‘Learning to Drive’ Helmer Isabel Coixet on Middle-Age Life Lessons, the Hazards of Shooting in a Car

Learning To Drive"Learning
to Drive" is a lovely meditation on aging, expectations and learning to live
life on your own terms. Patricia Clarkson stars as Wendy, a writer whose husband
leaves her literally stranded as their daughter gets ready to head off to
college. Wendy starts driving lessons with Darwan (Ben Kingsley), and the
two develop a friendship through the lessons that help guide them both during the
next phases of their lives. Based on the essay by Katha Pollitt, prolific Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s delicate drama was written by Sarah
Kernochan.

Here’s
a conversation that took place at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival where the film
has its world premiere, in which Coixet discusses how Clarkson brought the production together, why she serves as the camera operator on all her films, and what would be different in her life and career if she were a male filmmaker. 

W&H:
What drew you to this story?
 

IC:
When we were [making] "Elegy" with Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley,
Patricia talked about the Katha Pollitt essay ["Learning to Drive"]. I
read the New Yorker piece, I loved it, and she said, "I want to develop this
thing. I know a writer who can do it. If we go forward with it, would you be
interested?" I said: "Yeah, absolutely!" because it’s very simple,
very pure. At that time, I was going through a break-up with the father of my
kid, and I didn’t drive. First, because I’m from Barcelona, and you don’t have
to drive there, and also because I was scared of driving for some reason, I
don’t know why. And I have to say, the article pushed me to learn to drive.
 

W&H: So Patricia was the one who really developed this and brought Sarah Kernochan,
the writer, on board? And this was about eight years ago?

IC:
The article appeared eleven years ago, and I think she and a producer optioned
it. Patricia told me the story when we met on the set of "Elegy," and I was
like, count on me!

W&H: How many years passed before it was back in your lap?

IC:
Seven.
 

W&H: Wow! And you had made five other movies by then, right? 

IC:
Thank god, yeah!
 

W&H: What’s the main theme you want people to take from this film?

IC:
Just very simple things: accept people, don’t stereotype people. Don’t think
because right now they’re driving a cab, they’re not going to have a master’s
degree or that they’re dumber than you. Also, okay, you’re going through a
break-up and at the moment it’s like the end of the world — but it’s not. There
are real tragedies out there, and I think when you realize this — that the
person you thought you’d spend the rest of your life with is gone, but you have
yourself and lots of things can happen — it’s not so bad to be on your own. 

W&H: The film’s very, very funny, but also very touching. How did you keep that
balance between the comedy and the emotion?

IC:
You know, I think it was key to have Ben there, because in the hands of another
actor, his character could be kind of a parody, more like a caricature than a
real human being. I think he gave his character his humanity. One of the things
I was touched by yesterday [at a screening] was that there is a moment when
he touches her face, and people were laughing, but they were laughing in a very
tender way — they were understanding the effort it takes for him to do that.
People were with him, and I have to say, that’s Ben’s touch.

W&H: Do you feel that this movie is a departure for you from previous ones?

IC:
Since I started making movies, I’ve had to hear a million times, "When are you
going to do a comedy?" I think I feel more comfortable in another kind of
movie, but at the same time, I really wanted this film to be how it is. I just shot another film with Juliette Binoche called "Nobody
Wants the Night" which was a huge tragedy, so I don’t know if it’s a
departure. I think it’s a sweet entr’acte, but I don’t know if it’s a
departure.

W&H: I
was speaking with the cinematographer [Manel Ruiz] last night, and it was interesting to hear
about the challenge of shooting the car scenes, because half the movie is in a
car. How did you go about making scenes that could be quite tedious actually
quite lovely?

IC: We
treated the car like it was a room. I also said I didn’t want to go to odd
points of view; I really wanted people to be with them, sharing their intimacy, being there with them without being intrusive. Since I’m the camera operator on
all my films, I try to hide as much as I can. (My back is still hurting me?)
 

W&H: Why do you like to be the camera operator on all your projects?

IC:
Because I’m better than camera operators who don’t do that, and I know what I
want. I’m trained, I know how to do it, and for me it’s easier to do it myself.
Also, I hate to be behind a monitor. I think it’s very boring. I just want to
be there with the actors. I have been asked by other directors to
camera-operate their films.

W&H: And did you do that?

IC: I
did it once for a friend.
 

W&H: But you prefer it to be your movie when you do that?

IC:
Yeah, I think it’s more fun that way.
 

W&H: Is there any difference for you working in English versus Spanish? Or are you
so comfortable now that it doesn’t mean anything?

IC:
I’ve done a film in Paris, another in Tokyo. I think right now I can work with
different crews; I’ve worked with Bulgarian, Norwegian, Japanese, and Chinese
crews. For me, the most important thing is the storytelling, and I’m really
comfortable working with all kinds of languages.
 

W&H: I
know you’ve been involved with the 
European Women’s Audiovisual Network [Coixet is President of EWA]. Looking at your filmography and your experience, I feel
like if you were a man, you’d have a different career trajectory. Do you feel
that? Or have you made different choices? Do you think you’ve been given the
same opportunities that your male peers have?
 

IC: I
think if I had been a man, I would be richer. That hurts. But at the same time, I
have to keep fighting and not think too much about "what if," because that
doesn’t lead you anywhere.

W&H: You think you would have had the opportunities to make bigger-budget movies and
make more money for yourself? 

IC:
Yeah, that’s the thing. You have to fight for respect. In life, even
cashiers at the supermarket, if they’re women, they’re differently treated. It’s
a reality. The reality is not nice; it’s not pretty.

W&H: It’s pretty bad in Europe, and it’s really bad in the US in terms of
opportunities for women directors. Do you feel any sense of improvement? 

IC:
Compared with the volume of the market, it’s staggering. I think the only
country where the numbers are a little more equal is in France. In Spain, things
are tough for everyone. It’s a very bad economic situation, so we’re doing less
and less films, so women are having less and less opportunities.

W&H: What is the one thing above all that you think could help? Is it the funding?
Is it the exposure, getting into those meetings?
 

IC: We have to [have] a really radical change in our attitudes. We have to
ask for higher paychecks. And not equal, I don’t want equal — why do I have to
have the same paycheck as a guy who has much less experience than me? I want
more. And we have to stop feeling ashamed for asking for more, and we have to
begin to feel a little more entitled to things, to normal things. I’m not
saying we have to have a woman president in every country, although I think
that will help! Power has to be here, it has to be.

W&H: You made an atypical "adult-friendship movie" by American standards,
and hopefully people will walk in and see it for what it is. Do you have any
thoughts about how this movie will potentially roll out?

IC: I can make movies about characters I
really relate to, and I can also make movies, like the one I did in Norway,
about a woman in 1909 going to the North Pole. I just try to make stories that
are relevant for me, and I wish people will feel the same way I did as I was
beginning to know the story. I’m not like these marketing people. Yeah, it’s an
adult movie, I hope adults will enjoy it. I don’t know. My daughter’s
seventeen, she saw it and she really liked it — and she hates all my movies, so
that was a good sign.

"Learning to Drive" opens August 21.