Interview: Isabel Coixet

Picture this: 2018 in the north of France and I, a bright eyed 20 year old student a few weeks into an internship at a European radio station, arrive at a posh hotel in the centre of Nantes. I’ve cycled in, and it’s raining, so I shake off my raincoat and walk into the reception area, microphone in hand. Waiting for me is one of Spain’s greatest filmmakers: Isabel Coixet.

Somehow she seems almost as nervous as I am. We have a little introductory chat to calm both our nerves, and I explain to her that, seeing as most of the radio audience are French, we’ll be doing this interview in French. As a polyglot – she speaks, as I discover, not four but five languages fluently – she takes this news calmly. Sitting on an uncomfortably expensive seat in my still-wet-from-the-rain trousers, my raincoat dripping onto a fancy carpet nearby, I smile, take a deep breath, and press record.

Below is the unabridged interview transcript, translated by me.

Owen Atkinson: Hello, this is Owen Atkinson, here for euradio at the Spanish Cinema Festival in Nantes. I am here with director Isabel Coixet.
One part of this year’s festival is an homage to you and your films. So, to start off, how do you feel about having this honour at the festival?

Isabel Coixet: Well, it’s always a bit… no, it’s brilliant, to have the homage and all that, but for me all these retrospective honours, it’s a little… I try to experience it with distance, as if the person who made all these films is someone else, it’s not me! That might sound bizarre, but that’s how it is for me.

I have a real life: I go to the supermarket, I take the underground, so when I see other people’s lives I ask myself how they can do it!

Atkinson: You’re always very involved in the work of your films, working as a writer as well as a director. Is it important for you to not dilute your artistic vision?

Coixet: It is that, but it’s also because it’s more fun to do everything, you know? I’ve also worked behind the camera in all my films. But I’ve done it because… I’m not a ‘control freak’ but I really like to write, I really like working behind the camera, I really like working with the actors so, well, I try to do everything and to do my best ー and above all just to have a good time! And to elicit an emotional response in both actors and audience.

Atkinson: So then for you it’s just because you like doing all these things?

Coixet: Yes!
[she laughs]
It’s a lot better than working at, I don’t know, Lidl or Carrefour! What I mean is I know that we filmmakers all complain all the time, “no, it’s so taxing, it’s so difficult”, but for me… I’m not someone who lives in a bubble, an artistic bubble that is. I have a real life: I go to the supermarket, I take the underground, so when I see other people’s lives I ask myself how they can do it!

Listen to the original audio, in French. Via euradio

Atkinson: Because we’re a European radio station, I wanted to ask you: knowing that you speak Spanish, English, French, Catalan, those four ーare there more?

Coixet: Italian

Atkinson: Italian too! That’s really impressive. In your field, what are the advantages of being able to speak all these languages?

Coixet: Well… my grandfather was from Perpignan, in the south of France, and my father was Spanish and my mother too, but with my father we spoke Catalan… I spoke Catalan with my father, French a couple of times, and with my mother always Spanish, so we always spoke a mix and for me this mix is rather… I find that it’s quite rich, isn’t it? Bilingualism, trilingualism, it’s a more open way of viewing the world and really feeling it. I feel, honestly, I feel really good about it. It’s true that I feel as at home in Spain as I do in Italy or the US ー or in Japan too, I did a film there as well. I think that for me it’s not a question of the now; for me language is a very open kind of space ー and I don’t believe in borders, not at all. And with regards to Europe: despite all the differences, despite all our problems, I find that being European is a way of seeing our world in a more open, more human way, and on a much more human and spiritual scale too.

Atkinson: And do you think that this open-mindedness helps you in your work and in your creativity?

Coixet: For me it’s always helped, in creativity and in life, because it’s just very practical, right? You can express yourself through language, or at least you can try to express yourself. Because I’ve been living in the US these past few months, I’ve lost a little of my French. But now, three days in Nantes and I think I think a lot of it is going to come back!

If you really try to find people through an open mind and open spirit and without prejudice, I think that this can give you a way of connecting with people and seeing the resources of human nature

Atkinson: To talk a little more about this idea of universality in your films: for instance, I read a piece by an interviewer that was trying to make a link between The Bookshop and Catalan politics, but then you just said that it was a universal story. Do you always try to create this feeling of universality and intemporality in your films?

Coixet: It’s a part of my nature, for me it’s something that… I was 18 and had already travelled a lot, and after I got my passport I went to Alaska, New York, Buenos Aires. For me, the idea of universality is this: there are assholes of every nationality and there are also wonderful people of every nationality, so it’s really a question of seeing that the things everyone has in common are more important than the things that… I don’t know. It’s something that I’ve been obsessed with ever since I was 12 years old. It’s something that I’ve lived, that I’ve felt. I was in Japan and I don’t speak Japanese but… If you really try to find people through an open mind and open spirit and without prejudice, I think that this can give you a way of connecting with people and seeing the resources of human nature, don’t you think? For me, this is a part of my field ー indeed, of my career.

Image via euradio

Atkinson: I know that you don’t believe in borders but this is a question I wanted to ask: is there anything about Spanish cinema that makes it different or special within a European context?

Coixet: I think that all European cinematographers ー Sweden, Italy, Romania ー they all have their particularities. But I think that if we were to make connections between them ー perhaps not in the anglo-saxon world, but in the countries that speak different languages ー we could find some things in common. For me, the difference between, let’s call it the anglo-saxon world, or at least the American world, and Europe is this: I feel that in Europe we live much more in reality. I find that in the US especially they live in a really bizarre kind of bubble, where reality is something ー how could I say it? In English they use ‘glossy’ ー more manicured, let’s say, than in Europe. For me that’s how it is; I know that’s not a particularly elaborate idea but I feel it very deeply.

Atkinson: So this is for the whole of Europe?

IC: Yes

Atkinson: And in Spain in particular? Any specific strengths maybe…?

Coixet: But in Spanish cinema too there is ー as if we can say ‘Spanish cinema’ just like that ー I think ー well, it’s not just ‘I think’ ー we have a lot of different creators with their very strong and very diverse personalities. We touch on a lot of themes: horror, comedy, intimate storytelling, even special effects. So I don’t know how to define everything that we Spanish filmmakers have in common. I don’t know. It’s very difficult!

Atkinson: No, that’s okay!

I love creating portraits of people’s  inner selves, I like to really observe people ーwhat do people do when they’re all alone? In the privacy of their bedroom or their own home? How do we live when we’re in solitude?

Atkinson: You have made all these films and it’s quite hard to define your style and your ilk because they are all in different genres. Do you find a kind of freedom in working within all these diverse styles and genres

Coixet: Well, there are some people that say that all my films are the same!
[she laughs]

Atkinson: Really? Not me!

Coixet: I find that there are some themes I really enjoy exploring: I love creating portraits of people’s  inner selves, I like to really observe people ーwhat do people do when they’re all alone? In the privacy of their bedroom or their own home? How do we live when we’re in solitude? And courage is very important: I like people who, even when everything is against them, follow the ideas they have in their head. Perhaps those are all the things my films have in common.

Atkinson: Now, to finish off, what is the next step for you? What’s your next project?

Coixet: At the start of May I am starting production on a new film called Elisa y Marcela. It tells the story of two girls ーit’s a true storyーwho lived a very rural life in the north of Spain, in the countryside. These two women fall in love and so one of them steals the papers and the identity of a male cousin. She disguises herself as a man and the two get married, in 1906 or 7 in a church in A Coruna, in Galicia, northern Spain. Three days later they are found out, the two lovebirds, because she wasn’t a man. They fled to Porto, in Portugal, and spent four months in prison there. It’s a true story and I’ve worked very hard on the script. It’s a film I’m making for Netflix. And there you go, I start production in May.

Atkinson: Thanks so much for speaking to me.

Coixet: Thank you!

This interview was done in the spring of 2018, and Elisa y Marcela is now out and available to watch on Netlfix. You can find my review of the film here.

Thank you to euradio for giving me this opportunity. You can read my original write-up on their website (in French) here. The audio has since been taken down, but I have uploaded it here, above.

Header image via euradio

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