SHOCKING NEWS INTERVIEW (translated from the Dutch)
BAREND DE VOOGD INTERVIEW WITH ANNA BILLER
Interview with Barend de Voogd
INTERVIEW | What other filmmaker would spend six months hand-hooking a rug? "You can’t buy a pentagram rug in a store," laughs Anna Biller. You really need a pentagram rug, however, if your new film is called THE LOVE WITCH.
You only see the rug for a few seconds in the movie, but this type of dedication is not unusual for the American filmmaker. In her debut film VIVA (2007) Anna Biller was the director, producer, editor, production designer, and costume designer, and she also sang and played the lead role! Her story about the adventures of bored housewife Barbi worked equally as a parody of the American sex films of the seventies, as feminist criticism and, thanks to the colorful costumes and sets, as a vintage feast for the eyes.
Biller’s new film THE LOVE WITCH premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Attractive witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) uses of all the spells and potions she has at her disposal to get men to fall in love with her, but her spells usually end badly. The delicious theatrically performed Technicolor film looks exquisite. "I tried to be a little more toned-down this time," Biller said during her interview with Shocking News, "but I've still been working on it for nearly seven years. It took a whole year just to make the renaissance costumes. Sometimes it’s too much, a little out of proportion, but I want everything to be fully realized. I am a fetishist, a cinephile."
VIVA premiered in Rotterdam in 2007. "They had me sing jazz with a band onstage and I became confused with the character I played - the sex symbol. I'm glad they’re taking me more seriously this time as a filmmaker. I love old movies. I like to shoot on film. I love the costumes, makeup, the presentational acting. Nowadays people think those movies are ridiculous and campy, but I don’t mean to be campy (laughs). I'm not trying to create parody. I’m trying to express my ideas in a way that I find cinematic. Cinema looks a certain way to me, the way it did in Hollywood’s Golden Age. It's glamorous, it’s beautifully lit, it’s a fantasy world. A film to me doesn’t look like something you shoot on your cell phone."
Where does this opinion come from?
My mother watched a lot of old movies. My parents were artists and they took me to see classic cinema from the twenties to the seventies; not necessarily cult and horror films, just classic Hollywood and European cinema. I became really obsessed with old movies as a child. While everyone else in the family also watched new movies, I was interested only in the old movies.
Your own movies almost always refer to a particular genre. VIVA is a homage to the porn chic Radley Metzger, and your short film A VISIT FROM THE INCUBUS (2001) is a kind of western.
VIVA was not so much influenced by Radley Metzger, but Radley and I are influenced by the same classic cinema. What I found inspiring about his films was that his female characters in it were treated respectfully. The sexuality of women in those movies was not exploitative. Radley is an egalitarian. He did sex films as a way to raise money, but he was more interested in art. That's what interests me in genre films. They offer you a template. You can make a movie through that template which is easy to categorize and sell. Lately I'm becoming more interested in other templates. I find Fassbinder very interesting, for example. But you have to be a very good writer to pull off that sort of cinema. I am still learning to write.
What was the template for THE LOVE WITCH?
The thrillers of the fifties and sixties, the Hitchcock films THE BIRDS and MARNIE, psychological thrillers with beautiful rear projection. They used to make many more films about women. Marnie is such an interesting character - her mind is completely distorted. REPULSION, SECRET CEREMONY - those sorts of films. I was looking for female characters that are driven insane trying to constantly negotiate their place in the world.
All your films are about those issues actually, aren’t they?
Yes, because I’m very familiar with these issues. I try to be really honest when I’m writing. Being a woman can be so absurd. It’s absurd sometimes to go out with men on dates, the way they treat you, the role you have to play. Sometimes it's like you're not really part of society. You can become very paranoid as a woman, imagining that you’re being singled out, treated differently. But actually it's not paranoia, it’s really happening. I try to bring my personal experiences to writing, and it’s a way for me to deal all of these surreal experiences. Take Elaine in THE LOVE WITCH. She always wears a mask, she always wears a wig. Samantha Robinson is young and beautiful, but a different actress in that role could have been really grotesque. She tries so desperately to please everyone. For this film I really studied narcissism in women - women tying themselves in knots trying to please men is so incredibly encouraged in our culture. There is this pressure to be sexy, starting from when you are about fourteen. It’s really bizarre.
Did you also study witchcraft?
Yes. The witch is two things. On the one hand, it is the way people perceive you. Evil. Negative. As a woman, you're a witch. You're different, you’re other.
And you have – I’m thinking of a scene in your movie – your magical tools.
(Laughs). Yes, her lipstick is actually much more magical than the potions she makes. Her spells don’t always work, of course.
And what is the other side?
Witches are also a symbol of empowerment. None of my fans will want to hear this, but I was very much inspired by GERTRUD (1965) by Carl Theodore Dreyer. Who wants to hear that? They would rather hear that I was watching BLOOD ORGY OF THE SHE-DEVILS!
I must confess that I have seen BLOOD ORGY, and not GERTRUD.
(Laughs). GERTRUD is about a woman who is looking for love, and all of the men in her life disappoint her. She is spiritually more elevated than these men. Dreyer liked to tell stories about women that are spiritually superior to the men in their lives. The men are in constant pain, jealous of women because they are incapable of loving divinely the way a woman can. That was the inspiration for THE LOVE WITCH. The film is about heartbreak. Elaine is Medea, a tragic witch. THE LOVE WITCH is a tragedy. That’s no longer a genre people recognize. You have horror and drama, but who makes a tragedy anymore? (Laughs) When Elaine's neighbor Trish loses her husband and tries on Elaine’s lingerie and wig, I find that so sad. She does not believe in herself anymore, so she tries to become like Elaine. She toys with Elaine’s concept that to get love, you have to become a man’s fantasy. Trish almost loses herself in that moment, but luckily she comes back to herself in time. In some ways she is the hero of the film.
Unlike VIVA and many of your other films, you yourself don’t play the leading role here.
Well I didn’t really fit into the role. I didn’t write it for myself. Samantha is so distanced, so poised, and so young. I'm not a real actress; in VIVA I was doing something more like performance art where I tried to do a kind of non-acting. This time I needed a real actress. Samantha was twenty-three when we shot the film, very young. I wanted someone who could play it like a sophisticated screen siren, like Liz Taylor. I showed her a lot of movies, trained her in the classic style of acting, forbade her to laugh because it ruined the illusion of perfect screen glamor we were trying to create for her.
And you shot again 35mm.
We not only shot on 35mm, but we also printed directly from original camera negative, which is never done anymore. All 35mm films today are color-corrected digitally. It goes from film negative to digital and then either back to film or directly to a digital screening format. We cut our original negative and color-timed from that. I found out that no one does that anymore, because we could not even find negative-cutting materials. I had to get my old negative cutter out of retirement. Almost no one knows how the film process works anymore. Color-timing on film, you can’t see what you’re doing the way you can on digital. You have to guess: a point of yellow here, two points of blue there…and then it goes into the bath with chemicals and you don’t what it’s going to look like until you see a projected print. With digital timing you can just turn a knob and you can see the color right there. It was pretty stressful to finish the film in this way.
So why did you do it that way?
Because nothing beats real 35mm – the beautiful deep blacks, the contrast, the saturated colors. Digital color really looks different. I realized before we shot it how obsolete these techniques were, and I will have still have to make a DCP for regular screenings, but I wanted to do a film the traditional way one last time.