Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet has directed ten features and three documentaries in the past twenty-five years. Perhaps best known for her award-winning films My Life Without Me (2003) and The Secret Life of Words (2005) starring Sarah Polley, Coixet also directed Elegy (2008) with Ben Kingsley, Penélope Cruz, and Patricia Clarkson, and Map of the Sounds of Tokyo (2009), which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Her most recent film, Learning to Drive, also starring Kingsley and Clarkson, will be released later this year, and she’s set to direct Juliette Binoche and Rinko Kikuchi in her upcoming film Nobody Wants the Night. Coixet’s films often feature international casts, and she tends to explore stories with female protagonists. Anna Weinstein spoke with Coixet about her career, her inspirations, and the thrills and challenges of filmmaking.
Anna Weinstein: How did you get your start as a director?
Isabel Coixet: I was working in magazines, always talking about movies, doing interviews with directors, and then I started working in an advertising agency as a copywriter. It was a big agency, and they also had a production company, so I started sneaking into shoots and seeing how things were made. And then I started stealing cans of film, and that’s how I did my first short – stealing cans of film. Now I can say it, because nobody cares about cans of film anymore.
I’ve read that you refer to your first feature as a failure. How did you find the courage to try again? It was seven years later that you wrote your next script?
Yes, the first film was Too Old to Die Young, and it was a disaster. It was the worst movie ever, because I didn’t have any real life experience. And I felt it was over. I felt okay, I had this opportunity, and I bombed it. I screwed up. So maybe I have to think of something else to do. And at that time, I was becoming a pretty good commercial director, and I focused and made money, and I tried to forget this dream of being a film director. And I realized that with my first film, I was more concerned about being a director than about storytelling. It was a very humbling lesson for me. It was a long process, but sometimes I was glad I screwed up my first film because I had to really work hard for the right to tell stories. I was living, loving, crying, suffering – all these things you have to do to grow up.
In so many of your films, you bring together people from different countries, from different worlds. Can you tell me about that draw for you?
Well, one of my obsessions is the day we’ll understand that there are more things that unite us than keep us apart, and then maybe we’ll learn something about mankind – and all these wars will stop. And I like to see what happens when someone very cultivated tries to understand someone who has never read a book, or someone from a country like Spain tries to understand someone from Japan. All of my boyfriends are from different countries. I never fell in love with someone from Barcelona, I have to say, so probably it’s something in my genes. I like the adventure, the unknown. I also feel more free when I’m telling stories that aren’t so close to home.
What was your childhood like, growing up in Barcelona?
I come from a very poor family – nobody worked in movies, but my father was always reading and talking about other countries. And I remember having my first passport at eighteen and going to New York, because at fourteen I had read Manhattan Transfer, and I had this mythic idea of New York. I always had this fascination with Tokyo and New York and Paris and Rome and Reykjavik. I always said I wanted to make a film in Tokyo. And I remember the first day shooting Map of the Sounds of Tokyo and saying “action,” and I remember having this rush of energy and joy. The first time I was in Tokyo when I was twenty-five I thought I would love to make a film there, and then it happened. Twenty years after, I was doing a film there. And for me, films are also an adventure, because it’s a learning experience, working with crews I don’t know, and going into these unknown lands and being free and telling stories. I spent six months in Japan, editing the film there. And at the end of the six months, I was going to restaurants and the people, they understood what I was saying. I was very proud of that.
They could understand you, which is a running theme, I think, in your films – communication. Would you say that’s correct?
Yeah, communication and the lack of communication and how words are betraying us the whole time. How what you’re thinking, what you’re saying, and what you’re feeling, there’s not always a connection there. Even when I was a child, that was my goal – for what you feel, what you see, what you say, and what you think to be the same thing. But probably then you’ll be too honest, and that won’t be good for your life!
Tell me about the inspiration for The Secret Life of Words.
I remember when the Balkan War was happening, I was working a lot in Italy. I was doing these car commercials and pasta commercials. And I remember every time I was in the Milano airport seeing the flights to Sarajevo and thinking, why are you doing a car commercial and you’re not going there? So when the war was finished, I met this woman, Inge Genefke. She created this organization called IRCT, International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, and she became one of my heroes. And she was creating centers to help victims of the war, women who were raped – and I asked her, what can I do? And she said, you can do a documentary for us. We need someone to go to Sarajevo and Mostar and interview these women, because we have to have witnesses. So I went to Sarajevo and Mostar, and I spent three months there, and I wasn’t just interviewing people but also working in the centers. And when I came back and edited the documentary, let me tell you, editing these interviews with these victims, the last thing I wanted to do was a film about the Balkans.
But at the time, I was writing a story that happened on an oil rig. It was a story of jealousy and these two guys, one was married and the other was in love with his wife. And I don’t know how, but I started writing about this nurse who goes to the oil rig, and all these stories I heard and saw in Sarajevo were coming through, and Hanna became the main character. So when you see that there’s this character who swings into the story and pulls the strings, I guess you have to let her emerge.
Was that typical for your writing process, or was that the first time that happened – that a script started as one thing and then transformed into something else?
Yeah, it was the first time. It was the first time, but I remember every face I met there – every woman, everything they told me, everything. It’s an experience you have to process. It’s in your life. It’s in your backpack of experiences. And when you see this kind of suffering, that shapes you – it’s there.
How did you work with Sarah Polley in terms of the embodying that role?
I wrote the role with Sarah in mind. I didn’t have any doubt she could do it. So after My Life Without Me, I told her I wanted to work with her again. And she said, yeah, all the directors say that, but then nothing happens. And I remember when I sent her this script, she was like, oh my God, what, what? She loved the part. And I think she’s really extraordinary – she’s an incredible actress. It’s a joy to work with her. It’s fun; it’s easy. I worship Sarah. She transcended the role.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility in terms of how you create roles for women – how you portray female characters? Is that something you concern yourself with?
Yes and no. Yes, because it’s something they always ask you about, so you have to be prepared to really explain your characters, and you have to be prepared to hear the most horrible things about what you do and what your characters do. But I’m prepared now, so whatever they say, I know I understand and respect women – so whatever they say about my characters, I don’t care anymore.
Which takes bravery, instead of presenting some phony heroic version of a woman.
It’s kind of exhausting being a woman. There’s this example I always use. Okay, making a film, imagine it’s a mountain. On the base of that mountain, there are two filmmakers – one is a man, and the other is a woman. The man is there with Timberlands and a backpack and lots of things very useful to climb the mountain. And on the other side, we have the woman with high heels and a suitcase full of stones. Okay, you can climb a mountain with a suitcase full of stones and high heels, but it’s ten thousand times more difficult. And that’s how it is. You get to the top of the mountain – but wow, it’s a very tough job.
How much of society’s expectations contribute to the difficulty? Do you carry any personal baggage about what you’re supposed to be doing, or is it just the mechanics of it?
Yeah, at the same time, when you reach a certain age, all these expectations and the things you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to do them, it’s less and less meaningful. I mean, I just don’t care anymore. I remember I used to think I had to make films with men as the main characters, because if I do films with a woman, they’ll say, well yeah, of course you do women’s films. And then I realized that no matter what you do, they’re going to call it a female film, a chick flick. No matter if you do a film about an oil rig and a nurse who never speaks, they’ll still say it’s a chick flick. So once you know that, you kind of obliterate it.
Why do you think there are so few female directors? What do you think is stopping people, and what do you think we can do to shepherd more women toward the profession?
One thing is, it’s very hard to understand this when you’re on a film set – but you’re there to make a movie, not to make friends. Women, we’re afraid to say what we want, and we’re afraid to make enemies. Also, you know, women want to have kids, and it’s very difficult to have kids and make films. I have a daughter, and in every interview in those female magazines, they always ask me, so how can you be a mom and make a film in Tokyo? What happens with your daughter when you’re on the road? They ask Spielberg or Scorsese or David O. Russell that? They never ask a man that. But you always have to justify your behavior. Like, what do you care where my daughter is? I mean, come on. I’m a single mom; my daughter is just fine. She comes with me. But at the same time, when you’re directing, the world’s the film. There’s no family, there’s no nothing – no kids.
So what would your advice be to the young woman who’s concerned about trying to be a director and balancing family? What would you say to that woman?
If you really, really want to direct films, you will. It will happen – just be patient. Don’t pay attention to all the stupid things they’re going to tell you. You want to have kids, have kids. Look, you’re a woman, it’s more work for you. Your suitcase is full of stones. Just embrace it.
Anna Weinstein is a US-based writer, editor, and screenwriter. She writes frequently about women working in film and television, female screen storytelling, and on-screen representations of women and girls.