There have been few greater pleasures at this year’s Toronto Film Festival than to see the reunion of Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley with their “Elegy” director Isabel Coixet on “Learning to Drive,” a lighthearted adaptation of Katha Pollitt’s 2002 personal essay in The New Yorker in which the writer described how she befriended a driving instructor who was able to get her back on course in more ways than one after a bad breakup. Although these characters meet at their most high-strung – Clarkson’s Wendy is coming off a 21-year-marriage that ended with her husband’s infidelity while Kingsley’s Darwan is entering into an arranged marriage, per the tradition of his Sikh beliefs, the joy of “Learning to Drive” is to see two actors so completely relaxed in their own skin and in each other’s company that you’ll follow them anywhere.
For Coixet, this may have been crucial since the Spanish director is entering uncharted territory with her first official comedy after making such compelling dramas as the Sarah Polley-Tim Robbins thriller “The Secret Lives of Words” and “Maps of the Sounds of Tokyo.” Never known to pull her punches, she shows no trouble handling punchlines as Wendy and Darwan attempt to adjust to their new domestic lives, yet with the help of a beautifully nuanced script from Sarah Kernochan, Coixet still manages to ruminate on a subject that’s long fascinated her, the bonds that can be made across different cultures and ideologies. Shortly after the premiere of “Learning to Drive” in Toronto, Coixet reflected on how the project appealed to her personally when it was first passed along by Clarkson on the set of “Elegy,” the importance of living in the moment and the desire to do a comedy.
After you learned of the script, what piqued your interest in it?
At the time when Patricia gave me the script seven years ago when we were doing “Elegy,” I was going through a break up with the father of my child. And I didn’t know how to drive, and I know for North American people, driving is a tiny thing, but being from Macedonia, you don’t have to drive, so for me, it was a way to take the grips of my life again. I really felt connected with this character and I felt very moved by the script. I thought it addressed some things about racism with a light touch, so I thought, “Yeah, sure, let’s go.”
If it connected to something personal you were going through at the time, was it nice to have some distance from it in making it now?
Yeah. Since we shot the film last summer, I think I understand Wendy even more now and that she’s going to be okay. The fact these two people who are in these two bubbles can for a moment look at each other and open up is some sort of miracle. You know, there are people in New York who take cabs every day with Sikh taxi drivers and they never know it’s a religion. It’s not a race, it’s not a ethnicity – it’s a religion. And the world right now is, a very complicated mess, but if you just look at other people from other universes with a fresh set of eyes, maybe we can begin to solve something.
Lately, that seems to be something of interest to you since I’ve heard your next film “Nobody Wants the Night,” about two women from opposite ends of the earth who love the same man, centers on a similar collision of perspectives.
Yeah, that’s something that’s always obsessing me. It’s true the film I just wrapped with Juliette Binoche is also about women, [one] from the high society of 1909, going to the North Pole and changing her whole perspective of the world. One of the biggest moments of this film [“Learning to Drive”] for me is when [Wendy’s] obsessing about her dad and all these other things, and [Darwan] is telling her, “All my family was tortured, my brother was killed by the police…” and there’s no rage, there’s no anger. It’s just, “Okay, that was a horrible situation, but I’m in another place now,” giving her a subtle lesson about how to face the things that are part of your life, like a break up or your dad [leaving the family]. Okay, that’s what happened, I have to move on.
The film’s screenwriter Sarah Kernochan mentioned after the film that she modeled its structure on the five stages of grief. Was that something difficult to get your head around, either in terms of how the story would unfold or to balance that against a lighter tone?
It was difficult because the whole point of the film is life is a tragedy, but we don’t have to look at it in a tragic way. We can address the main problems of our life from another perspective. When [Wendy’s] saying, “I want my house,” she’s going from “My husband is a pig” to “I want my house, I want my house” and the way it’s portrayed in the film, you realize this is nonsense. It’s the house, it’s your husband, it’s your whole life [that has issues], what are you scared of? This character is only able to realizes all these things through meeting that one other person and going through this process of learning to drive, because what he’s saying to her with all these driving instructions is to just go step by step. Live now – you’re behind the wheel, just be behind the wheel and wake up.
Working again with Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson, were there things you saw from them while making “Elegy” that you may not have been able to use then because of the type of film it was, but wanted to exploit here?
Patricia’s character in “Elegy” is really different, but what I saw is her sense of humor and a great capacity to go from feeling sorry for herself to make fun of herself, which is a big part of this film. Then I think Ben can do everything. He’s a consummate actor and he’s able to give the character dignity, which is very necessary, because this character could be easily going into the parody of a really uptight taxi driver with a funny accent.
You’ve usually balanced the drama in your films with some humor, but “Learning to Drive” has some out-and-out comic moments. Was it fun to go for it?
It was actually important for me to make a film that was not a heavy drama. I know it’s in my nature and when I sit down to write, dramas are the first thing I always think [about] and I tend to see films and storytelling through this lens. But it’s really important to me to also try to give them a light touch, and [I enjoyed] finding the funny parts of some things and exploring [certain issues as you get] older, especially Ben’s body language, which I think is amazing in this film.
You also worked with Martin Scorsese’s longtime, legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who hasn’t officially worked on anyone else’s films since 1996 [with Allison Anders’ “Grace of My Heart,” which Scorsese executive produced]. Was she someone you really wanted to work with?
For me and for all filmmakers of the world, she’s an icon and I think what attracted her to the film was it’s a very simple film. It’s a film we did in four weeks-and-a-half and I think for her it was very refreshing to make something that is not at all like Marty’s films. For me, it was a lesson being with her.
“Learning to Drive” opens on August 21st in limited release.