Director Anna Biller Talks Female Fantasy, Religion and The Love Witch

Movies Features Anna Biller
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Director Anna Biller Talks Female Fantasy, Religion and <i>The Love Witch</i>

Anna Biller is not a witch, at least not by name. As the writer/director/producer/editor/costume designer and even composer for her most recent film The Love Witch, which comes out on Blu-ray this week, Biller crafts an enchanting two-hour comedy horror that looks like it’s been pulled right out of the 1970s. The story centers on Elaine, the new witch in town, who’s looking for true love. Her only problem? All of the suitors she uses her “love magic” on tend to wind up dead. Underneath this playful classic movie exterior is a poignant and modern take on feminism, sexuality, and womanhood.

Speaking with Biller, we learned that she is bold in her beliefs and standards (if she directed Star Wars, it would be less CGI, more sets) and very aware of the message she is trying to convey in her work. Her work isn’t for everyone, but that’s precisely what we love about it.

Paste: How would you describe your style of filmmaking or film mission statement to someone who has never seen your work before?
Anna Biller: I’d say that it’s personal filmmaking. But it’s filmmaking done through cinephilia. I think it’s that combination that makes it unusual. I’ve spent my life watching movies, especially classic movies, and I have so many fantasies about cinema—and then I have my life and my experiences. I think about gender a lot. I think about patriarchy and how women have been treated—how I’ve been treated—where my life has gone, [how] being a woman in life is so different than being a man. I think about all these things a lot and then I try to express something about what my experience is through movies, through a movie aesthetic experience. Which feels sometimes seem fake to people—it feels contrived—but actually I think it’s the only way I can express things that are so personal, because otherwise I think it would get too ugly.

Paste: While you’ve cited sexploitation films of the ’60s and ’70s as a source of influence for you, I’ve noticed that you dislike when your films, like Viva and The Love Witch, being categorized under that genre. Can you explain why?
Biller: Well not so much Viva, because I think Viva was in conversation with those films, and when I did the research on those films, it was for the movie Viva. But I don’t think The Love Witch is having that conversation. So, I don’t know why people keep making that comparison to The Love Witch because it’s such a different project. So that’s what bothers me. You know it’s possible that because I was referencing sexploitation movies with Viva people think that’s what I do—that’s my schtick or something.

Paste: And even beyond that, Viva has the elements of a sexploitation film, but with a female and feminist lens it comes across as a very different film.
Biller: Yeah, it’s an opposite project. I think it’s an oxymoron—people calling it “feminist sexploitation.” Because if it’s feminist, it’s not exploitation.

Paste: What is it like to produce an independent film that requires such elaborate costumes and sets, without a big movie budget?
Biller: It’s just really, really time consuming. In a way that actually sometimes feels, weird, it takes way too long. When I was making short films, making everything myself, it wouldn’t take so long, because they were short. It made sense to do it that way, but for a film like The Love Witch it was disproportionate. I enjoy painting, I enjoy making costumes—but at some point, when you’re sewing for a year and a half for a movie, it’s like you’re not a filmmaker anymore, you’re just a seamstress. It starts to feel kind of punishing.

Paste: Can we talk about that infamous tea room? People went crazy over that because it’s just so unique.
Biller: I wanted to see a really feminine space, so I did all these drawings of the pink tea room—everything was pink—and I originally thought we would build it, because I know I wouldn’t be able to find it. I scouted tea rooms and everything but they were too small. I just realized it was going to be too expensive to build it because I wanted those kind of arches and arched windows and columns, and a look that would just be too expensive. We’d need a much larger sound stage. So we found this location—it was the lobby of the old newspaper building—the Herald Examiner, in downtown Los Angeles. I brought all these white tablecloths and dyed them pink and brought a pink carpet—the DP installed pink backlighting.

Paste: It was so pink that it was almost womb-like.
Biller: That was the intention. To make it feel womb-like, and to make it feel sort of intrusive when Trish’s husband walks in. Like he was walking into a womb, like there was something wrong about it.

Paste: I understand you consulted several real-life wiccans for the magical aspects film, some of whom actually were in the film itself. What was that like? What did you did you learn from them?
Biller: Since I wasn’t raised with religion, the main thing I learned is that witchcraft is a very real religion for the people that practice it. They’re very serious about it. They kind of remind me of Christians, Catholics—it reminded me very much of what I know about the rituals of Catholicism. And also I know a lot of witches were raised Catholic or with a certain type of very formal Christianity, and I think that they weren’t comfortable with that, but what they’re doing is—it’s like they’re reliving it, but they’re making their own rules around it. I thought that that was really great for Elaine because she’s the type of character who tries to create her own world. So it’s the idea that witches create their own tools. They create everything themselves, so it’s kind of like being an artist too. I related to that.

Paste: Did you learn anything that you want to take into your own daily life?
Biller: What I decided is that doing prayers for me, it feels demonic. Because it feels like I’ve already figured out how to keep myself sane and whole spiritually by doing artwork, and I feel like doing spells and prayers away from artwork feels demonic to me. It feels like I’m conjuring up, I don’t know what I’m conjuring up. It doesn’t feel healthy to me. It feels like the only time I want to do spells is when I am really angry or desperate. That’s why I feel like it’s dark. I think if you just wanted to do blessings you wouldn’t call yourself a witch or call it witchcraft.

And some of the rituals I went to really scared me because the people there had very dark energy. This is stuff where if I ever talk about it, if I’m ever interviewed by actual witches and I say any of this stuff, they hate me saying it, and actually they won’t print it. They don’t like anyone saying anything negative. And I think if what they’re practicing is all sweetness and light then why would they mind if somebody says something? So I feel like there’s a veneer. I think there are a lot of witches who are 100% good, and are just into good spiritual practice, but I think a lot of it is really dark, and I think the stuff that’s dark is really hidden and you can’t find out about it unless you’re initiated into an inner circle. That’s how I handled the witchcraft in the film, it’s like—there’s a suggestion from the character Gahan and from the tone of some of the rituals that there could be some really scary shit going on, but you don’t really know what it is, or if it’s just theater.

Paste: You can see that in Elaine. I couldn’t tell if she’s actually casting dark magic or inadvertently poisoning people.
Biller: It’s a mirror. You can say “I’m incanting for this result,” but what they say is that it isn’t the incantation uttered, it’s what’s in your heart that ends up becoming the spell. So if you’re doing a spell and you say “I want love, I want a man to love me,” but in your heart you’re thinking “I want to take revenge on the guy who raped me, and I want to take revenge on this person who never loved me, and I hate men and they ruined my life.” That’s what manifests—the destruction.

That’s what I was trying to do with Elaine, I was trying to have this person who is unaware of her own rage, her own internal rage, and so it just gets unleashed on the people around her. And that’s a classic sociopath—someone that, everywhere they go, terrible things happen to everyone around them, everybody in their path, every person they meet or become involved in their life gets sucked into their maelstrom.

Paste: Even though Elaine’s a killer, you still have sympathy for her. Do you view her as a villain or someone that just has mental health problems?
Biller: I like the idea of creating characters that are dimensional, and I think when you create good characters, good villains, you’re going to always be sympathetic to them and always feel for them, because they are human and everybody has a good side.

Elaine wants what a lot of women want—just to be loved and respected, and to be treated as an equal to men and so there’s part of her story that’s very tragic—we should feel for her. But there’s also a way in which she’s gone past where she can be kind to other people, or supportive. That’s how we feel about the people we love in our lives: one moment, we feel for them, we feel sorry for them, we wish good things would happen for them, and the next moment they do something horrible and we think this person should be in prison.

Paste: I was so impressed with the writing. How long did it take to write? Did you find that you were consciously following the style of vintage films, or does this just feel like your natural writing style?
Biller: I’ve watched so many old films, when I write dialogue I just automatically write dialogue in the style of old movies—I’m not trying to, but I think it’s just how I hear characters in my head. And I also think that is because the aims of old movies were different in what they were trying to convey in their characters. Every piece of dialogue was meaningful in some way to the story—it was conveying either exposition or it was teaching you something about the character. And dialogue doesn’t serve that purpose anymore in movies. Often, it’s considered bad writing if all the dialogue is funneling into an overarching purpose, so people don’t write that way anymore. They consider it to be too obvious. But I think there’s not that much room: you have an hour and a half, two hours to tell a story and there’s not that much time for dialogue, so I feel like I want all the dialogue to count towards the story, or give you information you might need.

Paste:What are some of the older films you’re inspired by?
Biller: There are so many older films that I like. In researching for this film, I was very inspired by Leave Her to Heaven, Angel Face, The Locket, films like that. Too Late For Tears, Marnie, Vertigo, Psycho, some of the Hitchcocks … I love pre-code movies—they’re my favorite movies. (Sometime I think the pre-code movies might be the biggest inspiration for my filmmaking.) My favorite period of filmmaking is between 1930-1934. There are a lot of remarkable movies from that time.

Paste: While The Love Witch definitely passes the Bechdel test, so much of the plot revolves around women’s relationships with men. What did you want to convey, what was the purpose in having these conflicting elements?
Biller: When creating a character, I never want to say this is the only kind of character there is, so I’m always careful to create a devil’s advocate, or kind of an opposite character. Because Elaine’s crazy, and she’s one type of character, you really need the other side, you need another type of woman, because otherwise it’s pure fantasy. This would be the difference between The Love Witch and any exploitation film. In an exploitation film you’d have a character like Elaine- and she wouldn’t be as dimensional, but let’s say a beautiful character that’s sexy that’s destroys men. And she’d be the only female character in the movie because it’s all about having a fantasy about this woman. But putting Trish in there, you know it’s not a male fantasy about this type of woman.

Paste: This is not an exploitative sexual film, but there still some sexual elements in it that are also there, not just to make a statement, but for viewer pleasure and enjoyment. What draws you to these thematic elements?
Biller: I’ve been watching classic films since I was a baby, and I’ve always been kind of enchanted by the sirens, the femme fatales, the beautiful women in movies. And I think in a way they were almost like mothers to me when I was very small. And my own mother is a very beautiful, glamorous woman, like the old movie stars. She was so beautiful that she would turn heads everywhere she went. She was kind of amazing that way, so glamorous. And I think that, in a way, it was like I had multiple mothers, and I really aspired to be like them.

But I was conscious of the fact that it had nothing to do with pleasing men. I was so young when I started to love these women. And I had no concept of male desire, male gaze, anything. I never even knew about any of that until I was older, so when I was emulating loving these women, I was not aware of gaze theory, of male desire-it was just really about me, what I desired.

Filming used to be more feminine. It used to include the female fantasy. What’s a shame is how much cinema of the past that was made for women—for women’s pleasure, for their narcissistic pleasure—has been redefined as being for men. And I don’t think it ever was. Especially all those movies with strong characters, with Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck—I don’t think those movies were made for men at all. And a lot of them were written by women and they were made for a female demographic. I think there’s almost an a-historical idea that anything involving any type of woman is made for the male gaze—what happens when you have that is you have this limitation on the kinds of images that women can produce about feminism. And I think it really shuts everything down, and I like the idea of trying to open that up. You get a lot of flack for it—people say you’re being backwards, you’re being sexist. But I know it’s not about that. Many of the images men create of women make me sick really, the sexual images, especially the images from today, the porn images. They’re not positive, they’re dehumanizing.

Paste: There’s a really powerful moment in the film where Trish tries on Elaine’s wig and clothing, that sort of displays an eroticism that every woman can explore and achieve in their own right, not just femme fatales.
Biller: And you also realize that if you take the dowdy clothes off of Trish and you see her in her underwear, she looks quite fantastic. It’s kind of a self-presentation thing.

Paste: It’s a movie everyone can enjoy, but it feels specifically for women. Was that your intention in writing the film?
Biller: I just think that men enjoy it on a slightly different level. I mean there are some male feminists that are very female-identified, who actually will take it [the way women do]. But most men look at it with a male gaze. They’re really loving it and appreciating it because it’s giving them something akin to a sexploitation film. So I think that’s why the misconception keeps happening. For certain men there is no difference. They’re just kind of bored by the parts where Trish comes on, the lectures, they’re waiting for Samantha [Robinson] to get naked again.

Paste: I heard that you tailored the script to Samantha when you found her, because you weren’t sure exactly what Elaine would be like.
Biller: Well, I was thinking more of the old screen sirens, Elizabeth Taylor and Jennifer Jones, who are a little more overtly sexual in their behavior on screen. But then Samantha went into a different kind of movie fantasy for me. She was like different film actresses from the past. She reminded me more of Vivien Leigh, some colder types. She was more Audrey Hepburn. More than half of the great film stars from the past have that great distanced quality. When I was auditioning actresses, the ones that were too sexual, too overtly friendly, it wasn’t working with the script. It felt really campy to me. It wasn’t until I saw her that I realized, “Oh, that’s really how to play this.”

Paste: I’m so looking forward to seeing what art you make next. Can you share anything about what your next project?
Biller: I’m making another thriller, and it’s pretty brutal. I think it’s going to divide people. It’ll feel too retro. But I’m doing something different, I’m making the man the villain and he’s menacing the woman, so it’s like every other thriller ever written in terms of the kind of story it is, but the way that I’m telling the story is extremely different. Watching films, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that’s done what I’m doing with this movie.