Interview with Anna Biller by Dave Coleman of Bijouflix
BIJOUFLIX: Let's start with what you're not, at least in terms of your flix. You're not into explosions, c.g.i., flaccid storylines and marketing overcoming the inherent project's shortcomings. Instead, you hand make every element of your productions save celluloid and processing. This makes you, like, what... a filmmaker, or something? Seriously, do you ever feel like an alien craftswoman when you see current Hollywood 'product,' or do you love (somehow) current cinema, too?
Anna Biller: I think the difference between my work and that of most films today is, I'm totally obsessive about style. I think style is more important to a film than story. Not only that, the style tells the story more effectively than the dialogue. If you can paint the details of a scenario so that every element in the picture is telling the story, you can tell a really interesting story in just one frame. You need to consider color symbolism in a color film, montage, use of close-ups, what people wear, how people stand or how action is blocked, what objects are around and what associations people have with those objects, etc.
What many filmmakers don't realize is, whether or not they're consciously controlling the visual elements of their picture, those elements are there and produce meaning. And sloppiness about detail takes you out of the film. Rather than thinking about what's going on, you start thinking, "that's not the kind of dress she would be wearing," or you think, "this film is so lame!" Or maybe the lighting or the editing are so blah that they don't bring out the drama in the script. Nowadays soft lighting is popular, and people are often backlit from a window or something, and you don't get this wonderful hard-edged portrait like you did in the old movies with their traditional three-point lighting. Or maybe the music is unskillfully written or distracting or isn't used effectively to punch up the drama, or maybe it's too familiar.
It's very difficult to make a film that's of a piece. You either have to have a team of very skilled craftspeople all working together under a competent and demanding and very seductive or powerful director, or you have to do everything yourself. And either way, it involves a great deal of object fetish, line-reading fetish, word fetish, setting fetish, casting fetish, fetishes of all kinds. When I see a great movie I can't listen to it at all, I'm so busy absorbing the details. And if they're overwhelmingly rich, I usually don't understand a single thing about the plot until I see the film again.
BF: What about influences? It's an obvious question, and yet, there are so many in your flicks. Or, you know, there are so many I can project into your projection, rather. But for my private example, I almost feel the ghosts of Nick Ray circa JOHNNY GUITAR and Fritz Lang in his RANCHO NOTORIOUS (should've been called RAUNCHO, but what the hell!) working over your shoulder, whispering hints. Not to rob you of your due originality, but: who are some of your private demi-gods of celluloid, and ? more importantly -- why, if you know why or care to articulate?
AB: Gosh, I guess I'm sort of a scavenger. When I'm working on a film, I only watch movies that relate stylistically to the film I'm working on. You're spot-on about Johnny Guitar and Rancho Notorious, those movies had a great influence on me. The scene in the saloon where Lucy gets a job is taken right out of Johnny Guitar, when Sterling Haydn as Johnny Guitar blows into town and enters the lonely saloon and has a showdown with the Dancing Kid. I'm always thrilled when people get the references, because my films are so much about the movies that they emulate. And I think this is clear to anyone with a sense of film history. So in terms of influences, I go through phases. My favorite period for films is the 1930's, especially for musicals and costume dramas. That's the stuff that provided most of the inspiration for Three Examples of Myself as Queen-that, and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, and Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend, and '60's TV , and French art films.
But I'm always finding new stuff to get excited about. Michael Powell is my all-time favorite director. The Hammer horror films were very inspiring when I was working on "Incubus," those and Technicolor Westerns and John Houston's Moulin Rouge. I love Mae West and Zsa Zsa Gabor, the big fabulous sassy blondes. I think they've been a big influence on my stage musicals. And Von Sternberg has been a key influence, and also Jacques Demy. Recently I've segued rather dramatically into the 60's and 70's for inspiration, as I'm making a movie set in the early 70's. I've been watching a lot of Radley Metzger films, some Kon Ichikawa, Herschell Gordon Lewis' Suburban Roulette. I've found all of this stuff extremely fresh and inspirational.
BF: I should've done my home work, but since I'm interviewing the teacher herself: what's your personal background? Are you a Lost Angeles native, or did you drift here from other zones? And, whether local or imported, how is it that you wound up in Hollywood making these strangely iconoclastic flix? I mean, it's not that they're not like Hollywood movies; only, they're like Hollywood movies from fifty years ago! Often I find myself drifting back into the last days of truly great art house cinema in L.A., such as when the Nuart was but one of a half-dozen stops for exciting double bills, just watching your flicks. It's strange, it's almost as if you build in the audience's reaction into your flick's content, somehow, and yet you don't! Again, how did such an original voice wind up in the epitomed pits of The Hollow Men?
AB: I think a lot of it has to do with my parents. My mom is Japanese from Hawaii. She grew up on a coffee plantation, and every night she would go to the theater and see these incredible movies, with these women in these dresses by Adrian and Orry-Kelly, and all of the feathers and white satin and all of the glamour. She told me that when she was a little girl, she used to dream about becoming a costume designer. Later, when she was married to my dad and lived in L.A. and had four kids, she opened her own dress shop in West Hollywood. She would stay at home with us kids and sew all day for her store, and we would watch old movies and musicals all day long. I also remember that her store was really glamorous. A lot of celebrities shopped there, and it was the end of the era of Hollywood glamour. There was still vaudeville on TV, you know, Carol Burnett and Flip Wilson and Sonny and Cher, and there was Liberace and all this flashiness. Everybody in Hollywood was into the fantasy of Hollywood, especially artists and gays. That was the time of 70's deco and the rediscovery of Busby Berkeley. I guess what I'm trying to do with my work is reassemble the history of Hollywood the way it appeared to me as a child?that is, all mixed up and arbitrary, with all of the visual excess intact, but with my distorted childhood brain translating everything as if it relates only to me. I think everyone actually does that with movies, but unconsciously. That?s why I think my films are like dreams, because they appeal to the collective unconscious of movie fans.
But there are other things too. For instance, my dad was a painter, and my mom sewed, and they made absolutely everything. Even our bedrooms were like these weird sets with unwieldy handmade props in them. That's how I got the idea that if you want something, you have to make it. And my mom is beautiful like a movie queen, like a Japanese Ava Gardner or maybe more like Michiko Kyo, and I always wanted to be like her. And I didn't go to film school until very late. I studied art and theater, like the first movie directors.
BF: Let's talk about your approach to flickmaking. It reminds me of the story of when Jack Nicholson was asked what it was like to work with Kubrick and he said, "Redefines the word meticulous." You basically "do it all," though of course, like any flickmaker, that's only to a certain logical end point. But given the collaborative process is so pre-planned by yourself ? from scripting to starring to designing to directing to editing to lighting to -- it must take an enormous amount of time to produce your movies. Or are you somehow able to compress all those gigs into one and still turn your flix around quickly?
AB: No, the turnaround is never fast, it always takes an enormous amount of time. This can be really frustrating, but I won't shoot something until I think it looks good. But the "Incubus" pre-production was a little extreme, even for me. I spent so many hours working on getting the costumes and colors and casting and everything else right, it seemed kind of insane, like I was literally a madwoman. And post-production was the same way, because I couldn't find the right music and ended up having to write a pipe organ piece and stuff for banjo and all of these things that were new to me. Sometimes I drive people crazy on my sets because I'm trying to sew or mend something or touch up a prop when everybody's waiting-- or, I'm making petticoat ruffles the night before the shoot and don't get any sleep-- or I'm buying set objects the morning of shooting and I'm late-- but without a luxurious budget, that's the way it goes. It's kind of like "Hey, kids, let's put on a show in the barn!" But seriously, my process is that I'll work for a year or two alone, will work with a crew for a total of maybe six days, and then spend another year in post production alone. I think on my next feature I'm going to have to adjust this a little bit. Sometimes I have these nightmares that my hair has turned white and my room is filled with cobwebs, and I'm living with these props I've collected but still haven't shot the movie!
BF: I'm sure you get justifiably tired being asked about sexism in films and how you feel being a "woman director," as it's akin to being asked what it's like to be a "gay pop singer" or an "African American senator" (not that there is such a thing). In other words, it's kind of reductionary and definitely first labeling a person and then asking them to define themselves with your label. So without accepting the label as such, can you digress and tell us a bit what it is like at the turn of the century making artistic projects that still largely (in the collective, non-critical sense) embody centuries old patriarchal viewpoints and values? Do you find it challenging to think objectively "as a woman" when you see the constant bombardment of current media images portraying even the most "liberated" female as being dependent on her makeup, hair style, etc.? Are your flicks a form of catharsis for you as artist, a form of if not getting even then at least expressing a different viewpoint?
AB: I'm very much a woman director, both in terms of the way I work and the kinds of movies I make. When I first started making movies on video and then on Super 8mm, I would create these very simple scenarios about my own fantasy world. I realized very quickly that while some people were enchanted, there were always others who were quick to ridicule my ultra-feminine vision and unabashed pleasure in being a woman. Later when I went to graduate school at CalArts, I had to fight to assert my rights to make feminist work that was feminine and about pleasure, although these were topics that were just beginning to creep into feminist theory and were gaining some ascendancy there. So I had to fight to be taken seriously there, and I still have to fight to be taken seriously by many academic and traditional institutions. But the more flack I get, the more I'm interested in pushing the concept of feminine pleasure in my work.
When I first started out I had no idea that being a woman trying to put your own fantasies into movies could create so much hostility, suspicion, and ridicule. But that's why it's so important to do it. Each film is like a new experiment, where I push the theme a little further. As expected, I'm getting more suspicion from men about "Incubus" than I did about "Queen," because I'm going further. "Queen" was just about asking for the space to have my fantasies; in "Incubus" I actually create much more anxiety, because there's this point at which my character Lucy stops being a victim of the Incubus and shows that she has her own complex sexual fantasy life. And this is where men often feel threatened. This reaction has really opened my eyes to how bad things have gotten, if it's that threatening for a woman just to have her own desire. The thing that really bothers a lot of men seems to be that Lucy takes her revenge in a feminine way, by asserting her charms and winning the adoration of the cowboys. This makes men jealous because they can't do it. But we live now in an age where women aren't even allowed to be women anymore. Drag queens usurped the territory of extravagant self-display long ago, and most of the sex symbols in Hollywood now are men, and there's even this trend where the new Hollywood movie posters mostly feature men. Women in films tend to be plain, whiny, self-deprecating, etc. A woman in a film may be violent or strong on the surface, but she is not allowed to assert her will over a man's will.
Of course, there are always men and women who are completely enchanted with this whole notion of the power of the feminine. Stars like Marlene Dietrich and Mae West and many others from the 30's and 40's projected an unutterably feminine quality of power and seduction, which is why this is my favorite period for films. Mae West wrote and directed her own movies and always portrayed herself as a wonderful gift to mankind, which is more like what I do, whereas the Dietrich-Von Sternberg films are about woman's power to attract but also destroy, more of a male point of view (a woman doesn't usually consider herself to be destructive). But those films are also a tribute to woman's power, and are ten million times more respectful and admiring of women than any film today.
One more thing: my method of working with actors and crew is also along Mae West lines. I don't bully or threaten, I try to seduce and give pleasure and make people share in the fantasy world and get caught up in it. The actors are usually living right in the moment, carried away by the sets and costumes, and that's one way I get such authentic performances out of them. But in terms of the crew I get bossed around quite a bit, sometimes even by the gaffer or a camera assistant or just anyone at all, because they smell blood when they see other guys hot on the trail of a woman who's trying to assert her world. And I'm standing there in a headdress or a bee costume or something, and they refuse to take me seriously. So I've had to be, as the saying goes, ten times more competent than any man just to be able to control my own set.
BF: You're currently working on a feature flick based loosely on the look and themes of those old PLAYBOY liquor ads, right? How is that project coming along? How did you approach making your first feature as opposed to your short flix? Did you employ the same basic working methods but expand them for the undertaking, or..? In other words, we're doing the math and wondering: if it takes 'x' amount of time it takes for you to make for an Anna Biller short flick, then what is 'y' to equal for an Anna Biller feature?
AB: Oh gosh, I hope VIVA isn't the movie where my hair will turn white before I finish it. No, but seriously, because I'm doing a movie from a more modern period the art direction is much simpler, and that cuts the production time down by quite a bit. But you always have to weigh everything. You don't want a decade to go by as you're obsessing over details, but you don't want to put out a piece of schlock. A lot of people spend YEARS raising a big budget so they can delegate out all the work, then they make a fast, sloppy movie where they themselves don't have to work that hard. But I prefer to spend the time making and collecting the perfect objects and costumes, and then shooting the movie in pieces with all of the details intact. I've heard that even Hitchcock started off that way, doing everything himself. But I am getting a little tired of how long things take, and trying to see if I can come up with a slightly larger budget to make things go a little faster.
I'm really excited about VIVA, it's going to be the strangest thing I've ever made. At first you look at those old liquor and cigarette ads and off-color jokes from Playboy and you think they're kind of nightmarish, but they also contain something we lack today, which is a kind of wild pleasure, and everyone's laughing and feelin' sexy, and it's actually kind of cheerful. Nowadays they promote sex but everyone's so glum, there's no joie de vivre. I want to go into that whole Playboy world from the early '70s, and also some of the sex comedies and softcore movies from the time, and make a really unhinged, insane, colorful, fun movie out of it. The main character is a young housewife named Barbi, who is lured into the whole sex and orgy world and then returns to her life in suburbia. But there's also some wife-swapping that goes on with her and her husband and another couple, and some weird sexual things with her boss, so suburbia ends up being just as much about sex as the orgy world. It's like the whole Playboy world in that it doesn't matter if you're married or single or conservative or a hippy or a housewife or a prostitute, everyone is totally obsessed with sex and swept along in the madcap sexual revolution. It's a really naughty movie on many levels, but then again I have to keep surprising myself with my own naughtiness to keep the work fresh and alive.