The French director and producer Benoit Cohen said he “wanted to do something different” when he moved to New York three years ago, but he wasn’t sure what that would be. His 2013 film “You’ll Be a Man,” which was screened at over 60 film festivals and garnered several dozen awards, had been the biggest success of his career. His move from Paris to New York, where he had studied decades earlier, brought the promise of a rejuvenating break with the city and artistic milieu where he had spent most of his life. But at first, he wasn’t as energized as he’d hoped. He noticed that he and his wife were “spending all of our time in the house speaking in French, writing in French, and I was a little bit disconnected with New York and English-speaking people.” They began joking that he should drive a cab to reacquaint himself with the place—and who knows, one of them eventually added, maybe there’s a screenplay based on the experience somewhere in there, too.
Joking led to Googling, which led to him waiting in line in front of New York’s Taxi and Limousine commission at five o’clock on an October morning in 2015 in order to begin a driver licensing process that turned out to be relatively quick and painless, by French standards at least. After three months of regulatory hurdles and taxi school—”the first thing they teach you is not to talk about politics” with passengers, he says—he picked up his first fare in January of 2016. “When I started to drive I said, ‘OK, I’m gonna go to a wrong address, I’m not gonna give the right change, just to provoke the clients,’” similar to how he would try to provoke his actors on a movie set, he said. It wasn’t long before he realized that this approach would be both untenable and unnecessary. “After the first fare, I said, ‘OK, now I’m a cab driver.’ I was sweating.”
Cohen is a fit and sturdy 48-year-old, with wandering black hair that shades into a stately gray. For many Americans, French cinema has a rarified and slightly elitist reputation. But driving a taxi is a quintessential New York immigrant job, and it was easy to envision Cohen hulking over the wheel of a cab, anxiously tapping the gas pedal, inching the beast forward in anticipation of a coming green light. Bénédicte de Montlaur, the New York-based cultural counselor of France’s embassy to the U.S., says that while Cohen may have been the first undercover French filmmaker to drive in the New York taxi fleet, his project wasn’t really as mold-breaking as it might appear. “This sense of adventure is not necessarily the first image one would have about French people, French artists, you know,” says de Montlaur. “They would all think, oh they are intellectuals, they take themselves very seriously, and it’s not at all the truth. Our people are extremely adventurous. And fun, in fact!”
Cohen’s adventure lived out a common New York City fantasy: Relatively few New Yorkers get to look out at their city from the driver’s seat of a cab, but only the most incurious among them has never wondered at what the view must be like. The way Cohen describes it, his relationship with his customers, and with the surrounding city, was both intimate and alienating. Driving a cab meant inhabiting an anonymous and momentary role for an onslaught of quickly-vanishing strangers. “Most of the time, you are invisible. You don’t exist. That’s a new thing [for me],” says Cohen. “When you make a movie, you’re the king. You’re just the boss, and everybody relies on you. In [the cab], it’s the opposite. You don’t exist.” At night, it was possible to go an entire fare without seeing his customers’ faces, if they paid using the backseat credit card machine. Added to this strange mixture of isolation and transience was an unfamiliar yet exhilarating feeling of randomness. “Each time someone is opening the door of your cab you don’t know who it’s going to be, what that person is going to tell you, or where you’re going to go,” he said. “I mean, you don’t direct people anymore,” he added. “They direct you.”
His customers became unwitting location scouts: “I went to so many places that I didn’t know … I was like, writing down all the time: this avenue, this bridge, this building is going to be great for the movie.” Cohen drove from January to May of 2016, but even just four months in the driver’s seat offers a panoply of human foibles and excesses. An NYPD officer who wrote him three simultaneous traffic tickets outside of Penn Station during the closing minutes of his very first shift provided Cohen with what he thinks will be the opening scene of his film—“When I went back to the garage and I told the guys what happened to me they just said, welcome to New York,” Cohen recalled. Cohen marveled at passengers who would delve into the most anguished and personal conversations, reviewing firings and breakups in life-spanning detail without closing the sliding plastic window between the driver and passenger side, or even taking their phones out of speaker mode. When a passenger chewed him out for taking a crowded onramp to the FDR expressway, Cohen found himself silently cheering on the gathering tirade. “If he gets even more upset he can make a nice situation for the movie!” he said.
Sometimes the full wondrousness of the human experience could reveal itself in the space of a single fare. Early one Tuesday morning, Cohen picked up a couple coming out of a bar in Long Island City, in western Queens. “I mean they are really high,” he recalled, something that cab drivers actually do notice, just in case you were curious. “You can see it right away.” They asked to be driven far into eastern Brooklyn, a long and lucrative trip, even when the streets are traffic-free. Neither the promise of the fastest possible ride home nor prevailing standards of decency, nor even consideration for the anonymous and apparently invisible Frenchman in the driver’s seat could prevent the couple from living out a certain other New York fantasy, an endeavor they made little attempt to conceal, kicking at the thick plastic barrier separating the passenger and driver sides. Cohen was pragmatic about the situation. “When I was driving it was OK, because the sound of the car was covering it a little bit, but when I was stopping at a light it was like, really so embarrassing. I wanted to put some music on but I figured that was going to actually make things worse.” The man paid Cohen with a large stack of single-dollar bills. “He tipped normally,” Cohen recalled. “I mean, the guy was fine.”
Encouragingly for himself, his adopted city, and perhaps the human race at large, Cohen did not emerge from four months of driving a cab in New York with his faith in humanity shattered—like his inhibition-less late-night fare, most customers were perfectly adequate tippers. And Cohen, a French citizen and the son of a Tunisian Jew, has had what counts as a successful if somewhat idiosyncratic immigrant experience these last three years. (Although he isn’t religious, and says he grew up in what was basically an atheist household, Cohen recognizes that “being a Cohen is a something special.” More than one passenger noticed his last name on his taxi license and asked about it.) He reinvented himself as a cabbie, and as an author, too. Four months of driving were rich enough to fuel a 250-page diary, which became the basis for his first book, which was recently published in French. It turns out his screenplay, which he hopes to film within the next couple of years, will be a fictionalized autobiography: the story of a French filmmaker who drives a cab in New York. The movie will be shot in New York, and will mostly be in English.
Any self-indulgence is forgivable here, since the cab, with its latent possibilities and endless cycles of people, neatly sums up Cohen’s sense of what his experience in America has meant for him these past few years. “In Paris, all my friends were the same. Now I realize that; I didn’t when I was there. It seemed normal for me.” Cohen said. “When you’re in your cab, you can get anybody from anywhere.”