In June, Grimoire made a pilgrimage to the Chicago Underground Film Festival, where we attended a showing of Anna Biller’s supernatural exploitation film The Love Witch. We were utterly captivated. Below find our conversation with Biller about the film as well as a catalog of her influences. The Love Witch has been picked up by Oscilloscope for a Fall 2016 release; in the meantime, keep an eye on screenings here.
with Anna Biller
GRIMOIRE: You’ve mentioned Laura Mulvey’s landmark essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” as a major influence in how you think about filmmaking and the often gendered presentation of environments and psychological domains. Mulvey famously introduced the idea of the camera acting as surrogate for a “male gaze” that objectifies the women on screen, but in your engagement with her work, you have spoken about trying to redirect that idea of the gaze so that it becomes narcissistic; something more like a mirror for a female audience to see themselves in as opposed to something simply fetishistic.
I know you’re interested in including Elaine’s psychology and view of the world in every detail of the film’s mise-en-scene – which is a rich, Technicolor space filled with cakes, candles, lace, luxe robes, and pastel eyeshadow that becomes key to the audience’s understanding of Elaine. I’m wondering if you can speak a bit to your thought process in building such a specific world for Elaine to inhabit and why it is you feel this environment makes such a strong framework for a more “narcissistic” gaze.
ANNA BILLER: The way my films respond to Mulvey is that they try to create a cinematic world of visual pleasure for women. So, if cinematic visual pleasure for the male is in images of sexy available women, in heroic men, in relics of competition, games, conquering people and things, revenge fantasies, violence, blood, and war for instance, I try to think about where visual pleasure for women might lie. (I know this may sound essentialist, but I’m not speaking for all women – only to my own fantasy life which I’m sure many women do not share). For years I’ve tried to examine what gives me pleasure on the screen in order to recapture that pleasure in my own films. I’ve noticed that clothes give me a great deal of pleasure, especially vintage clothes and things with ruffles and lace, and lingerie; and that makeup and wigs give me pleasure. I also love certain types of furniture and décor, and I love rooms that have colors that are coordinated. I love objects of everyday use such as mirrors, combs, table settings, tea sets, and linens. I can’t stand a window that hasn’t been dressed. Light must be motivated by lamps and chandeliers, and tables must have ashtrays, vases, candelabra, and books on them.
So basically, I am obsessed with the “domestic” aspects of movie sets. I remember once hearing someone on the radio say that boys play outside and girls play inside, and that the house is a civilized, female domain. I know this is more gender essentialism, but I somewhat agree with it. I like to make film that’s about “women’s work,” in the sense that I have to laboriously make a lot of objects to make a film (for this film I spent six months making a hand-hooked rug, and many more months making costumes, curtains, pillows, candles, soaps, paintings, a spell book, and other crafts). So whereas Tarantino, say, will take an exploitation movie from the ‘70s and select and isolate what he loves about it - the excessive violence perhaps, the “non-PC” aspects of those films which a lot of people today are nostalgic for – I will take what I love from it. So, from a ‘60s Hammer film I might take Victorian high-necked ruffled dresses, tall, sprayed coifs, gloves, umbrellas, drapes, false eyelashes, formal language, and good diction, because these are things that I am nostalgic for.
I always thought that Mulvey was spot-on about the films of her era, but not about earlier Hollywood films. I think a lot of the women’s pictures and melodramas of classic Hollywood, for instance, were great for women and contained both a male gaze and a female narcissistic gaze. I knew that these films were positive for women, and what her essay did was to focus my goals on recreating this earlier type of cinema that could be cinematically pleasurable for women. Right now on Twitter I am connected to lot of young women who are obsessed with Old Hollywood, and I feel that they are discovering in this cinema role models and fantasies that newer cinema doesn’t offer, which is why they are going to it (and which is why I also go to it). I find that all of the best female role models can be found in these older movies.
GRIMOIRE: Continuing with the idea of a redirection of the Gaze, can you point to specific instances in your own films or in the works of others where you feel like this is especially successful? What is it about those moments that has such power?
ANNA BILLER: I love movies in which women are happy to be women. This would include nearly ALL of the heroines of classic cinema. Being glamorous and beautiful in those movies was just part of being fabulous, and meant that a woman knew her own power and knew what to do with it.
I always love films where the female narcissistic gaze is acknowledged directly. I love scenes where women are putting on makeup or trying on clothes, or watching or participating in fashion shows like in Cukor’s The Women (1939). I love the Busby Berkeley movies in which young women were besotted with their own youth and beauty, and look beatifically happy donning silk stockings or wearing glittering paillettes on revolving platforms. I love movies about romance expressed through costumes and music, where the diaphanous gown of a woman is part of her spiritual journey, as in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. I love noir films where the subject of female sexual power is the theme, or pre-code movies that are about the hardships of women having to rely on their sex appeal in a world that’s tipped against them from the start. I also love the Maisie movies with Ann Sothern and the Marilyn Monroe comedies, which deal with female sex appeal in a sly and sophisticated way. It’s difficult to watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) for instance, and not identify with how smart, funny, and resourceful Lorelei Lee and her friend Dorothy are, in addition to being beautiful and glamorous.
But I am always especially on the lookout for films that feature women looking in the mirror. One of the most wonderful mirror sequences is the credit sequence of The Earrings of Madame De (1953), which is a sequence featuring a woman at her toilette.
GRIMOIRE: In creating this magazine, we've been talking quite a bit about the sudden rise - in feminism and fashion - of occult iconography and the figure of the witch [from trend fashion sites like Dolls Kill, the music videos of figures like Beyonce, Azealia Banks, Grimes Chelsea Wolfe, and Katy Perry, AHS: Coven, the planned remake of The Craft, etc]. Have you noticed this trend, and what do you think about it? Why are we drawn to the idea of the witch – especially right now – and what was it that you yourself found compelling about the “witchy” aesthetic for your film?
ANNA BILLER: I have been working on this film for so long that this trend was not happening yet when I started the script. But witches are definitely in the air. I think it’s because witches are symbolic of female power, and women see that and want to use that imagery. Also, many more women are involved in television and film production than before, and there are all of these women’s genre festivals. It’s also because networks have seen that stories about witches sell, and once something sells a lot of people will start writing scripts about it.
What drew me to the image of the witch is that she is a dangerous figure of female power, associated with fear of female sexuality and the need to silence and burn women who are too beautiful or have too much social and sexual power or too much knowledge. I wanted to go into the femme fatale figure from classic noir films from the inside, to show her own struggles and why she wears a mask; to humanize her in a sense, so that she is not just an evil figure to be desired and feared by men, but a also a vulnerable, fragmented person that women can identify with. The best noir and pre-code films did show women from the inside, but they are few and far between; and there are simply not enough good films about witches!
GRIMOIRE: You’ve mentioned in other press that Elaine’s story is a tragic one, and that you researched narcissism and other psychopathologies in the process of writing her character. How did your research impact the way you constructed Elaine and did you have specific concerns about how you definitely didn’t want her to be perceived by audiences?
ANNA BILLER: I based Elaine on a woman that I have been very close to, who has become narcissistic in order to protect herself from a relentless barrage of objectification she has experienced her entire life. Because Elaine, like my friend, places value only on her looks, she becomes a mask, a Stepford Wife, trying to please men but resenting it and never really giving herself in the process. Although Elaine is not based on myself, I joke that the film is autobiographical, and I think that probably many women will be able to identify with her. When a woman has to live like that, denying herself and living only for men, eventually something cracks and she can become sociopathic, psychotic, or lose herself in addiction. Of course it’s tragic, because Elaine loses her mind trying to be what everyone says they want her to be. In aspiring to be perfect, she only causes destruction for herself and others.
In one scene, I detail the process by which Elaine has learned how to live for men. This is in a nightclub, in which two young girls, innocent wild-child twins, are trained in a manner similar to Elaine. They are lectured to use their sexuality to capture men in order to later manipulate them, and they listen in rapt attention, trying to take it all in. They are being corrupted in this moment, but the tragedy is that this is the training that all girls have – maybe not in school, but in the culture at large. Every girl knows by the time she is sixteen that her looks potentially contain explosive power that she can use to her benefit, and that her other gifts are much less interesting and marketable. This never relents in a girl’s entire life, unless she has great parents and peers who support her in her every endeavor (more common these days, but still relatively rare except in the best families). The first few times I watched this scene cut together I sobbed.
I always knew that some audience members would misunderstand Elaine and judge her for showing her body and for luring men, but if they have this attitude it only strengthens my thesis. Everyone hates and fears beautiful, sexual women, even as those women are pushed relentlessly to be whores and to please men. It’s a double-bind that can only cause schizophrenia or sociopathy.
GRIMOIRE: Since there are so many cakes in The Love Witch, we have to ask: what’s the best kind of cake? If The Love Witch were a cake, what kind would it be?
ANNA BILLER: I used to LOVE to make cakes, but now I no longer eat sugar so cake is off-limits for me. But I still love cake – the idea of cake, the crafting of cake, the look and texture of cake. I have elaborate fantasies about cake, much more than ever before because I can’t eat it. The Love Witch actually features a cake that perfectly personifies it: it’s a pink cake with pink roses on it that Elaine serves to Trish when Trish comes over for tea. I like the fact that Elaine baked a cake when she was entirely alone and wasn’t expecting company, and that this cake is so beautifully decorated that it looks like it came from a professional bakery. It’s completely irrational, and that’s why it’s so striking. I also love the fact that although Elaine in working in her studio, she is wearing underneath her artist’s smock a long yellow Victorian gown, the sort of thing someone might wear as a bridesmaid or even as a wedding dress. These are the sorts of narcissistic self-fantasies I was talking about earlier.
GRIMOIRE: And finally, what question do you always wish people would ask you about this project?
ANNA BILLER: I always want to be asked about my feminism, and about the gaze, and about my true influences (not horror or exploitation movies as you’ve probably grasped by now). So you’ve already asked me the questions I want to be asked!
10 ESSENTIAL FILMS
BY ANNA BILLER
Here are a few key films that influenced the script and some of the decisions I made on the set of The Love Witch.
1. LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), John M. Stahl
In Leave Her to Heaven, Gene Tierney plays a sociopathic woman named Ellen who will do anything for love, much like Elaine in The Love Witch. This is the first film I watched with my lead actress, as Tierney’s performance as a sociopath is so subtle and yet so powerful and believable. One line that has always struck me from this film is the explanation given for Ellen’s insane and unreasonable behavior: “Ellen loves too much.” When I was having problems in my relationship, all of the advice given to women wanting to get their men back cautioned them to love their men “a little less.” It seemed to me that being a woman loving a man was a kind of disease to be cured, or an overbearing trait that you could learn to fix. So I thought I’d play with that idea: are women who love men too much sociopaths, or is the problem the men who are afraid of love for fear of becoming emotionally dependent on a woman? These ideas formed the basis of my thesis for The Love Witch.
2. MARNIE (1964), Alfred Hitchcock
The titular character in Marnie is a woman who is compelled to steal because of childhood trauma. Because of this trauma, which is especially sordid in nature, she is also “frigid.” What is interesting to me about this film is how issues of female identity, sexuality, criminality, and madness are interwoven into a melodramatic narrative, which is something I also tried to do in The Love Witch. Marnie was also a strong visual inspiration for The Love Witch, as were all of Hitchcock’s color films. My cinematographer and I emulated Hitchcock’s photography (especially in The Birds and in Vertigo) for our rear-projection driving shots in particular.
3. PEAU D’ANE (DONKEYSKIN) (1970), Jacques Demy
In Peau d’Ane, a perfect 16th century fairy-tale world is brought to the screen, with Catherine Deneuve playing a beautiful princess who is forced to live as a swineherd and wear a filthy donkeyskin to escape her father, who is in sexual pursuit of her. Based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, this uncomfortable tale, which deals with incest as a part of the coming of age of a young girl, includes two realities: one, the reality of living in shame, filth, horrible odors, hiding, ugliness, poverty, and ridicule, and the other a reality of living as a beautiful princess in wealth, splendor, grace, charm, love, and honor. Like Cinderella, Donkeyskin speaks to a fantasy that anyone can be a princess, even the lowliest most abject creature, which is a fantasy that sustains many girl children in times of poverty and distress. I was sixteen when I first saw this film, and it made a huge impression on me. The wedding sequence at the end of this film is what inspired the Renaissance wedding sequence in The Love Witch.
4. HORROR HOTEL (1960), John Llewellyn Moxey
I saw Horror Hotel as a young child. For years I tried to find it again, because the spectacle of witches in black robes chanting underneath the ground and pinning dead birds on people's doors to mark them as the next victim terrified me half to death. I remembered the movie as blue – I referred to it as “The Blue Witch Movie” - but later when I saw it again I saw that it was black and white and not blue. When I saw it later as an adult filmmaker, I realized that this film does indeed have a strong atmosphere and that it is one of the best movies about witches ever made. Naturally, when I wanted to make my own witch movie, I went back and referred to it. I even wrote and recorded some music based on early music to emulate the chanting in this film, but in the end it was cut from the film.
5. SECRET CEREMONY (1968), Joseph Losey
When I first saw Secret Ceremony some years ago at a Joseph Losey retrospective, I became an instant Losey fan and subsequently tried to see all of his work. But Secret Ceremony, which remains one of his least popular and most misunderstood films, remains my favorite. The story concerns Elizabeth Taylor as Leonora and Mia Farrow as Cenci, who by some stroke of chance end up in Cenci’s house pretending to be mother and daughter, having each recently lost a significant other relationship through an untimely death. The performances, which have been ridiculed by most as overacting, are extremely moving and deeply felt, especially Taylor’s performance, as she tries to drop her cynicism in order to love and understand this fragile little girl who is being corrupted and irreparably damaged by her stepfather, the terrifying Robert Mitchum, who destroys women’s lives as casually as lighting a cigarette. The film gives patriarchy an evil but familiar dimension in a way that’s radically political, and I suspect that the unpopularity of the film lies in these politics. The main character of Elaine in The Love Witch was inspired by both of these women – the faux mother and the faux daughter - who try to make their identities in a world defined by men, and who end up becoming or playacting willing whores, Lolitas, or masked dolls as a form of survival.
6. LA STREGA IN AMORE (1966), Damiano Damiani
La Strega in Amore is based on a novella by Carlos Fuentes called Aura, which in my opinion is one of the best books about a witch ever written. The film is only available on a very bleached-out, damaged DVD transfer on which much of the sound is distorted, but the movie is still powerful and visually stunning. An unemployed writer played by the great British actor Richard Johnson takes a job at a castle employed by an old widow who wants him to do some translations of texts by her dead husband. There he meets the widow’s daughter, Aura, a beautiful but strangely blank and uncanny woman. In the end we realize that the old hag and the beautiful woman are two aspects of the Witch, and that the image of the young woman was an illusion presented to seduce the young man. Always fascinated by dichotomies such as beautiful/ugly, old/young, knowing/innocent, I was of course drawn to this tale. I was also interested in how the young incarnation of the witch was so blank, her face almost like something made of clay or plastic. I feel that this is the image men want in their fantasy woman – a totally blank canvas they can paint their fantasies on – as can be seen in almost all porn and advertising featuring women. Elaine in The Love Witch wears a similar mask.
7. THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (1972), Rainer Werner Fassbinder
This is one of my favorite Fassbinder movies, and one of my favorite movies in general. Like many other films on this list, it also deals with love, heartbreak, and masks. The film begins with the titular character, Petra, played by the great Margit Carstensen, looking mannish with very short hair and no makeup. Over the course of the first twenty or thirty minutes of the film, or for the entire duration the first act, she slowly “becomes” a woman, donning a short curly wig, an extravagant robe, and a carefully painted face. All of this happens on camera, with the entire makeup sequence being shown either in a hand mirror or directly on her face as she narrates a long monologue about her ex-husband. This sequence is one of the most brilliant in cinema, and was the inspiration for a scene in The Love Witch in which Elaine’s best friend tries to “become” Elaine by wearing her wig, robe, and face-mask of makeup.
8. PSYCHO (1960), Alfred Hitchcock
A lot of the script structure in The Love Witch emulates Psycho, especially the opening sequence in which Elaine is running away from a crime and is stopped by a policeman, and has a voiceover narrative in her head while driving. But there are other references too, such as Elaine’s angry voiceover calling Wayne a “pussy,” which reminds me of Anthony Perkins’ angry speech where he says “they suggest oh so delicately…” and the ending. There many are other similarities too that I noticed later when I finally read the Psycho script, but they were mostly unconscious, and probably the result of me thinking of Psycho as an iconic horror movie, and a good template to use when making my own movie about a sociopath.
9. BLACK NARCISSUS (1947), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
While writing and directing The Love Witch, I kept going back in my mind to Kathleen Byron’s performance as the mad nun Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus. Like Elaine, she starts off as maybe just a bit hostile or imbalanced, then later reveals herself to be a full-blown sociopath. While casting for Elaine this movie was also an influence, since Samantha Robinson, who plays Elaine in The Love Witch, actually resembles Kathleen Byron. Like Elaine, Sister Ruth falls deeply in love with a man she can’t have, and the most dramatic moment is the film is when she smears a swathe of bright red lipstick on her mouth, the ultimate act of rebellion for a nun, and one that is punched up wonderfully with the great cinematography by Jack Cardiff. Cardiff is also a cinematographer that I and my D.P. both admire immensely, and we looked at some of his work in preparation for this film.
10. BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (1958), Richard Quine
I wasn’t originally going to include this film because it seemed to bear only a superficial connection to The Love Witch. On the surface, both films are about beautiful modern-day witches; both films feature stylish set design and glamour lighting; and both films conflate actual spells and magic with the magic of love and desire. Indeed, all of the Hollywood comedies about witches deal with the linkage of sexual allure with magic, including Rene Clair’s I Married a Witch (1942) and the television show Bewitched (1964-1972). These narratives about beautiful witches who are eventually tamed and become wives and mothers are part of the American collective unconscious. They metaphorically present all women as witches in their ability to lure and control men, and they suggest that women are able to live with men only insofar as they are able to harness and tame that power. Like the noir films that feature femmes fatales, these comedies about witches acknowledge that men see women as wild and Other, but the comedies are not about women destroying men through that power: they are about domestic couples negotiating that wildness. In that sense The Love Witch, which treats that same subject, has much more than a superficial connection to Bell, Book and Candle.
If there had been more room I would have included: GERTRUD (1964) and DAY OF WRATH (1943), Carl Dreyer; SEASON OF THE WITCH (1973, George A. Romero); ANGEL FACE (1952, Otto Preminger), REPULSION (1965, Roman Polanski); PEEPING TOM (1960, Michael Powell), THE WICKER MAN (1973, Anthony Shaffer), and VIY (1967, Alexandr Ptushko).
ANNA BILLER's 35mm cult feature Viva and her 16mm art-film shorts have screened at major film festivals and art spaces around the world, and her work has been discussed in academic cinema journals. She is known for her use of classic and outdated film genres to talk about female roles within culture, coding feminist ideas within cinematic aesthetics and visual pleasure. She creates all of her own costumes and set designs, making many or the props and paintings as well as composing and scoring for her films. She has a BA in art from UCLA, and an MFA in art and film from CalArts. She continues to work on film because of her interest in emulating the look and feel of classic cinema, and her latest film, The Love Witch, was made using only traditional film processes.