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Photo by Lee Woolcock
Isabel CoixetHannah Pennell interviews the leading Catalan film director - August 2008
According to the title of a recent book examining her career to date, Barcelona-born film director Isabel Coixet is a ‘woman under the influence’ (Una Mujer Bajo La Influencia, 2008). Now 46, the award-winning film-maker has taken inspiration from many influences, as the book explains, but it was through family that the seventh art took an early hold on her: thanks to a grandmother who worked in a cinema box office, Coixet spent a lot of time watching films while growing up.
Coixet graduated in history from Barcelona University in 1983 and headed into the world of advertising, eventually working all over the world for a range of companies. But she was simultaneously developing her film career: her first script, zombie-horror flick Morbus, was made into a film in 1983 and Coixet’s directorial debut came the following year with the short Mira y Verás.
As her career progressed, what marked her out from contemporaries such as Pedro Almodóvar and Julio Medem is how she increasingly shot features away from her home country and her native languages. Two Spanish-language films (Demasiado Viejo para Morir Joven, 1989 and A Los Que Aman, 1998) were interspersed by her first feature in English, Things I Never Told You (1995). She started to gain greater international attention with the 2003 movie My Life Without Me, which grew with 2005’s The Secret Life of Words, her segment in Paris Je t’aime (2007) and this year’s Elegy (adapted from the novella A Dying Animal by Philip Roth).
But she has not forgotten, or been forgotten by, Spain. Secret Life of Words won three awards (film, director and original script) at the 2005 Goyas, she has contributed to social documentaries and she created party political broadcasts for the Spanish Socialist party in this year’s general election.
While the scope, locations and themes of Coixet’s films have varied, they tend to share certain features that stamp them as her work—she often uses voice-over, takes an unhurried hand with the camera and is clearly fascinated by the idiosyncracies of the on-screen characters. Her next film will be shot in Tokyo, in Japanese and English.
What is it about the ‘Anglo-Saxon sensibility’ that attracts you?
The world is wide, no? I did my first film here, because I was living here and I wrote a story that happens here. Then, eight years after, there were two years that I was working in the States; I did lots of commercials in the States, I worked on the two coasts and I wrote the story, Things I Never Told You. You know, I was working there, I was living there. Things I Never Told You is a story about all the people I knew in that moment in my life. I crossed the country several times, I went to the most strange and isolated places on Earth, and for me it was so natural. It was afterward, when everyone was asking, “Why do you want to do a film in English?” that I thought, “Ah? It’s weird?”
You already spoke English then before you made films in English?
I never studied English properly. I had a boyfriend who was from Minneapolis, he was my first real boyfriend and we spent four years together and we travelled a lot; he had a Fulbright scholarship to learn Catalan. My father is Catalan, my mother is from Salamanca, so I always had a conversation in Catalan and Spanish at the same time, maybe that helped. My daughter is completely tri-lingual. I think it’s fun and I speak Italian and I speak French. I’m trying to learn Japanese—that’s another story…maybe I’m too old now.
What can you tell me about your next film, Map of the Sounds of Tokyo?
The last time I was in Tokyo was two years ago and we were in the fish market, and there was this girl with a big mop cleaning the floor, and I tried to take a picture of her and she didn’t let me. And that was the first time it happened to me in Japan [that someone didn’t want their photo taken]. And you know, this thing was in the back of my mind for these two years, and I finished the script last week. It took a long time, because I had accepted to make Elegy. But I finished the script and I hope I will shoot before the end of the year.
Before you took the project of filming Elegy on, were you aware that people had called A Dying Animal misogynistic?
Yeah, of course.
And did that make you wary? Did that make it more of a challenge?
I’m very sensitive to…I live all my life with, you know, misoginia. It’s in everything, even if you don’t realise. But at the same time, I knew there was something very human and very interesting to me to explore. I met Philip Roth, I spoke to him.
How was that?
He’s a fascinating guy. At the same time, he is David Kepesh [who is played by Sir Ben Kingsley in the film], he is that guy. And the story of A Dying Animal is something that happened to him. And I can’t help but feel some kind of pity [for him].
And you were music supervisor on Elegy. Why did you take that role?
Because I love to do it.
Do you do it on all your films?
The Secret Life of Words, also, yeah. And I’m beginning to think about the music in Tokyo. To me, music is really important. I think some songs can lead to the real meaning of a scene and some songs can mislead you also, so you have to be careful. But it’s really fascinating to see how the same scene can change just changing the music.
You use voice-over a lot in your features. Why is that such an important tool?
Because I love it. I know people hate it. I know in all the movie film schools they say, “No, never use voice-over”. But, why not? I’m also not a fan of all that bullshit about writing a script. You know, the real classic masters, even the classic masters of screenwriting, they never used those rules. It’s when you break the rules that you do something interesting, so…yes, I use lots of voice-over and people who hate it, well, they can go and watch other movies.
In just a few words
On other directors’ work: Even in films that are not perfect you can find something, some genuine moment of something. And that’s enough for me. There are very few perfect films in the world. And I’m not sure if perfection is such a great thing.
On actors: I’d really like to work with Meryl Streep. But I know I’ll do it; I’m convinced. Because I think she’s a monster. I think she can play anything.
On possibly shooting in Barcelona: I can understand [why people film here], but for me, this is not challenging.
On being a working mother: “How do you do that?” Well, you know. Bad. Suffering. My daughter is 11 now so probably I’m going take her to Tokyo. I think it’s going to be a good experience for her. And when last year I was in Vancouver, doing Elegy, she came to the pre-production. But in a shoot, there’s no way she can be there; it doesn’t make any sense. But you know, it’s your responsibility.
First published August 2008.