Anna Biller’s The Love Witch is both highly reminiscent, and like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Taking its aesthetic cues from ‘60s cinema and its politics from contemporary notions of female glamor, narcissism, and feminism, The Love Witch revels in the same conventions it turns on their ears. “I don’t think there’s a film from the ‘60s that has this kind of consciousness around gender,” says Biller. It’s all guided by Biller’s meticulous hand, which was in virtually every pot: She wrote, directed, edited, produced, decorated the sets, composed the score, made costumes, did the calligraphy in a prop spell book, and hooked a pentagram rug used by her titular protagonist, Elaine (played with an expert stiltedness by Samantha Robinson). With The Love Witch, Biller has out-auteured most auteurs.
“The trim for the Renaissance costumes had to look ‘60s and it had to look renaissance,” said Biller, illustrating her extreme aesthetic precision. “That’s only something you know if you’ve seen a whole bunch of ‘50s or ‘60s renaissance movies. It’s your eye, it’s in your subconscious.”
The Love Witch’s plot concerns Elaine’s aptitude for loving men to death, a response to self-help literature aimed at women that warns of pushing away men by suffocating them. That’s but one of that several ideas woven into the fabric of The Love Witch that Biller and I talked about last month by phone. We talked for an hour, but easily could have discussed this movie for twice as long and I highly doubt Biller would have run out of things to say. She’s bursting with ideas and her film is nothing less than a moving piece of art. A passion project this profound is a rare thing in contemporary pop culture. We’re lucky to have it.
Below is an edited and condensed transcript of my chat with Biller.
JEZEBEL: How many years did you spend working on The Love Witch?
ANNA BILLER: About seven years. I had a really hard time writing the script. It was really hard to get the ideas in there without it being too campy, or too silly in a way, to make this movie about this kind of retro witch, who’s kind of a femme fatale. I didn’t want it to be stupid. I wanted to work in some feminist ideas that weren’t too didactic and I wanted to tie in authentic witchcraft ideas without having that take up too much screen time. I kind of taught myself screenwriting while I was writing it: how to structure something so you can get all your ideas in, and that it works.
And then after that, I didn’t realize how much work it was going to be to actually make the film. My films are always really labor intensive but this was much more than anything else. It turned out what I had to make myself just kept growing and growing and growing. Doing the calligraphy for the spell book. I thought, “I can’t spend thousands of dollars on the spell book, I’ll just work on it in the evenings.” Or, “I’ll just hook that rug myself.” It took six months of evenings to make a pentagram rug.
That pentagram rug is onscreen, by the way, for about 20 seconds.
I know, I wanted to feature it more, though it looks great in the [promo] photograph. I know it sounds strange because I’m making this very intricate fantasy world, but I’m obsessed with plausibility. It’s like, she’s already got a plush, thick carpet in her house. She’s not going to put a piece of canvas down. The way that would look so gross. Nobody would ever do that. The only thing you would put on top of a carpet is another carpet. It had to be carpet.
What is there beyond the financial pragmatics of this approach? You’re taking control of every possible element you could.
I’ve been working on films for a long time and the only time I’ve had major disasters when something doesn’t work out at all, like I can’t even use the footage, is when I’m trusting other people. I’ve had situations where I trust the DP, “OK, take over the lighting,” and it just doesn’t work. I’ve had to throw footage away. I’ve had entire days or weekends I’ve had to throw out. Nobody has the same vision, that’s the problem.
I watch all these old movies and I have these fantasies. I want it to look like Richard III or whatever. I want it to look as good as those movies. I don’t want it to look all shabby or shlocky or terrible, so you have to put this work into it. I still get called a B-director or like I’m doing shlock or spoof. I think my work is beautiful. I try to make it beautiful. One of the reasons I work on it so hard is to have it not put in the category of B, trash, camp. No matter how beautiful I make it, people are still calling it that.
Do you think there’s something besides a general lack of sophistication that makes people see that when viewing your work?
Yeah, I do. I think it’s because—and this is something very conscious I put in my work—I think it’s because I’m trying to dignify female glamor. OK, so gay males pick up drag as a point of pride—it can be a point of pride for a gay man but not a woman. It’s just made fun of and thought to be so ridiculous that they’re overdone—they overdo their hair and makeup or are too overtly feminine. They’re doing female drag themselves, like all the female celebrities that do that are totally made fun of, like Kim Kardashian. They’re viewed as something to laugh at. I’m very serious: female glamor is a real thing, it’s really important for a lot of women. It makes them feel great about themselves. It’s a kind of drag for them, they’re creating an identity and it’s performance.
But I think it’s also that women are just not respected in culture in general. The idea that you’d make a movie about a woman and that she’s glamorous, people are going to laugh at that and think it’s trash. If you get to be glamorous as a woman in a picture, it’s got to be a comedy and you’ve got to be a mess. The fact that she’s this witch and she’s so rad and beautiful and powerful just seems so ridiculous to people.
The movie is about simultaneity and you clearly aren’t afraid of working with paradoxes. What you do with gaze alone is sophisticated.
It’s very intricate, I thought. And it’s very contemporary, don’t you think? I don’t think there’s a film from the ‘60s that has this kind of consciousness around gender.
The movie makes it clear that Elaine’s image is self-constructed, which itself convolutes ideas about gendered gaze. Was that your aim?
I’m very consciously showing that she’s put together very consciously with her makeup, her wig, her clothing, her handbags. Everything she does is very contrived to create this kind of mask that she wears at all times. That can be seen in two ways: She’s very beautiful and glamorous and confident in herself, but it can also be seen as she’s hiding from the world, that she’s disguised and insecure. I think for most women who do the mask thing, there probably usually are those two elements simultaneously. There’s a sense of wanting to cover the abject of the female body and change it and disguise it. In terms of the male gaze, certain men are disgusted by female bodies unless they are enhanced or disguised in this kind of way and made into something else.
The performances are realistic in their stilted/synthetic ‘60s movie essence. It’s a very layered sensibility.
What’s interesting is Samantha is the only actor I worked with extensively. I worked with Gian, who plays the cop, because he needed to be more exaggeratedly masculine. But the other characters I didn’t work with at all. They came into the audition giving those performances. The actors told me it was all in the script. I spent so long writing it.
From a political standpoint, what was important for you to convey in this movie? Is it contradictions? Simultaneity? Elaine is independent and goes after what she wants on her own terms, and yet so much of her narrative is defined by her relationship to men. It’s a messy tangle, and yet her agency is never less than apparent.
I was very consciously trying to flip a lot of the narratives we see in a regular horror movie. In a conventional slasher movie, the victims are female, the killer is male. So flip that. What do men kill with? They kill with guns and knives and ropes and things like that. What do women kill with? They kill with seduction. The idea is to make this a feminine feminist movie. Make her kill with the weapons of her seduction. That’s an old-fashioned idea that’s based on the femme fatale. I want a girl to kill in a girly way, not as a man would kill. I know that sounds essentialist, but I’m interested in...like, how would I kill someone? Not that I’m like every girl, but I’d kill someone in that passive aggressive way.
I was reading some self-help books, and there’s this idea that all these self-help books were saying to women, “If you don’t want to lose your man, or if you want to get your man back, just give him less love. You’re suffocating him. You’re giving him too much love, and he doesn’t want to give you that much back, so he resents it and hates you for it and feels guilty. Just give him some space.” The idea that the evil thing women do to men is loving them too much was really funny. Just based on my own relationships with men, it’s true, actually. It’s true that men become very suffocated very easily, by just basic things, like having a serious relationship or having to talk about the relationship. Just anything. That’s where the comedy comes in: Let’s take that scenario, these books and videos written by men that are cautioning women about their behavior. All this counseling to women, it’s very creepy. It’s like, not only do you have to be sexy and thin and beautiful and young and subservient and cook his meals, you also have to not love him too much. It’s funny.
I did some things consciously that were experiments in this movie where I break the narrative and I do something else. I know there are certain people that have a problem with that. There’s a scene with a burlesque dancer dancing, and there’s a feminist discourse about how women have to do all this to catch a man. That’s something I want to do: I want to stop the flow and I want people to consciously think about these issues. For me that’s kind of a radical feminist thing to do. But you risk losing your audience, or having your audience get bored.
But I thought, what will happen? You have this very fast-cut, visually exciting scene that’s got this dancer who’s wriggling and closeups on her body parts and her face, and all this stuff happening. All this visual pleasure that should be pleasurable to men is happening, and it’s also not a very long sequence. But you still get men really angry about that scene and saying it’s really horrible. I think that’s interesting, because the ideology behind the film is very important to people. If they want to think this is a film made for their pleasure and for them to be able to look at a woman like an object, that scene makes it very clear that’s not what this movie is. It could ruin the whole movie for them because they’re being told this movie is about something else, it’s about things you don’t grasp or aren’t interested in or aren’t for you.
During the burlesque scene, there’s a straightforward ethos expressed that I suspected you cosigned, and now hearing you talk, I’m sure of it: “We believe that women and men are different and that true equality lies in that difference.”
Yeah, that’s the thesis. Screenwriting manuals say that’s a deadly thing to do, to put your thesis in the dialogue or in a speech. I knew it was deadly but I did it anyway.
Why are you so sensitive to and aware of feedback? This movie hasn’t yet been commercially released and has only played festivals.
I’ve been making feminist movies for a long time, I’ve been hearing these criticisms for many years. I listen to them because I’m trying to become a better artist. I think, “What kind of criticism is really constructive and what is destructive?” For my first films, all they could talk about were the production values because they thought they weren’t good enough. That’s why I worked so hard on my production values. Now, a lot people still only talk about my production values, but they’ll say they’re so good. What I notice is that people tend to avoid talking about my content.
Because I’ve been doing it for so many years, I’m very sensitive when the reviews start coming out. I’m very conscious of trying to make movies where that isn’t the criticism that happens. I’ll spend more and more years to not have those misconceptions applied to it. Again, I really want a film to not just be something inside my head. I’m trying to communicate with people. On the first level, I’m just trying to make films that are pleasurable. On the second level, I understand they’re political. So I’m sensitive when I think statements are being made about the film that are actually political statements trying to censor my voice as a woman.
The Love Witch opens in select theaters today.