A Visit with Sarah Kernochan

Photo by Lynn Christoffers


Sarah Kernochan is a dynamo — a documentary filmmaker, screenwriter, director, and novelist. At 26, she won her first Academy Award for the documentary Marjoe, and later a second Oscar for the short documentary Thoth. She has writing credits on seven feature films, beginning with 9½ Weeks. She wrote and directed All I Wanna Do, and teamed up with her husband, James Lapine, a Pulitzer Prize- and three-time Tony Award winner, to work on the film Impromptu, which she wrote and he directed. She has taught screenwriting at Emerson College, and has published three novels, most recently
Jane Was Here.

Sarah is also a singer, lyricist, and composer, who recorded two RCA albums, House of Pain and Beat Around the Bush, and recently released a third album of her songs, Decades of Demos. She wrote and directed the musical Sleeparound Town, a show about puberty featuring five adolescents.

In May, I drove out to her Edgartown home to talk with her about her latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson and directed by Isabel Coixet. The movie will be released in U.S. theaters this summer, but it premiered last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was runner-up to eventual Oscar Best Picture nominee The Imitation Game for the festival’s Audience Award.

Sarah had sent me a warning email: “Be prepared — I’ll be all funky from gardening.” I did find her at work in her garden, tall and smiling with a trowel in hand, though not at all funky. Her ready smile frequently turned into high-spirited laughter as she talked.

In the garden, Sarah told me, “I’m trying to reconstitute everything that was killed over the winter.” Sarah comes to the Vineyard at times during the winter, when she can get through the snow. “I’m often the only one on this road,” she said. When she and her husband remodeled their house a few years ago and began to spend entire summers on the Vineyard, “I became kind of addicted,” she said, “to being outside in the natural world, which I’d ignored my entire life. Every blade of grass became of interest to me. ”

She always associated the Vineyard with writing. “I can write anywhere,” she told me, “but I like writing here. I don’t see anybody, I don’t talk to anybody; I make my meals, and I write.”

When I asked about all the novels, songs, musicals, movies, and documentaries she’d written, and which form of writing she most enjoyed, she replied, “Oh, novels. Because they use everything I have. Scripts are a selling document. You try to make them a good read and entertaining, but you can’t use your complete vocabulary. Mostly I love novels.”

Because her writing is limited by recent shoulder surgery, her current project is a biographical blog, “At Home with a Ghost,”  (sarahkernochan.blogspot.com) consisting of very short chapters, which she described as “a memoir of my encounters with the paranormal throughout my life as a way of revealing my life. I never thought I wanted to write a memoir — I don’t think I’m that interesting — but I found this hook for it. The ghosts.”

“What ghosts?” I asked.

“My first ghost is my grandfather.” He built the Vineyard house now standing next to hers in 1934. “I dare you to stop reading it after you read the first two chapters.”

In her house, Sarah and I spoke for two hours. A condensed and edited excerpt of our conversation follows:

Q: Let’s talk about your newest film, Learning to Drive. It was adapted from Katha Pollitt’s essay in the New Yorker, and is opening in August. What inspired you to use a nonfiction essay as the basis for a film?

A: It’s funny. The director asked me the same thing: “Why did you write this?” And I said, “It’s a job. They hired me to do it.” My manager at that time was connected with people with money for producing a movie and said, “Can this be made into a movie? I want you to read this because I think you might be the right person to adapt it.” So I did.

Q: How did you go about adapting the essay?

A: It was problematical. As you know, it was a small personal essay of a few pages, and to turn that into a 90-minute film was very problematical, although it’s a brilliant essay — I adore it — but the general outline is of a woman working her way through a bad breakup and equating it with the lessons she learned while taking driving lessons. Her husband had done all the driving, so she hadn’t learned how.

Q: I’m wondering about the story. So much of your other work focuses on strong women characters —

A: That’s my MO. That’s what you come to me for.

Q: But in this essay Katha Pollitt presents herself as fairly hapless, unable to drive, someone who didn’t do the right things with her lover, and didn’t realize anything was wrong. Did you change that?

A: No, I did not change the fact that she had no clue there was anything wrong with her relationship and was ambushed by it. But I don’t think she was a victim when all was said and done. Katha took a very strong position by writing about it in the New Yorker, because everybody knew who her boyfriend was, and she raked him over the coals in her beautiful way.

Q: What did you change?

A: I invented a new character going through the same thing, but she was not Katha, whom I hadn’t yet met. I was supposed to write it for Patricia Clarkson, and I knew her work well enough that I could write a very complex character and she could not only manage it but sell it. Patricia has a following of people who not only adore her work, but they adore her and what she brings to a role. So I felt she could make this character sympathetic.

Q: Were you worried that you potentially had a clichéd situation?

A: Yes, and it could be boring, and boring to write as well. It was like how could I make this different and also last for 90 minutes.

Q: How did you make the situation fresh?

A: It was with the character of the driving instructor. The original didn’t leap out to me as enough of an interesting situation to make me want to go see that movie, and I always think of that: What’s going to make somebody want to go see the movie? What’s the poster?

Q: What did you come up with?

A: I thought the face of the driver in New York is a turbaned guy, the Sikh Indians. They are so often behind the wheel, and nobody ever really wonders about what their lives are like, or what their community is in Queens. They get abuse all day long from people who think they’re Muslim.

Q: How did you do the research?

A: The research was fascinating. I met this wonderful guy, Harpreet Singh Toor, a spokesman for the Sikh community in Queens, who opened up the whole world to me. He showed me where they lived, how they lived, the temples, and he helped me with the script. He also told me the history of the Sikhs who were here because of their repression and massacre after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. I had no idea about any of that. The odd thing is that rather like the relationship of the driving instructor and the leading lady, I became very good friends with him, and I am to this day.

Q: How long did it take you to write the screenplay?

A: Two months. I did the research first, then two months to write. I wrote it 10 years ago.

Q: Ten years ago?

A: Let me tell you, it was a great shock to me when I got the call that they had the money and the final director.

Q: What happened in the past 10 years?

A: I don’t know why you want all this detail. There was a succession of eight directors. So you know I rewrote that thing — in one case rather drastically — for about four out of the eight. They were really big names. Jodie Foster replaced Patricia Clarkson at one point. So I had to rewrite it for her, and for whatever changes the directors wanted. For one reason or another, the directors dropped out.

Q: Why do you think they dropped out?

A: I think some thought the film was too small. That makes a big director very nervous, because small means it probably has a limited audience.

Q: After all these rewrites and eight directors, which version of your screenplay was used?

A: The irony is, the first one. Which is great, because that’s usually the best one, the one you wanted to do.

Q: When did you actually see the final cut?

A: At the premiere in Toronto. I was nervous as a cat. I had to cut 10 pages in a very short script to make it affordable, and some of the changes cut into the bone and made problems in the editing room, as I told them they would. The final film was more humorous than had been intended, because so many scenes that gave it gravity had been cut or left on the editing-room floor.

Q: Yet Learning to Drive was a great success at the Toronto Film Festival.

A: I was astounded. I was speechless, really. I hadn’t eaten for two days anyway, I was so nervous. I was not prepared for the amount of laughter, completely unprepared. I thought I was mostly writing something witty, not funny-ha-ha. During the Q & A, the director said, “I thought I was making a drama with little bits of comedy. I guess what I made was a comedy with some dramatic moments.” It had just been flipped. I have to say I’m not unhappy about it, because it made it a popular film.

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