Recently we had a chance to chat with the cast and crew of the film Learning to Drive in New York City! A film that truly shows us a slice of life and hits home with South Asians is a not-so-romantic story of how two unlikely people find a way to help each other grow. Ben Kingsley plays a Sikh political refugee who teaches driving in the day and drives a taxi at night while Patricia Clarkson plays a recently divorced book critic.
We had a chance to chat with international director Isabel Coixet about the film, why it took so long to make, and her experience learning about the Sikh culture!
Q: You are from Barcelona, right? How much did you know about the Sikh culture or Indian culture before this film?
Isabel: Nothing! I have to say the people in Richmond Hill (Queens) were very helpful. I have to say when I read the script 11 years ago, I said if I’m going to do this I have to learn a lot. Thanks to the people involved I learned so much I went many times to the temples, I went to a wedding, I went to the music schools they had and tried to learn as much as I can.
Q: What were you trying to learn?
Isabel: You know I have to say, yes I’m from Spain and Barcelona. But I have done films in Japan, I’ve made films in Norway, I shoot commercials in South Africa and I have worked all around the world. And in the end learning the particular characteristics of a sub-culture you learn that we are more or less the same. Human nature is the same in everyone, the passions, the contradictions the fears are all the same.
Q: It must have been interesting to create a relationship between two people who are so different but still find commonalities
Isabel: I think the film is about one of the things they say about crossing that line, in the space of a taxi you spend a fair amount of hours, share a very little space with someone who’s just there for a short distance so you don’t want to know. And you don’t want to know, especially in New York you have so many things to absorb so it’s too much. But crossing the divide is always rewarding
Q: Could there ever have been a romance between the two?
Isabel: That’s what attracted me to the film that there is no romance in the classical sense. I am a fan of Henry James and Edward Barton and these things were never said, these things were never really expressed openly.
Q: The film was 11 years in the making so what was the issues behind that?
Isabel: All these years, Patricia and I have been endlessly meeting with financiers and producers and all these things. The problems is that there is no romance and the characters are not young kids and everyone thinks and I think Patricia is one of the best actresses in the world but she’s not a star. For me, it’s good she’s not a star because stars are annoying (laughs)
Q: Did the fact that the main character was a Sikh have anything to do with it?
Isabel: oh no, it was about the age, believe me. It was about the age and the fact that there was no romance.
Q: Who came to you with the film? The producers, or Patricia? Why you?
Isabel: We filmed together, Elegy. That’s why, we did this movie and we became friends and we kept in contact since then. Patricia started talking about this movie during Elegy, and I said sure let’s do it! It took a while but, you know. Films which are not formula, which are not romance, comedy. Films that are marinated between genres are difficult. The producers and financiers want to know so what’s the selling point? I’m like, I don’t know life, encounters, friendships…it’s not a selling point.
Q: What was it like to cast Ben Kingsley as a Sikh?
Isabel: That’s the good thing about Ben, I’ve worked before with him and he was a Columbia professor, intellectual. I mean he can do anything, you ask Ben to play a chair and he can play a chair. He can be British, he can be American, he can be Sikh, he can be Indian, he can do anything!
Q: We know the financiers were hard to get on board but what about the other actors? Did you have any trouble getting the actors on board?
Isabel: No, I mean, all the actors we went after they loved the project and they said yes. And I knew Sarita, Sarita’s the opposite of Jasleen. Sarita’s an amazingly motivated women, sexy, and very smart. I have to say, She’s become one of my best friends. I love her and I want to work with her in another film in Italy.
Q: Sarita Choudhury is nothing like Jasleen, how did you pick her?
Isabel: Exactly, I know it was a challenge for her, she did a film with a friend of mine and I knew she could do it. I know she was completely opposite from Jasleen but I said lets have fun with it and she was game so that’s how it happened.
Q: Tell us some more about your experience with the Sikh community and the scenes shot in the Gurdwara. How was it? Anything special you remember?
Isabel: I love the food! (laughs) I remember we were filming around the temple, the scenes where he (Ben Kingsley) lived in the apartment and it’s just across the street from the temple. We had all these craft services and catering services and I was like oh I’m going to the temple to eat! I love, you know, umm I’m not a religious person but the fact that the temple is a sacred place but also a very practical place where people are talking business, they are teaching music to their kids. It is a combination of sacred and very practical things and the openness I love that. I was very comfortable there. And the weddings I love that! I’ve been to Bombay, believe me I’ve been to the weddings for 3 days, 4 days, so many days!
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