By Paul Risker.
The Catalonian filmmaker Isabel Coixet has moved beyond her native tongue to work in various languages that crisscross lingual borders to create both single and bilingual narratives. But for Coixet these dialects are simply part of a larger language that combines them all. As she explains: “I still believe with all of my body and my soul in filmmaking as a language, and I think Japanese, French, English or Spanish is incidental.”
Adapted from Scottish born writer Cathy MacPhail’s novel of the same name, Another Me (2013) with its British sensibility received its UK Premiere at this year’s FILM4 FrightFest. For Coixet however it represents her first foray into a less familiar world – that of genre. On one level Another Me is a reflection on the creative process that in the shell of a suspenseful tale in which one adolescent girl is haunted by both her known and her unknown past reflects on the journey towards understanding one’s identity – an integral part of the performance process in which the past and the present merge.
In conversation with Film International Coixet took us back to her childhood to reflect on the importance of the cinematic experience, before she discussed the process of collision by which her ideas for stories take shape. She also shared her thoughts on her first foray into the genre – the appreciation of the rules and yet how her creative nature led her to craft a genre film with a subversive edge.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
My grandmother sold tickets at a movie theatre in Barcelona and so I spent my childhood in the theatre. For me it was just that moment when all the lights went out and there were all the endless possibilities of the screen. When I was a kid and people asked me: “So what do you want to do when you grow up?” I always said: “I want to make movies.” Of course they thought I wanted to be an actor, but that was never my thing. I always wanted to be the person behind the screen pulling the strings. So I cannot say if it was a film or just the moment of being in the movie theatre; of being completely mesmerized by the darkness, the light of the screen, the shadows and the possibilities of the screen.
As a filmmaker do your experiences influence the way in which you watch films as a spectator?
Even if I have made twelve films, when I sit in the movie theatre or when I sit at home and there is something honest, raw, wild and unexpected coming from that screen, then I’m fascinated. I love all kinds of films and I think I am a very good audience because I can very easily become entranced with the screen whatever it is: a silent movie, a black and white movie or an experimental twenty minute short film. When there is something very good, unexpected and very challenging then I am there.
The way in which ideas or stories take shape are divided between those writers who write through images, and those writers who perceive that stories are thought out through words. How does the process work for you? Does the idea emerge through images or expressions and words?
For me expression always comes from the collision of two very opposite ideas or two very opposite moments, like a conversation I heard in a coffee shop in Uzbekistan when I didn’t understand a word they were saying. But it makes me think about or try to find out from just their expressions what they are saying. And then just a girl crying outside a nightclub in Birmingham. In my head these completely different and opposite moments will sometimes combine and something different and new comes from these two things. It is a very weird to explain it, but that’s where my ideas can come from.
What were the steps by which you came to adapt and direct Cathy MacPhail’s Another Me?
I had a personal friendship with the producer Rebekah Gilbertson and we would cross paths at festivals around the world. She liked my films and I liked her. We had talked about doing something together for a while and then one day she gave me the novel Another Me by Cathy and I loved it. It was a novel for let’s say young adults, but there were some subjects I felt really attracted to: what is this endless search for oneself and who we really are? What is happening when you are a teenager and you are having problems at home and at school and you are searching for who you really are? I always wanted to do a genre film and so I thought it was a splendid opportunity to do one.
This being your first foray into genre, how did it influence you as a writer/director? Did you appreciate having to work with certain rules or were you able to explore the idea freely?
I have to say that I am not very good at following rules and that’s why I think the film is not a classical genre film. I think it touches upon and it takes some elements, especially in the creation of the atmosphere, which was really important. I also believe in no rules and the films I admire have been made by people who never follow the rules. But it is true that the use of the music, the sound and all of these things really help you to build an atmosphere. And also for me it was important to go through daily life moments such as when you are in your kitchen or in your room and all the things are familiar to you, how with just a simple twist of your point of view they can become terrifying elements.
The story of Another Me taps into the creative process of storytelling, capturing the process in which through performance actors become their characters.
Some of the films that were really inspiring for me were the seventies films such as Robert Mulligan’s The Other (1972). I was very, very touched by these films when I saw them years ago on TV, and I tried to do something like this in the film. I tried to create a creepy atmosphere with very simple elements, while also trying to find how you even think about how something happened when you weren’t even born, and it is shaping who you are right now.
Storytelling is reliant on the past and within the narrative of Another Me the past is a crucial component. Could you talk about the importance of valuing the past within narrative fiction and your approach to using it as a means to enrich and drive the narrative forward?
I made a film called Yesterday Never Ends (2013), but the past has been very, very important in my films. I always try to write the past of my characters; how the past shapes who they are right now and who they will become. But I think this is something that has to be underneath what you are doing. In a film like Another Me the past is also underneath, but this is a genre film and it is also the gimmick and the why of how the characters behave and interact, and why they are sad when they are sad. In other films it is different because it is a little more subtle, but in the case of this film it is very much there because of the character that Sophie [Turner] plays. She is someone haunted by her past as well as her hidden past – the things that she doesn’t know but she suspects.
With any film you have to create an authentic and believable world for the audience. One of the challenges that is an extension of this is to create an authentic sense of suspense and paranoia that you know will resonate with the audience, draw them in and connect them to the main character.
Well that’s my aim. I hope the audience is with her and even if they don’t have this teenage angst they can still connect with it. I think teenage angst is a very underrated theme because I can see adults right now who still have this angst. And that teenage angst is not that different to seeing a real person in you.
How important is it to trust your instincts as a filmmaker and could the process of filmmaking from film to film be described as one in which you develop and learn to trust those instincts?
I always think filmmaking is a little bit like swimming in the dark, and I find myself swimming in the dark very, very often. The only thing it gives you is that you know how to swim. You are very conscious of the dark, but you keep doing it and that’s what I am trying to do. I try to do my homework, but on set I am always open to whatever the space, the situation and the moment is giving me. So I am floating between knowing what I have to do and not knowing… And I think I am quite good at that.
The UK Premiere of Another Me took place at FILM4 FrightFest and is now available to download in HD.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.