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Director Anna Biller on the radical pleasures and subversive politics of The Love Witch

Photo: Anna Biller
Photo: Anna Biller

Coming from a background as a visual artist, writer-director Anna Biller makes films that, on one level, can be experienced as pure cinema. But while the aesthetics are undoubtedly pleasurable, underneath the meticulously crafted design of Biller’s films lie sharp satirical observations about the relationships between men and women. In 2007, she directed, wrote, and starred in Viva, a film satirizing the swinging suburban culture that arose amid the sexual revolution of the early 1970s. Her new film is The Love Witch, a candy-colored comedy exploring obsession, self-delusion, and the desire to be loved. These themes are expressed through the character of Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a self-proclaimed “love witch” who uses her occult powers to seduce (and, when necessary, destroy) unwitting men in a small coastal California town.

We spoke to Biller over the phone just days before The Love Witch’s home video release, where she discussed at length common misconceptions about her work, the deeply personal, feminist message of The Love Witch, and the commitment to classic cinema technique that drives her art.

The A.V. Club: Recently, you posted on Twitter about your previous film, Viva, saying it was inspired by Playboy cartoons; placed side by side, the sets were exact copies, down to the pattern of the wallpaper. Was there anything like that that you used for The Love Witch?

Photo: Anna Biller

Anna Biller: No, actually. I didn’t really copy anything for The Love Witch. I looked at a bunch of movies to see if there was something I wanted to copy, a world I wanted to copy, and I couldn’t find anything. And I thought, “Well, it’s an original movie, it’s an original script, so I’ll design it from my own head.”

AVC: Would you say it’s born straight from your psyche, then?

AB: I used some design references from things like Tarot decks—looked at a lot of occult symbolism.

AVC: That’s interesting, because I’ve read reviews of the film that assume it’s an homage to sexploitation. But I know you don’t agree with that interpretation.

AB: I watched several films that you might call sexploitation as I was making my first feature Viva, and I didn’t find too many of them that were worth looking at or remembering. I don’t have an extensive knowledge of those films, and they’re actually not really ever in the center of my consciousness. I watched them for Viva just to see what they were, but I wasn’t really basing Viva on those movies, except Radley Metzger, who is more of an erotic art film director. I was basing them on the Playboy cartoons, and on interior decorating books.

The Love Witch doesn’t come from sexploitation movies either. I think, subliminally, it comes from the movies that I actually watch, which are not sexploitation movies. They’re from classic cinema, all the way from pre-code movies, through the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s, stopping, I think, before sexploitation. There was a political backlash against women in the ’60s and ’70s, with the sexual revolution and the second wave women’s movement. There was this really strong push to objectify women and say that all they were was sex objects. Viva’s very directly about that—the way women were dehumanized during the sexual revolution. The Love Witch is about that, too, but The Love Witch is more about how that objectification continues into today and causes women to dehumanize themselves, to not pursue their goals and dreams, to feel less than a man.

When I made Viva, I wasn’t aware, really, of the history of sexploitation. I liked those movies more [then] because I was looking at them with the female gaze in terms of my own sexual fantasies, like, “This woman is beautiful and I can identify with her.” But the more that I see the sexism and misogyny that’s coming at me from every direction, the less I think my films have anything to do with sexploitation.

Photo: Oscilloscope Labs

AVC: Do you see it as a way of trying to reduce the political statement you’re making in your film?

AB: They’re reducing the film. They’re reducing the character in the film. They’re reducing me as a filmmaker and my practice. But they’re also doing something larger. They’re actually reinforcing the forces that are described in the film that ruin women’s lives. The idea is that the film is about how objectification ruins this character’s life.

They refuse to look at the real actual thing that happens to women. The thing that happened to Hillary in the election. The thing that happens to women who try and get somewhere and do something. They’re saying we want to reduce women to just sex objects and we’re celebrating that and we think you are, too, although they think I’m being ironic about it. It’s tricky because the character is designed to arouse men and to make women identify with her, and that’s exactly what’s happening. But you would expect for more men to have a critical distance. It’s like, for many of them pleasure can’t co-exist with ideas.

I think about, for example, a movie like Belle De Jour. No one would call that movie “sexploitation.” And you think: Why would nobody call that movie “sexploitation”? Obviously, because it’s cinema. It’s a real movie, it has a real story, it’s about a real character. So is The Love Witch.

AVC: Absolutely.

AB: It’s about real things. I’ve watched some of these sexploitation movies, and most of them are terrible for me as a viewer because there’s no place for my identification. I just got a review today—it was a positive review, they loved the movie, but they said—and this happens all the time—“Oh wow, The Love Witch would make a great double feature with Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos.”

AVC: I wouldn’t agree with that at all.

AB: I’ve never seen that movie, but I’ve seen his movie Venus In Furs, so I know what it probably is.

AVC: All Jesús Franco movies are the same movie, basically.

AB: I write a script about a woman’s life being destroyed, which is a very personal story, and that’s all they get out of it? There’s an insensitivity to that comparison that becomes harrowing for me after a while. I mean, I might be taking all of this too seriously, but you have to understand this has been going on for almost 10 years. It was only after three or four years of these reactions that I started to stand up for myself and explain where I’m really coming from.

Photo: Oscilloscope Labs

AVC: Can you admire, say, the aesthetic of the hairstyles women wore in the ’60s—can you take that aesthetic and use it to convey a feminist message?

AB: A hairstyle doesn’t have any politics attached to it. All movies from the ’60s have ’60s hairstyles in them. [Laughs.] It has nothing to do with sexploitation, or any other exploitation. Girls today often are wearing ’60s hair and makeup for glamour reasons, because it’s in style. So that’s all I have to say about that. It has nothing to do with Jesús Franco.

AVC: The aesthetic is apolitical, in your mind.

AB: Of course it is, yeah. It’s a fashion. You could say, “All those sexploitation movies had that hair and makeup,” but so did all movies [of the period].

AVC: I wanted to talk about the character of Elaine because, like you said, the movie is about the way her life is destroyed.

AB: The movie is about love. It’s about dissecting love in all its forms, talking about love and how people destroy each other with love. It’s called The Love Witch. Outside of politics, we might want to talk about the movie as being about love, and that it’s actually more accurate to talk about it that way than as being about sex.

AVC: Elaine is obsessed with having a man that loves her, but at the same time, she sees men as weak and feeble and easily manipulated. Is she just a narcissist, or is there some sort of larger point to that?

AB: I’m actually trying to describe what happens when men have to move from feelings of lust to feeling love. They lose their mojo and they become all weird. Men in long-term relationships, we all know how they lose their mojo, they just completely fall apart. [Laughs.] They feel like they’re not even a man anymore, and they get kind of feminized and weird and they have this longing for this animal, brutal part of themselves to come back. Love does something to men. I exaggerated it a bit, but I don’t think a lot. This is why men don’t want to go there.

AVC: The way you play it in the film is funny.

AB: It is funny. It’s funny in real life, too. Heterosexual women who’ve had long-term relationships see their man fall apart like that. They go, “I’m giving him my whole life—I’m giving him my love, I’m cooking for him, he’s got this great sex, he’s got everything. Why is he so miserable all of a sudden? Why does he want to get away with his buddies and look at other girls? What is his problem?” It seems like something that happens to men, they feel like their manliness has been chipped away and destroyed by being with just one woman. They feel resentful and they’re passive-aggressive. I’m being playful about it.

Everything in the movie comes from some kind of personal experience, which is another reason it irritates me when people call it “pastiche.” It’s so personal. It’s too cold to call it a pastiche. I think that’s actually why people like it. It’s funny: The same people who call it sexploitation or pastiche or they say it’s all these cold things—the people who like the film, I don’t think they would like the film if it was like how they say it is. They like it because it’s real. It’s based on real emotions and real things that happen to people, real psychological truths.

Photo: Oscilloscope Labs

AVC: Is Elaine a playful way of saying, “Here, fellas, here’s your worst nightmare”?

AB: This is what men demand of women. It’s kind of a social irony. They want this woman who’s beautiful, she’s perfect, she looks gorgeous all the time, she’s subservient, she doesn’t talk too much, she cooks for them, she’s loving. What if you took that literally? What if you really became that thing that men want you to be? You’d be a Frankenstein monster. That’s what Elaine does. She’s a good girl, in a way. She says, “I’m going to do the things they want me to do and then I’ll be happy. I’m not going to fight anymore, I’m not going to yell at them, I’m not going to rage at them, I’m not going to be angry. I’m just going to do exactly what they want me to do.” It’s not her thing, though. That’s where the comedy comes from—the comedy comes from her literal interpretation of what is demanded of her.

AVC: Of an impossible standard.

AB: Of an impossible standard that nobody can live up to that doesn’t make anybody happy. Men’s requirements of women are impossible and ridiculous and so destructive. It’s comic within the movie, how it happens, but it’s not comic when it actually destroys a woman’s life. I’m not going into the really dark things that happen to women. Plenty of women say, “I’m just going to make myself into a sex object.” But they often can’t stay afloat doing that. They can’t maintain their sanity. Some women can, but many cannot. They think they can, but self-objectification is really dangerous.

AVC: And there’s a sort of detachment that happens.

AB: There’s a dissociation from your own humanity and from your own soul and spirit that, if you do it for too long, does create a kind of madness. Some of the people who’ve really been responding to my film strongly are sex workers because they’re like, “This is my life.” In a way, maybe it is. It’s about things that are real, but I’ve coded them because I’m trying to make something pleasurable, not something ugly in the way that it really is. It’s actually much more terrifying than how I painted it. I’m trying to give people a pleasurable cinematic experience, but I’m talking about things that are extremely dark.

AVC: It’s subversive in that way, I think.

AB: I think so. And so, when people take it for fluff and I read reviews that say it’s “light” or things like that—“don’t take this seriously”—there’s a political dimension to that, I think. “Don’t look at women’s lives. Don’t look at what women go through. If you think this is a serious plot, it’s not. It’s a joke about some other movies 50 years ago. Don’t pay attention.”

AVC: I think that’s very valid. If you did take these issues that you’re talking about and displayed them as they are in reality, it would be a very dark film. But instead you chose to, like you said, make something pleasurable. It takes the piss out of it a little bit.

AB: I’m also trying to transform it for myself into something that’s not so depressing. It’s almost like when you have a dream where something that was ugly in your life becomes beautiful. I think cinema can do that. Cinema can transform pain and trauma into something beautiful. I’m trying to transform it, to sort of purge it, in a way. I found that filmmaking, for me, works like gestalt therapy. It can purge things, it gets rid of them for me, and I don’t feel so bad about them anymore. But then, because of the audience reactions, I’m re-traumatized. All of these confusing things that happen in your life, being a woman, you make a film about them and you purge them, and then you feel great. And then the reaction from critics and audiences come in, and they’re the same as the things that caused you trauma in the first place.

AVC: Does that put you off?

AB: The objectification of my actress and me as a filmmaker and the comments that come in are so insensitive, they remind you of an old boyfriend or the patriarchs in your life, fathers and teachers. It’s the same kind of feeling. “You’re not allowed to do this, you’ve crossed a line.” And it’s terrifying, actually. It’s bittersweet to have a movie be so popular, but it’s popular with caveats. It’s popular with the insistence that you’re not doing serious work.

Photo: Oscilloscope Labs

AVC: Does it put you off filmmaking, though?

AB: It doesn’t, no. Every time I get criticism from people, I learn from it and what to do the next time so there are fewer misconceptions. I’m continuing to be socialized as a woman, but also as a filmmaker. For my earliest 16mm film, 100 percent of the criticism of that film was about production values. That film looked exactly the way I wanted it to, but audiences didn’t like these fantasy sets, they wanted more solid sets. So I trained myself to make good sets and I worked hard.

So now what happens is that people love my sets. “Your production design is great.” What I started realizing is that no matter what I do, all people talk about is production design, whether it’s not good enough or it is good enough. And I’m thinking: This is because my content makes people uncomfortable. It’s a way for people to not talk about the content. So I keep learning how to make it more accessible to them.

Maybe for the next film, I won’t have the production design so front and center so it won’t be distracting to people. Maybe I would mute the colors a little bit. I needed to do those kinds of colors for The Love Witch because it was part of the symbolism of the movie. But I’ve now written a script where that’s not going to be so essential. So it’s things like that—how do I not have these misconceptions going into the future?

Also, I think I would have less sex, because I want to get rid of that “sexploitation” label. I have a sex scene or two in my next movie, but maybe I won’t show anything. It’s almost like I’m being tamed or controlled by the audience, the same way the character is. Maybe that will help me to make better cinema.

AVC: That’s a very optimistic way of looking at it, that maybe you can make better cinema out of it. But one of the things I liked about this film was how unabashedly feminine a lot of it is. It’s too bad people can’t look past that.

AB: I think part of it is that there’s so much resistance to looking at me as someone who is able to create meaning, and I think that’s because I’m a woman. I’m stepping on men’s toes. Men think they own female sexuality. I was asked yesterday in an interview something about the male gaze, and I realized the absurdity of having us all think that when there’s a woman, she has a male gaze. Because I have my own gaze. I’m a filmmaker and a voyeur, and what does that have to do with a man? Are people saying that I’ve adopted how a man looks, and that’s the way I look?

I know for a fact that’s not true because I’ve been a voyeur my whole life, since I was about 2 years old. I’ve been watching movies since that age and fantasizing about these glamour queens, before I even knew what a man was or anything like that. Are they saying women don’t have a consciousness, their own brains, their own desires, their own ways of looking? This is also why the “sexploitation” label irritates me, because it’s like saying that I’m mediating my gaze through a man’s gaze.

AVC: That you couldn’t have come up with these images from your own desires.

AB: Well, of course, I did come up with them from my own desires. And maybe some of them happened to be similar to giallo or exploitation films, because those films were created in the ’60s and some of them were about witchcraft and I used Italian soundtracks and the girls had makeup on that was similar. [Laughs.] But it’s not because I watched those films and tried to copy and study them that that happened. It’s because I like that kind of makeup. It’s because I studied classical lighting and I insist upon hiring a DP that’ll do that for me. It’s because [Ennio] Morricone is the best soundtrack composer. Things like that.

Photo: Oscilloscope Labs

AVC: I was curious about the technical processes of the film, because the acting style that Samantha Robinson uses is not very common anymore, nor is the way you lit it and the way you filmed it. I wonder if you could get into how you did that differently and why?

AB: When I first started making films in school, I got a DP that lit something, and I really hated the way he lit it. I threw away that footage. We were shooting on film, it was expensive to shoot, I was working for $10 an hour, but I still threw away the footage because I really didn’t like it. What I realized was I liked the kind of lighting that they had in old movies. So I decided to study lighting to figure out how I could get it to look the way I like. It had nothing to do with wanting to look retro. That’s the kind of lighting I like because I find it beautiful—that kind of classic, frontal lighting. It makes people look great.

AVC: It really does.

AB: It’s portrait lighting. I really like portrait lighting on people. I learned that a long time ago. And then when you’re lighting sets, you want the color to come out, you want contrast, you want volume. To me, this just looks good. I’m trying to do good lighting, so that’s what that is. I’m very careful about the kind of lighting I want, but it has nothing to do with wanting to mimic anything.

And it’s the same thing with the acting. I cast the actors that I thought were interpreting the script the right way. They had a quality of, I think, solemnity, or pageantry. They were taking it seriously, they were getting into the roles, they were having some kind of an experience when they were saying the lines. Most of the actors weren’t directed by me at all. Samantha Robinson was directed, but not in any style. She was directed to pull the truth of the character out of herself. I wanted to see how she could find the character. I think it’s truthful acting. I think it’s deep acting. I think it’s classical, and I like classical acting. When people say, “It’s like the bad acting from the ’60s,” they’re actually talking about people who were trained in classical theatrical acting for the most part, and so are my actors.

Anyway, that’s how we worked on it. I cast the actors I felt were good and truthful and that’s as far as it went. Samantha is a very particular kind of person. She’s kind of clipped and she’s very poised and very self-possessed and she has a particular quality to her that’s very different from most people nowadays. She’s not floppy or casual in any kind of way. She’s very prim and specific in her movements and in her vocal style. That’s who she is, and how she speaks. I cast somebody who had that particular quality. Like I said, I didn’t train her in a style, I trained her to find the truth of the character in herself.

AVC: Did you go through a long casting process to find a person who had those qualities you were looking for?

AB: I just went through a regular casting process with a regular casting call. You see a lot of people, and for each character, there was usually just only one person who I thought nailed it, so I didn’t have callbacks. I just cast the person who was right. The hardest person to cast was Trish. I had hundreds of actresses audition for that role, because I couldn’t find someone who could play her. It’s a very difficult part, probably the most difficult part in the script, because she is a feminist who somehow is able to be loving and friendly to Elaine while having opposite views from her. I couldn’t find someone who wasn’t just playing it totally bitchy. The part wasn’t supposed to be English, but it was only women who were not American who could pull that off.

Photo: Oscilloscope Labs

AVC: Interesting. I’ve read that you are very involved in all steps of the process of creating the film—did you do the paintings that are in Elaine’s apartment?

AB: I did most of them. I commissioned some of them out, yeah. My background is in visual art, in painting.

AVC: How involved are you on that level? Creating all of the costumes and all the paintings and all that?

AB: I do create everything or find everything. I picked all the furniture and bought all the props or made all the props. I either made the paintings or commissioned paintings and worked closely with the artists so, yeah, that’s one reason this took so long. But we didn’t have the budget to do it any other way. I didn’t really have a choice. Many independent filmmakers work this way—it’s not unusual. What was unusual was the scope of the project. I was so wanting it to have this huge scope without the budget, and I just kept working until it had this big scope without the money. That’s what’s unusual. A lot of independent filmmakers do the costumes and props and do everything. But it’s just like, they’re shooting in somebody’s house, and there aren’t that many props, you know what I mean? I was like, “I can’t afford these objects, so I’ll make them. I can’t afford a Renaissance wardrobe, so I’ll make it.”

AVC: I think that speaks to the specificity of your vision and what you want from the film.

AB: We would’ve needed at least double the budget to hire people to do the work that I did, and we didn’t have it. I was like, “Okay, I’ve written in a scene that takes place in a Renaissance Faire and I want to have 15th century Italian Renaissance costumes.” The thing I do is I look to see if there are any costumes that I can rent. No, there aren’t any. Then I try to see: Can I alter the vision and just have the costumes be more random? And then no, you can’t, because it has to be their perfect fairy-tale wedding and it has to be like a painting and the costumes have to all match. So somebody has to make this wardrobe. I tried to hire a designer, but it didn’t work out because, first of all, I couldn’t afford it, and second of all, the one designer friend I had, a fashion designer, she didn’t believe how much work it was and she just laughed in my face about how much work it was.

AVC: Oh wow.

AB: She just couldn’t believe it. When she saw my drawings, I was saying, “Here, do this.” She was like, “Forget it. All the money in the world, I’m not doing those.” I was like, “Maybe I could hire two assistants for you,” and she said, “Not even then.” She was thinking about the logistics of it and she was pointing at the codpieces and saying, “Do I have to make that? And do I have to make that?” The hats. I started thinking about it. I was like, “Yeah.” She was like, “That’s crazy.” She’s an artist and she has her own work. It’s like, how many months is this going to take me? I did it and it took me over a year. She was right. She was more experienced than I was. She knew exactly how much work it was, which I didn’t quite know. I was thinking, “We’re kind of ready to shoot. But we don’t have the Renaissance costumes. Let’s take care of that.” And then it’s a year later. [Laughs.]

The Love Witch is now available on DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Oscilloscope Labs, and is available as a digital rental on the major streaming services.