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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

Learning to Drive

by director Isabel Coixet

Eight years ago, while on a lunch break during the filming of Elegy, Patricia Clarkson and I were talking about heartbreak, and she gave me a copy of Katha Pollitt’s short story “Learning to Drive” that was published in The New Yorker. The story touched me on so many levels because I was going through a similar situation. It was—it is—wise, tender, funny, complex and it struck a deep chord in me and gave me the inspiration to stop crying and get a driver’s license. Six months later, I was driving on the Santa Monica freeway, albeit clumsily and tentatively. Getting the film done took a little longer. Characters were added and some things changed a bit, but the spirit of Pollitt’s story remained the same. It was that same spirit that inspired me to stop complaining about my life, learn to drive and ultimately led me to make this movie.

Beyond the spirit, the thing that attracted me to the story was the inclusion of the Sikh community, which hasn’t been shown very often on the big screen. Sometimes, when filming Learning to Drive, I felt I was in some remote place in Punjab and not in some neighborhood ten subway stops from 42nd Street. It was very special.

Darwan’s character is a Sikh political refugee who works as a taxi driver and driving instructor. He leads a very simple and quiet life. By contrast, Wendy’s character is a book critic reviewer. She lives in an affluent part of New York City. Her husband is leaving her after twenty-one years of marriage for another woman. Wendy and Darwan are two different characters from distinct backgrounds.

Learning to Drive is the story of Darwan and Wendy’s journey and crossing the divide between their lives. The film shows how they have to learn to respect and understand each other. It also delves into the theme of driving: driving an actual car and driving your own life. It’s about the mistakes we repeat and the little failures and successes of everyday life. It’s about how we can overcome pain if we are able to face things with new eyes and fight to be unchained from the past. It’s also about learning to be on your own. Sooner or later, you must learn independence if you don’t want to become a burden to yourself.

It has been an amazing journey reuniting with Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley. They are absolutely mesmerizing as Wendy and Darwan. I know, because sometimes during the shoot, as I was filming their conversations, I completely forgot to say “CUT”!

I have to say, I love driving now. But parking is another story....