Isabel Coixet on Why the Time Is Right for Same-Sex Period Drama 'Elisa & Marcela'

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"People didn't really want to touch it and they didn't really understand it," says Coixet of her difficulty getting 'Elisa & Marcela' made.

The Spanish auteur discusses the importance of a theatrical release and her reluctance to work in TV.

The moment may seem ripe for director Isabel Coixet’s latest film. Following in the footsteps of Oscar best picture nominees Roma and The Favourite, Elisa & Marcela is a female-centered, same-sex period romance that represents Netflix’s latest black-and-white feature slated for theatrical release.

But in reality, Coixet says the 10-year journey to get the film made meant the project had to wait for the times to catch up. “Maybe now, 10 years later, it’s easy for us to say this is a fascinating story about two women in 1901 who decided to get married and one of them posed as a man,” says the 58-year-old helmer. “But 10 years ago, people really looked at you like you were a freak.”

The multifaceted, Barcelona-born filmmaker is known for intimate, largely female-focused stories set and shot all over the world. True to form, on her latest she brought in several untested but talented young women in lead roles, both behind and in front of the camera, including co-star Greta Fernandez, first-time DP Jennifer Cox and debut composer Sofia Oriana Infante.

Coixet spoke with THR about the importance of a theatrical release, her reluctance to work in TV and why she insisted on shooting her Berlinale entry in black and white.

Why did it take so long to get Elisa & Marcela made?

I first learned about the story 10 years ago. I did an exhibition in Galicia, in the north of Spain, and I met a scholar who was the first person to talk in academic terms about the story of Elisa and Marcela. He showed me all the thousands of documents he had collected. I saw the original wedding picture and the other pictures of the couple, and I went to all the little villages in Galicia where they lived and I was really fascinated by the story — about the things we know and about the things we don’t know.

There’s been the suggestion, in reference to the years-long struggle to get The Favourite made, that the world wasn’t ready for that movie. Do you feel the same way?

Yes, I feel the same, because I remember 10 years ago for me it was a shock because I really thought that story is incredible. And the more you know, the more incredible and fascinating it is. But people didn’t want to touch it, and they didn’t really understand it. I have to say that when I took the script to [producer] Joaquin [Padro], and he took it to Netflix, they saw the possibilities of the story from the beginning and they were really supportive of it.

Netflix has said they are planning to give the film a theatrical release, which they haven’t done much yet. How important is that to you?

Yesterday, before sending the print to Berlin, I watched it with several people in the crew in a movie theater — it was a technical screening. When you watch it on a big screen, the film is so much richer and, I’m sorry, but even if you have the best TV in your home, the fact is you’re in your home — the dog is there, your daily life is there, you can’t concentrate. I know people are watching films this way. The other day I was on a train and some girl was watching one of my films on a little laptop, and I didn’t say a thing because she looked like she was enjoying it. But when you see that small screen and you remember how many weeks you spent in the sound studio, and how important that bird crossing the street was for you, it’s a shame. But I think if a film is strong enough, it will survive the TV and the laptop and the iPhone screen.

Netflix is making a lot of series in Spain and that seems to be all people want to talk about. For you, what does the format of a feature film offer that a series doesn’t?

I always felt what a director does in a TV series ... when you’re not the creator, you don’t choose the actors and when you get there, the style, the photography — all those things which really matter to me — are already chosen. The last thing they offered me was to do one season of Narcos. [But] what do you do with that when everything is already set up? What’s your input? For me, that’s the key. If I’m the creator of something, that’s something I would consider and in fact I am considering it, because that is part of what I really want to do. I really want to be involved in every single tiny nano detail of what’s on the screen.

Why did you decide to shoot in black and white?

When I wrote the script 10 years ago, the first thing we wrote is that this is a film in black and white. I knew the places we were going to shoot had changed, because we shot in the actual locations where Elisa and Marcela lived. I thought if we’re going to rebuild all this we need help, and I think black and white is the perfect tool. One of the problems to find finance for the film was the black and white, and I think that was something Netflix didn’t have a problem with. In fact, I tried to make another film [in black and white] and it was absolutely impossible to find financing, so I let it go. This time I knew for me that was the key. We needed black and white.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 9 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.