Driving Passions

Thelma Schoonmaker, Daniel Hammond, Sarah Kernochan and Avi Nash on Learning To Drive.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Learning To Drive star Patricia Clarkson with Sarah Kernochan, Katha Pollitt, Isabel Coixet and Thelma Schoonmaker
Learning To Drive star Patricia Clarkson with Sarah Kernochan, Katha Pollitt, Isabel Coixet and Thelma Schoonmaker Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Paris Theatre VIP première of Learning To Drive, attended by Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Sarita Choudhury, Jake Weber (who was in Saverio Costanzo's pulsating Tribeca hit Hungry Hearts with Adam Driver), Avi Nash, director Isabel Coixet, Martin Scorsese's favorite editor, Thelma Schoonmaker (The Wolf Of Wall Street), author Katha Pollitt, screenwriter Sarah Kernochan, producers Daniel Hammond and Dana Friedman, executive producer Gabriel Hammond and costume designer Vicki Farrell, with guests including William Ivey Long, Bryan Batt, Cornelia Guest, Sydney Van Til, Harpreet Singh Toor, Lena Hall, Montego Glover, Nanette Lepore, Peter Cincotti, Lora Lee Gayer, Laura Michelle Kelly, Matthew Morrison, Renee Puente, Sakina Jaffrey, Meetu Chilana, Benjamin Rauhala, Taylor Louderman, Ellyn Marks, Magee Hickey, Kaity Tong and Tom Murro, was followed by a reception at Southgate on Central Park South.

Stars Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson, at Southgate
Stars Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson, at Southgate Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Isabel Coixet's Learning To Drive is based on an essay in Katha Pollitt's Learning To Drive: And Other Life Stories, which was adapted for the screen by Sarah Kernochan. It stars Patricia Clarkson as Wendy, whose life is turned upside down when her husband of 21 years, Ted (Jake Weber), leaves her for another woman. In order to be able to visit their daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer), in Vermont, she decides it is time to get her driver's license.

Her driving instructor Darwan (Ben Kingsley) is originally from India and awaits the arrival of his wife to be, Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury). It is an arranged marriage and the two of them have never met before. During the often adventurous drives through Manhattan and beyond, Wendy and Darwan learn a great deal about and from each other. Both their worlds open up a bit wider.

At the party, I chatted with Avi Nash, who plays Preet, cousin to Ben Kingsley's Darwan; Sarah Kernochan, Daniel Hammond and Learning To Drive editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who gave me some insight on the Powell/Pressburger relationship to driving.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Wonderful editing as always! Where did you learn to drive?

Avi Nash being congratulated at the Learning To Drive after party
Avi Nash being congratulated at the Learning To Drive after party Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Thelma Schoonmaker: Well, I spent two years before I went to college in New Jersey. My mother was very good about teaching us very early on, even before we were allowed to drive. She taught us how to use a car and back it up in the driveway. So I learned very early and I married an Englishman so I even know how to drive on the left side in England.

AKT: How did Michael Powell [the Englishman she married] learn to drive? Do you know?

TS: Oh, I'm sure he learned to drive very early. He grew up on a farm. So he probably was driving tractors . He was a wonderful driver. To watch him drive a Rover, you know, before it had power steering and power breaks was wonderful. He was a master at it.

AKT: You don't happen to know how the other Archer, Emeric Pressburger, learned?

TS: I don't know whether Emeric even… No, Emeric did drive. He always had wonderful cars. He always had Rolls Royces and really wonderful cars.

Anne-Katrin Titze: The last time I saw you was at the première of Samba. You were also producing the latest Robert Redford movie [A Walk In The Woods directed by Ken Kwapis]?

Learning To Drive producer Daniel Hammond on learning to drive:
Learning To Drive producer Daniel Hammond on learning to drive: "Oh yes. Getting into that car for the first time, it's scary." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Daniel Hammond: Yes, Robert Redford and Nick Nolte walking in the woods, based on their hike along the Appalachian Trail.

AKT: The real question tonight is, where did you learn to drive?

DH: I learned to drive when I was 18, no 17 at home in Maryland where I grew up. I was a late driver because I didn't have enough money to pay for driver's ed. And you have to take driver's ed in Maryland before you are allowed to get your driver's license. So it took me a while to get the cash and then I went to driver's ed and voilà.

AKT: You got it the first time?

DH: Yeah but I failed my learner's permit written test but my driver's license I got at the first time, even though my father tried to sabotage me by refusing to wait in the car with me when we arrived. So my test examiner thought I had driven there by myself and threatened to fail me. She was like - "it was illegal for you to drive here today - what were you thinking?" I said, "But I didn't drive here today, my father is right over here in that building." And she didn't believe me, with that honest face.

AKT: Everybody in the audience tonight could relate to the film one way or another.

DH: Oh yes. Getting into that car for the first time, it's scary.

Anne-Katrin Titze: When did you learn to drive?

Sarah Kernochan: I learned to drive when I was 16 like most Americans. But when I prepared for the screenplay, I took driving lessons again. I pretended I had not driven in a very long time and that I was kind of rusty so that I needed to learn to drive all over again.

AKT: Really!

The women of Learning to Drive - Katha Pollitt with Isabel Coixet as Thelma Schoonmaker looks on and Patricia Clarkson listens to Sarah Kernochan
The women of Learning to Drive - Katha Pollitt with Isabel Coixet as Thelma Schoonmaker looks on and Patricia Clarkson listens to Sarah Kernochan Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

SK: When the lessons were over, I would go home and make notes about exactly what the driving instructor said. I would tell them I was afraid of bridges.

AKT: None of this was true? You drive perfectly?

SK: Exactly. It's very instructive to hear what they would say to calm somebody down. Some of that dialogue made its way into the movie. But it was research.

AKT: Put on your seatbelt - the number one rule.

SK: Exactly. You pay attention to the order in which they teach you. It helped me a great deal to cover the process of someone learning how to master what is second nature to us all who drive. But when you're starting out, it's very frightening.

AKT: Did you pass your test on the first go?

SK: When I was 15? Yes I did. And that was on a clutch. That wasn't an automatic either. Yes, I did well.

AKT: You wrote beautiful driving scenes.

SK: I'm glad you liked it.

Costume designer extraordinaire William Ivey Long with Cornelia Guest looking up
Costume designer extraordinaire William Ivey Long with Cornelia Guest looking up Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: Who taught you how to drive?

Avi Nash: A man named Tahid, he was an Iranian immigrant that wore the same coloured shoes and polo shirt.

AKT: Did you have any trouble?

AN: No, but in my parallel parking, I did hit the flag. But he was a cool guy and let me pass.

AKT: So you are one of the few who had no trouble getting your license.

AN: No, but I might have cheated. You know, my parents let me drive as a kid. So, I was fine with it. Besides the parallel parking, I was fine.

Learning To Drive opens in the US on August 21 and screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Coming up, red carpet Learning To Drive VIP première at The Paris Theatre with Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Sarita Choudhury, Jake Weber and Isabel Coixet.

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