Anna Biller's The Love Witch is nothing like your classic chick flick. When Elaine, played by Samantha Robinson, decides to use witchcraft to find true love, she ends up creating love spells so powerful that she's left a string of dead lovers. With its lush color palette and vibrant costume and set design, The Love Witch has all of the makings of a 60's melodramatic sexploitation film but Biller decides to bring sharp, contemporary feminist criticism into the mix, turning a simple tale of love, witchcraft and revenge into something so much more. Although the '60's inspired are a visual feast for your eyes, this movie is smartly written, with characters that are far more complex
While you're first drawn in by the visual feast that is the film's 60's inspired look, you'll find that this movie is smartly written, with characters far more complex than traditional cinema stereotypes. Biller looks at how a woman can become torn apart by so many contradictions — from female sexuality and societal standards of beauty to patriarchal dominance and the manipulation of male desires — and she does it brilliantly.
The Love Witch is sure to be a massive success and a feminist classic for years to come. We were able to sit down with Anna Biller, not only the director but also the writer, producer and costume designer, to talk about how she created the film and how she used witchcraft to tell this story.
What inspired you to create the script for The Love Witch?
There were just so many factors. A lot of them came from my personal life, things I’ve like to talk about like issues of being a woman, the difficulties you experience with your own image. Whether to, you know, doll yourself up and cater to men and fantasies or cater to your own fantasies or whether to not do that and the pressure of being a man’s fantasies and how that can destroy girls’ lives sometimes when they go too far with it. I also wanted to talk about witches because that’s a kind of a powerful figure for women to identify with and it’s also a kind of male fantasy figure that men fear. They want her but they think she’s evil or dangerous. I wanted to create a character that embodies these different complicated things about femaleness, extreme female identity, female desire and projections that people women make on females of being evil — evil and sexy at the same time [laughs].
You directed, wrote, and designed a lot of the sets and costumes for the film. What was it like having that kind of artistic control?
It was really great to have artistic control because I have very specific tastes about what I like to see in a movie, especially colors, textures, and things. I feel like I cannot get the shot I want unless I design it myself, usually, because I’m very picky about stuff. I draw pictures and then those pictures turn into sets and then the actors go in, it’s lit, and then I have my footage almost like it was created out of my mind. One thing that was really interesting was that I had these two paintings commissioned that were supposed to be of the lead actress and I worked really hard with this artist to get the face right and I had her do the face over and over and over again for these two paintings and finally I was like ‘okay, this is good now’. This is before I cast the lead actress and after I cast her like a year later, she ended up looking exactly like the painting. I had such a strong idea of the kind of things I wanted with sets, like the shape of the couch I needed or the color of a curtain. It’s all very symbolic for me. I think, for example, the choice of a lead actress was so important. She’s so iconic and so many people respond to the way her face looks and the way her makeup is so I think that it was important to get her looking a certain way to produce all of these fantasies for both men and women. I think furniture does that too, you know? There are certain objects that evoke emotions in people. I think that’s a good tool in your arsenal as a director, not just the script or acting but actual objects.
Yeah, that was the one thing I noticed when I was watching the film was that these sets are so vividly thought-out and designed. Honestly it’s really interesting to hear you talk about the whole process.
Yeah, ‘cause I think the furniture are like characters in the film. You notice them because they’re important somehow. You feel that they’re important to the story and I think it’s because I’m creating an atmosphere that doesn’t happen in real life, an atmosphere that is just created for the movie. You can feel that it’s an environment that is created for her in the end. It’s a strange thing because it is just so unrealistic and yet it’s so perfect for a movie. It helps tell the story for me.
You shot the whole movie on 35 mm film. Why did you choose this particular format and did you experience any sort of challenges while using this older technique?
I’ve always shot on film ever since I stopped using video. I moved from video to film and I loved film so much that I started using it ever since. It’s become harder and harder to shoot on film, not because the technique is harder, but because there are fewer labs and fewer technicians who know how to use it. But if you have a good crew — I had great camera assistants — then you can do it. There are technical reasons, like it’s easier to move the camera around and you don’t have a bunch of cables to plug and unplug, it doesn’t take a village to move around, you don’t have to use so much electricity. You literally have a camera, it’s electrical so it doesn’t need to be plugged in, and you can just take the tripod and pick it up and move it around so you’re more mobile. It’s more difficult in that you can’t see what you’re shooting until a couple of days later and that’s kind of nerve-wracking. You know what, I didn’t even watch the dailies, believe it or not. I didn’t watch any of the dailies until after the whole film was shot. I didn’t look at them. I didn’t look at them because I didn’t have time to the re-shoot anything nor the money and I thought, well, I’m watching it while it’s happening. It looks good to me to my eyes right now. There were other people watching and they thought it looked okay. As long as the film didn’t get scratched, I’m not going to look at it. Also, that saves money on set because you don’t have to watch everything because that starts eating up crew and cast hours so you can go faster.
We were talking before about The Love Witch’s design, which is very visually engaging and really rich with color. It kind of reminds me of movies you would see from the 60’s or 70’s. What were some of your inspirations behind the film’s look?
I didn’t have a specific movie that I looked to for designs. I actually looked really hard for witchcraft movies, especially, to try to get inspiration from. But there’s a number of movies that are old, classic movies that I’ve been watching for years that I think I unconsciously informed my design decisions, especially a lot of technicolor movies from the 50’s and 70’s that have a lot of color schemes that were very limited, like they were only using three colors in this set or four or two colors. And the costumes are also supposed to match the sets and all the accessories match and it’s just a very everyday design that everybody did. It was supposed to be harmonious. I mean you already see that it looks very contrived but I think all of the movies from a couple of decades of filmmaking would want it like that. I love those movies, like the Doris Day comedies or the Hitchcock color films and the Hammer horror films, and those are a little more gothic so they look more like The Love Witch. They have Victorian wallpaper kind of thing. I think it’s dozens and dozens of movies and then I just decided out of my head because I had internalized all of that.
Yeah, you’re right. It’s hard to put a thumb on what kind of movie it reminds me of, but I think it has a sort of timeless quality to it that I really appreciated.
Oh yeah, it’s definitely decorated like a Technicolor type of movie because it’s decorated for color. It’s also lit like those movies were lit. Nowadays, they use soft lighting so they’ll put like a giant soft box or a couple of soft boxes which will give a diffused, overall light to a scene and that’s how almost everything is lit nowadays, anything you see on T.V. The way they used to light and the way we used in this movie was a hard light so it could create a hard shadow, creates hard contrasts, but it also sculpts the face against the background and it brings out very intense colors. In order to get these kinds of sharp contrasts and the sculptural lighting to make the heads stand out from the background like a sculpture, you have to use a number of lights. You’re not just using one big light, you’re using a lot of lights. So like the woman will have a key light and a peel light and an eye light to bring out the little sparkles in her eye, hair light for her hair to stand out, and she’ll have a clothes light to create folds in her clothes. These different lights also dictate the older looking feel of the film because, when you’re lit like that, you can’t really move. You’ve got to hit your light and then you’re in your light and if you move, you’re not going to look so good. So our lead actress, we had to tell her to cut the film for her to turn because she couldn’t turn at all. You know, ‘keep your chin there, your eyes can move over there, but your chin has to stay right there’ because, if she moves, that could create an ugly nose shadow or something because the lighting is so specific. You create one type of lighting for wide shots so people can walk through the whole room and they look pretty well lit. But if you get closer, you change the lighting to make it more and more glamorous so that actor’s face pops against the background. There’s this whole art that’s pretty much lost but my [executive producer] studied this kind of lighting. We had a really fun collaboration because we had seen kind of the same movies.
I noticed in your film, even though you have a lot of these dated old-fashioned elements, at times, it appeared like the setting was almost more modern. My question to you is was this merging of different time periods intentional? Was it meant to imply that the way women are treated hasn’t really changed over the years?
I definitely did want to imply that nothing’s changed that much. I think things might actually be worse. I mean, they’re different but they’re kind of worse because there’s more of a strong backlash against women. There’s Men’s Rights Activists, which we didn’t see before, and there’s more overt misogyny, and we’ve got rape porn culture which we didn’t have before. It’s funny, I wasn’t trying to mix time periods, I was actually trying to make the film set now. What happened is that because I’m such a fetishist with design and lighting that it ended up looking like a 50’s film and I didn’t intend that. I tried to make it as modern as I could within the parameters of the kinds of designs and lighting that I like and it really does look like a period film. I think that any film I make, if I make it the way I want to, is going to look like a period film [laughs]. I was conscious of using new cars, new computers, cell phones, everything to try to set this now so I agree that it does not feel like now at all.
The Love Witch tackles a lot of different feminist topics from sexuality and patriarchy to the male gaze. What is ultimately the message you want to send to your viewers with the film?
I wanted to send the message that it’s complicated because there are different conflicting messages in the film. That causes some reviewers to say that I don’t have any focus, that I don’t know what I’m talking about, or that I lack focus, but I think there’s no way of simplifying these issues down to a single point. My point is to examine these issues and present them so that people can think about them. There’s no easy answer. It’s not like you can say ‘well, Elaine’s glamor is so empowering for her’ because it is but it isn’t. It’s empowering in the sense that she enjoys it and she gets pleasure out of looking at herself in the mirror and she can get some power over men and have some women admire her, but it’s not empowering in the sense that it’s also a trap. It’s also something that she feels that she has to do in order to be loved. She feels terrified of not doing it because she’s afraid that she’ll disappoint people. She has low self-esteem because she feels that’s all she has to offer. She doesn’t have any confidence in her other gifts except for maybe her crafts that she makes. She’s not a totally positive character. She’s also mentally ill and she’s got a personality disorder. I’m trying to say that it can make women mentally ill, it can give them a personality disorder, if they’re told from the time that they’re little that all they are is pretty. They don’t know their own value. She has a speech at the end where she complains about that, she yells at this cop about all these issues and I think that’s the message of the film, that whole speech she gives at the end.
Witchcraft is obviously a huge driving point of the film. When did you take an interest in witchcraft? Do you practice it yourself or what kind of research did you perform for the movie?
I didn’t start practicing it myself until I started researching for the movie, after which I got really interested in witchcraft. I’ve always been interested in the Tarot and I’ve dabbled in it and I liked reading about witches and studying witches just as a hobby. When I was researching for the film, I read dozens and dozens of different books and went to classes on rituals and I talked to witches. I did my own spells and I got really immersed in it. One thing I found out is that what you can find when you’re only lightly digging into isn’t very much, it’s only when you deeply dig into it that witchcraft itself is fraught with all of these complications and contradictions and problems within different communities. Some of it’s very dark and ugly, actually, it’s not all white witchcraft and there are some really scary people. That’s one thing I put into the movie — the idea that different members of the Wiccan community can have different agendas and can have different levels of goodness and badness just like anybody. You get a group of people together, and I guess there’s this feeling because witches have been so persecuted that you want to portray all witches in the movie as equally good and pure and wonderful. Part of me wants to be great to that community and part of me wants to talk about what I know about the reality in the world. I’m not saying that with Elaine everything is all just wonderful and great and fabulous, just to be pretty and to use that. I’m also not saying that all witches are great. You have different kinds of witches. You’ve got the white witch Barbara who’s a really good person and then we have her husband who’s a jerk. He’s kind of a Satanist. He’s quite dark and scary and then we have Elaine who goes off on her own path and makes things up as she goes along which is also dangerous. And I was careful to say that not all witches are like this because High Priestess Barbara warns Elaine and says she shouldn’t be messing with love spells. I found, when I was practicing magic, I have a lot of darkness inside of me that I wasn’t 100% aware of when I started doing these spells. Whether you’re a white witch or not, people have those feelings of revenge and anger. You have to be careful what you conjure up, you know?
For you personally, what is the relationship between feminism and witchcraft?
Women make things and do things like work with their hands to make art, crafts, spells, to create love in the world, to create unions. They create bonds between people socially and that’s a lot of what witchcraft does. There’s so many different branches of witchcraft and some of them are lesbian and some of them are very much into the kind of witchcraft that’s in the movie which is polarity — that men and women are opposites and magic happens out of that opposition. I think that women finding something that’s creative and that makes them feel strong and centered and that’s a spiritual outlet for them is very powerful. It’s feminist in that it can make them feel more powerful.
The Love Witch opens today at The Nuart Theatre along with a Q&A with Anna at 7PM PST. You can get tickets here.
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