Culture

Oscar Winner Sarah Kernochan on “Learning to Drive”


“Learning to Drive,” starring Patricia Clarkson and Sir Ben Kingsley, is an intelligent, witty drama that arrives just in time to overcome our summer blockbuster fatigue. Sarah Kernochan, the writer, is a two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker (for the documentaries "Thoth" and "Marjoe"), screenwriter, and novelist.

“Learning to Drive” was originally a personal essay by Katha Pollitt that ran in The New Yorker in 2002 and has since become a kind of classic. It was about how she got over a dreadful breakup with her lying, cheating boyfriend by taking driving lessons. He always used to do the driving, and now she had to learn to do it herself. My task was to translate this very personal essay for the screen. The producers gave me tremendous freedom to make it my own.

The producers asked me to take the basic premise of a woman working through her personal problems through driving lessons and to expand on that. From there, I conceived a story about a woman getting a divorce after twenty-one years of marriage and being, basically, in a crazed state. Her driving instructor is a Sikh Indian from Queens. He’s having problems of his own because he’s entering an arranged marriage with a woman he’s never seen. His bride is being shipped over from India and so one character is leaving a marriage and one is entering a marriage.

It was my idea to make the instructor a Sikh. In the original article, he was a Filipino, but the Sikh driver with the turban is so prevalent in taxis in New York and in other cities, that it wasn’t much of a stretch to see him having a second job as a driving instructor, especially because he had been a professor in India before the start of the persecution of the Sikhs in the eighties. He’s a political refugee.

I knew nothing whatsoever about Sikhs. But I had a flash of the poster in my brain, and it was the image of a woman at the wheel of a car sitting next to a man in a turban. It made me ask, “What is the story? I want to know more.” If it had just been any man beside her without that turban, you wouldn’t have wondered and it would look kind of dull. After that, I contacted a friend of mine who was a photographer for the Daily News. Her beat was Queens, which has a large Sikh community.

Credit: Linda Kallerus/Broad Green Pictures

She put me onto a man named Harpreet Singh Toor, who was my passport into a world I never could have gotten access to. He was keenly interested in this movie getting made because he felt, I think correctly, that people would learn things about the Sikhs that they never knew.

If they’re not thought to be Muslims, they’re thought to be Hindu. But they are neither. They define God as love. That love is how you experience God and the primary way that you will experience that is through marriage and family. It’s one God. They believe: “We are all one, including men and women.” Women are treated equally. Sikhs are very tolerant of other religions. They never proselytize. As far as they’re concerned, if you get to God, it doesn’t matter how you get there.

The film is about the intersection of these two very different people. They will intersect for a moment in their lives and then go on their separate ways, but in that moment, they change each other and they help each other. Other than a few details and lines from the essay, it was totally invented on my part. I love adaptations where I don’t have to be utterly faithful to the material because otherwise there doesn’t feel like there’s room for my own personality.

Sarah, center, on set with director Isabel Coixet and Patricia Clarkson

This is very much a woman’s project. It was written for Patricia Clarkson. One of the producers is female. There’s me, there’s Isabel Coixet, the director, and the editor, Thelma Schoonmaker.

Thelma is Martin Scorsese’s longtime editor. She rarely works with anyone else. She’s the top. She has three Oscars. You cannot get a better editor. It was Patricia who called Scorsese to say, “Do you know a good editor? Because the one we had didn’t work out.” He said, “Well, Thelma has a window.” She’d just been complaining to him. As long as she’s worked with him, there’s never been such a thing as a window. Then, suddenly there was a four-month period where she was just twiddling her thumbs and she was kind of irritated about that. She read the script, she looked at the mess of footage and said, “Yeah, I think I can solve this,” and so she did.

Sarah

I still can’t believe the film got made. But since I wrote the script ten years ago, we’ve had films like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” and “The Hundred-Foot Journey.” These films come out at the end of the summer, which is when the adult audience has had nothing at all to watch the entire summer. They’re starved for something smart, something that makes them feel something other than gripping the seat when they see another explosion or another gun pulled out. They don’t relate to comic book heroes or they’ll see a couple at the beginning of the summer and then they’ll just be sick of it and there’s nothing else. We’ve been getting a great response.

“Learning to Drive” is playing in theaters across the country, and was a New York Times Critics’ Pick. Sarah lives in New York City with her husband, but she’d rather be in Martha’s Vineyard. You can read more about Sarah on her blog.

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