Anna Biller does it all. And by does it all, I mean everything it takes to make a movie. She was the director, the writer, the production designer, the costume designer, and her own editor on The Love Witch. It also happens to be that The Love Witch was one of the most unique and fulfilling movies of 2016. It was a combination of all the things we love about movies, from the beautiful technicolor, to lush set pieces, and a star turn by lead actress Samantha Robinson, it is safe to say that I want to watch anything that Anna Biller directs. I certainly can't believe she allowed me a chance to ask her some questions and put her on AMovieGuy.com's Hot Seat.
AMG.COM: So right off the bat, can you tell me a bit about what inspired you to want to be a filmmaker?
ANNA BILLER: It was probably watching so many classic movies as a child. I was obsessed with movies featuring glamorous women and great sets and costumes, and I adored all of the characters that seemed so much more interesting and charming than people in my own life. Then as a teenager I discovered French and avant-garde cinema and theater – movies like UN CHIEN ANDALOU and plays like UBU ROI - and I think that’s when I decided to become a filmmaker.
AMG.COM: What you have done in discovering Samantha Robinson - and you have discovered her - is find an instant superstar that fit perfectly into your vision of The Love Witch. She is a throwback to 60's natural beauties such as Vera Miles. I see a lot of Natalie Wood in her; it draws you in. What was your process like in finding this perfect actor to play the lead of Elaine?
ANNA BILLER: I just went through regular casting processes. I was very lucky to find her, since she is so unusual in her poise, coolness, voice, and beauty, but I also trained her to be The Love Witch. It was due to her natural intelligence and skill that she was able get into the part so fully, but it was also because she and I are similar in many ways. We essentially created the character together through bits of myself and bits of herself. It was a fantastic collaboration!
AMG.COM: There is an element of mystery that heightens the passion and arousal through the sexuality on display in The Love Witch. You treat sex as an art, a skill, and a beautiful thing to look at. I find it rare in today's world. Do you think there needs to be a change with how movies portray sex? Is it about what you don't show or the process building up to it?
ANNA BILLER: I’m not really conscious of trying to portray sex as an art. But I’m not in a hurry to display female nudity the way male filmmakers are, and I’m constructing the sex scenes from the point of view of a woman trying to seduce a man. So one might argue that it’s a female way of constructing sex scenes, or that it comes out of story which takes it out of being prurient. In The Love Witch there is only one sex scene, and in the scene she is casting a spell on a man. With this scene I was interested in also casting a spell on the audience so they could get inside of his experience. Unlike in most sex scenes the man is not active but passive, so he takes on a similar role to the audience, who is laying back and letting the film seduce them. I think in terms of it being beautiful, it’s beautiful because it’s not exploitative.
AMG.COM: So let's talk about the production of The Love Witch. I am in awe of what you have accomplished. I know you were inspired by ‘60s pulp novels, but can you talk a bit about how cinema shaped the kind of movies you have made, and specifically The Love Witch?
ANNA BILLER: I’m trying to create the kinds of movies I grew up with, the old Technicolor and black-and-white movies, which had a charmed and intoxicating atmosphere. But I’m also trying to make movies that are honest and that come from personal experience. It’s that combination which makes my films have such an odd tone. Because they are like old studio films discovered from some rusty vault, but they are also personal and contain experiences and ideas that can only come from a woman living today.
AMG.COM: You directed, wrote the script, made the costumes, music, production design, set decoration, and on and on. Out of all of those responsibilities, what would you say was your favorite part of making The Love Witch? I know you could say all of it, but was there a part that was more rewarding?
ANNA BILLER: I think the most rewarding part for me is casting and working with actors. This is where the work really comes alive. My second favorite part is probably editing.
AMG.COM: What was the hardest part?
ANNA BILLER: The hardest part is always executing the production design. There are hundreds of parts that have to come together, and it’s incredibly labor-intensive to make the kinds of environments I make. There are some sets where creating all of the props for one short scene will take months of labor.
AMG.COM: I wanted to ask you about filming The Love Witch. I am such a big fan of Technicolor and I feel like there has been a revival with your film. I really love any movie with a beautiful woman in a convertible, such as Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. What was your shooting process to get the colors and everything right with cinematographer M. David Mullen?
ANNA BILLER: David Mullen is as much of a fan of classic movies as I am, if not more, and he knew exactly the look to go for, plus he had the skill and expertise to execute it. So for those rear projection scenes we shot background plates in Eureka, then we came back down to Los Angeles and got the car in a studio and projected the footage on a screen behind the car. He lit Samantha sitting in the car, and we had someone shake the car and someone else move things across the light to create shadows passing by. But he knew exactly how to light her in the car to create maximum glamour, and that’s why she looks so great. Everything was done in camera – there were no tricks in post. Everything came directly from the original camera negative. The color saturation was due to the art direction and the lighting. We used hard lighting and tungsten fresnels the way they did in the old studios; today nearly everything is soft lighting.
AMG.COM: In the story, there is a bit of a battle between the character of Elaine (Samantha Robinson) and Trish (Laura Waddell) in terms of the roles that women struggle with. You could call it a conservative, closed off lifestyle vs. a more open and free way of living couldn't you?
ANNA BILLER:Actually, they both wanted the same thing – to be loved by a good man. But neither of them got what they wanted. That was one of the truths of the film - how men’s shallowness turns some women into Frankenstein monsters who live to please men, and other women into bitter spinsters or widows. These roles are not roles women willingly choose for themselves. Having to twist herself in knots to please men sexually and never really being loved for herself is not living “a more free and open” way of life.
AMG.COM: The horror genre aspects of The Love Witch are really the delicious parts that you get to enjoy. Like the blood and the way some of the men succumb to Elaine's spells. This sort of goes back to what I was talking about, the way sex is portrayed in movies, but do you think it says something more and has a better impact when the type of horror is unique from the clichéd movies we typically see?
ANNA BILLER: Again, I’m writing from the urgency of story, so if there’s any horror it comes from the situations and the psychology of the characters, rather than from a simple desire to scare people or copy other movies. I try not to do anything just because it’s a genre convention. I do think movies have more of an impact when they come from somewhere that’s meaningful to the people who make it.
AMG.COM: With the very positive reaction from critics, fans, and even winning multiple end- of-the-year awards from the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle, what has all of that meant to you?
ANNA BILLER:It’s very rewarding to have my work acknowledged and to get it out to larger number of people. Aside from the personal gratification, it means that I will get to continue making films.
AMG.COM: What is your next project going to be?
ANNA BILLER: I’m working on a noir-thriller film in color, which is based on all of the “gaslighting” films from the ‘40s and ‘50s, which featured a woman married to an abusive husband. sometimes a killer. Unlike most serial killer films, this one will be from the victim’s point of view. I am very excited about it.