“The Love Witch” Director Anna Biller Talks Gender Performance and Femme Fatales
Anna Biller’s 35mm cult feature “Viva” and her 16mm art-film shorts have screened at major film festivals and art spaces around the world. She is known for her use of classic and outdated film genres to address female roles within culture, coding feminist ideas within cinematic aesthetics and visual pleasure. She creates all of her own costumes and set designs, making many or the props and paintings as well as composing and scoring for her films.
“The Love Witch” opens November 11 in LA and November 18 in NY. The film was made using only traditional film processes.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
AB: “The Love Witch” is a tragic irony about Elaine, a modern-day witch trapped in her own world of gender performance, which she has adopted in order to get men to love her unconditionally. The film plays out in the dual empowerment and entrapment that this performance creates, which causes giddying heights of narcissistic self-love, sadistic pleasure in men’s pain, and near success in ensnaring her Prince Charming, and crashing lows of Elaine’s objectification, rejection, and abuse by men.
The film is also about cinema, and how it creates its own magical spell. Elaine’s inner fantasy life, which is full of princess and sorceress fantasies, is played out in the design, costuming, cinematography, makeup, and lighting in the film. “The Love Witch” is intended to cast a spell on the audience in much the same way as Elaine casts a spell on her male victims.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
AB: I have always been fascinated by femmes fatales in movies, and I wanted to create a character that could embody all of the stereotypes and contradictions of such a character. A practicing witch weaving love spells and making art seemed like the perfect type of femme fatale character for the modern age.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
AB: I want people to think about what it’s like to be a woman. Many or most men have never thought about this at all, and many women also try not to think about it.
We are living in a culture where everyone is trying to forget that gender exists, and in which the feminine is also regularly debased: I think that to try to pretend gender doesn’t exist is another way of erasing women.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
AB: The biggest challenge in making the film was to get it made the way it looked in my head with the budget that we had. There were so many intricate visuals involved, and no pre-production budget to hire an art department or a costume department. So I resigned myself to getting most of it done alone.
I spent literally years in my studio making props and costumes. I had hundreds of lists, and would tick things off the lists every day. I spent a year and a half just sewing. I enjoy sewing and crafting props, but it became enormously difficult organize the sheer mass of objects that we needed, a task that would normally involve a sizable art department.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
AB: I was very lucky to find private investors who are fans of my work. Funding was actually the easy part!
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
AB: The worst advice is everyone yelling at me to “delegate, delegate, delegate.” Creative control is gold — it’s something you aren’t going to get on a larger budget, so you should take the most creative control you can get when you still can. It’s the only way you’re going to learn about filmmaking, which is the most valuable thing you can get on a set.
The best advice I’ve ever gotten was from a teacher at CalArts, after I showed him some of my Super 8mm films in art school. He told me I shouldn’t be shooting on Super 8mm. I asked him what I should be shooting on, and he said, “Vincente Minnelli would have used 35mm!” That was the day I decided to become a filmmaker.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
AB: I would say to female filmmakers, don’t try to make films that are the same as men’s films, unless you have no personal stake in it and just want to fit into the industry. Don’t let anyone push you around or tell you that a man can do your job better than you.
Learn as much as you can about every aspect of filmmaking, so you can more easily talk to heads of departments in their language, and ultimately get your way.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
AB: My favorite woman-directed film is Dorothy Arzner’s “Dance, Girl, Dance.” I love this film because it sets up a dichotomy between different types of female performance and identity; because it shows a woman’s aspiration towards using her body for high art and the dichotomy between that and the debased way that men want to look at her; because it is the only classic Hollywood film I’ve ever seen that includes an actual feminist manifesto delivered as a lecture by a woman to a group of men; and because this lecture is applauded by the men who are inspired by her strength and goodness.
I also love the glimpses of modern dance in the film, and the way the film [allows a beautiful female character to] reject the male gaze in spite of her iconic loveliness.