Buzzy Technicolor throwback film The Love Witch comes straight from the brain, heart and hands of filmmaker Anna Biller, the Hollywood-obsessed daughter of an artist and a fashion designer. The movie stars newcomer Samantha Robinson as Elaine, a burlesque-dancing witch looking for love with the help of her sex magic, which proves to be uncontrollable and destructive. In her work, Biller takes auteur theory to a whole new level. Not only does she write, direct, produce and edit her films (The Love Witch follows 2007’s Viva, in which Biller also starred), but she writes the music and crafts the elaborate costumes and sets herself. Every 35 mm frame is a labor of love and an expression of her unique aesthetic.
We sat down with the sharp and very candid Biller over green tea on a rainy day in Hollywood. Our talk ranged from witchcraft to feminism in film, from the power of female fantasy to the politics of pleasure on screen.
What do you think the current appeal of witchcraft is?
It’s fun for women to think of themselves as magical goddesses, to play with the idea of getting personal power out of using magic. We’re in such a self-improvement culture; magic is another self-improvement strategy, but it’s also fun.
You did all the costumes and the set design yourself. Why?
I was trying to make a movie that looked like it had 10 times the budget it had, and the only way to do it was just to do a lot of it myself.
How do you work with your actors to achieve the highly stylized yet emotionally layered performances?
The key was casting. I didn’t direct anybody on set except for Samantha. I never met those people before I cast them, but I could tell by the look on their face in their photograph that they were going to come in and do that. I’ve gotten really good at casting—I look at faces, facial expressions, see what’s in people’s eyes. I look at how people are presenting themselves, what kind of smile they have, what kind of fantasy they have about themselves. With Samantha, she’s a very unique person. She’s got this ballerina poise and beautiful English diction. She has this incredible, expressive face, expressive eyes, so we worked with that, and it wasn’t too hard to bring it out of her.
What was your gateway drug as a young person to this era of films? Was there one film that you can remember?
Before I can even remember being able to speak, I’ve been obsessed with classic movies, especially black-and-white musicals, because my mom loved those and she had them on all the time. It’s a fetish of mine. I was making goofy little videos in art school, but what I really wanted to do was make films, so I started making little musicals on Super 8. My art training helped me think about things more theoretically in terms of feminism, how to create characters that were more complex. I took theoretical art and the training of making things in your studio, plus my innate love of old movies to create this weird style that I have.
Elaine is a kind of predator in The Love Witch. She uses sex magic and it’s destructive and out of control.
The Love Witch is very much about female fantasy. I don’t know what woman has not fantasized about destroying men through beauty: “I’m so beautiful that you’re going to die.”
The ideas about female sexuality in The Love Witch are complex and relatable. The movie doesn’t give you a straight answer or a label of what is or is not feminist.
There is no answer. Partly what I’m trying to do is just present it. A lot of people don’t like that because they want an answer—what’s the point, what’s the message, what’s the conclusion? What is the answer to living as a woman in the world? This is why we need more complex female characters on the screen.
“One of the things I’m doing, which is political, is trying to create pleasure in the cinema.”
Does the retro genre offer a space for a type of cultural critique that couldn’t necessarily be made with a contemporary film?
One of the things I’m doing, which is political, is trying to create pleasure in the cinema. I’m trying to make something that’s not didactic, that’s not preachy, that’s not ugly, that’s not just for male consumption. The surface being so gorgeous—on film and lit so beautifully—for me that’s political. To have feminism within this pleasure and beauty. This is how some of those feminist ideas are going to seep through—getting to people’s brains through pleasure.
Part of the power of male fantasy, the reason it’s been so powerful culturally, is because men create beautiful things out of male fantasy. They’re powerful because they’re artistic and work subliminally on the consciousness. The idea is to create pleasurable works that are highly artistic and highly consumable that are feminist. This is political because it gets out to people, it doesn’t become a fringe underground thing. I don’t believe a work of art should be a manifesto; a work of art should be a work of art. This is how it gains power in the world.
Pleasure as political is a powerful idea.
It’s important to me that you experience the film as an artificial creation, which is one reason why the colors are so exaggerated. I wanted people to think about how a movie is constructed and who is constructing the movie, that there’s an author. Cinema is a magic spell and you’re creating this spell, and also you’re politicizing women’s labor.
What you would like to do next?
I’m still very interested in relationships between men and women, so my next movie is still going to be about gender relations. But it’ll be about a sociopathic man, a husband who’s gaslighting his wife. Those are some of my favorite Hollywood movies, Gaslight, Caught, Rosemary’s Baby, Suspicion. They’ve always been my favorite movies, psychologically, so I’ll try to create a movie like that.