The Love Witch
Gorgeous witch Elaine is determined to find love after her relationship had gone sour. She packs her things in a small red convertible, leaving the city of San Francisco behind for a quiet suburban town. She mixes potions for men to fall head over heels for her but they become so obsessed she loses interest and sets her sights on her next target. The Love Witch is the latest feature from auteur director Anna Biller that mixes vintage aesthetic with wry humor and very strong female sensibilities.
The Love Witch took years to bring into fruition. Biller juggled more hats than most people have even attempted their hands at. In addition to writing the script, she also produced, wrote music, did the art direction, production design and set decoration, costume design and editing. While budget constraints were a driving factor to her filling whatever role she could, there was also the drive of creating the full vision she wanted to bring to the screen. She waited to find the right cinematographer who could bring together the lush cinematography she desired that she felt was integral to the project in David Mullen. She spent hours with Samantha Robinson, the lead who perfectly carried the film as Elaine, to unlock the psyche the character holds within her. No stones were unturned and it is reflected in a deeply personal film that will resonate with those who can connect to key moments. We discuss with Biller the research of witchcraft, filmmaking rules and patriarchal power.
Your father was an artist and your mother was a fashion designer. Can you give us a little more insight on the art and clothing that both enjoyed and pursued? Well they're both still working. My father does all kinds of art but his paintings are very colorful and I think I got my color sense from him. I grew up looking at his paintings and also going to a lot of museums and art galleries, dragged there with my parents. My sister hated going to art openings and I loved it. I was also just looking at art books but he does all kinds of work: abstract, figurative and different kinds of work. And my mother's design is very classic. She's very inspired by the fashions in the classic movies like the glamour fashions and her work used to be quite whimsical but you know she does all kinds of things. She's a fashion person, she's on the cutting edge of fashion in a way but she kind of stopped designing a few years ago. She has a store where she buys things now but she's known for her great taste and everything. And she's just like a great beauty and she's very glamorous and I've always admired her for that. At a time when a lot of people's mom's were not glamorous and they were actually feminists and fighting against that or else they were just not interested in glamour. My mom was always, she was like a movie star. I've been very influenced by that, by seeing my mother be not just glamorous but also just like a great business woman. Very strong, creative, raising a family, being able to do it all.
You spent an ample amount of time studying witchcraft to prepare for the film. The typical ideology of a witch is all black, secretive but the world of witches here is very open: her apartment is bright and inviting, there’s an apothecary in the center of town. What are the differences between the preconceived notion of witches and the one you discovered and later embraced?
My creation of Elaine as a witch was based not on my research. The visual fantasy was mainly based on kind of like personal ideas, my fantasies about what a witch is. A lot of it comes from fantasies about femme fetales in movies and my fantasies of just let's say creating a mad scientist lab around creating potions and perfumes and things. I think there's like this gothic style in movies now, in horror movies, where everything's black and dark and that's not how witches are so much as that that's how movies are. The idea is that movies are very dark and horror movies are very bloody and very gory and that's the style of movie so I'm actually drawing from a different style of movie. I'm drawing from maybe a more European style of movie or a more style of movie that was more popular in the 60s or 70s where there was a lot of color and it was a lot more sort of fun. I like to go into the fun part of being a girl and being a witch in a way. My study of witchcraft... I don't think witchcraft has a particular style attached to it in terms of people's individual practice. I went to a few rituals and I studied. People just go, witchcraft is this madeup thing in a way for people. They kind of do whatever floats their boat, you know? Either they do nudity or they do costumes but I found that there's a lot of roleplaying and fantasy in witches. They like to dress up in costumes, they like to wear robes and headdresses and jewelry and have fun with it. I don't think it's a whole black goth thing among actual witches.
I lived in New Orleans and had neighbors who were witches.
And they're just kind of bohemians, right? There's a lot of pagans that are just kind, they just do whatever and they like to dress up in ceremonial costumes for events.
I think one thing that helps with it is there isn't somebody who's like, "This is what you do," like in a church where they tell you how to be a Christian. Instead, it seems like here's some resources, create your own version of how you want it to be.
That's what was the most interesting to learn although all the research. There's very little there actually. It's weird. It's like you would think that there is this whole lore going back thousands of years. In a way there is. There's some books, like the Maragret Maurray, that talks about how it's the old religion, the pre-Christian religion being revived but then a lot of the modern witches, they don't believe in that either. They believe that, I mean it's really a movement that started in the 1950s in a way so there isn't that whole lore but they take so much from Catholic imagery and Catholic symbolism like the chalice and the paten in the Catholic rituals. They have the chalice and the pentacle(?) in witchcraft. They're all the same symbols that have come from Christian and Catholic rituals which is interesting.
You spent many years in pre-production. What aspects did you tackle first? Did you get the set design out of the way then costuming or were you juggling it all at once?
Well first I wrote the script and then as soon as I felt like I had a good draft of the script I started drawing and so I made these lists of props and costumes that I was going to need and then I just started tackling that and that's what really took a long time and I also started looking for locations. So I would sketch from the locations and then I would sketch sets that we would be building and it was this puzzle because we had such a low budget that it was very difficult to figure out actually how to make the film within the budget at all and so I had to keep scouting over and over and over again to try to find places we could combine several sets into one or whether I could build less because building was more expensive and it was just like this whole puzzle to figure. And then what elements do I need, do I not need as many elements that need to be pre-built and how many things can I buy from thrift stores and how many things do I have to make, how much fabric do I have to buy and so it just became this on-going process of how does it get made at all.
Speaking of budget constraints, you also shot on 35mm film. I was wondering how you were able to do that because most people don't shoot on film anymore claiming exorbitant costs.
Well the thing is that it's not really as expensive to shoot on 35 as people think and that has to do with a lot of. It depends on where you want to spend your money so if you want to get this really gorgeous movie which is what I wanted, it was really important to get this gorgeous movie, when people want a really professional, really gorgeous looking movie they're gonna spend they're you have to spend your money someplace to get that look so if you're shooting on video you have to spend many, many more hours and a lot more money in post to get that beautiful look from video because video doesn't naturally have that beautiful look unless you put it through a lot of post processes and those post processes are extremely expensive on the professional level so you're either spending your money there or you're spending it on film and processing. Now if you don't shoot a lot of film... See the thing is when you shoot film it's so gorgeous already you almost don't have to do any color post on it. And then the other thing is the cameras are cheaper – a lot cheaper. Because nobody's shooting with film cameras so you're paying for the lenses and you're paying for the rest of the package. You're not paying really anything for the camera so camera package is cheaper. You also spend less time on the set moving your equipment around because there's not, you have a camera. You're completely mobile. It's not plugged into anything. You don't have a video village to move around. You're also not wasting time on the set watching playback so the idea is like the man hours on the set and these locations that cost so much money, you're eating so much time up on the set by moving your village around and by watching and discussing played back footage and by shooting many more takes than you need because on film you only shoot one or two takes because you're aware of the money so what it does is make everybody so much more prepared before they get on the set and people take it so much more seriously when you're actually doing a take because they don't want to ruin it. And so you just get people that are more trained, more professional, more focused and that saves you a lot of money in the end so the idea is that it could be cheaper to shoot on film if you add all that up. It depends on what kind of post you're doing. If you're going to just shoot on video and you're not gonna do an expensive color timing post then it's cheaper to shoot on video. But it depends again, what you want your film to look like. Because any movie that's a visual movie coming out of Hollywood, like Lord of the Rings or something, they have to spend millions and millions of dollars in post to get that look that they want. But when you're shooting film, you don't have to do anything. You just shoot the film and you got it.
Like how you like to stick to film, what are some of your other self-imposed filmmaking rules? I know you said that you never use profanity.
They're not like rules. Some of them are not conscious, a lot of them are not conscious. They're just kind of choices that I make that are more personal, emotional choices so I sometimes do put profanity in a script and then I'm reading it and it just doesn't feel right. I take it out. Certain things, it's more about how I feel about everything. I feel right about certain things and not about other things so when I shoot video I just don't feel the magic. I don't shoot on video unless I'm trying to do something really, really on the cheap so if it's something I really care about I try to shoot on film. I guess there's things. I do like a certain type of acting that's more presentational, that's more formal. I like it when actors speak up. I like it when people aren't whispering. I like the mic to be able to pick up a nice, rich vocal sound. I like actors who have good speaking voices. They're just things that are my tastes. I like people with great bone structure. Even the character actors have to have great bone structure so their faces capture the light in a certain way so these are just things I like. I like to use color for separation. I don't like people's faces being in the dark unless it's for a special effect or special reason, like they have to be silhouetted because they're for some reason having to do it for the script. I don't like it when people are backlit for no reason, like they're having a dialogue and then you just can't see their faces just because... just because the sun happens to be behind them. It irritates me a lot. Just because they're standing in front of a window, not for any plot reason.
It's too much of reality instead of filmmaking.
Yeah. I think you want to see what you want to see depending on what the script is telling you you want to see so I think lighting has to be, it's like part of the script. The lighting is telling the story. I feel like so much of the lighting now is not telling a story. It's not strengthening, it's not reinforcing the story that's being told. It's just like people are in the light that they're in and the light might be enhanced a little bit with a soft box or something or some kind of light panel or reflector but other than that there isn't a decision that's made about how is this going to be lit to give it a certain effect and so a lot of the time that I spend in pre-production is finding the right DP and working with that DP ahead of time and coming to an understanding because if the film is lit wrong then I throw it in the trash. And that's happened! I literally have had 35mm shoots where I've thrown the entire day in the trash because of the DP. So you're asking me my pet peeves: One of my biggest pet peeves is if the lighting isn't right so I've noticed and you know that's just through experience, through trial and error, noticing that if the lighting isn't what I want it to be then I can't stand it. I can't stand to look at it and I won't look at it. I'll look at it once and I'll just reshoot it.
How did you meet your DP?
Well actually, we went to the same school and he was shooting everybody's films in school but I met him later. And so we did work together about fifteen years ago on a short film and I remember that he was an expert on classic movie lighting and at the time I didn't realize how unusual it was that there was somebody who was an expert on that because I interviewed dozens of DPs for this movie and I actually really couldn't find anybody who knew anything about it besides him so actually the way I found him again was that I went on cinematography.com and I was asking some questions about how to do rear projection and he then he kind of popped and he was answering some of my questions and I hired this other DP that I was going to work with and I was trying to have a discussion with him about rear projection and he wasn't taking it seriously so I thought I would ask this question and I would bring it back to this other DP and then I realized it's not worth it to work with that other DP because he doesn't know anything and so I decided not to work with him. So he was answering all of my questions, he knew everything, and then I was like David, I wrote him, I was like David, can you work on this? No, I'm not sure, I don't really schedule it. I'm doing tv now, etc. you know and I just kept interviewing more people and it kept not working out and then finally he became available and I was like yes, we can shoot it.
Samantha’s amazing portrayal was so essential to being the tie that binds together all of the pieces of magic you created to craft the film. Can you give us insight into how you worked with her to prepare for portraying the role? How did the character evolve from the original iteration?
I wrote the part in order to have it be sort of open to the personality of whatever actress we cast. It was so loosely written that I knew that whatever actress I cast would completely make it a different film depending on the personality of the actress and so that was always already built into the script is that kind of openness to what there could be any type of person could play it but when I found her I thought this is gold, I've struck gold, this is eureka. Because her personality was I realized that she was going to bring things to it that I never conceived that I could get for this character and so she enriched it million fold just with who she was but she didn't understand right at first her power that she had in herself and all the amazing things I was seeing in her just in her and so I had to bring that out of her. The way I did it was just by watching a lot of movies and talking with her and then pretty much just giving her permission in a way to be herself in the way that I saw her, this way that she was so powerful and so beautiful and so in command of herself and she naturally has that but she wasn't, I think a lot of people are afraid to show their power and it was more like just giving her permission over time, slowly letting her feel more and more comfortable with showing that side of herself that was so powerful because when people are that beautiful often they learn to be extremely self deprecating in order to deflect envy and so I had to teach her to get rid of that and to know her power. And it was really an amazing process working with her.
Did you have any rigorous rehearsals ahead of time or did you talk ideologically and then on set sort of put things into practice?
We had rehearsals because it was very difficult at first for her to be able to embody the sense of the classic film sirens that I was showing her. The kind of acting, it's a little bit.. it's different than contemporary acting. She had to do that but she also had to make it very authentic to herself and so it was kind of a process for her to learn how to combine herself with this kind of more presentational kind of acting that was a little bit more I guess a little less expressive than who she is because the control was really important. She went over the lines a lot with me just in order to run different things by me like is this better, is this better. I'd have her look in the mirror and we would just decide what was better.
One of the first line in the film is, “According to the experts, men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way.” What is it about how we approach masculinity as a society that teaches this ideology?
It's in the way that patriarchy is sort of taught to men and women and so it's culturally coded but it's also enacted by individual men in our lives in this very intense way and I think that men try to hold on to their patriarchal power in their individual relationships and this is how it's reinforced. So they I think that a lot of women like there's one thing there's like feminism and we're all equal and everything's fine and then you get into a relationship with an actual man and this is where you learn that men are easily crushed down. It's not that they are so easily crushed, it's that that's a manipulative strategy to pretend that they're so easily crushed if you say the slightest thing because you're walking on eggshells all the time because these are people that are trying to constantly keep reasserting their power and they usually get their way because women are people pleasers and they want to maintain the peace and the harmony so if you want to have a relationship with a man you're going to have to jump through a lot of hoops. I think that the kind of thing I'm saying with this movie that I think is sort of the hidden message behind the film is, and that I think a lot of people don't consciously understand but they do unconsciously feel it, is that here's this woman and she's become everything a man wants her to be. She's done every single thing that men say. They say, we're disappointed with women because they won't do this that and the other for us and so she becomes a man's sexual fantasy, visual fantasy, she cooks for them, she does everything in her power to be a man's perfect fantasy but it still doesn't work. The reason it doesn't work is that they're not going to concede their power because it's not about sex. It's about power.
Last question: If men want sex and power, what do women want? You could say love but what is love?
I think women actually seriously I think they seriously want equality and to be taken seriously. And I think that when you're in a kind of - I mean, I know this sounds really strong but when you're in kind of a slave class the first thing that you want is freedom. Once you've had freedom, then you can want other things. But first you have to have freedom. Freedom is number one, that you have to be taken seriously as a person, you have to be given equal opportunities, you have to not feel that your entire life is a struggle just to maintain a certain level of respect and dignity and seriously. And you know, if you can crawl out from behind that then you can want other things. Then you can want power or then you can want love or then you can want other things. I mean, Elaine's quest for love is really just her feminine way of expressing her need for equality so the idea is that she, this is her way of getting it is by playing the feminine card because she feels that it's non-threatening to men rather than saying I want equality or I want respect. She says she wants love because this is the way to get it from men and this is what the witches say earlier in the burlesque scene. They say, if you want a man to love you, you have to use subterfuge. If you want to get him to do anything, you have to work through sex and this is what she's learned but I don't think, I mean, it's not a great lesson for women to learn and all women have to learn it. It's not a positive lesson. So women can do their sexy thing and they can get a lot of personal power from it but it doesn't mean that they're getting social power from it.
How do we get social power?
How do we get social power? Well, we're chipping away at it. We have more than we used to. We slowly get it. We have to work at it.