GLAMCULT

36TH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL ROTTERDAM 2007

In Viva, a film by director ANNA BILLER that takes place in the 1970's, the dissatisfied housewife Barbi is seduced into prostitution, with all of its consequences. Biller, who was inspired for the film by vintage Playboys and sexploitation films from the 1970's, has produced a particularly colorful film.

BY HANKA VAN DER VOET

 

ANNA BILLER

HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR MAKING VIVA?

I wanted to make a film about a woman with sexual problems, and I looked around for inspiration. The strongest inspiration came from vintage Playboy magazines. They were kind of disgusting to me at first, but then more and more fascinating. The characters all inhabited this unreal fantasy world of sex. Sex was equated with women's lib, youth, liberation, revolution. Everybody was obsessed with sex, old and young, hippies and businessmen. So I thought, this is a good environment for my character. She falls into this world of sex by accident, because it's the sexual revolution, but then it brings out some other issues. She is confused, innocent, cruel, lascivious, perverse, ambivalent. In other words, she is "totally a woman."

While the Playboy world was ugly in some ways, I also found it refreshing, because it was so direct. Everything out in the open. They were selling sex directly, without apologies. No guilt. It was neat in a way. And the cartoons were interesting, very broad, such American vaudeville. And really striking visual images, great ad layouts, very talented designers. Very cinematic. And insane décors, not to be believed. Then I started watching the exploitation movies, and looking at interior decorating books. It was all tied together, a world of bad taste and public sex. This was before it all turned into porn and earth tones. It was a fascinating time. It's the whole world of VIVA.

HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT TO MAKE THE FILM SETS AND COSTUMES FOR VIVA?

I enjoy making sets and costumes. It's one of the more pleasurable aspects of making a movie. But it's very time consuming. For the orgy scene, I had to costume the whole room, and it was a big crowd scene. Plus there was hand-crochet, a headdress, and 1,000 gold paillettes to sew on for my costume alone. And I had to make all the underwear and bikinis, to get them right for the period. And although we rented a castle, it still had to be completely dressed from head to toe for the period. So, it takes three months to prepare for a scene like that. And that's only one scene. The others took maybe a month apiece to prepare.

WHAT MESSAGE DO YOU WANT TO GET ACROSS WITH VIVA?

I want to tell a story about a woman, how she thinks, what happens to her, what her experiences are like. There's so little film these days from a woman's point of view. I think if you just show it, with all of the other little details and filters that happen as a result of being a woman with a woman's psychology, it becomes a very strange and disturbing world full of desire and ambivalence. And that's a world I want to present. But VIVA is also about making a new kind of film, that synthesizes older forms with the now, and that reveals its meaning through symbols and contrasts.

VIVA IS A HEAVILY STYLIZED MOVIE. DO YOU CONSIDER STYLE TO BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE STORYLINE OF A MOVIE?

No, I think the story is very important. It's the most important thing in the end. But film is a visual medium. I wanted to create an atmosphere, to make people feel as if they were back in 1972. And style is your most important tool in doing that.

YOU ARE A DIRECTOR, WRITER, PRODUCER, EDITOR AND DESIGNER. IS THAT BECAUSE YOU LIKE ALL THE ASPECTS OF MAKING A MOVIE OR IS IT A MONEY THING?

On some levels it's a money thing, because I never want to put anything into the budget that I can do myself. People are very expensive, and as it is we spent a third of our budget on hiring crew, even with me juggling forty tasks at once! But I also really enjoy doing everything. It's a luxury in a way, to have complete creative control. But I'm trying to see if next time I can write a script that will allow me to give away more to others, so I can complete a film more quickly.

WHAT OF THE ABOVE DO YOU LIKE TO DO MOST?

I think editing is my favorite part. I could never give up the editing of a picture. And I cut on film, which is very sensual. And directing of course. And the initial set sketches are fun. My least favorite part is producing.

HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT TO DIRECT YOUSELF (IN THE NUDE)?

The most difficult part is, I can't see how I look through the camera. And I can't see the whole composition. So, I have to really trust the cinematographer. With other actors, I can always tell them to turn a certain way to catch the light better, or to get a better angle on their face, or I can block them to be most effective for the camera. But for me, I am often guessing. I don't use a video playback device, as I don't want to ruin the spontaneity of the performances, so I am often surprised when I see the dailies. My cinematographer was great, but it's still nerve-wracking and difficult to direct when you can't see the scene for yourself. And you are always outside of yourself watching.

In terms of directing in the nude? Well, that is another problem. You have to really trust the crew. And if people think you are being immoral or doing something naughty, you can't blame anyone, as it's your movie. And I'm very shy about my body, but I really felt I had to do it, to stay true to the sexploitation genre. It was a great challenge, but it was very liberating in the end.

THE ACTORS IN VIVA SPEAK OUT THEIR LINES IN A RATHER UNNNATURAL WAY. WHAT WERE YOUR INSTRUCTIONS FOR THEM BEFORE FILMING THEIR SCENES?

I directed them very closely. Mainly, I wanted them to speak loudly and clearly, and to emphasize their lines in an iconic way. I also wanted them to present a slick exterior, to hide their feelings. That is not how acting is done these days, but I would not say that it's unnatural. It's just a concept of natural from another time. Every era has a film acting style it considers natural. Nowadays, there's a very juvenile,anguished, confused, and emotionally sloppy character who mumbles, whispers, yells, emotes, and is incoherent, that passes for natural. But it's not natural. It's just the current construction of natural.

YOUR MOVIES TAKES PLACE IN THE FIFTIES, SIXTIES, AND SEVENTIES. WOULD YOU HAVE RATHER LIVED IN THAT PERIOD OF TIME?

I don't think so. But I enjoy the movies better from that time. I am fascinated with the style of classic movies. I think they had wonderful craft, wonderful soundtracks, wonderful atmosphere. People have fantasies of movies, of wanting to live in them, and I want to live in those old movies. It's probably because they were the only movies I saw as a child, as my mother worked at home and was always watching old movies. I could never imagine actually living in another time. But when I make a movie, I try to make a movie that I'd want to live in.

YOUR WORK HAS BEEN COMPARED TO THAT OF JOHN WATERS AND PEDRO ALMODOVAR. ARE THESE DIRECTORS AN INSPIRATION TO YOU? IF NOT, WHAT INSPIRES YOUR FILMMAKING?

I am very fond of both of those directors, but I discovered them when I was a young adult, and my deepest fetishes had already been formed. I think rather, we were all inspired by the same types of movies. For Viva, I took a lot from Bunuel's Belle de Jour, Radley Metzger's Camille 2000 and The Alley Cats, Polanski's Repulsion, 1960's Hollywood comedies and exploitation films.

WHAT IS YOUR NEXT PROJECT GOING TO BE?

I'm thinking of jumping back a decade or so to about 1960, and making a film that's like an old pulp novel. The main themes of the script so far are: strippers at a carnival, in bullet bras and silk stockings--a man in a gorilla suit--lots of action in hotel rooms and on boats--a castle, horses, carriages--a witch--a nymphomaniac--and square-jawed men with important plans that we don't care about. I want to be very emotional with this one, to make it like a Mexican melodrama. And I want it to have a lot of movement, a lot of action. So, it will seem like a more normal film than Viva on the surface, but it will actually be less normal. A deconstruction of an action melodrama.

ARE YOU COMING TO ROTTERDAM TO VISIT THE FILM FESTIVAL?

Yes! And I will bring a few friends. I am really looking forward to the festival, and to visiting the beautiful Netherlands!