“The style that a lot of people attribute to B-movies and melodramas is just classical, theatrical acting… and all of my actors were classically trained. So they have strong voices, they speak clearly and enunciate. I have a musical ear, so I like to listen to actors with beautiful voices” Anna Biller
After watching writer/director Anna Biller’s 2016 film THE LOVE WITCH I immediately watched it again. When I do this (which isn’t often – the only other recent film I can think of is John Wick) it’s because the world created in the film is so complete and complementary I can lose myself in it. Her 2007 movie VIVA is similar, with a story, sound, look and style that hang together perfectly.
Both THE LOVE WITCH (a funny but moving horror romance with a 1960s aesthetic about a heartbroken young woman who uses witchcraft to devastating affect in her attempts to find love), and VIVA (a witty and joyously bouncy sex comedy about two married women bored with suburban life in early 1970s LA who delve into the not-as-expected world of free love as portrayed in Playboy Magazine) were filmed in 35mm. Anna creates all the sets and costumes in her films herself, making many of the intricate props.
She recently kindly agreed to answer some questions for me about her film-making:
Caution Spoilers: The melodramatic style of speaking in VIVA and THE LOVE WITCH soon sounds completely ordinary even though to start with it’s jarring. Is it hard to initially get actors to change their usual acting style so dramatically (pardon the pun)?
Anna Biller: I didn’t get the actors to change their acting style. They came in to auditions with those performances. The style that a lot of people attribute to b-movies and melodramas is just classical, theatrical acting (as opposed to contemporary mumble-y movie acting), and all of my actors were classically trained. So they have strong voices, they speak clearly and enunciate, that sort of thing.
I have a musical ear, so I like to listen to actors with beautiful voices, and I cast actors who know how to speak properly and whose voices I like. I didn’t expect it to seem so comic to people. People after all don’t burst into laughter when they watch an Ibsen play.
Caution Spoilers: Following on from that I am always impressed with traditional horror films that track the usual horror tropes but where the director manages to stay just the right side of knowingness. So acknowledging the history of the genre but that the viewer has a brain and can join the dots. It seems to be the same in VIVA and THE LOVE WITCH – played straight, and staying the right side of camp and 4th-wall breaking. Is that hard to maintain? Do you ever have to keep your actors on a tight leash?
Anna Biller: My scripts are just regular scripts, so the actors play them straight the way they would play any other script. The “knowingness” is added later by the audience. I was not consciously referencing specific genres in THE LOVE WITCH; I was going more with my general fantasies about cinema, movies I’ve seen, and cinematic conventions I’ve picked up.
Audiences find conventions funny, but I use them because they’re effective at creating drama.
Caution Spoilers: You do so much yourself, people must know that the film you are saying you will make is pretty much what will end up on the screen. If you were given an unlimited budget for your next movie would you still insist on that level of control?
Anna Biller: There’s no such thing as an unlimited budget! But if there was THAT much money, I’m sure I could get designers that were so excellent that I would be able to trust them to execute my vision properly.
Caution Spoilers: I like how both feature films are very funny but with a proper feminist message and that you still put in the attempted rape in THE LOVE WITCH and the rape scene in VIVA. In VIVA she’s been led to expect respect from men in the world of free love but gets at best whiny petulance and at worst druggers and rapists. I read your essay about when you worked in Hawaii, and I wondered how you manage to still capture such enthusiasm for life and love on screen – as Viva/Barbi/Elaine still manage to maintain too.
Anna Biller: It’s in my nature to be happy and positive, although I can also get depressive at times. I’m what you might call an “innocent.” I made a promise I made to myself when I was around fifteen to not let life ruin me or make me jaded or bitter, and I’ve kept that promise. I’m still very open and trusting, no matter what life throws at me.
Caution Spoilers: Do you think modern life has enough of an identifiable look for future filmmakers who want to write about universal themes but set them in our era? I watched the sci fi cult film Silent Running a few weeks ago which was made in 1972 and its look is as identifiably of its time as it could be – even though the story (ecological disaster), like yours, is in many ways just as current.
Anna Biller: I think that today is about remixing other periods. That’s what it looks like. So today can look like anything. That’s its look.
Caution Spoilers: And following on from that, would you ever make a feature film set in the 1980s? To me that seems like the last decade that had a completely identifiable aesthetic that can help tell a story (and no mobile/cell phones unless they were the size of a house brick).
Anna Biller: I’m not that interested in the 1980s. I thought the fashions were really ugly, and the hair was even worse.
Caution Spoilers: I thought VIVA had a very British, cheeky-sexy feel despite being set in LA with 500% better teeth and weather. Jared Sanford told me over Twitter that he felt it had the feel of the “Carry on…” / “Confessions of…” saucy British comedies, was that something you wanted to achieve too or for you was it totally based on US films of the era?
Anna Biller: VIVA wasn’t based on films — it was based on Playboy magazine. I did watch some saucy British comedies and a lot of other things while I was researching VIVA, but in the end the story came mostly from a mix of life experience and from actual ads and cartoons in Playboy.
I did borrow from Radley Metzger’s films, and from the movie SUBURBAN ROULETTE, which is not a very good movie, but is about suburban despair in the same way as VIVA.
Caution Spoilers: What has the reaction been like to VIVA from men and women who were living (or dabbling in) that lifestyle in the 1970s?
Anna Biller: Mostly people say that it’s accurate, that it brings them back.
Caution Spoilers: I’m working my way through your short films and have just watched Three Examples of Myself As Queen. Three films which along with a witchy spell and fabulous 60s outfits, also include a very youthful looking Jared Sanford (VIVA, THE LOVE WITCH). How did the two of you start collaborating?
Anna Biller: We met in New York through mutual friends years ago, and we found that we were both insufferable theatre types, so we started collaborating. I made my first Super 8mm shorts with him. I thought he was a great actor with a great face and voice, and I wanted to use his acting and singing talents in my work.
Caution Spoilers: Do you write with actors in mind? If not do actors you bring in immediately “get” what you’re trying to do?
Anna Biller: I wrote A VISIT FORM THE INCUBUS with Jared Sanford in mind, and also Jared’s role as Mark in VIVA. Usually though I write first, and cast afterwards. As my scripts have gotten better, and as I’m using better-trained actors, I haven’t had to explain much or anything to my actors.
In my short films I was always trying to get actors to not mug to the camera, to not smirk, to not joke around, to take what they were doing more seriously. But with professional actors you don’t have to tell them that.
Caution Spoilers: Witchcraft as a religion is pretty new and is very woman-centered from what I’ve read. I watched THE LOVE WITCH shortly after watching the New England puritan horror film The Witch – which I loved, but was still to an extent another take on the “evil old crone in a hovel” theme. Did the bias in witch stories make you want to write THE LOVE WITCH or do you see your take on modern witchcraft as a completely different genre?
Anna Biller: I’m going with a different witch myth – the myth of the siren, who eats men alive with her sexuality and demands for love. It’s not new. It was the basis of some Greek myths (Circe, Medea), and of most noir films. I take a lot of inspiration from noir films.
Caution Spoilers: Do you know any witches or did you speak to any during your research for THE LOVE WITCH? (I liked the suggestion in the film that every town has some, I’m now looking for ours. I may have to become one).
Anna Biller: Yes, I know some witches. I went to some rituals while researching the film, and there were some witches in the cast. My dad used to hang out with a bunch of LA witches when he was younger, and some of my friends are witches. There are a lot of witches in Los Angeles.
Caution Spoilers: What is your next feature film likely to be about, and we don’t have to wait 10 years do we?
Anna Biller: No! This film will be quicker. It’s a Bluebeard story, about a scary, controlling husband.
Caution Spoilers: And finally… do people confuse you and your life with your films? Or can you be found in a mini dress and white knee high PVC boots eating Swedish meatballs on a swirly-patterned couch? (I actually feel that’s what I should be doing right now.)
Anna Biller: Actually I can be found that way! But I’m not as fabulous and put-together as my female leads. If I wasn’t making films I would be, but as it is I just don’t have the time.
(Thank you so much Anna for answering my questions. You can follow Anna Biller on Twitter as @missannabiller. For more on her movies and her background in arts and film-making, visit her website lifeofastar.com. Also check out my ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review of The Love Witch and my ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review of Viva.)