Oct 25, 2016
An Atmosphere of Magic: Talking to Anna Biller About The Love Witch
The Love Witch is certainly the best (if not the only) gloriously colorful sexy witch movie you’ll see this year. Writer-producer-editor-director-production designer-costume designer Anna Biller’s film centers around Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a young witch who casts love spells with increasingly intense and troubling results. Biller’s vision is one of wild confidence: every detail, from a painting on the wall down to a pair of stockings, embodies an uncanny, 1960s-flavored aesthetic. The eloquent multi-hyphenate auteur spoke with us about the film’s inspirations, female power and seduction, and the surprising significance of shopping for wigs.
How do you see your film within the tradition of onscreen witches? The archetype tends to be either scary and serious or really campy.
Anna Biller: I like to tell stories about female identity and experience. It’s a combination of personal experience and cinema fantasy. There’s playfulness with taking a modern witch and using a lot of stereotypes and clichés. It’s fun to see her in a long black wig and a black dress looking like a 60s witch, and you can call that campy in a way; I wanted to relate her historically to cinema witches. I also wanted to make a horror movie out of what it is to just be a woman in the world. I had a strong interest in keeping things psychologically real, but going as far as I wanted with the visual style. I think it’s the opposite of the combination in most films today, which have very little psychological realism. This could feel strange to people, but I think that’s how the films I really love work. I watch a lot of classic movies where there’s a kind of mythic element. People can say my film is campy, or genre, or pastiche, but what I’m trying to do is more mythic. It bothers me when people talk about the film in terms of exploitation. I feel that’s the opposite of what I’m doing, in creating a female subjectivity. I want to change the way people look at a beautiful woman in a movie and have them look from the inside. Or the inside and the outside, but more as a full human being. The male gaze is so dominant people tend to think that’s all there is.
The dialogue is really interesting, and expresses some of that subjectivity. It’s stylized, with a declarative quality.
I’m trying to write dialogue in a classical way. I was thinking about plays and things that are more thematically written. It’s kind of a treatise on men and women as well as a drama. I like the idea of making it a lesson, almost. There’s a Brechtian distancing that I wanted to do on purpose.
What was it like shooting on film? Given budget concerns and the current moviemaking climate, did you ever consider digital?
I love shooting on film so much. It’s such a sensuous, exciting experience. People talk a lot about budget but you really end up spending more money on everything else, especially if you’re making sets and costumes and hiring a lot of crew. The film stock and processing are what cost money, but if you don’t shoot a lot it’s really not much more expensive.
There are a lot of sparkles that 35mm captured really well.
That’s actually mainly the lighting. My cinematographer and I talked about lighting a lot. He really knew what to do: to get sparkle on a chalice he’d use a vintage silk stocking on the lens. You can get some of these effects on video if you do this kind of lighting. When I released stills people said, “Wow, I can really tell this was shot on film,” but the stills were digital. This lighting technique is almost a lost art. People don’t light that way for video because you don’t have to use that much light. It’s only by bringing in an enormous amount of light and playing with light and shadow that you get this effect of hard lighting. Everyone now does soft lighting, so you don’t get as many colors and shadows. Hard lighting has been out of style for about 40 years. I love Technicolor, and you really can’t get that type of color unless you light that way.
I wanted to make a horror movie out of what it is to just be a woman in the world.
What were some of your inspirations, outside of just films from the past?
I think a lot of what I’m doing is kind of unconscious. I looked at a lot of artwork from the 60s and 70s and old Wella Balsam shampoo ads with girls with really flowing, swirly hair. Girls with flowing hair and unicorns. I was obsessed with that kind of look, but it was hard to get in the film since it’s kind of horror. And I looked at vintage big-eyed dolls with pink and yellow dresses and parasols. Things from just before my childhood and all kinds of fantasies from the past. Girly fantasies.
You can see it in the costumes, many of which have that great 70s-meets-Victorian look.
I was really interested in how the 60s and 70s captured the Victorian era. There’s this really 60s makeup with big eyelashes and elaborate hairdos with those fancy Victorian-style dresses that girls would wear to prom. I made a lot of the costumes but I also bought some of those hyper-romantic dresses. They’re kind of in style again now. I’ve always been a girl that’s really into pink and ruffles. It feels like it’s innate. My sister is close in age and she hated all that stuff.
What was it like making the costumes? Do you have a favorite?
Some of my favorites are those Victorian-style dresses, which I didn’t make. In terms of being hands on, I would make sketches and buy fabrics. I used vintage sewing patterns and when I couldn’t find them I had to make them. And then it was buying trim, making hose, hats, headdresses, capes. It went on, literally, for years. The costumes had a lot of pieces and it’s very meticulous work. There were big periods of time where I wasn’t a filmmaker, but a costumer. I went lingerie and wig shopping with my lead actress, and I feel like that’s really when the movie goes into pre-production, when you start wig shopping. You buy panties, garters, wigs, and now there’s the movie. A male filmmaker might be into sexy women, but they’re not going to get into lingerie at this level.
All of Elaine’s makeup is also really fabulous, and works so well with the costumes.
It had to do with my fantasies. The made-up look is associated with a woman who’s a siren. She puts on a mask, and makeup becomes a weapon against men. I really wanted the makeup to be mask-like and extreme. I wanted her to seem strange, and I know a lot of men can be weirded out by women who have fake things about them. She’s a cinematic vision, not necessarily someone you’d get close to or touch, which is part of the allure.
You have a pretty active social media presence. Do you get inspiration from being able to interact with fans publicly?
I only started tweeting this year, and I’ve fallen in love with it. It connects me to a lot of other people who love classic movies and glamour, and I learn from them and get movie recommendations. It makes me feel less alone in a way, since I sometimes feel I have odd tastes. It’s an amazing thing.
Have you ever dabbled in witchcraft yourself?
When I was doing research for this film I tried doing some spell craft. I found it very powerful and a little bit frightening. It kind of changes your personality. I was afraid of going there, in a way. Your dark energy can be powerful and a spell can intensify that. Magic is about interference and power, otherwise it wouldn’t be magic. One thing my witchcraft study did was make me realize how much it’s about objects and creating an atmosphere of magic.
What was your relationship like with the lead actress? She gives such a confident performance.
For this role the actress had to have such perfect diction and poise. I wanted her to be very natural but also have this stylized, larger-than-life quality. It’s a mix of being dangerous and kind of sweet and innocent. It’s hard to pull off. She had to go really deep in herself, and she had the skill to do it. It was a real collaboration.
Do you have an ideal audience in mind for your film?
I find the people who respond most strongly to my work are fans of old movies. Those audiences aren’t so distracted by the style and it becomes less confusing. And young women who are trying to find their own identity and be powerful and naughty—women who feel magical and beautiful and don’t know what to do with all their power.
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