INTERVIEW: Anna Biller
– By David Chaudoir
Anna Biller is a singular film-maker – an auteur who writes, directs, composes and even makes the costumes for her own films. Oh, and she has also starred in them as well. Biller’s latest film, The Love Witch, is the story of a modern day sorceress who uses magic potions to seduce men. The film is an ode to vibrant Technicolor films of the 1950’s, containing Sirkian melodrama, exploitation style eroticism with a twist of feminist ideology thrown into the heady brew.
David Chaudoir interviewed Biller after screening her film at Sitges genre festival in Spain.
When did you start filmmaking?
In college, in art school, I starting making experimental art videos.
And what inspired you to do so?
We had access to cameras as part of a performance art class, so I thought I’d play around with making a video. But it wasn’t until after graduation that I started to take it more seriously, when I bought a used Super 8mm camera at a garage sale, and started making short films.
Is there any one film that confirmed that this is the path you wanted to take?
No I think it was a lifetime of being a cinephile. But it was still a while before I started connecting my cinephilia with the kinds of films I wanted to make.
You have made a number of short films, how did you use these to get into feature filmmaking?
They were great practice in finding my voice. They were sketches that inspired me to make longer, more elaborate films on larger media. They made me realize my interest in costumes and sets.
What were the important lessons you learnt from short film making?
I learned that: I like hard lighting, molding is really important in creating solid walls, blank walls are deadly, color is crucial in creating space in color film, storyboards are essential, you need to pick your DP very carefully, trained actors are better to work with than non-actors, the more time you put into prep the better your footage is going to be, make sure you finish all of your costumes BEFORE you get on set so you’re not sewing hems while the crew is waiting, rentals are fabulous, the film is created in the script and storyboard stages, and all film is voyeurism and peek-a-boo.
How have you financed your feature films?
You shoot on film stock as opposed to digitally – does this make your films more expensive to produce than shooting digitally?
You can shoot a very expensive movie digitally and a relatively cheap movie on film. It depends on how you use the media: your shooting ratio, your camera package, how elaborate your post is.
How easy is it to work on film when the rest of the world is switching over to digital?
It’s easy when your crew knows what it’s doing! It’s not easy to color-time on film, since the support is no longer there.
Do you work through the whole process on film – editing on a Steenbeck – or do you edit digitally? Could you explain your workflow?
I used to edit on a flatbed (I have a 16mm moviola and a 35m KEM), but now I edit digitally. I get the film telecined at the lab to HD ProRes fles and edit on Avid software.
What are your favourite films that you are conscious that they have influenced your work?
I have been most influenced by American films from the ‘30s through the ‘50s, especially pre-code films and musicals.
What would be your desert island film collection? (i.e. if you were washed up on a desert island with a screen, power supply and box of your DVD collection! This a reference to a well known British BBC radio show called Desert Island Disks.)
The Busby Berkeley films, the Astaire and Rogers films, a collection of screwball comedies and pre-code movies from the ‘30s, a collection of the best noir films, the Michael Powell collection, the Fassbinder collection, the Hitchcock collection, the Renoir collection, the Pasolini collection, the Kurosawa collection, French cinema from the ‘30s, to name a few.
Your films have the appearance of coming from another era. Why have you chosen to work in this way?
I shoot what looks good to my eye. I realized early on that I like hard lighting and will throw footage away when the DP uses soft lighting, strong window lighting, or back lighting unless it’s for a deliberate silhouette effect. I also like to use color for separation, the way they used to do in Technicolor movies. These choices make my films look vintage.
Does this limit their exhibition or festival opportunities?
For festivals, quite possibly. For television, definitely.
Your films are not parodies of the eras you chose to work in, how would you best describe what they are?
I am using older techniques to create original films made from a very personal place.
You have described being frustrated that people think your films are a joke – would you ever chose to make a story set in another era of history, that you could include your love of kitsch from that era but not include the artifice of film makers from that era? Or would that be beside the point?
All film techniques are artificial. I don’t have a love of kitsch; it’s viewers that see older films styles as kitsch.
Have horror film festivals been more accepting of your film (The Love Witch), than festivals that take other genres?
Are you a nostalgic person?
I don’t usually like to look at my own past nostalgically. But classic cinema is always fresh for me, and always in the present.
Do you collect vintage items? If so what is in your collection?
I used to collect vintage clothing, but at some point I glutted on that so I don’t as much anymore. I have a huge collection of vintage props and costumes though that were purchased just for my films.
I re-watched Play Misty For Me recently and particularly enjoyed the sequences shot at the Monterey Jazz Festival which are a snapshot of an America as a bygone age. Are there any films that you enjoy watching for that purpose?
I think pretty much any film made in the past carries that sort of charm for me.
Would you ever make a film set in the present day?
The Love Witch is set in the present day.
You made all the costumes for the lead character in The Love Witch… why?
I didn’t make all of the costumes. Some were purchased. I designed a wardrobe on paper, and what I couldn’t buy I set out to make.
How do you research the wardrobe and art direction for your films?
Mostly I just sit down and sketch. Sometimes I go shopping and see something that’s perfect. For the renaissance costumes, I looked at period costume books for inspiration.
Your films have an overtly sexual erotic quality/subject matter – do your films comment on the portrayal of women’s sexuality today in film?
There seems to be a dichotomy of attitudes toward sex and sexuality in American culture; on the one hand puritanical and on the other it is the biggest producer of pornography? Is there still a place for eroticism in this climate?
What I’ll say briefly is that it’s the puritanical attitude that produces the pornographic attitude. But not everything comes from that mainstream misogynistic space.
Do you read for inspiration? Who are your favourite authors?
I rarely have time to read anymore. When I read it’s mostly for research. The last time I read for pleasure I went through a lot of George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Henry James. Lately I’ve been reading true crime stories and crime fiction for inspiration for my new script.
Do you write alone? Do you have a sounding board – trusted allies who read you work?
The person I sound off on is my boyfriend, who is a professional writer and used to be a screenwriter.
How long did it take to write The Love Witch and how many drafts did you write?
It took about two years, and after that I was still tweaking endlessly, all the way up to production. I wrote like a million drafts.
How did you learn to write, and what books did you find useful?
I learned to write by writing, and by studying movies. The only book I’ve ever used to help me write is Northrop Frye’s Anatomy Of Criticism.
When and where did you go to film school? Were you able to get work in the industry afterward? What jobs have you done since, especially those that have helped in your career?
I went to film school at CalArts. I have never had, or sought, a job in the industry. I saw my friends all being sucked into industry jobs and not creating their own movies, and I didn’t want to go down that path. None of those people are still making films. None of the work I’ve done has been related to filmmaking, except for a job I had in New York where I was a stylist’s assistant on photo shoots. That’s where I learned to construct sets. I’ve also worked in book editing, teaching art, clothing retail, food service, and office jobs.
In Viva and your shorts you were in front and behind the camera, but in The Love Witch, solely behind. Did this make it easier to direct?
Absolutely. I didn’t have the constant anxiety of my makeup running under the hot lights, and having to leave the set to sit in the makeup chair. I also found it was important to be able to look in the monitor at the shot as it was being filmed.
How healthy do you think the independent cinema scene is the USA? From funding to exhibition?
Not very healthy. I wish we had government-sponsored film, as they do in other countries. There is such pressure to make a film that sells that it dictates what the work is about.
What are your favourite British films and filmmakers?
Michael Powell is my favourite British director. I watch many black and white British thrillers from the ‘40s and ‘50s. I love Hitchcock’s British films, early David Lean films, Olivier’s Shakespeare films, and anything starring Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas, Alec Guiness, or Alastair Sim.
Francois Truffaut was once asked by a young man, “What do I have to do to become a director?” and Truffaut replied “Come back in twenty years”- i.e., once he experienced more of life. What one nugget of advice have you heard, been given or learnt from personal experience that you have for those wanting to direct?
Just start directing. Do it as much as you can. Don’t be too precious about your first efforts. Your style will emerge the more you shoot. Try to do your own editing. It will teach you a lot about filmmaking.
What is your next project?
A thriller! Something like those British noirs I am so fond of.
Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories & Icon Film Distribution