Birth.Movies.Interview.: Writer/Director Anna Biller On THE LOVE WITCH

Also editor, composer, set decorator, art department, costume designer...but I only had so much room in the headline.

I saw and loved Anna Biller's The Love Witch out of Fantasia Fest. I walked out of that world wanting to know everything about it - how this remarkable film was conceived and made real.

Biller directed The Love Witch on 35mm, with cinematography by Jennifer's Body's M. David Mullen, and she also edited the film, built and painted the sets, sewed the costumes, created the score. The result is spectacular, a vivid tribute to Technicolor and pulp, a dazzling feminist dream that we are very, very lucky to receive in theaters this Friday.

I'm so pleased to have had a chance to talk with Biller about this gift of a film. Read on for the trailer and our conversation:
 

In terms of auteur vision, this is about as auteur as it gets. You did EVERYTHING for this film, and it shows as the stunning, cohesive vision of one very talented person. What’s your background?

I was heavily involved in theater in high school. I was initially acting, but then became much more interested in directing and all of the different aspects of production. While rehearsing for Romeo and Juliet, for instance, I became fascinated with how the set was put together and how the costumes were made. For other plays, I composed music and sewed costumes. (My mother is a fashion designer and my father is a painter, so sewing and painting always felt very natural to me). In college, I initially went into theater but switched into the art department, because I wanted to make things. Later I switched to film, trying to combine making things with my history of amateur cinephilia. I’ve always been a bookworm, as well, and played the piano, so I used this rudimentary background to learn to write scripts and music for my films.

Having done everything from set design to costumes to composing the score seems like, frankly, a hell of a lot of work. How do you manage your time and compartmentalize when you’re facing such an elaborate one-woman show?

I just work very methodically, accomplishing one thing at a time until I can tick everything off my dozens or hundreds of lists. The downside to working this way is that it takes a long time, and there is too much time that passes between each film!

What makes Elaine the perfect character to inform on female sexuality, and why did you decide to broach the topic through the lens of the supernatural?

Elaine is a great character to inform on female sexuality because she performs her femininity in such a layered way. She is especially interesting because she is so ambivalent about playing this role: she exults about the power and freedom it gives her, while we hear thoughts in her head about her resentment of men, blanked out expressions while she’s serving men sexually and with food, and flashbacks of her abuse and coercion by men. I chose witchcraft as a backdrop because it seemed the perfect place for a modern woman who is looking to surround herself with mystery and allure, and who wants to play out her dress-up fantasies every chance she gets, either at occult rituals, renaissance faires, or in her own house where she wears Victorian dresses while having tea.

Can you talk about the research into witchcraft you did for the film? Elaine’s spellwork feels so specific and surprisingly grounded.

I read dozens of books, scoured websites and forums, and I went to some rituals and classes. The history was shallower than I thought – it seems that neo-paganism was made up in the 1950s. But I was really interested in Margaret Murray’s books, which a lot of witches have “debunked,” which point to a much older, pre-Christian history of paganism. This makes much more sense to me. The more I read, the more I started to think that people don’t like to talk about this stuff because there are very, very dark cults out there that still practice human sacrifice and do other heinous, illegal things, the kind of things you see in the movie The Wicker Man (1973). Witchcraft has both dark and light elements to it, but in my research I found a too-earnest denial of the dark elements, which made it feel as if there’s been a concerted cover-up of the darker practices. Elaine embodies the spirit of a dark witch, who works spells as a form of gestalt therapy to get her demons out, and in the process creates a lot of chaos (or CHORONZON, the demon of chaos), around herself.

There are plenty of comparisons to draw between your work and European filmmakers of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, but I’m more interested in the non-cinematic influences behind The Love Witch. Elaine’s home and personal style are especially so distinct. How did you conceive of her aesthetic?

I based Elaine’s apartment on colors from the Thoth tarot deck (she has a sun room and two moon rooms, the sun representing the masculine and the moon the feminine), and from classic interior design techniques I’ve learned over the years, some from movies, and some from decorating books. There are basic design techniques I always follow which help ensure that you can get a good shot from any angle. So you never have large stretches of empty wall, walls always are a good color behind human skin, and you create depth going back in the set. There are always several seating areas to enable fluid blocking, and I design with large blocks of color to keep the sets from becoming cluttered-looking. You want to make sure you design a set in which you can get both good wide shots and good close-ups, and that’s not as easy as it seems.

What I mostly wanted to do with her apartment was to create a feeling of who the character is by how her apartment looks, so I brought in not only occult elements for her witchiness, but Victorian elements for her princess fantasies. The Victorian elements were also important because of the way they conjure up gothic Hammer horror films and ‘60s Stepford-wife type fashions without having to set the film in the past. Also, in choosing the furniture, I was careful to choose pieces that were either Victorian or timeless. For her bedroom, I used large swathes of red to signal desire and danger, and purple flocked wallpaper because purple is associated with death and with the occult, and because it’s an unstable secondary color.

I’d love to hear about your development of the score, because it’s lovely and really singular. And will we ever get a soundtrack?

I listened to a lot of Italian soundtrack music while I was doing the music editing (especially Morricone), since I instinctively knew that music would be the best under the scenes. So most of the soundtrack comes from Italian ‘60s soundtracks. I also ended up having to write some of it, because I couldn’t find the right harp music for the tearoom or ‘60s renaissance music for the faire. Getting the right music on the film is such a huge part of filmmaking for me, since my films are very musical, almost like operas.

This is such a women’s story, not only in its feminist themes but in its visual palette and sense of humor. The tampon scene alone had me cheering, because it felt like a film made specifically for us, when so few genre stories are. When you were making The Love Witch, was that a specific goal or just a reflection of your own interests?

All of the choices that I made were very conscious. I spend a long time writing and rewriting the script so I could get all of these elements in without their seeming too clunky or obvious, but the tampon was there from the first draft. It seems like such a great metaphor for something a woman can love about her body, something that really should be honored because it’s part of her this miraculous life-giving process, and something men can revile about her and find disgusting because they fear a woman’s reproductive and sexual powers. The whole movie is about how men and women see a woman from opposite points of view (either from the inside or from the outside), and the tampon is just one symbol of that. I very much made this film from a woman’s point of view, but I also made room for a male voyeuristic point of view, which is one reason that sometimes it’s labeled “exploitation.” But I was really into having the visuals focus on hair, makeup, pink and yellow, lace, pretty lingerie, unicorns, princes and princesses in golden crowns, glamour – all things that are more likely to be female than male fantasies.

Elaine is a marvelously complex character: monstrous and sympathetic and fiercely justified in her mistrust of men. She emanates such strength and powerful sexuality. Talk about casting Samantha Robinson in what seems like an impossible role.

Samantha Robinson had the beauty and intelligence I wanted for the character, and also she is incredibly photogenic and wears makeup and clothing like a model, so I was lucky to find her. She is also a talented actress, is open to direction, and takes her work very seriously, which is perhaps the most important reason she did so well with the character of Elaine. No one who read for Elaine gave me the right performance at the audition, but I knew they wouldn’t, since it really is an impossible character. But eventually she aced it!

Did you have any sort of cinematic education with Samantha in preparing her for The Love Witch?

We watched a lot of movies together and had a lot of conversations about the character, but I didn’t need to educate her as much as I thought I’d have to. She is a cinephile who had already seen a lot of the movies I was referencing, so the types of characters I wanted her to look at from classic and foreign movies were already familiar to her. Mainly she had to decide what to take from her own personality, which things to project and which things to discard. At first I had wanted her to be more scary throughout the film, but when she pulled genuine love and sincerity out of herself for certain scenes, I realized that she had moved past trying to create just a scary witch character, and had gone deeper into herself than I had gone with her in rehearsal. Sometimes she surprised me with these sincere performances on set, and it’s deeply gratifying to be watching while the camera is recording that sincerity and you’re seeing it for the first time.

Is there any chance we’ll see Elaine again? It feels like there could be so many more of her stories to tell.

I have fantasies about seeing Elaine again either as an actress on the West End in London, having dyed her hair blonde and gone into hiding after she’s left the mental institution, or as a newly-confirmed nun in Catholic Spain, battling her dark fantasies and predilections towards crime. I can really see her especially as a nun. Like Audrey Hepburn, that could be Samantha’s best sort of role. I was in Spain recently and thought a lot about these types of nun scenes while looking at some of the gothic cathedrals.

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The Love Witch is in theaters this Friday, screening at several locations, including some Alamo Drafthouses, on 35mm. Find a screening here.

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