“My Life Without Me” has a plot that’s not unfamiliar–it’s about a young woman (Sarah Polley), happily married with two darling daughters, who’s told that she has only a short time to live. (It’s a story that was old when “Dark Victory” gave Bette Davis one of her most famous roles.) But Spanish writer-director Isabel Coixet, who visited Dallas to promote the film, felt she could give it a fresh approach.
Coixet discovered the inspiration for her script, a short story by Nanci Kincaid, some years ago. She explained, “I really liked the short story, but I thought, ‘One more movie about a person dying with cancer and the kids–another ‘Terms of Endearment’?” But then it struck her how to alter it to become something new: “I thought, what if she doesn’t tell anyone? What if she keeps [her condition] a secret? And then I realized there was a movie there.”
Coixet made other alterations to the story as well. “In the story there is a very strong religious element,” she explained–which she excised. “I was born in a Catholic country, [but] I never had that. My father was a communist, and we were in the middle of a Catholic country having an unreligious education. So even if I believe in God, I don’t believe in organized religion. And I think her strength comes from a very human and deep soul…that was the thing that was clear to me….The only gift she can give is to save [her family] some suffering.”
And how has Kincaid responded to the changes? “She is very happy [with the movie],” Coixet said. “And she is thinking about writing another story based on the film!”
Coixet came to filmmaking by a circuitous route. Her academic degree is in history, and she worked for a time in an advertising firm. But she always loved movies, and when confronted with an opportunity to make one, she seized on it. “I never went to film school,” she explained. “But since I was fourteen, I went to university…and I saw every single film on earth. I was working in an advertising agency, by chance, and they also had a production company. And I stole like twenty cans of film, and I did a short film with that. They weren’t even aware they had that…and nobody noticed.” The film was well received on the festival circuit, and a new career was born. Coixet went on to write and direct fiction films, but became especially well known for her commercials, which she called her bread and butter. “I have to say, commercials are a school,” she said. “Makes you not afraid of the camera, because you’re working every day in a different location. I’ve traveled all over the world making commercials, and I’ve worked with amazing directors…and I’ve tried to use that in a good way in making films.”
Coixet’s commercial work, in fact, was helpful in preparing the Vancouver shoot for this film. “I did a commercial in Vancouver for a Japanese company, a shampoo commercial with Kate Beckinsale,” she said. “I was there for like one month for a 25-second commercial, and someone from the production–a location guy–I was telling that I had this story, and it happened in a trailer. And he said, ‘I’ll drive you there,’ and he showed me all these places. And I had the feeling it was a very good place to make the movie–and it was.” But for all the success she’s had with commercial work, Coixet admits, “I hope this will be a great success, and then I won’t have to make commercials again!”
Nonetheless Coixet doubts that she’ll ever become part of the U.S. production machine. She’s already been offered a directing job in this country–helming a Jennifer Lopez vehicle about a female advertising executive who’s told she has only a few months to live and makes three wishes. “It’s the same story [as ‘My Life Without Me’],” she noted, “but a Hollywood version. It was tempting…but I’d rather prefer making a shampoo commercial. You have to have another nature [in Hollywood]. I’d rather prefer to make my little films.” Coixet wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of working at an American studio, but adds: “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Coixet was, however, pleased with the reception “My Life Without Me” has gotten from audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. “In a strange way, some people have told me that the film is uplifting, because it makes you think about how short life is,” she said.
“My Life Without Me” is a Sony Pictures Classics release.