Isabel Coixet

Isabel Coixet (photo: Mauricio Retiz)

Spanish women directors are amazing. I love them. They make lots of films that we don't see enough of outside Spain (see women nominated in Spain's Goya Awards 2014 here, for some of the most recent). And – I believe – they're collectively the most activist group of directors in the world. Spanish women directors founded CIMA (Asociacion de Mujeres Cineastas y de Medios Audiovisuales), and then EWA, the European Women's Audiovisual Network, which is going from strength to strength – an interview with EWA's director Francine Hetherington Raveney, coming soon.

Isabel Coixet is one of the visionary directors involved with CIMA, EWA's current president and director of seven features and many shorts, docos and commercials. She was a member of the Camera d’Or jury at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and her latest film, Panda Eyes, is due for release shortly. This is what Isabel says on the EWA site–
Every time I teach in a film school I face the same challenge: How to teach girls to believe that they really can be film directors, that they will be able to reach their goals and their dreams, when I know very well it`s going to be much more difficult for them than for the boys? I always use a very graphic example: the film industry is like a rocky mountain; boys climb the mountain with boots and sticks, girls must climb naked except for a pair of really high heels and a suitcase full of stones.

For a man, directing a movie is a fierce challenge, for a woman it is like winning the lottery. There`s also something very upsetting, something we must fight every single day: the cultural dismissal of women is so ingrained that the public, including some women, don`t seem to perceive a problem.

What do we need? What we really need is to change our cultural attitude towards women 180 degrees. We need Female super heroes. We need Big budgets. We need the right to be bitchy if we feel like it. We need to stop apologising for being bitchy. We need to alert the audience, if they are not watching films directed by women, they are missing the point of view of the other half of mankind (did I say 'mankind’?)

EWA can't change the mountain, but we will try to make women much better prepared for the climbing. At least the suitcase will be lighter and we'll be able to wear our Louboutins when we get to the top.
Irresistible! So of course I asked EWA if I could cross-post this interview between Isabel and Francine Raveney. Warm thanks to you, Isabel and Francine!


Isabel talks with Francine

What were your major influences when you were growing up which inspired you to become a director?

When I was growing up, my grandmother used to sell tickets in a cinema in the Gracia neighbourhood of Barcelona, called Texas then later Lauren. Unfortunately the cinema closed very recently. For me, being in a cinema, in the dark, focusing on the big screen shaped my point of view about the world, about relationships, about love and betrayal, about pain, life, death and everything. This was an important experience for me as a child. Even as a child I knew that I wanted to do already was to make movies. I always wanted to do this. When I think about my childhood I always think about the darkness in the cinema and the lamp in my room when I was reading. My main influences are a combination of these two things.

I remember aged 13 reading Proust, volume 1 A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, on the beach with my parents and I remember feeling that this book was more real to me than the beach, the smell of fried fish and coconut tanning oil. I was also very shy and introverted and acutely aware of this. I always felt that there were lots of stories on the inside; I daydream a lot (too much) and you have the legacy from your parents, but you’re also born in a certain way – as Lady Gaga says. I don’t like the spotlight, I like to be away from the camera and at the same time I’m a control freak. So, I like to be the one pulling the strings and telling stories.

Not everyone attends film school before becoming a director, but for those who do, do you think it is a duty of film school to address the issue of gender difference in the industry and prepare girls for it?

If you’d asked me this question a number of years ago I’d have said no – it’s not necessary, it’s society that has to change rather than the schools (be it film schools, law schools, whatever). Now, however, I still see that even though we’re fighting, women are still a minority. We’re facing things that no male directors have to face. Not just directors, but this is also true for actresses. Two days ago I was at Juliette Binoche’s house. She’s going to Chile to make a film and then she’s coming back to Europe to star in my upcoming film Nobody Wants The Night, and I was sitting on her sofa and could see how she was organizing her two children’s lives before she left – making sure the doctor’s appointment had been arranged and that the homework would be done and various people taking care of different things. I know for a fact that no male actor would have to deal with these questions. So when people laugh about quotas there are quotas in life too and it’s these quotas that are preventing us from having an equal world. In my case it’s the same. I remember when I directed the film A Los Que Aman I had just had a baby, who was 6-months old. I remember being torn between breastfeeding the baby, taking care of my house and my parents, and at the end of that film I just collapsed with exhaustion. I was really ill for one month. These are things that we have to face in life. We don’t have the same lives as men.

This morning (13.1.14) an article in El Periodico mentioned the fact that you are entrepreneurial and how you have a business approach to your work. Your company Miss Wasabi not only produces films and documentaries, but also commercials – at what stage did you incorporate this business plan into your working methods and how well prepared do you think many directors are to ensure business sustainability especially in Spain?

I don’t think we’re prepared at all. In my case perhaps I did things the wrong way round. I did them in the way that I knew. I have a degree in history and I never went to film school or studied business. In my case I started by making commercials at a very early stage. For me making commercials was my film school and my way of earning freedom. Thanks to commercials I’m able to concentrate on directing those films that I really want to. I’m not saying that that’s the right thing to do. I’m not saying that’s the ideal way. I don’t know if it’s an example for others.

I don’t know many people who have done the same as me, because even though my colleagues in the commercial world always says that commercials are just a step towards making films, I don’t see that happening in reality. When you make commercials you’re very spoilt. You have the money up front. They pay you a lot of money for a two-day shoot. You can use the best cameras, have the time you need, the best post-production facilities and an experienced and professional team with you. So, I have to say at this point, commercials are easy. It’s when you’re directing a film in New York, and dealing with five locations in one day – from Bronx, to Harlem to New Jersey, to Hoboken or Staten Island – you realise that this is the real world. Commercials are not the real world. But they teach you things: to tell stories in a nanosecond, so for me that was a good film school. It was a way to build a company.

I’m proud to have been able to help launch the career of lots of people. Not only in Spain, but throughout the industry in Europe and beyond… DoPs, production designers, camera people etc. Recently for the film Learning to Drive, which I shot in New York, I was able to work with a Barcelona Director of Photography who I had previously met through commercials called Manel Ruiz. I also worked with Dania Saragovia - a Colombian production designer who lives in New York and who has worked on the best internationally directed commercials; this was his first film as a production designer on a feature. This is a way of testing people at work, to see how they react in stressful situations. I don’t know if it is the right approach. But it’s my approach.

Many of your films tackle difficult subjects, such as death and separation. Are you primarily drawn to this type of sensitive subject matter, which draws on the raw emotions?

I guess so, yes. For me, even if I think I have a good sense of humour, when I sit down to write I tend to see the dark side of things. At the same time I think there is always light and hope in my films. But if we have to say the type of films I direct – then yes, dramas. At the same time I’m trying to reach other audiences and to leave my comfort zone. For example, the film I directed in New York, Learning to Drive, is a feel-good movie. There is a little drama, there are tears, but it’s a genuinely feel-good movie.

The film I’m about to start now, Nobody Wants The Night, is a drama – an adventure film meets epic drama. It will be the first time I shoot in the North Pole, so it will also be a challenge. You make mistakes when you leave your comfort zone, and I’ve made mistakes, but without wanting to sound like a self-help book, mistakes really teach you. Then you go and make an even bigger mistake… but still they teach you and above all you have to be willing to learn from them.

And following on from that – your documentaries and features have looked at politically sensitive subject areas, for example the way the economic crisis is impacting on life in Spain and contributing to the brain drain in Ayer No Termina Nunca and Listening to Judge Garzón, which is about a judge who was essentially debarred in Spain for looking into crimes committed under the Franco regime. Do you see it as a director’s duty to be politically aware?

I think Spain right now is a sleeping country, so we have this responsibility… We are in an extremely difficult situation with a government that – without wanting to be nasty about it – is simply useless. The last straw is the proposal as regards the changes to the abortion law. Why, if we had a law that was ok, would a man want to change the law without being asked? I’ve signed a thousand petitions, but 50% of the population are women and we have to demonstrate on the streets to say that this is not right. The government is turning its back on the population. At the same time they have the vote of a lot of people – not mine.

How do you organize your time? As a successful prolific director is it difficult to handle so many projects one after the other or do you prefer to work this way?

Actually, after Map Of The Sounds of Tokyo it was almost five years before I directed another feature film. During these intervening years I did a lot of writing, pushed a lot of projects, and for instance, Learning To Drive is a project which I started working on at end of shooting Elegy, seven years ago. So, in fact, projects take a lot of time to develop. I started Nobody Wants The Night three years ago. Nowadays projects take forever, especially the projects I’m interested in, which are not Transformers IV. After Nobody Wants The Night I have a very interesting story called The Bookshop in the pipeline and I think that this project will happen at end 2014. It’s based on a book by Penelope Fitzgerald. It’s a story about a woman who opens a bookstore in a tiny village in England in 1959 and it’s a very simple story. The main protagonist is one of the characters out of all of my films to whom I have felt the closest. It’s a very personal film, but was written three years ago… films take time to be made.

Moving subjects, we are honoured that you are the President of the EWA network. How do you think a network such as EWA can help female filmmakers in the industry and why is networking so useful?

It is important to feel a sense of belonging to something, to feel united. As a filmmaker this is something that needs developing, even if I have a very good relationship with other female directors from throughout the world, with whom I feel there is common ground. We are facing the same problems and it’s good to know we are standing on our feet and we are working against the atmosphere, which, let’s face it, is very hostile to female directors. It’s a fact proven by statistics. Belonging to such a network is one of the few things we can do. EWA is about having a common base of discussion, exchanging experiences, being aware of what’s happening in the industry – and by being aware of what’s happening we start to change it and I think we are already starting to make this change.

Are there some specific skillsets where you consider women in the industry weaker than men, e.g. negotiation skills or not?

In terms of directors, the problem is that a director is a weak person from the outset and very vulnerable… someone who wants to be loved. In order to be loved, you avoid confrontation. As a woman, like many women, I don’t like confrontation, but at the same time I learnt my lesson at a high price – there is no way of avoiding confronting things… be they your own weaknesses, be they people who disrespect you, etc. Another area I’m working on and where I’ve learnt a lot is contracts… I never used to pay attention to percentages and articles and was rather careless… and then you have a realization - why are they paying another person more than the writer/director? Why? Why does a producer make more than you? Very basic things… things which they don’t teach you in film school. I think that it’s related to a deep lack of self-esteem.

As a female director you always feel like you’re an uninvited guest at the film party business, you never want to ask for more. Building your good self-esteem – not over the top but to a reasonable level – means you should be paid fairly for the work you’re carrying out.

What recommendations would you give young female directors coming into the industry?

Be stubborn, be patient, be wild, be free, be safe – but don’t play safe, believe in yourself, believe your point of view is as valid as that of any other director, listen, learn, never think you’ve made it, always be dissatisfied and don’t take yourself too seriously, but seriously enough.

What is your opinion on the future of Spanish cinema: with art-house cinemas closing everywhere and public funding being cut? Should Spain look more internationally, e.g. to co-productions, to ensure sustainability of the industry?

Firstly, we have a government which hates culture. If cinema tickets only cost €3 people would go – but this isn’t possible. Taxes on all cultural things are insane and we should learn from our neighbour France on this one. Co-productions are the best way when it makes sense… not just thinking in terms of making a tripartite co-production to get money, but there are films which make sense to co-produce. Eurimages is always very good at judging this and they are aware of this.

It’s very sad. For example, when I saw that cinema, where my grandma used to work and where I spent my early childhood years, being closed down… to be replaced by a franchise like Zara, which we don’t need another of…

However, every time I see a good movie I start to believe in cinemas all over again. For example, La Grande Belleza, or Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska, or Wong Kar-wai’s film The Grandmaster – even if I miss Wong Kar-wai’s early films and can see how difficult it is for filmmakers to be faithful to themselves… movies are still magic. The day I stop believing in magic I’ll go to a village and start making olive oil…


Francine & Isabel


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