Filmmaker Anna Biller talks to us about her acclaimed allegorical horror satire The Love Witch
Filmmaker Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (the follow up to her acclaimed 2007 dream-state drama Viva) has gone from a festival favorite to a kind of cinematic battle cry, with the mainstream press embracing the film for all its kink, allegorical sting and technicolor other-worldliness.
Now, The Love Witch — which stars Samantha Robinson as a manipulative sociopath out to control and destroy men and women alike — is steadying for theatrical release this November via Oscilloscope and to get you prepped and excited, we spoke to the visionary Biller to talk all things weird, witchy and corrosively narcissistic.
ComingSoon.net: Why was there such a stretch of time between Viva and Witch? Was that space used to develop what the film would be?
Anna Biller: Apart from two years promoting Viva, yes. It was two years of researching witchcraft, psychology, screenwriting, and movies and writing the script, and five years in production (most of which was pre-production – designing, constructing costumes and props, buying props, scouting locations and prop houses storyboarding, painting, composing music, rewriting, casting, finding locations, etc.) Some of this took longer than it should have because there was a learning curve: I had never written a conventional script for instance, or composed for a wind ensemble, and I had no prior knowledge of medieval costume construction. Also, I developed a chronic case of vertigo during pre-production, and my process slowed down considerably because things such as shopping for fabric, driving, and drafting patterns made me dizzy and nauseous.
CS: Much has been spoken about in regards to the look. I’ve read you mention pulp novel covers. Can you break down some of the visual palette and the sources of the films saturated look?
Biller: The visual palette for Elaine’s apartment came from witchcraft symbolism, most specifically from the Thoth tarot deck. There are some cards which are orange, yellow, and red – the sun cards – and others which are blue and purple – the moon cards. The sun represents the male element and the moon represents the female element. So her living room is a sun room, and her magic room and dining room are moon rooms. Also, the renaissance festival is a summer solstice festival where the sun is being worshiped, so everything there is based on yellow and orange: yellow and gold silk costumes, marigolds, yellow and orange daisies, etc. All of the red in her bedroom and in the burlesque club, plus the red light around the edges of the ritual flashbacks, symbolize danger and sexuality, and the pink in the tea room symbolizes girlhood and feminine fantasy. The white wedding costumes and white unicorn represent purity, monogamy, and love, and the black robes and candles represent witchcraft and the dark arts. So the film is dripping with color symbolism. I’ve watched so many Technicolor films in my life that these were obviously also an influence -especially on the lighting technique – but for this film the set design came mostly out of my imagination. The styling and choice of Elaine, however, was inspired by paintings of beautiful witches on pulp novel covers, and by actresses in ‘60s Italian horror films such as Edwige Fenech and Barbara Steele.
CS: How about the narration? Was that always in the script or was it an element you introduced in the edit?
Biller: The voiceover narration was added later, after I made my first fine cut of the film. Samantha Robinson and I had worked so hard to construct Elaine as a “sympathetic sociopath,” but I didn’t feel that her sociopathy was coming through strongly enough – partly because of her stunning beauty – so I felt that her inner voice needed to come through more in order for people to understand her character better.
CS: The audition process. It feels as though Witch is built around Samantha’s physical presence. The casting is just too perfect. Was she there from day one? If not, what was it about her that made you lock her as your “monster”?
Biller: Oddly enough, when I first auditioned Samantha I didn’t know yet that she was my Love Witch. No one understood what I wanted after the first reading, so at first I was mainly going by their physical appearance and their general acting ability. But at the second audition I had them dance for me, and this is when Samantha really stood out. She was so beautiful and sexy, but she had this look on her face that is the one you see in the film – a look of disdain, almost of cruelty. It was this incredible mixture of giving and not giving that gave her so much power, and I could see that she could destroy men with just a glance. But I still had to interview her to find out if she could really do it, and this is where I absolutely knew she was the one. I watched her face when she spoke, and saw how expressive it was and how beautifully it captured light, and was amazed at her intelligence and her willingness to collaborate. It was this last element that was key in making her seem so perfect, because we constructed Elaine together, organically out of her personality, and she had the openness and skill to do that with me.
CS: On that note, is Elaine a monster? Is she a victim?
Biller: I would say that she is both. All deep narcissists are victims at least of their own warped psychology and inability to experience a true self, but Elaine is also the victim of abuse and of a society that has used and discarded her. She is a monster is the sense that she will do anything to achieve her desires, regardless of how it affects others. But there are moments in the film where you see a real person there, and her potential to really love others, and that’s where the tragedy in the film comes in – in these glimpses of humanity we see in Elaine, where we start rooting for her and wishing she could remain in that place.
CS: That house is magnificent. What’s the story behind it?
Biller: We shot most of our exteriors in Eureka and Arcata, about four hours north of San Francisco. Those towns have amazing Victorian architecture, which is one reason we shot there, aside from its eerie witchy feeling in general. Elaine’s house is a historic house designed by Samuel and Joseph Newsom in Arcata, who also designed the famous Carson Mansion in Eureka. We shot one of the Victorian interiors in a historic home in Los Angeles, and the exterior of Wayne’s cabin is a house in Topanga Canyon that was originally constructed as a movie house for a Western TV series in the ‘70s. The Victorian tea room was shot in the marble lobby of the historic Herald Examiner building in downtown Los Angeles. (We brought all of the pink in). A lot of the interiors were built on a soundstage.
CS: There’s a balance here that jerks the viewer around with arch humor, broad comedy, horror, erotica, surrealism…can you discuss the film’s tone? Do you just shoot what you want to see, thus making the final film an extension of you or is it all by design?
Biller: I think the tone comes out like that because of how long I work on things. My tastes and ideas changed and shifted over the years while I was working on the film, and I kept tweaking the script and visual ideas when I’d get a new inspiration. So there are all these layers – first the script, then the design – and then you cast the actors and they bring their own richness to it, and my DP had his own cinema fantasies and techniques he brings in, and then there is the soundtrack – and of course there are the micro-decisions you make every day on the set. So it just keeps getting fuller and fuller until it’s sort of unbearable. It’s also because I have so much to say about everything but I have so little time to say it in, so all of my ideas – both thematic and visual – have to share space in a two-hour film. But of course a lot of it is in the design too, in the proliferation of the ideas suggested by the sets and costumes.
CS: Where are those amazing costumes now?
Biller: I live with some of them in my space – I really need to clear things out – and the rest are in storage.
CS: The music…stunning, like everything in the film. What instrumentation did you use when composing? Will we see a proper soundtrack release?
Biller: I wrote some music for harp, and for a period wind ensemble plus lute, which I was only able to do because I could audition everything in Finale to see how it would sound and it transposes for you; certain instruments don’t sound where they are written, which was much too hard for me back in school when I tried to take an orchestration class. I was very nervous when having it recorded, because I got professional period musicians from USC, ncluding the only professional lute player in Los Angeles, and I thought I may have made a lot of mistakes in the score, but it turned out fine. I do hope to release a soundtrack at some point.
CS: What’s next? Is WITCH a one shot or will Elaine be revived for more lush, dangerous adventures?
Biller: I do have some more ideas for Elaine. I thought of making a sequel in which Elaine gets out of her straitjacket, changes her identity, dyes her hair blonde, and moves to London to pursue a career in theater in the West End. But there are people after her looking to avenge the deaths of their loved ones, including Wayne’s identical twin brother. I also thought of having her placed in a convent, and of doing a surrealist Buñuelian script about the havoc she wreaks there, especially after she escapes. But these are just silly ideas off the top of my head; I have other scripts that I’m more urgently interested in pursing. In any case I hope to have a long collaboration with Samantha, who is very exciting and rewarding to work with.