By Senior Contributor Lesley Coffin
One of the best-reviewed indie films of 2016, The Love Witch, marks a breakthrough for filmmaker Anna Biller. Besides receiving credit as both writer and director, Biller also produced, edited, designed costumes and sets, and composed music for the film. It results in a finely crafted, beautifully layered feature film which demonstrates her design and cinematic knowledge. It also features a breakthrough performance for lead actress Samantha Robinson, the aforementioned “Love Witch” Elaine. Co-starring Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Laura Waddell, and Gian Keys, The Love Witch is a fun, technicolor comedy-horror film about a witch whose love spells are deadly for the men who fall for her. While undeniably fun and full of cinematic references to the past, the wide critical appraisal of the film as campy or parody is something Biller fights against. She explains why this beautifully crafted film is anything but and why sexism in critics circles may be to blame.
Q: The film’s been referred to in the press as paying homage to the sexploitation genre, but I’m not familiar with what that really is and how you used those influences in the film?
A: I’m not really paying homage to that in the film, I think that’s been something reviewers have made reference to and it just started to be used as a description of my movie. I’ve never said that in an interview, though, and I do feel like it’s a misunderstanding. I think where that’s coming from is the fact that the film shows female sexuality, which hasn’t been shown much in the history of cinema except for a short period of time in the 60s and 70s that dealt with it and were filmed in technicolor, which was defined as sexploitation. But there’s another era of cinema I’m really interested in exploring which is pre-code Hollywood and post-war film noir. I draw a lot from the pre-code films which showed nudity and got away with a lot, and film noir which didn’t have nudity but played with sexual innuendo and had femme females. In terms of the visual look of the film, I’m certainly influenced by women’s pictures of the 50s and 60s, which were filmed in technicolor. The other misunderstanding is the fact that my previous film, Viva, made reference to those sexploitation films. I only directly referenced one of those films, Camila 2000, but I made indirect reference to a number of so-called sexploitation films in that film. It took place during the sexual revolution and how Playboy Magazine changed the culture.
Q: Were there specific films you had the actors watch to understand those influences?
A: A lot of people think I directed the actors in a specific way to act in the style of those movies. And I actually gave the actors free reign after casting them and let them give the performance they wanted to. I really only worked with Samantha Robinson, because we were working on character psychology. And the two of watched a lot of films, but we weren’t watching movies with bad or wooden acting. But if Elaine seems a little stiff or unnatural, which critics are saying, there’s a reason for that. She’s putting on a mask in every sense of the word when she puts on the makeup and outfits. Here entire self is a performance, and there are brief moments when she drops the mask and you can see Samantha’s sweetness coming through the character. The scene at the Renaissance Faire when she’s so in love and happy. She’s smiling and laughing, and that’s the real Elaine coming out. Or when she’s alone in the apartment and you can see she’s depressive. But the two of us watched a lot of movies about women who were presenting a false identity to men they loved. Movies like Leave He To Heaven or The Locket with Laraine Day. All films with very complex women at the center. We didn’t look at any Barbara Stanwyck films because she usually played very tough women and I wanted Elaine to be a little more fragile. But we watched a number of Catherine Deneuve films and I think you can see a similarity in Samantha’s performance. She often played women wearing a mask, a woman with this beautiful exterior but hiding a lot from the world. We were specifically looking at beautiful actresses who used their beauty to hide from the world and were very mask-like. A lot of these women have had a very real struggle of fending off male attention and still being real people. That’s, of course, something Samantha has had to deal with having been a model…the tension between wanting attention and wanting the right kind of attention.
Q: But the other actors created their performances alone? Did you give a description of the performances in the scripts?
A: Not at all. They really only had the dialogue, and screen direction and they crafted those performances alone. I just had to cast really strong, creative actors to play those roles. The character Wayne is called to create this really big arc, to go from being really cocky to crying. So to make that arc convincing, the actor had to exaggerate the performance a bit more than if he were playing a more static character. But Jeffrey came up with that performance and decided to play it as big as he does in order to make that arc more convincing. I think that’s closer to how scripts used to be written when they were written with an economy of character. That can seem broad, but it makes sense for the journey each character on. And I think each performance is exactly right for their characters.
Q: The actor who plays Wayne is amazing in the film, that really was a performance that stood out as a high-wire act.
A: He’s wonderful, and I know it’s a fun role for an actor to play because he has to go from confident to lusty to desperate and end up screaming and dying, but had I cast anyone else that didn’t play it as big as he plays that character, the scene could have been really flat. And he knew that.
Q: I recently heard Edward Norton talk about stylized acting, as opposed to naturalism being something that requires an actor to have complete trust with the director because they need to be on the same wavelength. Did all the actors seem to understand the type of movie you were making?
A: I think so. The only person I had to work with was Gian because I wanted the character to feel a bit more masculine than he initially played it. I had to take away the sweet side he has in real life. And it wasn’t about getting a period performance out of him, it was about embracing a certain hard masculinity the character needed. And Samantha and I worked together throughout, because of it being such a complicated character. But none of the other actors were rehearsed even once, and I say that because Jeff and Laura are two actors who came in without any rehearsal and were able to surprise me. I don’t like to control performances because I’m a person that controls everything else and I want the experience of being delighted and surprised too.
Q: The design you took complete control of is pretty remarkable. Because you do so much yourself, do you think of all of that as one job and plan designs and write the script simultaneously?
A: First I write the script, and then I start going back and forth editing it while drawing and location scouting. I design primarily based on color blocks, so the color of each set feels symbolic, and then I consider genre. Do I want the scene to feel gothic or horror or psychedelic? So I just keep building the design and adjusting the script.
Q: Because you work on both the costumes and set design, are they one in the same? Is a costume always made with the location in mind?
A: Yes. With a film like this, they had to go hand in hand. People have used the term style over substance, but really, what they mean is the style and look are so important to the movie, it could be more important than the script. But those visuals are substance, they tell the story. I can’t imagine telling a story without strong visuals and if I had a big budget and could hire top people in their field, I might be able to give up that control. But I’m not at that point where I can trust someone else to execute my vision because the design is so personal to me. I considered buying renaissance costumes, but looking online I couldn’t stand the fabrics people were using. So I started drawing, and then bought some fabric swatches, and looked for patterns but there weren’t any I liked, so I made patterns. And I thought I’d hand that over and have the costumes made. But then I got this weird case of vertigo, and couldn’t do much, but I could sew so I started to sew the costumes. Even the trim was important, I would spend hours in stores looking for the perfect trim. And I just couldn’t trust someone else to do it, because they don’t have the same associations to cinema that I have. It’s all specific because all those choices can evoke something different.
Q: I’m glad you mentioned the material for the costumes because that’s something people often overlook, thinking if they can’t touch it the material doesn’t matter.
A: But it will look completely different on screen. Fabrics capture light differently and move differently. As a poor student, I had to use this gross polyester and reached a point where I said, no more. You can never iron it properly because it can overheat and melt, so you can never get a nice crease. And it puckers because it isn’t a natural fiber. I didn’t want the film to be labeled as camp, although the film is still being called that, and one of the ways I tried to avoid that label was to use fabrics like silk. Had I used man-made fibers, there would have been something sleazy and cheap about the costumes. They still use words like sleazy and trash to describe the film, but I think that’s ridiculous. I spent so long on the film to avoid people thinking I was doing some kind of send-up.
Q: I’m surprised people would call it cheap or sleazy because visually the movie looks lush and beautiful. Even having it presented on 35mm adds to that feeling that the movie is visually rich. Do you think those descriptions are because the film focuses so much on female sexuality?
A: I do. It seems you make a film about female sexuality and people will automatically call it trash. What’s that say about our culture? Because I’m not hearing women describing it that way. But most men aren’t looking at the interior of Elaine, they’re looking at her as a creature that ignites their lust. And they subconsciously think about what else does that. They think about a trash sex movie or Russ Meyer movie, and lump them all together. So they aren’t looking at it as something that stands on its own as something different. And that an extremely patriarchal way to look at a film, especially a film made by a woman who’s been vocal about her intentions.
Q: Because of the gradual release of the film, are you having the opportunity to talk about how different audiences are taking in the movie?
A: I have and I’m getting all kinds of responses. I get one kind of response from cinephiles who seem to love it. I hear from men who see it as stupid fun, which is kind of frustrating. And then I hear from women who see some substance in the film. And if you can make a film about female sexuality starring a beautiful woman and have women connect to it, you’ve succeeded at making a feminist film. Sexploitation films historically have worked for men because they fulfill male fantasies. I don’t get much out of those movies because I don’t have an interest in lusting after a woman and they rarely have a good story of interesting visuals. I can’t sit through those movies, so it’s interesting that they think I’m taking from those movies. And The Love Witch is almost having the reverse effect on a lot of men because it’s not made for them. A lot of men can enjoy the exterior of the movie, but can’t connect to the interior of the story.
Q: I would love to hear the reactions men have during the Victorian Tea Room scenes because I can imagine some men thinking it’s almost nightmarish.
A: It’s funny you mention that because my boyfriend said you have to get in and out of that tea room in under three minutes or you’re going to lose your entire male audience. And I started to joke that that’s the scene that got it labeled a horror movie. A pink tea room of women talking about their fantasies with other women, that’s horror for a lot of men.
© Lesley Coffin FF2 Media (11/30/16)
Bottom Photo: Samantha Robinson as Elaine and Jeffrey Vincent Parise as Wayne in The Love Witch
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Oscilloscope Films