Exclusive: Elegy Director Isabel Coixet

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The dramatic films of Spanish-born filmmaker Isabel Coixet may be an acquired taste, but they are movies that fans of independent character dramas have thrived on over the years. Unlike her famous countryman Pedro Almodóvar, Coixet hasn’t focused on making Spanish films or those set in Spain, so the fans of her previous award-winning films like My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words may not even be aware of Coixet’s lineage. (Both of those movies starred Canada’s Sarah Polley who has gone on to an impressive dramatic filmmaking career of her own with last year’s Away From Her.) Like Denmark’s Susanne Bier, Coixet has become one of the more respected filmmakers in an often-overlooked genre for her ability to capture amazing performances from a wide range of actors.

Her new movie Elegy is no exception, being based on the Philip Roth novel “The Dying Animal” about literary professor David Kepesh, ably played by Sir Ben Kingsley, who becomes obsessed with his beautiful and considerably younger student Consuela (Penélope Cruz). Besides following their relationship and how it goes South due to his obsession with Consuela’s previous lovers, it also looks at Kepesh’s relationships with an estranged son, played by Peter Sarsgaard, his prize-winning poet friend George (Dennis Hopper) and another frequent lover (Patricia Clarkson).

ComingSoon.net had a brief chat with Coixet about the film, which has been steeped in mystery since the project first showed up on the MGM release slate a few years back.

ComingSoon.net: This is the first movie you directed where you didn’t write the script, so how did you find the project or how did it find you?
Isabel Coixet: This is the first time I didn’t write the script, yeah. I remember when I read the book six years ago, I thought, “Well, someday, some filmmaker will make a movie about it.” I didn’t think at the time that it was going to be me, but then because I have a thing with literary adaptations–if you really worship the author, you’re always too scared to make changes and there is a moment you have to break from the book and do a film, but then again, Lakeshore bought the rights and Penelope was attached from the beginning, and they sent me the script and I thought it was a very smart, very intelligent adaptation of Roth, and I said “yes.”

CS: Had you worked with Penélope before then?
Coixet: No, but I met her twelve years ago.

CS: At what point did Sir Ben come onto the project? Was he the next piece of the puzzle?
Coixet: Yeah, then I knew he was reading the script, but before saying yes, he asked to have a conversation with me. We had a very good conversation in L.A. about love, life, relationships, men, women, the dynamics, and then he said yes, and the other actors came on board very easily. Patricia (Clarkson) was the first actress I thought of for Carolyn, the first and the only one, and I think she’s brilliant as Carolyn, and Dennis Hopper as George was also the first one. We just asked everybody and they said yes.

CS: When I talked to Sir Ben at Sundance, he was really excited that he could use his real accent and voice. Was that something you discussed in that original meeting?
Coixet: In the original script as in the book, he was American, but I thought, “You know what? I rather prefer him with his real accent.” I thought if he has to be on the screen for 95% percent of the movie, and I thought it would be a way for him to be more free, and why not? He can be an English teacher at Colombia, why not?

CS: It’s a great script and it’s great to get such a good cast, because there aren’t many movies where every single actor is the top of their game.
Coixet: I think all of them are amazing.

CS: After you cast everyone, did you approach this very differently than your last movie, an original idea, than you have other movies because you were directing somebody else’s script?
Coixet: I thought it was going to be different, but then there is a moment where you own the story. There is a moment where you’re… I don’t want to say far away from the script… but you forget. You’re with these people, you’re with these characters, and when you’re rehearsing with the actors, then maybe sometimes… But no, I changed wherever I thought it was going to need changes and the producers agreed with me, and in the end, I know it’s Roth, but I know it’s the same from my point of view and through my eyes.

CS: Were the relationships and the characterizations in the novel as well defined or was that something that had to be built up for the movie in terms of how the characters related?
Coixet: I think in terms of the structure, the only… for instance, Carolyn’s character was a combination of several characters… and the end is different. The end of the movie is different from the script and from the novel. It is the end I really believe has to be the end. And some other changes, but I also spoke with Philip Roth. I had four conversations with him, and he was very clear about what he wanted, and I was very clear of what the film needed.

CS: Has he been very involved with other movies based on his books?
Coixet: I think he’s always involved in a way because Lakeshore also produced “The Human Stain,” but I think he knows films are different, but I know he really liked the movie, so that’s good.

CS: Did you have a special screening of the film for him?
Coixet: Yeah, just for him, yes.

CS: What would you say is the appeal of Philip Roth? He is a very specific writer, and the stuff he writes, you can definitely tell it’s him, so what is the appeal of it that makes it work so well in movies?
Coixet: For me, there is something… I think it’s one of the things that attracted me more to his writing and his characters, he’s never apologetic. I think he’s never apologetic for being a male, and I felt that some authors of his same generation, they’re always trying to look for redemption, he’s, “Okay, that’s my sexuality… that’s how I feel and that’s how it is.” I think that’s very good because that makes him and his characters more human. Also, I think for instance “American Pastoral” is one of the best novels of the last century. I think it’s a major work. Probably “The Dying Animal” is a minor work, but I think that’s why it does make a better film.

CS: Is it tough to adapt his work, because with dramas in general, it’s hard to get studios interested in financing dramas even with such a good cast, because they know there’s a limited audience. Do you think it’s hard translating his stuff into movies?
Coixet: I have to say from the beginning Lakeshore, the company that produced this movie, that’s what they want. I think they’ve bought three novels of Philip Roth and they are big fans. I think in our days you can watch those big blockbusters, but there’s also space for films where people actually feel something and talk about it and films with a little silence.

CS: Can you talk about casting Dennis Hopper? I think he gives the most interesting performance in it. We’ve seen him do things like this back in the day, but lately not so much. He has a lighter role in the movie until near the end where he has a moment that is so moving. Can you talk about how you came up with him to play George?
Coixet: It is, it is, I know. Dennis has played everything, but probably lately, all those roles are bigger than life, and here, I think George is a professor who is a poet who has won a Pulitzer Prize, and who better than Dennis Hopper to do that? Dennis is an artist; I think he’s a photographer, he does amazing pictures. I don’t know. I think there was something that was so magical the first time they rehearsed together, because they’re from two completely different universes, but at the same time you believe them from the first moment as friends, it’s immediate. The chemistry between all the actors in the film was really amazing, between Ben and Penélope–who let’s say it’s not an obvious chemistry, but it was there–between Ben and Dennis, between Patricia and Ben, everybody.

CS: Everybody with Ben basically. I’ve met him a few times, and he’s a very affable guy, easy to talk to and get along with, so had he and Dennis worked together before?
Coixet: No, never. They’ve never worked together, they’d never met before, but from the first moment we had them in the coffee shop talking, it was like they were pals forever.

CS: Was a lot of the dialogue between the characters taken directly from Roth’s novel?
Coxiet: Yes, but more polished and we cut it because in the novel there were these long monologues, but yeah, mostly it’s Roth.

CS: One thing I liked was the look of the movie, and how your cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu shot the actors so that you could see every detail of their faces, which was amazing. Was that something you discussed a lot beforehand?
Coixet: Jean-Claude and I, we worked together on the last four movies. I operate the camera and he does the lighting, and we understand each other very well. It’s funny because we never talk about colors or lighting. We always talk about, “Okay, what’s this scene about? What’s the important thing here?” If we have to discuss what we’re going to see and how, this environment is going to affect how they respond to each other, and you know, we have a very special way of working. (chuckles)

CS: Well it does work, because you do have these amazing performances and being able to capture them in such a mesmerizing way is impressive, and the camerawork is so transparent, too. Sometimes I wasn’t even able to pay attention to their words, because I was so mesmerized by the details on Ben Kingsley’s face. I guess when you’re operating the camera, you know exactly what to capture.
Coixet Every director has their own path, and I know most people say, “No, if you’re behind the camera, how do you really capture the performances?” and for me, it’s the way to REALLY capture what they are doing. I know, since I’m used to doing it, when they have to move. I can follow them very subtly, and I think for them, when you’re shooting very intimate scenes, it’s a way to have them more relaxed and more free.

CS: I’ve spoken to a lot of directors who either operate cameras or are on the physical set rather than watching at monitors, but it’s strange that the latter is still the norm.
Coixet: I can not imagine how they do it because I don’t see a thing in the monitors, so either I operate the camera or I don’t do it.

CS: Can you talk about the decision to change the name from the original title “The Dying Animal” to “Elegy”? When was that decision made?
Coixet: It was in the script. I always found “The Dying Animal” is a much more appropriate title, but well, a director has to pick her battles, and my battle was the film and the title, it’s good. I think it’s beautiful and melancholic, but for me “The Dying Animal” is more strong and more rough, but you know, what are you going to do?

CS: Do you know what you’re going to do next?
Coixet: I wrote a script for a film which I’m going to shoot in Japan, in Tokyo. It’s a thriller about a female contract killer.

CS: Have you been to Japan already?
Coixet: Yes, I’ve been several times to Japan and I feel very Japanese… and it’s a film in Japanese.

CS: Oh, it’s in Japanese too? So do you speak Japanese yourself?
Coixet: I’m learning.

Elegy opens in New York, L.A., San Franciso and Seattle on Friday, August 8, and in other cities on August 22.

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