Spanish/Catalan director Isabel Coixet‘s “The Secret Life of Words” (Vida secreta de las palabras) stars Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins, set on an isloated oil rig. Following an accident, a mysterious woman travels to the rig, which is staffed by an all-male crew, to care for an injured worker. After traveling to the isolated outpost, the solitary woman, who is trying to forget her past, begins caring for the man who was temporarily blinded. A strange intimacy develops between them, which is described as “a link full of secrets, truths, lies, humour and pain, from which neither emerge unscathed…” The film, which received a best actress nomination for Polley at the European Film Awards, received multiple Goyas (Spain’s Oscar equivalent), including best film, director, screenplay as well as best supporting actor for Javier Camara. Among her roster of films, Coixet recently directed a segment in the Cannes montage “Paris je t’aime,” which will be released in the U.S. next April. Strand Releasing opens “The Secret Life of Words” in the U.S. in limited release beginning Friday, December 15.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
My grandmother sold tickets in a movie theatre in the neighborhood where I was born, so when my parents were working, I spent a lot of time (and I mean A LOT) watching all kind of movies again and again, and somehow I knew I wanted to be the person who organized the shadows projected in the screen. Of course in my family everybody laughed when I was seven and one day instead of being a veterinarian or pilot or nurse I said I want to be a film director.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking (either on the creative side or industry side etc.) that you would still like to explore?
Not really, I do the things I like the most: watching movies, writing movies and directing movies. Producing them or selling them is really rocket science for me.
Please talk about how the initial idea for this film came about…
I did a documentary on an oil rig in the south of Chili years ago, and I was completely mesmerized by the place–the isolation, the strange [connections] that isolation creates between the people who were working there, and the way people open to each other in extreme situations… I always wanted to make a film in an oil rig.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences (if any), as well as your overall goals for the project?
I began writing the breakup of the fiendship between two friends who work on an oil rig who are in love with the same woman… Then little by little, the story of another woman who came to the oil rig to take care of one man–who was severely burned–[began] taking more and more space in the film. In the final script, she and that man were the central story. I have to say I always work like this–like I’m swimming in the dark or something! About my influences …..mmmmm I’m deeply influenced by Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Haruki Murakami, Patrick Modiano, John Berger, Roberto Rosellini, Francois Truffaut, Ozu, Wong Kar Wai and an endless list of writers and filmmakers from all over the world.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for “The Secret Life of Words?”
The biggest challenge was not developing the project or securing distribution. The biggest challenge was obtaining the authorization to make the movie on a real oil rig. We spent one entire year trying to convince several oil companies, and there was a moment I thought it was going to be imposible. And making the movie in less than six weeks was not easy, specially because we were working in winter in the middle of the North Sea off Northern Ireland. Some days it was too windy for the helicopters to land . But also that’s the beauty of filmmaking–fighting against the cold, the rain, the wind and the common sense!
How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?
The film was financed by two Spanish companies, Eldeseo and Mediapro and also Focus Features. I wrote the roles of Hanna for Sarah Polley and Joseph for Tim Robbins because I think they are magnificent and they have an amazing chemistry on screen. I worked with Sarah before and one of the things I don’t get is why this girl doesn’t have all the filmmakers in the world at her feet. She’s always real and brilliant and raw and perfect and human and…. Ok, I love her, but in this case, it’s not blind love. Tim is one of the most generous actors I have ever met on all levels. I was a little scared at the begining, because after all, this is a film with no budget by American standards–and let me tell you, in Spain if an actor wants a sandwich, he better go and fetch it himself. There’s no tradition of nurturing actors. But [Tim] was cool about everything and all the crew loved him.
Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
“The Secret Life of Words” is dedicated to two people: The English writer John Berger and the Danish neurologist Inge Genefke. John is probably one of the most lucid and wise voices in Europe today. He writes about art, history, politics, poetry and when you read him, it’s like the world is this beautiful hell, and we can see it in a new light. Inge Genefje was the founder of IRCT (International Rehabilitation Council Against Torture) and she is a woman who has dedicated her entire life to fight against torture and to find new ways to cure victims of torture. I admire her deeply.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
I like documentaries a lot. I just finished a documentary for Doctors Without Borders about an illness called “Chagas” which affects 30 million people in South America. I’m writing a story which [takes place in present-day] New York, and is basically a story of love and war, or war and love–I don’t know yet.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Not really. The difference is people sell their souls much faster now.
What are some of your all-time favorite films, and what are some of your recent favorite films?
All Truffaut films, no matter how good or bad they are. I think his entire body of work is amazing and it speaks to me in a very personal level, “Roma” (the scene of Fellini himself shooting under the rain always makes me cry, don’t ask me why),”La dolce vita” (also “8 e mezzo“), all Bergman films (Not just his early films, I think his last film is an absolute masterpiece)” “Roma citta aperta,” “Stromboli” and “Viaggio in Italia” by Roberto Rosellini. “Il conformista” and “The Last Tango in Paris.” Also all Billy Wilder films and “The Dead” by John Huston. Those are the films I saw when I was a teenager, the films which made me who I am now.
And recently I saw “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” which I thought was a really funny and clever. “Brick” was a really good film noir from today. “The Life of Others” (Germany) is a really impressive first film. I loved “Delirious“–the new Tom DiCillo, “Half Moon,” which is an incredibly beautiful and strong Iranian film. And finally I think Aki Kaurismaki is one filmmaker working today who is really faithful to himself. And I went to the movies this morning (I live five minutes from a movie theatre where you can watch films beginning at 10:30 in the morning) and I saw a really good Argentinian film called “Tiempo de valientes“.
What are your interests outside of film?
[I like] writing about restaurants, discovering restaurants, cooking without recipes… Writing and talking and fighting about politics… Singing jazz and bossa nova (not good but still trying)… Learning Japanese (I just began)… Discovering weird music… Matchmaking with terrible results (I’m quitting matchmaking actually)… Collecting pictures of obscure photographers and thinking about the films I’ll never make.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Be in love with making films not being a filmmaker. Also there’s something Robert Altman told me once, “Watch and Listen”, I’ll never forget that.
Will you please share with us an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?
I guess receiving the most important Goyas (for best script, best director and best film) last year was really good (and unexpected since the film was made in English and we’re talking about the Spanish Academy here). And…. OK, I’m not the most well-known filmmaker in the world and not the most respected by the critics and not the most commercial. But there’s always someone even in the most strange places on earth (I’m talking Laponia, Alaska, Japan or the south of Morocco among others) who [invariably] comes to me and says, “Hey, listen, I saw one of your films in a dark period of my life, and for one evening I felt less alone.” That makes me feel less alone too.