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‘Learning to Drive’ Offers Meaty Roles for Women In Front of and Behind the Camera

Learning to Drive” is a women’s movie in the truest sense of the phrase.

Yes, the story of a middle-age divorcee’s unlikely bond with her driving instructor is firmly pitched at women of a certain age, but the term applies to more than its target audience. Both in front of and behind the camera, it is a picture made for women, by women and about women. In an industry that is still woefully behind the times when it comes to gender diversity, it’s a welcome corrective, but the decade-plus battle to make “Learning to Drive” also reveals the obstacles female filmmakers face.

“One of the biggest struggles we had was that most of the financing is male-oriented,” said producer Dana Friedman. “It was a drama, it wasn’t an action film, it wasn’t a thriller and it starred a woman. Getting a financier to understand the depth of this film and to see this was so universal was a challenge.”

Friedman, who’d first fallen for a New Yorker piece by Katha Pollitt about learning to drive in her 40s, found her champions in Gabriel Hammond and Daniel Hammond. The brothers were getting into the world of film production and have tapped “Learning to Drive” to be one of the first films from their newly launched studio, Broad Green Pictures. It opened in limited release on Friday.

Although Friedman interviewed men and women about directing and writing the adaptation, she ultimately chose two femmes in director Isabel Coixet (“Elegy”) and screenwriter Sarah Kernochan (“Sommersby”) to transform Pollitt’s piece into a film. She found that the two women were able to draw on their personal experiences in ways that enriched the production.

“Sarah was so tapped into the journey of this woman and her character,” Friedman said. “She got that duality that she had this strength and this vulnerability.”

Coixet said she identified with the opinionated book critic played by Patricia Clarkson in the movie after reading the short story.

“It touched me, because I was at a similar moment in my life,” she said. “I was in the middle of a breakup and I didn’t know how to drive.”

With Coixet and Kernochan in place, the filmmakers also reached out to legendary “Raging Bull” editor Thelma Schoonmaker to cut the picture and line producer Susan Leber to make sure production ran smoothly. It was a combination of distaff talent that Friedman admits she’d rarely seen.

“It’s certainly something that I hope to repeat,” Friedman said. “I hope this film will in some small way change things, but the statistics are pretty bleak.”

The numbers certainly are bracing. Over the past 17 years, the number of women directing the 250 top-grossing films declined by 2% and the percentage of women working as writers, editors and producers dropped, according to a recent study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

There’s no economic reason for the disparity. Women make up more than half of the movie-going audience and are particularly valuable to independent films. Older women, for instance, helped the Blythe Danner dramedy “I’ll See You in My Dreams” break out to become one of the summer’s few arthouse hits. They are also driving ticket sales for “Learning to Drive,” comprising 60% of the opening weekend audience. Moviegoers over 50 were even more amply represented, making up 77% of the crowd.

“Having all these women helped the film get made in a way that was very, very appealing to [women],” said Travis Reid, Broad Green’s president of distribution. “This is primarily a film targeted to women over 45, but it plays well with either gender.”

The film is unique in another way. Throughout the 10 years it took to make the film, Clarkson was attached to play the lead role. In the process, she moved from her 40s to her 50s, an age where Hollywood often pushes women off its casting list.

“It was a wonderful blessing for us, because she’s still wise but a little weathered,” Friedman said. “She was so committed to this. There are scenes where she’s wearing no makeup and she was willing to show bags under her eyes, because it was so true to the moment.”

As for Coixet, she’s hopeful that she won’t have to answer questions about Hollywood’s diversity problems going forward, noting that in her native Spain and other European countries being a female filmmakers isn’t such a novelty. Things have improved, she notes from one of her first jobs working as a commercial director when a client was incredulous that a woman was being tasked with handling the production.

“You try to have a sense of humor about it,” Coixet said.

She compares the experience of filmmaking to climbing a mountain, but notes that male directors are at a distinct advantage.

“The male has snowshoes and a comfortable backpack and the female director has high heels … they’re both capable of climbing the mountain, it’s just going to take more effort for the female,” she said.

To help change the odds, Coixet said she is backing female filmmakers. She will produce Argentinian director Julia Solomonoff’s first American film “Nobody’s Watching” and “Blog” director Elena Trapé’s next project.

“I read all these articles about women in Hollywood in the Times and in Variety and my take was, I will not complain anymore,” she said. “I will put my work where my mouth is.”

That’s not the only thing that’s changed. Inspired by the film she just made, Coixet also got her license.

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