When talking to Anna Biller, it becomes clear that the depth of the writer/director’s knowledge of Hollywood history has become part of what has enabled her to transcend it.
“Fred Astaire would rehearse until his feet would bleed and his dancing would look so light and effortless,” Biller tells me, shortly after I expressed shock at hearing what went into making her second feature “The Love Witch” such a frothy confection. “When they shot ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ the suffering that people went through in that makeup…all these things on film that look so effortless and so beautiful, it’s because people put blood, sweat and work in. You see a ballerina’s shoes after a performance and they’re full of blood and [and during the performance it] looks like she’s floating on the air. That’s the ugly reality behind art.”
You wouldn’t know that tension exists from a mere glance at “The Love Witch,” the slick surface of which reflects the fantastical visions of its occult-minded protagonist Elaine (Samantha Robinson). Yet over the course of almost a decade that Biller spent plotting a follow-up to her first feature “Viva,” in which she used the time waiting for a cinematographer (M. David Mullen) who still knew the hard lighting style of the 1960s in which the film is set to learn left-handed calligraphy just to make sure Elaine’s spell book looked just right and composing the Renaissance-era music for the film’s finale, she added layer upon layer to the story of a young woman with occult-enhanced abilities to get what she thinks she wants from men, only to discover they can’t possibly fulfill what she’s really after. In literal terms, that meant using vivid colors in the sets her personally painted and the costumes she stitched together by hand, intended to emanate directly from the intensity of Elaine’s inner life. But Biller’s extraordinary (and largely individual) effort behind so many aspects of “The Love Witch” also works its way into the subconscious, with each carefully constructed frame illuminated by how intentionally artificial it all is, making it easy to see how Elaine can get lost in her imagination since the film itself is so hypnotic.
It was frustrating that I spent so long admiring what Biller was able to achieve in the presentation of “The Love Witch” that I was unable to ask her more about the boldness of the film’s ideas, slyly inserting itself stylistically into a tradition of free love-era films with a wicked sense of humor to skewer their predominantly male gaze. However, it was simply a pleasure to spend any time with her at all, talking about the challenges of a true do-it-yourself production as well as how what’s old becomes new again and inadvertently casting practitioners of witchcraft in the film.
Knowing what an undertaking this is for you personally, what was strong enough about the idea that it kept you excited about it over the years?
I’ve been working in film for a while and I want to make movies from the female consciousness, so when I come up with a scenario – like I wanted to make this witch movie – it starts growing in terms of its elaborateness in terms of really wanting to make a world that’s cinematic. There are my ideas about characters and psychology and then there are my ideas about what cinema is and whatever idea I did, it was probably going to be equally cinematic because I have my cinema fantasies. So it wasn’t elaborate because of this idea. It was elaborate because this is how I make movies. [laughs]
Is part of your interest in filmmaking the fact it enables you to pursue a bunch of different crafts – the left-handed handwriting, the composition of renaissance music…
Yeah, I’m a visual artist and the truth is I love to be in my studio, making stuff. I love to be learning calligraphy or sewing or painting and I love to write songs. The drag for me is actually being on the set. That’s the really stressful part where you have all this stuff that can come crashing down and you know there’s so much money at stake and so many people who can ruin things. The zen thing for me, and the reason I work so long on things, is to make stuff because I’m trying to prevent that chaos that happens on the set. There was so much chaos on the set for my last film [“Viva”] and I wanted to make sure that everything was going to work really smoothly. The more time you spend on preproduction, the more smooth your shoot is, but then it just took me a lot longer than I thought. There was still some chaos because I didn’t finish everything, like the props that I didn’t finish or the things that hadn’t been worked out.
I remember you saying you waited years to get this cinematographer, M. David Mullen.
Because I knew I’m not going to get my film otherwise. I have enough experience in shooting to know if you don’t get the right DP, you might as well throw your film in the garbage can. Seriously, that’s the most important person on your set. I’ve interviewed so many kinds of DPs and the fact is there’s just a certain type of knowledge and skill that’s gone from the world almost at this point about classic lighting technique. Everybody says that they know it, “Oh yeah, I know how to light. I can light anything.” But when you talk to them, all you need to do is ask two or three key questions to find out that they don’t. It’s interesting how much that art has fallen off. There’s almost nobody left that knows how to do it and this is just something I learned the hard way through shooting and I’ve learned what I like in lighting and what I don’t like, so it’s very important to me to find the DP that can give me the lighting that I like because I’ve done this lighting on every film I’ve ever done.
I also really knew the importance of having a DP who could work really quickly because on “Viva,” we went over time too much. Even though our DP was very, very good, he didn’t have as much experience, and working with a much more experienced DP who learns how to move really fast, more experience leads to more speed and we had to move really quickly on this because we have these SAG actors and they’re expensive. We couldn’t really afford to go over time the way we did before.
Still, with how much time and care you put into things, I was surprised to hear you only shoot one take typically.
One or two. At first, my DP was saying let’s do a safety take, but after a while, I thought we’re burning too much film. If the take was good, we don’t do a safety take. Because film is very expensive and that’s how you burn money. And [during the take] we’re not just shooting for a wide [shot]. We’re doing this classical style where we’re doing wide and over the shoulder and a closeup – we do different coverage, so if you’re doing that and you’re shooting a bunch of takes, oh my God.
Is there actually a relief in thinking we’ve only got one shot at this?
No…that’s why you have to be really prepared. You have to get actors who know what they’re doing, who are really confident in front of the camera and who are going to ace it and then you get a great DP, who knows how to light it and you storyboard it and you walk through it, so you know it looks good. The only time you get into a disaster is if you get on set and you don’t know what you’re doing. I want to make sure I can cut it together and I won’t know that unless I do storyboards, so that’s why I also spend a few months doing storyboards. And that can change on the set – you can come up with something better – but at least you have a plan going in.
It sounds like a fairly isolated process…
It’s a very isolated process for years. [laughs] And then it’s eight weeks of shooting and you’re done. Then it’s isolated again in editing – I spend very little time with people.
Is it an exciting moment where you’re giving it over to a group of collaborators?
It’s exciting because of what the actors are bringing, and it’s magical, but you have to realize you’re shooting at least 12 hours and then going home to work three or four more to prepare for the next day. I was working seven days a week and my health wasn’t great, so “exciting”? It’s adrenaline, but you don’t have the energy to have anything like emotional excitement. At certain moments, when you see the actors doing something absolutely breathtaking or an incredible shot, you can feel the exhilaration, but the exhaustion is so great. I didn’t get enough help with my sets in preproduction, and I wasn’t able to find the right people, so by the time we got on the set, I was so incredibly exhausted from having to do the work of 10 people just getting the sets together.
Did you actually see this as a bookend to “Viva”? In that film, it was an innocent who is discovering her power during the sexual revolution and here, Elaine would seem to be in thrall to hers.
They’re similar in the sense that they’re both looking for love and the character in “Viva” thinks she’s going to find love in sexual fulfillment and it turns out she’s wrong about that. [laughs] But it’s a way to explore the excesses of the sexual revolution through her journey. Elaine is looking for love as well — true love — and she finds out in a patriarchal culture, no matter how much sex she throws at people, she can’t really get it because men don’t want sex, they want power. It’s not really about love. This is why she can’t win against the police officer. But it’s also a way of showing how in being a woman and trying to tie yourself in knots to please everyone can actually drive you insane because I feel those problems for her character are created by the things that she’s learned being female.
You’ve said Samantha brought a sweetness to the part of Elaine that wasn’t in your vision of it initially.
Her sweetness was something she did a little bit more on her own. I was trying to make it more of a horror movie and I realized she created her own arc with this that I was almost unaware of – that she brought her own stuff into it that we didn’t work on together and the naturalness, the sweetness and the sincerity in the good of Elaine, she did it more than I wanted her to, and I thought I’m going to go with that because that’s what’s working and I trust her performance more than my original idea of what I wanted. I’ve learned how to write better and to trust the actors more and give the actors more in the script and give them more to do so you get better actors.
In my original cut, I was minimizing her sweetness because I wanted her to be more scary and bringing her sweetness out more made it a more complex and interesting movie. I also cut back a lot of the other characters and enhanced Samantha, because I’d been cutting everybody, like a little bit here and there, equally, but I realized it has to be all about her, so I brought stuff I had cut of her and then I cut other people back and it worked. That’s something I should’ve known in the writing is it was her story, but you keep learning.
Is it true you didn’t know there were actual witches amongst your extras?
No, and there were a lot of them. [laughs] It’s interesting because they were artist models and there’s a big witchcraft scene in LA, but they were very helpful and very authentic because that’s who they are.
Was there a particularly crazy day on set?
Oh gosh. The most fun was the Renaissance Faire because I really felt I was transported back to the 14th century in Italy, watching all these people walking around in their beautiful silk costumes and bearing this special quality as they walked around. It was like being in a fairy tale as everybody inhabited that world, but it was really crazy because on one of those days, it just poured down rain, like it never does in Los Angeles. We had thunder and lightning and we were supposed to shoot [with] a horse that day and we couldn’t. We had a huge cast [and all the] crew, and we shot some stuff in the tents, but that’s all we could shoot, and we had to reschedule [the rest] for a few weeks down the line.
What was it like ultimately working with the horse?
There was a horrible day on set where it was a different horse and [Samantha Robinson and Jeffrey Vincent Parise] were going to be riding on the horse together for the ending sequence and the horse threw them. They flew up in the air and it was horrible. Neither of them were seriously injured —after about an hour, they were able to walk around — but it was shocking. It was just unbelievable. So we replaced the horse and we got the scene.
With so much of yourself invested in every aspect of this film, what’s it like seeing it all come together?
It’s wonderful when it comes together — it’s nerve-wracking when you’re editing. My first cut didn’t work actually. When I showed it to Samantha, and a few [other] people, it was a dud. [laughs] And I thought how could I have edited a dud with all this incredible footage. I realized I needed to come up with a strategy that isn’t exactly like the script. So we created a movie that works, but boy was that awful because every scene was beautiful in and of itself, but as a story, it wasn’t working. Every scene was played out too fully, and that’s another thing I learned making this movie — not every scene has to be a big pageant. Some scenes need to be shorter and some need to be longer, so I cut some of the scenes down to give it some of that cinematic balance. That’s something I learned about editing that’s going to go into the next script. With everything you do, you learn something.
“The Love Witch” opens in limited release on November 11th, including Los Angeles at the Nuart. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.