Learning To Drive With Isabel Coixet

Image: Isabel Coixet

Image: Isabel Coixet

Emma Jones

In Spain, you’ll know an Almodovar movie from the first few frames, almost certainly splashed red across your screen. But what about Spain’s other prolific international director? Isabel Coixet, a filmmaker since 1989 and the recipient of five Goya awards and in 2015, the opening director of the Berlin International Film Festival, is far more unfathomable. She does tiny little Canadian films such as 2003’s acclaimed My Life Without Me (produced by Pedro Almodovar) She does Nobody Wants the Night, starring Juliette Binoche in the frozen wastes of Greenland. And now she sets a film almost entirely in a taxi cab, in New York City itself – no tax breaks in Toronto or Vancouver – starring Sir Ben Kingsley as a Sikh cabbie about to embark on an arranged marriage, and Patricia Clarkson as a New Yorker about to enter mid-life as a divorcee. The tale of a tentative friendship that should never form, Learning to Drive, won the audience award at the Toronto film festival in 2014. 

Image: Coixet on set

Image: Coixet on set

It’s not the first time the trio have worked together – she directed Sir Ben in Elegy in 2008, Coixet’s film with another Spanish national treasure, Penelope Cruz, and she and Patricia are working together again on two more films in the near future. The director describes their relationship as “ a trinity – it’s a special friendship. I hate to use the word easy, but it’s true, they are interesting people and great actors. Of course we argue quite a lot, but you know, it’s fun.”

But reminded that they spent much of their time in a small New York cab, a metaphor for the bubble of two people in their own little world, Isabel shudders. “That wasn’t so much fun.”


"To have Isabel film male vulnerability was actually something extraordinary. I make a massive plea for more women behind the camera because they do see things differently."

Because she is always literally behind or before her actors, as twenty five years after starting her career, she still insists on filming everything herself.  “Sure, being in a crappy taxi doing all the camera work isn’t the best part of the job, but the film is all about intimacy, and for that I need to be a fly on the wall. I argue that a director is always the fly on the wall in a film, and doing your own camera work is part of that.”

Kingsley believes that it was a wonderful, if rare sight, “to have a female director operating the camera herself. To have Isabel film male vulnerability was actually something extraordinary. I make a massive plea for more women behind the camera – because they do see things differently. I don’t mean better or worse or whatever – I just mean they see life through a different prism.”

Image: Learning To Drive

Image: Learning To Drive

Although Learning to Drive compares unfavourably in weight and depth with another recent film about the female third age – Mia Hansen Love’s L’Avenir , starring Isabelle Huppert,  the likeable thing about Isabel Coixet is the often haphazard way she allows her gut to steer her projects. In this case, she says, it was her own mid-life divorce in 2013 that led her to Learning to Drive. “ I read between the lines of it and what I took from it was ‘this sucks, but it’s not the end of the world’,” she says. “There’s another life out there, with another man, or with two or three, who knows – so I wanted to tell that story of a woman beginning her own journey.”

Next, she says she’s going to work with Patricia Clarkson again, this time in a film set in 1959 England called The Bookshop, “which makes you think of something delightfully quaint and it might seem so, but it’s based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald who’s an idol of mine, so that’s why I want to do it. Patricia’s going to play this lady who decides to set up a book shop in a small village in England. But in this film she’s pure evil and it’s not lovely. 

“I love working with her, we’ll probably get married or something.”

“ I would be miserable if I was making Learning to Drive parts 3,4 and 5."

Isabel’s Coixet’s choices might not always lead down the road to the Academy Awards, as Almodovar’s have done, but she points out that “they are always authentic to me, my choices. Yesterday I was in Senegal, filming something on the ex-Chadian dictator Hussein Habre that I want to do, I was witnessing his sentencing for his crimes against humanity, and I was there filming on an iPhone. But I had an opportunity to be there and witness history happening. And soon I’ll get to be in England and experience 1959.

“ I like to do things like that; I would be totally miserable if I was making Learning to Drive Parts 3, 4 and 5.”

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