Interview with Anna Biller by Scott Wallace Brown
Scott Wallace Brown: Anna, you not only wrote and directed A Visit from the Incubus, but you edited it, wrote the music, designed the sets and costumes, and played the lead acting role! Is there anything you CAN'T do?
Anna Biller: Well...if you mean in terms of making a film, I don't work the camera or sound or set up lights. But everything else I HAVE to do, because I want to make these elaborate movies and I don't have money to pay professionals to do it. Because sets and costumes take months to do, and no one will do it competently for free! It's really not that unusual to do everything on a movie yourself, artists and experimental filmmakers do it all the time. But you notice it a bit more in my films because I do it on such a big scale. I taught myself to sew and compose music when I started to make films, because I had these visions and fantasies that couldn't be satisfied by going to the thrift store or sampling something off a record. For my first super 8mm films I really wanted these elaborate 19th-century dresses made out of this weird flowered chintz that matched the wallpaper, because I was inspired by working in a photo studio in New York where we were making all of these sets for wallpaper catalogues. So I got a pattern book of 19th century period women's patterns and bought an old sewing machine and just figured it out.
SWB: Did you draw on specific old movies while making the film, or did you rely more on your MEMORIES of old films?
AB: That's an interesting question. In the long run, I think the film was made according to film memories. But I also watched a lot of films while I was making the movie, mostly to help with the art direction.
SWB: As one watches the film, it's absolutely impossible to tell where it's going. It was only on the first appearance of the Incubus himself that I was sure it was a (mostly) comic film.
AB: That's funny. I'm still not sure whether or not it's a comic film. But it's true that when you're watching it with an audience, it does seem really funny. Sometimes I can't believe how ridiculous it is, and I myself am laughing out loud and thinking it's all completely absurd. But when I was making it I was actually really serious, and I thought I was only putting in comic touches to heighten the drama. But I'm glad you can't tell where it's going. Because people object so much to linear narrative, but maybe they don't have to if the line is weird enough.
SWB: Each time I've seen the film, the audience roars when the Incubus appears, and even more so when he begins his stage act. What have audience reactions been like overall?
AB: Audiences seem to find it very funny. I can feel the electricity in the room when I'm watching the film with an audience. It's like pure magic. I didn't mean for the incubus to be silly in the bedroom scene; I wanted him to be scary at first, and silly later. But maybe what they find so funny is that my idea of scary is so corny--one reviewer called the incubus "a five-year-old's vision of the devil." So, I think the humor comes from the release of being set up for this terror, and then seeing something that's so relatively mild compared to horror images of today. But I am always thrilled when people laugh, because I think when people laugh it means they're surprised and delighted. In a private setting reactions are totally different. People seem to get uncomfortable watching it alone or just with me--maybe it becomes too personal that way. But it's great with audiences. It's completely an audience film.
SWB: Why have you been out of filmmaking for so long?
AB: Oh! That's actually not true. I have never been out of filmmaking. Right after my 1994 film, I wrote the script and made the costumes for a feature musical but couldn't raise money, so I put it on as a stage musical called The Lady Cat. I think I made something like eighty costumes for it, and choreographed all the dances, etc. After that I directed and costumed more plays written by other people, and directed a couple of short films as favors for friends, and my own short filmFairy Ballet which I still don't have the funds or the wherewithal to finish. From 1997-2001 I made The Hypnotistand A Visit from the Incubus and wrote another stage musical. Five years may seem like a long time to make two films, but you have to remember that I was making period wardrobes and sets from scratch, storyboarding everything, doing all of the editing and music, etc. I made those two films simultaneously, which was also hard. It was really frustrating not to have a finished film to show all of those years, but in the meantime I picked up a lot of experience.
SWB: How would you contrast the wicked stage vs. the silver screen?
AB: What can I say? They're both great. But what I don't like about theater is that is vanishes, poof! And it's gone. And I'm not a true actress in the sense that I don't enjoy performing live so much...I prefer to have the audience love my total product rather than just me in the moment. So in that sense film is ultimately more satisfying.
SWB: Did you conceive of Incubus as a work for the stage at any point? Or was it always meant to be a film?
AB: Incubus was written as a short stage piece first, and I performed it at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. It was more or less the same, but a lot shorter. The western stuff wasn't there, just the vaudeville and the gothic stuff.
SWB: Which came to you first: the idea of a parody of old Westerns and horror films, or the theme of a character going from sexual victim to "modern liberated woman"?
AB: Definitely the latter! The Western theme was the last thing to be added. Actually it was a residue from The Lady Cat,which has this great Western saloon number. So, I had the opportunity to get this Incubus film funded and I thought, "here's my chance to do my Western saloon scene!" In the end I've found that mixing up all of my fantasies really seems to work. At first the saloon scene was a total incongruity in the film, then little by little the fetish grew, and everything got Western--the fonts for the titles, the songs, Madeleine's house, etc. But I'm not really a parodist or a satirist. I use genre conventions because they help me to tell my story, but also because of real love of film and film genres.
SWB: Tell me about your frequent collaborator Jared Sanford. He's amazing as the Incubus.
AB: Jared and I have been great friends for years. I first met him in New York, and I had already seen some of his acting work on a friend's film and was dying to meet him. We've been collaborating together ever since. I think that finding a great comic actor with a beautiful baritone was a lot of the reason I was inspired to finally go ahead and make musicals, which I started to do in New York on Super 8mm. He has inspired a lot of the roles I've written for him, and is really just an incredible actor. I remember that even when I first met him and he was performing in these mediocre rock bands, people were always stunned after seeing him perform, just absolutely overwhelmed by his charisma. And he's a talented writer as well, and has a great sense of humor. I think we understand entertainment in a similar way. We'll kill ourselves to please our audiences. It's like when Busby Berkeley said, "Whatever else they can say about me, I gave 'em a show!"
SWB: Describe some of the technical aspects of the film. What did it take to evoke the period feel? Film stock, exposure, lighting, etc.?
AB: The period feel is mostly created by art direction and, believe it or not, acting style and the script. The way people behave and speak has more to do with a period feeling than almost anything else. After that, it's the color--simple clear colors, and not too many of them. I try to limit myself to about three colors per set, and that includes what the actors wear. A couple of neutral colors and one or two striking colors is a good idea. If you really look at old Technicolor films, you'll see that they do this. Lighting is very simple: classical three-point lighting. Faces have to be well-lighted and sculpted, and stand out from the background. But again, you can't really do this if you have white walls or no depth in your set. I don't use any special film stocks or post-production tricks. So the art direction is really the most important thing. And you have to make sure you have enough objects, and that all of the objects have clean lines and are in the same colors as everything else.
SWB: You've made several other pastiches of period films. What is it about old styles that attracts you?
AB: I think old films can be very beautiful. There was so much care taken in constructing them. I am very chaotic inside, so I like order. But I also like traditional storytelling. I like fairy tales and symbolism and stylized theatrical forms. I like all of the things I was told to hate in the deconstructionist '80's. And it's not even a political or moral judgment or a rebellion, it's just that I had to look into myself at some point as an artist, and say, "what is it that I REALLY like? What is it that I REALLY want to see?" Going to art school helped me to shape these views, because even as you are discouraged from working outside of the current style, you are also encouraged to get at the root of things.
SWB: What was the budget of A Visit from the Incubus? (If you don't mind my asking.)
AB: I'll just say, that even with free equipment and soundstages, and discounts at the lab, and me making everything myself, and shooting it so we had a full month to build every set, and editing on a FLATBED at my house, it still seemed very expensive! But you know, the crew and actors were paid! And a lot of the saloon set pieces were rented from Warner Bothers and Universal and Culver Studios! So it really was like a real Technicolor western! It was pure surrealism. It went way over budget, but I think the budget was still tiny compared to what anyone else could have done it for. But I don?t like to give out numbers because numbers mean so many different things to different people. Yikes! To me it seemed like a fortune. But to an actual Hollywood person, they could not shoot a five-minute interview on video with one light in a basement for that.
SWB: Tell me about your upcoming film, "Viva." It's a feature-length project, correct?
AB: Oh yes, VIVA. Viva is a feature sex comedy, and I'm going to be NUDE in it. It's all about swingers in the early 70's who get involved in orgies and bohemia and that sort of thing. It's about a lot of the same issues as Incubus, you know, about the feeling of being preyed upon by men, but it's also about the SEXUAL REVOLUTION, which I think has ruined all of our lives. But I want to talk about the promise that the sexual revolution seemed to offer in the '60's and '70's, how it was really about liberation and was tied in with nature and peace and innocence and youth and all that. And I'm excited about the style, because that was the last gasp of really visual stylized filmmaking in Hollywood. I've made and gathered some unbelievable props and costumes for this. I'm still keeping my color schemes strict because this is also the end of Technicolor! And I'm going to have a nudist colony and hot tub parties and randy bosses and prostitutes and suburban tennis and everything! I've based most of the text on ads and cartoons from early '70's Playboy magazines. It will be very sexy!
SWB: Every time I say the title of the film out loud, I almost say "A Visit from St. Nicholas".
AB: Ha ha! That's funny.