Intermission #8via LetterboxdThe Love Witch recently arrived on home release and a bunch of us at Letterboxd HQ have finally been able to ogle its stunning production design and marvel at the 21st-century gender politics juxtaposed against its classic-movie setting (just donít call it pastiche, homage or sexploitation).
Shot on sumptuous 35mm and written, directed, edited and produced by Anna Biller (who also handled the filmís soundtrack, production design and costume design), The Love Witch
chronicles the exploits of Elaine, a modern-day witch who casts spells and potions to find love, with tragic results.
Intrigued by the filmís wide-ranging reviews on Letterboxd, the questions that keep coming up on Billerís own design-obsessed Twitter account
, and her open and generous interviews
weíve read elsewhere
, we sent some questions of our own.
We also asked Biller to create a list of Bluebeard movies
in anticipation of her next feature, which will be a version of the tragic fairy tale.Warning: the interview contains plot spoilers, not just for The Love Witch, but also concerning the fatal endings of many other films that Anna loves.Whatís a normal Anna Biller day, given that you write, direct, design all your costumes sets and props, and write your theme music? Basically, we imagine you must wake and eat film for breakfast. Please, tell us more!
I try to do only do one thing at a time. Right now I am in writing mode, so Iím at my computer most of the day. When Iím in sewing mode youíll find me sitting like the princess in Rumpelstiltskin with giant piles of fabric, trying to spin fabric into costumes. Nothing too glamorous.When youíre writing, do you begin with visions of perfect cinematic moments? Or do they come to you as youíre constructing the story?
For some of my other films I started with visual images, but with The Love Witch
the story came first. Occasionally I do come up with great cinematic moments which I incorporate into the scriptófor instance, I had these visual ideas about Trish putting on Elaineís wig and makeup, or of Elaine sitting at a gravesite wearing just bra and panties, or of Elaine and Griff as fairy tale prince and princess. Otherwise Iím just taking the script and using it as a blueprint for the design and mood, the same as any other designer would.We thought the visual effects and the cinematography in The Love Witch were beautiful. More than beautiful, but weíre still searching for the perfect word. Sumptuous. Can you tell us about collaborating with your cinematographer and visual effects artist? Did you have to bend them to your will to get what you wanted? Did you ever consider shooting it yourself?
I never considered shooting it myself. Cinematography is the biggest job on the set aside from directing and acting, and itís too much to take on. We didnít have a visual effects artist except for some scanning in post, as the effects were done in camera. But the collaboration with my cinematographer (M. David Mullen) was key in creating the look of the film. I wasnít interested in bending anyone to my will (which never works anyway), which is why I wanted so much to work with David. Iíd worked with him before on a 16mm short in the same style, so I knew he was an expert in period lighting.
He and I watch and study classic movies voraciously, so we were on the same page. Heíd already seen the movies I was referencing visually, and was familiar with the lighting and lensing techniques in them. The main difference between classic movies and movies shot today is that classic movies used hard lighting, which is tightly controlled and shaped with hard shadows. New movies use soft lighting almost exclusively. With hard lighting you are going to see a more dramatic image on screen, at least in terms of color and contrast.Tell us about your creative process when youíre preparing to direct. How do you communicate your vision to the cast and crew?
Iíve learned a lot since I started directed shorts years ago, and one thing Iíve realized is that the key to a successful production is finding the right people. So Iím very careful about casting and hiring key creative crew. In the past Iíve had major disasters getting the wrong people for key positions, so I interviewed many people until I found the right people. Once you have the right people, everything falls into place. So when Iím hiring a makeup artist, for example, I look at the personís experience and expertise, but I also look at their personality. The makeup artist is the last person to see the actor before they go on set, so they have to be fun and relaxing, with an upbeat attitude. They also have to not resent me, not fight me, to trust in my vision, but to have their own creative vision. They have to be an innovator but be able to take direction, and they have to have speed and stamina.
Itís not as easy to find someone like that as you might think. In the first interview, usually people reveal their personality flaws quite quickly. They are whiny, controlling, disagreeable, argumentative, bossy, despondent, lazy, disrespectful, resentful, brittle, egotistical, thin-skinned, and so forth. So when you find a talented person with a great personality, you hold onto them.
Itís the same with actors. How prepared were they in their audition? How much do they want the part? How respectful are they of the script and the production? An actor can be very talented, but if they are not committed to the project and they donít love the script, they can quit for a better part and leave you in the lurch. And they also have to be character types who have the personal integrity to never do something like that.
Once I get the right people, Iím like those generals who guide the army, but let the subordinate leaders (in my case, key department heads) make their own decisions. In war itís called auftragstaktik
. The subordinate leaders are aware of the mission, but they make their own decisions. So on an ideal set of mine, I hardly say anything to anyone. Everyone is in their own mental space, concentrating, contributing creatively and quietly towards a unified vision, and we are all working harmoniously like a buzzing hive. I use the military metaphor because thatís what a film set is likeóitís like war.Do you get the blues when shooting is over and the crew have gone home. If not, why not?
I used to get the blues when shooting was over, but I donít anymore, because there is always so much work to do when shooting is over!Can you tell us about the switch from writer to director to editor? Whatís it like being alone in the edit suite with the emotional aftermath of the shoot?
Writing was painful on The Love Witch
because I was teaching myself to write a more conventional screenplay, and the technique of doing that was surprisingly complicated. Then came a period of designing, finding locations, and crafting that went on way too long, since I didnít have the financial support to hire people to help. That is always the longest and most complicated part of the processóthe design. Part of that is also doing the storyboards. Then itís casting and hiring people, then being on set.
On The Love Witch
being on set wasnít too challenging, since everything had been worked out ahead of time. It makes for a much longer pre-production phase, but a much smoother shoot. It was only difficult when I had to manage crowd scenes, since the A.D. seemed to disappear whenever I needed him, so I ended up running around physically gathering people for rehearsals, blocking crowds, and trying to shout to be heard without a megaphone, all of which felt quite stressful and chaotic. In fact, the entire production team sort of disappeared once we started shooting, so David (the cinematographer) and I felt like orphans managing a set on our own, which is not ideal. I chalk this up to having hired the wrong people for the auftragstaktik
, so that the machine couldnít run properly.
Editing is my favorite part of the process. Itís when I can be alone with my images and play. Since I am quite a voyeur, having this time alone to gaze at my actors and the worlds Iíve created for them is intensely pleasurable. And because of how much I am in thrall to these images, I donít mind the endless hours of editing. They just seem to fly by.What are your favorite or most personally inspiring love stories on film? And what film love stories have you hated!
I love Duel in the Sun
. So sexy and outrageous. Tragic tooóthey kill each other in the end, but itís a shoot-out, and she is so intense and so beautiful, playing a half-breed in brown make-up. Wuthering Heights
is also a heartbreakeróCathy, played by Merle Oberon, dies because of her refusal to admit to her brutal love for the earthy stable boy played by Laurence Olivier. (Actually BuŮuelís version is even better than the Hollywood version). I love Notorious
óhow Ingrid Bergman is willing to throw her life away in marriage to Nazi Claude Rains because she thinks, erroneously, that Cary Grant has rejected her. And Gone With the Wind
, where Vivienne Leigh is unaware of which man she truly loves, and goes through countless adventures to discover it.
I also love Forever Amber
, in which the beautiful Linda Darnell has to marry the king but is in love with Cornell Wilde. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
is a great love story, about people who are too young to shoulder the responsibilities of love so they lose it tragically, but the film that shares an ending with it, La La Land
, is not a great love story. Thatís a film where the characters canít even muster up the energy to stay together. And when they meet again, they canít get up the energy to give up other things in their lives for one another. So itís not a real love story. In real love stories, people die for love, kill for love, and if love is unrequited they go mad (like in The Love Witch
).The Love Witch made us feel despairing and elated about the possibilities of heterosexual love. Youíve also been described as having a Ďplayfully violent female gazeí. Can you tell us about your approach to wielding the power of cinema to dissect relationships between men and women?
Iím mainly just trying to describe banal things that happen between men and women, albeit in a somewhat gothic setting. But I think the way cinema wields power is that people can become very engaged with it emotionally. So if you are telling personal stories from a womanís point of view, that can be a powerful way of bringing out hidden emotions in women about similar experiences, or a way for men to experience a little bit emotionally what itís like to be a woman. The power relations in my movies are very front and center, and this elicits a lot of emotions from people, both positive and negative.We were somewhat heartbroken when Elaine seduced Trishís husband, as Elaine and Trish had a wonderfully awkward intimacy: the way they negotiated their way into a conversation; the way Trish initially overcame their beauty power imbalance with her practical views. Can you tell us about that decision and what their relationship meant to you?
I always knew that Elaine would try to destroy Trish. Trish and Elaine were destined to never be real friends because of Elaineís toxic narcissism. You would think that Trish would be jealous of Elaine because of her beauty and power over men, but actually it was the other way around; Elaine was jealous of Trish. And so Elaine tried to steal Trishís husband to have what Trish had, but in doing so destroyed him. But that was always in Elaineís character. I donít feel that Trish lost anything of value in losing Elaine as a friend. Elaine is a fascinating character, but not someone you want around your husband or boyfriend!When people think of auteurs, they donít necessarily think of a person dealing with the pressure of directing while also performing other key creative roles on set like production designer. How do you combine working with the actors and crew as the director with that?
Production design and costume design are extremely time-consuming, but most of that work is done before shooting begins. It only becomes difficult when certain things canít be done ahead of time. So for instance, props and furniture canít be tagged too far ahead of time, so after the first two weeks of shooting, Iím using any days off from the set to run around tagging props and furniture, hoping that the things Iíve decided to use are there and not checked out, that sort of thing. And Iím also very busy on prep days, decorating the set. I donít get any days off, when the rest of the crew does. And sometimes Iím busy going through boxes of candles or vases when I should be by the camera, directing.Watching The Love Witch, we felt like we were experiencing a new cinematic language, something bigger and stronger than the list of influences that has been discussed elsewhere. Can you tell us about that?
My approach is very classical. I study classic screenplays, classic lighting, acting, design, and Iím very serious about my craft. I try to put all of that together with a personal story thatís also mythic and archetypal. I also am interested in creating aesthetic arrest and glamour on the screen. Classic movies often had these same concerns, and these are my favorite movies. If it seems new, perhaps thatís because it is being made today and not fifty or sixty years ago, and consciously from a female point of view.Youíve said you heavily researched witchcraft to create The Love Witch. Can you tell us about your favorite witches on screen?
My favorites are Kim Novak in Bell, Book and Candle
, Veronica Lake in I Married a Witch
, and Rosanna Schiaffino in La Strega in Amore
.The exceptional beauty of Elaine is one of the strong notes in the film. We could hardly look away from her. It felt like she invited us in though, rather than pushing the viewer away. We could project ourselves on her, and live vicariously through her. Can you tell us about how you wanted women to react to her? And men too?
I myself fell in love with Samanthaís image and found it very arresting, especially when she was in costume and makeup, and I was hoping that female viewers would feel the same way I did. Itís very gratifying to find that her image worked the same way with many female viewers as it did on me! I am constantly being asked about her makeup for instance, girls wanting to imitate her style and special brand of glamour and hoping some of her power rubs off on them. And I also expected for women to identify with her emotionally, which is also happening.
I expected men to be aroused by her, and thatís happening too, although I did expect for them to perhaps have a little more feeling for her as a human being, which sadly is quite rare, but does happen sometimes. One male fan on Twitter recently wrote that at the end of the film, when Elaine is riding away on her unicorn, he sobbed aloud, ďLove me!Ē. That was really great to hear, and quite touching.Was it a battle to shoot on film?
Post was a bit difficult because there is not the support there used to be with negative cutting and printing from an original negative, but I had a skilled camera crew, so it was not a problem on set. I love the way shooting on film makes everyone on set concentrate so deeply. Itís like a church. And actors usually nail it on the first take, because they are aware of the cost of shooting multiple takes.Do feminists shoot on film?
I donít know if the medium one chooses has anything to do with politics.Do you have somebody you think of as a mentor?
Not really. Iíve had a few good teachers, but no one Iím still in conversation with. I use the great filmmakers as my mentors.Itís impossible to watch The Love Witch without thinking of Rosemaryís Baby. Other than the satanic rituals, it also brought to mind the collaboration between Roman Polanski and Mia Farrow. Can you tell us a bit about how you built your creative relationship with your lead actress? Rosemaryís Baby
was indeed a big inspiration for The Love Witch
. As for my relationship with Samantha, we just rolled up our sleeves and got to work. It was mostly about breaking down the script, creating the character arc, things like that. We got along really well and worked very fluidly together, so I was very rewarding for both of us. It felt like we were truly creating the character together, and we had a lot of fun doing so.Do you think you approach actor relationships in a unique way, or if there are differences in the way women direct women?
I think there was a level of trust between Samantha and me that would not have been there if I was a man. I just intuitively sensed that, so in all of our rehearsals it was just the two of us. Some actresses feel more comfortable with a man present, and with those actresses I make sure a man is there validating their performance in rehearsals. I just go with the actor and what they need. Maybe thatís a female way of directing? I donít know.The wonderful scene with the tampon in the urine brought to mind Catherine Breillatís Anatomy of Hell, and her history of bringing complex femmes fatale to the screen. Do you have particular women directors and artists who you are inspired or influenced by?
Well, Breillat certainly has been an inspiration for me. I learned from her that thereís a way to shoot explicit scenes without having them be pornographic, and that having theoretical text over sex scenes kills menís desire. I specifically tested this in my burlesque scene, where a gorgeous dancer strips down to pasties to the droning of witches spouting gender theory, and I found that this is true. I also have been inspired by Chantal Akerman, Dorothy Arzner, Bette Gordon, Ida Lupino, and Lizzy Borden, among others. And I love Joan Crawford.We saw elsewhere that you mention having seen SalÚ. When we watched The Love Witch we also found ourselves thinking of particular books; of Justine, Venus in Furs, and Torture Garden, but also fairy tales like Cinderella and The Snow Queen. Can you tell us about your inspirations or influences that arenít films? Books, plays, paintings, fashion and the like?
When I was a child I read a lot of fairy tales. I think all of my films are fairy tales on some level. I was also an avid Shakespeare fan, and I loved symbolist poetry and theater, and nineteenth-century novels. These were my earliest loves, and I think itís all there in my films. I grew up also looking at a lot of painting. My favorites were the fauves, the German expressionists, and the medieval painters. Because of this, my set sketches have that weird Matisse perspective, and I canít seem to get out of that, although itís not that helpful to my carpenters! As an adult I read a lot of psychology and theory. But the biggest influences on my movies are other movies. I love movies about the theater. Someday I want to make a movie set in the theater world, perhaps a musical.Recently you tweeted a paragraph on ďthe last thing Iíll say about The Love WitchĒ. At the risk of asking you to break this vow, weíd love to hear your perspective on critics, their hot takes on your film, and your desire to make sure you are heard when they ascribe meaning to your films that you did not intend. It feels like youíre laying crumbs for other women filmmakers to follow away from the trolls?
I really do hope that I am laying crumbs for other women to follow. That would be great! I think that I am in a unique position as a female filmmaker who is specifically challenging the idea that the male is the only spectator in the cinema, or the only creator of meaning. So itís sort of a social experiment; first of all, making a film which is designed to elicit different views along gender lines, and then pointing out all of the misunderstandings and judgments that come from this experiment.Youíve told us your next film will be a Bluebeard story (and made this list for us of classic Bluebeard films). What was your first experience of a Bluebeard tale, and why are you going there yourself?
I really donít remember my first experience of a Bluebeard tale. It was probably the fairy tale itself, since I read so many fairy tales as a child. But there are Bluebeard tales all over culture. Every slasher movie is a Bluebeard tale, almost every horror movie, and certainly every story about domestic violence. I remember as a child watching a lot of movies where men kill women, and being frightened of them. I decided to make a Bluebeard movie because I realized that a lot of my favorite movies are Bluebeard movies, and I think these types of stories have a special appeal to women.Ex Machinaóespecially the chamber of horrors scene towards the endóbrings the Bluebeard story to mind. We have regular arguments at HQ about whether that film is feminist or misogynist. If you saw the film, what did you think, and did it make your list?
I have to confess, I havenít seen that movie (although now I am curious). So it didnít make my list, but it wouldnít anyway, since my list only includes classic movies (the newest movie on it is from 1974).What film first gave you a ďteenage feelingĒ?
Probably Romeo and Juliet (1968)
or Gold Diggers of 1933
.Can you reveal to us some of your screen heartthrobs through the ages?
Gregory Peck, Joel McCrea, Brian Aherne, Leslie Howard, Michael Wilding, Tony Curtis, Richard Basehart, Rod Taylor, James Stewart, Alain Delon, Charles Boyer, and Dirk Bogarde, to name a few.