Interview with the filmmaker Isabel Coixet

We have admired Isabel Coixet for many years, both because of her personality and her work, from her films to her writing. We are enormously captivated by her gaze, her sensitivity and  her way of narrating and displaying emotions and life itself. Because whether you empathise with her style or not, one thing is clear: she leaves no one indifferent, unless they’re in a catatonic state. Because Coixet is the kind of person that goes out on a limb and takes risks even if that means wearing her heart on her sleeve.

She is one of those people that enjoys the details, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem, and also someone who knows how to surround herself with talent making them shine brighter, if possible. Her friends class her as generous, fun, very sensitive, extremely intelligent and faithful.

As many of you know, the career of this prolific writer, screenwriter and film-maker is vast – she has 25 titles counting films, series, documentaries and short films – and we could devote an article to this alone. However, we are here to share the interview she gave us barely a few weeks ago, for the release of her latest film It Snows in Benidorm. Come in and read.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

As a child, I wanted to be a telephone operator, a missionary nun in Africa and a film director.

“As a child, I wanted to be a telephone operator, a missionary nun in Africa and a film director.”

Sartre said “We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us.” What vital moment are you at right now?

At a point where I couldn’t care less about what others see or their approval or rejection.

When and how did you discover films and what was the detonator that made you to decide to devote your life professionally to film-making?

I discovered films at a very young age, because my grandmother was the clerk at the box office at the Texas Cinema in Gràcia, Barcelona.

“I discovered films at a very young age, because my grandmother was the clerk at the box office at the Texas Cinema in Gràcia.”

I always said that I wanted to do what I saw in the films, because I was fascinated but I always knew I wanted to be behind the scenes.

And there was also a film that my parents took me to see – that I didn’t understand at all- which was “Isadora”with Vanessa Redgrave, but it was a film that certainly had an impact on me, very much so.

‘It snows in Benidorm’ has just been released following several postponements due to the pandemic. How do you feel following the release?

It’s like when you take your child to nursery, you watch him or her go in and can see that they are partly “independent”, but you still feel a very strong connection. It’s similar when a film is released. It’s a very strange feeling, as if I have finished something that I can’t quite let go of or disconnect from yet.

What attracted you to Benidorm? Discovering that Silvia Plath lived great moments of happiness in this city?

What most attracted me to Benidorm was the fascination that I ended up feeling for this city, in spite of my initial prejudice.

“What most attracted me to Benidorm was the fascination that I ended up feeling for this city, in spite of my initial prejudice.”

I don’t know how things are now, but every time I was there, I saw genuinely happy people. However, when we walk along the street and see elderly people, we normally see that their facial expression is one of worry, but that’s not the case there. It’s not something you see in Benidorm. And I pay close attention to people’s facial expressions.

And with regards to Silvia Plath… When I read her diaries and saw that she talked about Benidorm and that she had been there, I couldn’t believe it. It would be the last place in the world that you would imagine bumping into her. Obviously, the Benidorm she visited has nothing to do with what it is now…

Also, they are about to publish new memoirs of hers that I have already read and they are marvellous, especially because in some way they vindicate her role as someone who was very much alive, distancing it from what almost everyone knows about her, which was how her life ended.

This book is going to help show this side of her, in the same way that I have tried to capture it in my film where she appears happy in Benidorm.

At the same time, Silvia Plath in the film also reflects the other way things could have been done in this city using different criteria. The presence of Bofill’s Red Wall goes along the same lines. They help to question or at least ask ourselves how this place would have been with a little imagination, creativity and good taste.

The film is an ode to calm, to the here and now, to allowing ourselves to be surprised with no other plan than to survive the present. How did this plot come about?

I started out with the idea of making a documentary, not only about Benidorm but about how the Mediterranean coast has changed over the last 20 years.. A documentary involving environmental technicians, urban planners…

So I headed there to film some shots to illustrate the project I wanted to do, and… once I was there – I had never been to Benidorm – I discovered a very endearing, very surprising, very bizarre world… and I loved it. I think it’s a place with so many paradoxes and contradictions that it draws you immensely. In fact, when we were shooting, there were four other filmings going on at the same time, and I honestly think there will be many more, because this place is fascinating in many ways.

I didn’t know Sarita Choudhury, the leading actress and she is sublime. Why did you decide to work with her again?

I worked with her on Learning to Drive with Ben Kingsley and I really liked her. In that film, she played a submissive woman.

However, when we were out and went into restaurants, everyone would be captivated by the energy Sarita exudes. She has this incredible personal magnetism, and I think films haven’t used it much. That’s why I thought it was time we exploited it.

Going back to Silvia Plath, in “It Snows in Benidorm” you highlight a sentence of hers which is crucial to both the film and life: “if you never expect anything from anyone, you will never be disappointed.” Do you live by this or are you the type of person that is overwhelmed by expectations?

I do not apply this at all, and I don’t think she did either (she laughs). I don’t like to go through life not trusting people, although it’s obvious that, with age, your instinct improves…

“I am of the opinion that you cannot live without expectations. Life is too short.”

You write the script, choose locations, direct and are behind the camera… how do you conceive a film? Do you tend to work in a team or do you prefer solitude when creating?

When I write, I prefer to do so alone. In my case, I need to in order to know what I want to do and allow the story to grow in me, even if I share it afterwards and it takes a different path. But there has to be an initial moment of solitude when writing a script, that I think is important.

How have you experienced this year? How has it affected you?

I had a marvellous start to the year as I was shooting a film. That was at the end of January, and we were filming until ten days before the lockdown. And of course, I was very happy there, and then it was like fog. Something I mention a lot this year and that accurately describes this time.

At the moment, it’s very difficult to have a more or less clear idea of where we are, of why this has happened, of how we should react. I think that all of us, including the government, are taking stabs in the dark, without really knowing what to do, what to think, what to feel, what not to trust. I live in a kind of permanent mental fog and I cannot say that I have lived this well.

Your book, “Not everyone will love you” fascinated us. Mainly because it is a pleasure to read what you write and share opinions and tastes. How did this book come about? Why a compilation of articles?

I have been asked many times to write a novel, but it’s not something I plan to do. So when the publishing company turned up with this proposal,  about publishing texts that I had written for other publications, it made sense to me. But to write a book with the intent of publishing it, I can’t see it right now.

Articles give you the freedom to talk about anything, about things that happen to me, situations I have heard about or experienced in the supermarket, encounters with fantastic people…

Its title seems like a good reminder and the perfect mantra for life. Why did you decide on a title like that? And do you envisage writing another?

Maybe, because I have continued to publish articles, but it’s not something I am thinking about right now.

Regarding the title… yes, it’s a learning process. It’s something that someone I admire immensely once said to me, and who I had the good fortune to spend quite a lot of time with. It’s Jeanne Moreau. One fine day, during a conversation, she told me that one of the hardest things to learn was the idea that there are people who will never like you or get on well with, no matter what you do. And that is the truth. It’s a difficult lesson to learn, but it it has to be learnt. Anyway, when people accuse me of being a snob and so on, I laugh. I come from a lower class family, and everything that I have achieved, I have done so thanks to my efforts. No one gave me anything for free.

Obviously, we live at a time in which there are a lot of people with a lot of free time who devote it to criticizing or having a dig at anyone, almost out of pleasure. And of course, sometimes I read things about myself that surprise me, despite the fact that I admit it all affects me a lot less now. At other times in my life, this type of criticism/ negative comments would have a big impact on me and made my heart sink. But not now, now I think that everyone needs a hobby, even if that hobby is hating, disliking… Not everyone will love you.

What did receiving the Premio Nacional de Cine (the National Film Award) mean to you? How important do you feel awards are?

It was a fantastic surprise that I honestly wasn’t expecting and hadn’t even thought they would give me. It gave me the chance to deliver a speech, in which I said a number of things that I felt were important to remember.

I’ve enjoyed experiencing a film release in these times of pandemic. There are less spectators, but those who go to the cinema, do so with an unwavering passion and desire to be carried away.

Awards are a great cherry on the cake. Although for me, the cake is the prize and that’s the film. So if you get an award for it, that’s fantastic, but to have made it is already a reward. Above all, I think awards are great when they help the film, because these are times when it’s really hard to achieve things.

Do you have a special preference for any of your films?

I have predilection for “Things I never told you” because it was a film that nobody believed in, and it was like a Sisific effort. It really was a beautiful process, very indie, very much of a certain time, when people watched Jim Jarmusch films, a series of film-makers were starting out and it was a great breeding ground to do stuff like this.

Anyway, for me, films are no longer the finished film but the process, the shooting…

“For me, films are no longer the finished film but the process, the shooting…”

In recent times, you’ve raised your voice without reservations regarding the challenge of the separatist process in Catalonia. Is it still harmful for you to publicly explain your opinion?

Let’s say it doesn’t help. Sometimes, I feel like a bit of an outsider. But I think it is important to explain that there are people who don’t share their opinion. There are quite a few of us who disagree, and I say what I think and what I feel. In any case, I think everyone is very tired of this.

You have said that your shyness is social and that you can’t stand gatherings of more than five people, stages or conferences. What happens when you are promoting a film? These times are great for that, aren’t they?

It has come in handy for some things (she laughs). But well, I am also an army ant soldier and I do what has to be done. So, if I have to go to present a film or a colloquium, I go without complaint. It’s my duty. I’ll do anything in my power that will help the film. I’m clear on that.

Regarding the shyness, the truth is it is something that is never cured. The thing is that, in my case, my sense of duty is greater than my condition.

Has being a woman been detrimental in your profession? And out of it?

Yes. I think we can all say the same. Having said that, I feel there are things that are clearly improving. In my case, I think I should have protested sooner about many things and not kept quiet. But I also think that, at the time when I started working…I remember that (and this is something that I had buried away) when I was working at a marketing agency, in the creative department, where we were all young and I was the only girl – the other women were all secretaries-  I discovered one day that my colleagues earned twice as much as I did, in spite of having the same role. I remember that I didn’t tell anyone, and I didn’t summon up the courage to speak… but I began looking for another job finally knowing what salaries were being paid. And well, I ask myself what would have happened if I had challenged it.

How do you get on with male film-makers?

I have to say I get on really well with my female colleagues. There is always a really good vibe, regardless of what we are doing or going to do. There is a lot of real solidarity.

With my male colleagues, too. I have male film-maker friends who I adore.

Do you relate to the “empowered woman” concept?

I do with the concept, but the word horrifies me. Because it’s a word that may sound stronger in English but sounds strange when translated. I don’t know. But I have a lot of pet hates when it comes to words. I want to be more empowered and to be given more power.

If you could hit Ctrl+Z, what would you eliminate from your life? And what would you add?

I would eliminate from my life, all the hours I spent suffering over nonsense and over people that weren’t worth it.

“I would eliminate from my life, all the hours I spent suffering over nonsense and over people that weren’t worth it.”

And putting on weight (she laughs). And I would add the power of eating without putting on weight and a greater sense of humour. I do have one but I’d like to have more if possible. The truth is I would add more of all the good things. And above all, I would add being able to make all the films I have in mind and that I won’t have time to make.

What role does publicity have in your life?

Well, I haven’t done publicity for a long time. It was a stage in my life and it’s over.

In an IKEA advert, you make fun of yourself saying you rejected a film that won several Oscar awards. What was that like?

I have an agent in America who sends me a large number of screenplays, proposals… And although I really liked the script for Million Dollar Baby, I couldn’t see Sandra Bullock in the leading role. And I was certain about it, because I knew that if I had accepted, during shooting it would have been worse, because the way she saw the film was much sweeter than how I saw the script and it would have been a constant battle. Then along came Clint Eastwood,  a very prestigious director who got rid of her, kept the screenplay and chose a different leading actor. In any case, with that same production company, I later filmed Elegy and they really appreciated my honesty.

People or characters throughout time that you admire…

I really admire Tim Robbins. He is a person with enormous talent, who has known how to distance himself from the Hollywood game, because he is not interested. He is deeply happy.

“I really admire Tim Robbins. He is a person with enormous talent.”

And he does his own thing, he has his theatre group, every so often he does something to earn money but I really like his career path and his honesty. He is a great guy and really good fun to be with. I really like Agnès Varda, for her consistency, her curiosity and her zest for life. She is very stimulating. Actually, the list would be very long, because there are many people that I admire.

Another one of the gifts in your book are your recommendations. You have been very generous. Would you add any recent ones that you specifically liked?

Lots. From restaurants to books… I have read three books by three very different authors that I’ve really liked. I have read a book by a Japanese author, Yoko Ogawa, called The Memory Police, It’s the best dystopia that I have read in a long time. It’s a novel about a society where objects and words begin to disappear. It’s very interesting. In fact, there is a film, and someone has bought the rights and it wasn’t me. And Un Amor by Sara Mesa, that I really liked. It’s a novel where many women may see themselves. And I have read the manuscript for a book of short stories by a friend of mine called Laura Ferrero, called La gente no existe. They are wonderful stories. It’s out in January.

What’s next?

I don’t know, I have no idea. I thought I would think about it in January. I can’t think right now.

A destination you’d like to visit when it’s possible to travel…

One of the trips I’d like to do is to return to Japan. And when they open bars and restaurants, I’d like to return to Paris.

A dream

Well, an absurd dream that won’t come true and that I sometimes think about is that they put a small amount of Ecstasy in tap water, not enough to make someone have a fit or anything but to make us all relax a lot. And for all that fear and exasperation to end once and for all, because it is a complete pain and is good for nothing. It would be something like replicating those moments before an operation when you are given Propofol, and everything seems marvellous….

(*) Photos by Isabel Coixed and of “It Snows in Benidorm” by Zoe Coixet.

(**) Book review of “Not everyone will love you”