Interview: 'The Love Witch' director Anna Biller

Written by
Michael Smith

When I reviewed Anna Biller's The Love Witch when it first opened at the Gene Siskel Film Center last year, I called it the year's "most singular independent feature." Many of the film's initial screenings were sold out, so the Siskel has thankfully brought it back for another weeklong run beginning today. The timing is perfect: Biller was recently named the winner of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle's first annual Trailblazer award for "pushing the boundaries of the medium in terms of form and content." I recently spoke to Biller about her unique movie, her influences and her penchant for shooting on film.

Chicago has a passionate cinephile community and many of the first-run 35mm screenings of The Love Witch were sold out. What is it about 35mm that appeals to you and would you be interested in shooting digitally in the future?

The first movie I ever made was on video, but I wasn’t crazy about the images I was capturing. Shortly after that I purchased a Super 8mm sound camera at a garage sale. Once I started using film, it seemed there was a magic in everything I captured. It was like a fairy tale in which I had a magical camera that made everything it filmed beautiful or interesting. And it is magic—the magic of light hitting film stock. Nothing else looks like it. Part of what I love about film is how it looks when you hit it with a lot of light. Films loves whites. Art directors always stay away from white, since they know white looks horrible on video. But I use white satin even — I flaunt my use of white. Black and white films were so gorgeous with their range of whites and blacks. With film you can even shoot into the sun. Video loves darks, but you can’t get blacks on video either. Video is a world where the colors you see are towards the middle of the spectrum, and everything gets greyed down, or else looks too bright and acid with a lot of light. I love color, and not color mixed down with a lot of grey or acid-fake, so I’ll use film as long as it’s available. 

I've spoken with people who saw the trailer for The Love Witch and assumed it was an Austin Powers-style parody. I had to convince them that, while there are some satirical elements, the character psychology is such that it works on the level of realistic drama—and even tragedy. Why did you want to blend comedy and drama in this way and is it frustrating to find yourself encountering misconceptions about the tone of the film? 

It never ever occurred to me that people would see the film as a parody, not at any time while I was writing or filming it. Satire is another thing; satire is a literary device. I do satirize gender relations in the film, and the comedy comes from those situations. But parody relies on a pact with the audience, in which you share a winking knowledge that what you are looking at is in some way hilarious, old-fashioned, silly, debased. It’s an attitude, above all else. People don’t see that attitude in the film, so they call it a “deadpan” parody. It never occurs to them that the winking tone is missing because what they’re watching isn’t parody. I set out to make a drama, a tragedy, and I did in-depth research into narcissistic personality disorder, witchcraft practices, and gender relations. Above all, I took the story from my own life. The style is just how I like to shoot films. It’s not a reference to anything else, and certainly not a parody of anything else. It’s just a series of techniques that no one uses anymore. But they’re perfectly good techniques, and they’re the best techniques with which to tell my story. Audiences who watch a lot of classic movies don’t have those misconceptions. 

Most reviews discuss The Love Witch as an homage to exploitation movies but your influences seem incredibly diverse. I was happy to see you mention Carl Dreyer's Gertrud, for instance, in an interview; I instantly felt a connection between what you were doing and his overall sense of formal rigor and the notion of a female protagonist obsessed with romantic love. Could you elaborate on how specifically Dreyer has influenced you?

The movie is not an homage to exploitation films. It’s the story of a woman’s struggles told from the inside. My influences are mostly classic Hollywood cinema, and classic foreign cinema. I mentioned Gertrud because it’s a film about a woman looking for true love, and not being able to find it because of the spiritual limitations of the men who love her. It’s exactly the same story as The Love Witch in that regard. I am very moved by Dreyer’s mature polemical stories about love and faith and female martyrdom, and his films are also formally breathtaking. Dreyer’s films were already considered old-fashioned by the time he made Gertrud in the ‘60s, but I find his stark, mythic form of storytelling timeless and urgent. I love his stillness, his pageant-like proscenium framing, the way he has characters speak to one another without facing each other. I tried that in a long scene in The Love Witch, a scene in bed, which I thought worked quite well. I was also floored by the scene in Gertrud where a man reads a long tribute to the poet at a banquet, explaining the excellence of his love poetry. It’s the type of scene that is anathema for most viewers, but I am very excited by movies in which you have to sit through thematic speeches in real time. That scene inspired a similar scene in The Love Witch where the witches are lecturing a couple of young girls in the burlesque club. 

The first Victorian tea room scene is particularly complex and provocative because the characters explicitly debate gender roles: Elaine talks about wanting to find her "Prince Charming" and Trish accuses her of being "brainwashed by the patriarchy." I think a scene like this is tricky because viewers want to feel like they should be "siding" with one character over the other. When you construct a difficult scene like this are you wanting viewers to empathize with both characters simultaneously?  

I think that in this scene, most of the audience is going to relate more to Trish. I knew a lot of the audience would be horrified at what Elaine was saying, and I wanted to give them an emotional anchor in Trish. But the point was to set up a polemic. Elaine and Trish are both strongly of the opinion that their worldview is right. But then we come back to the tea room later in the story, and Trish’s worldview, which had seemed like the sane one at the beginning, is not working for her, but Elaine’s is working for her. So I wanted people to think about that. I wanted them to think about how men reward women for conforming to their rules, and punish other women for not conforming.

One more question: What's your favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie?

I think it’s probably Vertigo. Either that, or The Birds.

For ticket info and showtimes for The Love Witch, visit the Siskel Center's website.

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