marchioness > archive > issue 2 > Anna Biller: Why You Should Make the Work, then Worry about your Career
Interview by Dottie Brooke — Edited by Jessica Fynn
Anna Biller: Why You Should Make The Work, Then Worry About Your Career
Marchioness caught up with Anna Biller to talk PINK FRILLS, FINE CHINA, HER LOVE OF OLD HOLLYWOOD and MURDER IN THE LOVE WITCH.
@ Anna Biller
‘You might say I’m addicted to love’, Elaine confesses in The Love Witch (2016) to her mystified friend Trish. It’s all she can think about. She paints pictures of embracing lovers, carefully brews love potions and remains on constant watch for her next potential partner. Though it’s very hard to imagine that Elaine, portrayed by Samantha Robinson, needs to invoke magic to get a man to fall for her. She is startlingly beautiful with waist-length black hair, impish features and wondrously big doe eyes. Like every woman, Elaine dreams of ‘riding off on a white horse’ with her Prince Charming. She also happens to be a very accomplished serial killer.
Elaine sprung from the imagination of multi-talented film director Anna Biller. Biller originally caught people’s attention with her first feature-length film Viva (2007) which follows a naive housewife, Barbi, as she navigates suburban orgys and extramarital affairs in male-dominated 1970s America. In The Love Witch, Biller skewers the fairytale ending that women are raised to aspire to. ‘You must give a man total freedom to be and do whatever he wants, Elaine opines before sternly advising her friend to ‘give men their fantasy’. Since romantic love is the pinnacle of a woman’s existence she is prepared to secure it at all costs. Except the men she shacks up with never quite make the cut and she’s forced to dispose of them, one way or another. In one scene we see her, dressed to the nines in a killer LBD and knee-high boots, use a wheelbarrow to manoeuvre her latest victim to his resting place. As with the men in Viva they are empty, almost inconsequential, chisel-jawed props that have fallen victim to Elaine’s noble pursuit.
The Love Witch also happens to be a complete feast for the eyes. Every scene is a hazy, intensely colourful dreamscape. A cursory google search will reveal a plethora of The Love Witch inspired make-up tutorials as viewers attempt to replicate Elaine’s iconic look: a 60s cat-eye with bright turquoise eye-shadow. Some screen grabs you might see floating around the internet include Elaine at afternoon tea, dressed in a peony-pink hat and surrounded by beautiful things, as Biller allows the viewer to luxuriate in the feminine frills, doilies and fine china teacups. Biller is famed for her attention to detail and her involvement in every part of the filmmaking process. The 60s-style costume is stitched from authentic patterns of the era, the vintage decor collected from antique shops, Elaine’s artworks lovingly painted by Biller’s own hand, a prop dagger special-ordered from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall. Biller’s dedication to capturing the period is so strong that The Love Witch was even shot on film in order to replicate that soft retro light lost on a digital camera.
You spent your childhood watching movies from the 1930s and 40s, which birthed a lifelong love of old Hollywood glamour. Reflecting on this, you said that you felt that roles for women in that era were far more convincing and psychologically complex. Could you elaborate on that?
I’ve always loved old movies, and partly what I love is how many great female characters there are. A lot of those movies had female protagonists, and many of the screenplays were written by women or taken from novels written by women. The biggest stars were female, and the movies catered to the female fantasy. I think the movies were more psychologically complex because people were more interested in writing multidimensional characters. It was before you had the genres we have today where it’s all about action, and characterization is often seen as slow or boring. Movies were about showing character, and writers were basing their characters on real-life men and women, and delving deep into male and female psychology.
Do you have some female-centric film suggestions for people who have never ventured into old Hollywood films before?
Google the top films from any given year starting from the early 1930s up to the late 1950s, and look for films with female protagonists. I would recommend His Girl Friday, Baby Face, The Women, The Awful Truth, Female, Cluny Brown, Double Indemnity, Leave her to Heaven, Mildred Pierce, Brief Encounter, She Done Him Wrong, Easy Living, The Red Shoes, Vertigo. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
You made a series of short films in the late 90s and early 2000s, followed by the feature-length Viva and, of course, The Love Witch. Is there a project you're most proud of, or do you consider them all your babies, indicative of different stages in your life?
I think The Love Witch is my best movie, in the sense of being the most accomplished. But the one I’m personally most fond of is A Visit from the Incubus, maybe because it’s so strange and silly, and because I love Westerns so much. Viva was really weird and really life-changing to make, because it got me out of all of this trauma and anger I had as a woman. I was always hiding and feeling like a freak, and somehow it was a trial by fire (acting in that movie) that made me feel more normal, like a real woman instead of a fake woman. I guess it was because I stripped off the layers of disguise and allowed myself to be literally bare – in a bikini and nude. It was my very worst fear and I did it, and after that, I stopped being afraid of having a female body.
In the past, you've spoken about purposefully casting 'beautiful and glamorous women' in your films in an attempt to humanise them because they 'are so often the objects of derision and ridicule'. You wrote about only becoming aware of your own beauty in your late teens and that your prettiness felt like a 'sham', something performative, almost akin to drag. I found that really fascinating and wondered if you enjoy partaking in feminine rituals?
I love the idea of doing it, but not the process. When I acted in my movies, I was like a little girl struggling to get away whenever I was in the makeup chair. I am bored out of my mind by feminine rituals. I always wear lipstick, and when I go out I wear mascara, but I don’t have the patience to spend hours doing myself up. But I have great admiration for women who are all done up and put together, like pin-ups. I absolutely love the way that looks, and lately I’m trying to learn to spend more time and do my makeup properly.
You talk about being heavily influenced by your mother, fashion designer and founder of Sumiko in West Hollywood which was graced by many starlets during the 1970s, and how much you luxuriated in the insular, feminine space where beauty was admired and curated. Do you feel like you are trying to recapture these girlish rituals and ambience in your work?
Yes, I do. My childhood was a blur of her beauty and glamour, and her beautiful friends, and the beautiful customers and actresses who were her clientele, and of the glamorous 1930s movies. It was a world of women that I so much wanted to be a part of. But I felt somehow excluded from it because it was for adult women. Besides, everyone always said I was exactly like my dad, which I interpreted to mean that I wasn’t really a girl. I think it was actually because I was always doing art projects and my dad is an artist. But that’s why I still feel that when I doll myself up I’m in drag… because I was raised not as a girl. Not as a boy either, but not as a girl. So yes, I’m trying to recapture it… a lost world of glamour, both of films and life.
You've confessed to being 'obsessive about style' and are known for your dedication to aesthetics, as well as meticulous costume and prop design. Your fervent attention to detail and love of all things beautiful seems to have resonated far and wide with viewers. How do you feel when you see Youtube videos with Elaine inspired look-books and The Love Witch make-up?
I love it! It’s a great tribute, and it shows that women are responding to Elaine the way women did with the old glamour stars, imitating their hair, clothes, and makeup. It’s great to see that it’s resonating with women and giving them a fun glamour role model.
Since you sew and labour over a lot of very specific, historical outfits for your films, I was curious about your personal relationship to clothes. Do you feel like you have a specific style? Or is your wardrobe more eclectic? Where do you source your clothes from?
I used to dress up a lot, like literally in costumes, but I haven’t felt the desire to do that so much since I started making these movie wardrobes. I used to make bizarre hats – one had a flower pot attached to it, with soil and a live gardenia plant in it, that sort of thing – but now I just like to look “pretty.” I would say my style is retro, vintage – I like 1940s-style dresses the best, and I get most of them lately from online shops based in London. I also sew some of my clothes myself from vintage patterns.
Something which I love about your productions is how the style of acting pays homage to the Hollywood divas of the silver screen. It's not naturalistic, it's strange, unsettling and controlled but oddly mesmerizing. Is it difficult finding actors who understand the affected sort of manner you're after?
I think the quality of the acting comes from my scripts. Good actors know when reading them how they need to be delivered. It needs a specific line delivery to work – almost like music or poetry, or sometimes like a joke, which will fall flat if it isn’t delivered in a specific way. I try to cast actors who understand the rhythm and flow of the script at the first audition. People say it’s not naturalistic, but I think it is. It’s the actor connecting to the feelings of the character, to the realness. When I work with actors, I’m always trying to get them to connect to the character without being fake, to pull something authentic out. And that’s how they understand it too. But it’s a more formal way of speaking, like in older films.
I wondered if you were willing to discuss the sexism and hostility you've experienced on-set from crew members and how you attempt to navigate those sorts of situations?
I don’t have time for that kind of nonsense. It’s so horrible when you realize someone is there to sabotage. The best thing is to get rid of them, and if you can’t, then you have to pretend it’s not happening. Because what they want is for you to get upset, and you can’t react or you might lose the morale of the crew. It’s unbelievable to me that people have the time to play games and feel wounded in their ego when I’m so busy. And they’re trying to tear this thing apart while everyone else is building it. Why? Because they can’t stand to see a woman make a movie? It’s so stupid it just boils my blood. But yeah, I don’t do anything, because I’m too busy making a movie to deal with it.
Film-making is obviously a collaborative project, so when you have such a clear vision, is that ever difficult? Do you find you feed off the energy and ideas of the cast, or do you work hard to help them to see what's in your mind's eye?
No, I think having a clear vision makes it easier for everyone. The actors feel supported because they know exactly what I expect of them, and we’re all contributing to the vision. But it’s always collaborative. Without actors, there’s no movie. It’s just words on a page. The actors bring their life’s blood. That’s when it comes alive – when the actors come on. They create it along with me, as do all the other creative heads of departments.
Do you have a specific process for writing? A strong black coffee. A typewriter sat on an oakwood desk, looking out through large double-windows over a blossoming back garden....for example.
I get to work as soon as I have my breakfast, while I’m having my tea, and I write until I have to stop or until I’m too exhausted to go on.
Where do your ideas for a new project come from? Dreams, conversations, books?
Everything. Usually, it’s a combination of things I’m reading, movies, dreams, and things from my life – a combination of the past and the present. Usually, I’m working out things that really bother me, and the films are like therapy.
What are the names of your adorable cats? They deserve their 15 minutes!
The tuxedo is Jacques, and the extremely naughty tabby is Claudius.
Why do you think you went into film-making as opposed to being a novelist or artist, for example? Do you ever imagine going into another line of work?
When I was a little girl I wanted to be a writer, but then in high school I got into drama and wanted to be an actress. Then in college, practically as soon as I got there, I decided to be a film director instead of an actress, but I couldn’t go into the directing program until my third year so I went into art. But then I stayed in art and went to grad school for art. But I was making little art movies on video and on Super 8mm, and all of the art teachers thought that was much more interesting than my drawing and painting, so they encouraged me to just concentrate on film. So I’ve focused on film ever since. I can’t imagine doing anything outside of the arts.
I know a lot of people, like me, are extremely excited to see your new film in the 'women in peril' of the Bluebeard genre, a tradition you track from post-war cinema right up to E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. What drew you to this specifically, and why do you think the Bluebeard tale has such an enduring appeal?
I’ve always loved fairy tales. Fairy tales saved my life as a child; they were a way of making sense of my life. And as I got older I became passionate about adult forms of fairy tales, such as myths. Bluebeard is the ultimate horror fairy tale and the ultimate Gothic romance. In almost all of the other fairy tales, the young woman marries and lives happily ever after. But this is about what happens after marriage, about how your husband may kill you. Hundreds and thousands of Gothic romances have been built upon this theme: does my lover love me, or does he want to kill me? So many of these books feature glamorous women in gowns fleeing from castles on the covers. The castle is the man’s house, and the bride doesn’t know if it’s safe to be there in his house. So it’s about female ambivalence about men, and women, who were the typical narrators of fairy stories to children, warning little girls about domestic violence. And it ties into my love of classic Hollywood, since many of my favorite classic films are based on the Bluebeard theme – that is, they’re about women attached to terrifying husbands and boyfriends who may or may not kill them.
Do you have any words of wisdom for other aspiring filmmakers and creatives?
Make what you really want to make. I know that sounds cliché, but I think a lot of people make things to impress other people or to look cool, or they try to copy trends. Make something you’re passionate about, and work really hard to make it the best it can be. And if it isn’t that good, keep making work until you make something good, and then screen it, and people will notice you. I get so many letters from people wanting to know how to make industry contacts. And I’m thinking, why do you want to make industry contacts before you’ve shot a film you’re proud of? First, make the work, and then worry about your career.