman who is a singer, documentary filmmaker, and writer of books and musicals. She also wrote the screenplay for one of my favorite films, “Impromptu,” about Chopin and George Sand starring Judy Davis and Hugh Grant.
Check out the trailer for “Learning to Drive,” and see it if you can. I recommend it wholeheartedly.