Anna Biller’s new film The Love Witch, is garnering some passionate responses for its innovative visuals, which are a stunning homage to 1970s Technicolor thrillers. Biller’s daring embrace of that period’s famously uneven acting styles (naturalistic one moment, histrionic the next) gives this film bold authenticity. It feels like a trip back in time, but its very contemporary satirical take on feminism is a breath of fresh air. Biller’s previous film work has dabbled in this period’s aesthetics, and her competent work as director and writer of The Love Witch is matched by her skills and vision as a designer of costumes, sets and properties. Peg Aloi, as a practicing witch and and media scholar who studies portrayals of the occult, was pleased to have the opportunity to talk with Biller about her exciting debut feature for Diabolique. This story of a young, glamorous witch looking for love and willing to employ magic and spells to get it, is both a hilarious and dark take on sexual politics.
Diabolique: What was the initial impulse or idea that led you to make this film?
Anna Biller: This film really comes from my interest in creating a cinema for women, but to also make films that are noteworthy additions to the horror genre. I want to have female protagonists, feminine consciousness and a female point of view. I also wanted to create a femme fatale character who embodies the stereotypes, contradictions, and problems of female consciousness and male projection. The witch is a really interesting figure for me. She embodies a real woman’s power and dignity, but also represents all these crazy male projections throughout history: she’s evil, her sexuality is evil, she’s just a male fantasy of what is evil in women. She has become a scapegoat and a poison container of what men want to disavow, their own feelings of fear, fear of female power and goddess power.
I wanted this witch to be two things. I wanted her to be like a mood ring or litmus test, depending on who watches the film: is she symptomatic of someone who lives within the patriarchy, or is she a purely evil being who wreaks havoc? But the witches themselves are neither good nor bad, the problem is, the film is not a manifesto. You can either have realistic characters, or create a manifesto, you can do one or the other, and a manifesto is propaganda. If I wanted to make a pamphlet, I’d do that. The reasons witches or feminists have this problem is that we’re not as evolved as we want to be yet, and because there are so few witch movies, we want them to be more like manifestoes. But I am a serious writer, and I want to create characters using psychology, so that makes it hard for me to do this. There is so much misunderstanding.
Diabolique: Do you think this film will help to alleviate misunderstanding about who witches are, and what they do?
Biller: I considered the pagan community very heavily in writing the script. I actually allowed the drama to fall flat on purpose; the dramatic thing to have done would have been to tie in the witch coven in a sinister way, but I didn’t do that on purpose, because of the way I wanted to portray Elaine (Samantha Robinson). It should be obvious that she should not be messing with love spells in the first place, but the spells themselves are actually pretty benign. My boyfriend asked me, why are you making the witches so blah? I am trying to portray them as real people, so I decided not to go that route. But one complaint might be that the larger ritual scenes don’t tie in to more of the action.
Diabolique: Let me ask you about the film’s exploration of feminism. So: Elaine’s an exotic dancer, extremely feminine, and we have obvious visual homages to various iconic feminist films, like The Stepford Wives (1975), and The Accused (1988). There are so many moments where it seems like we’re seeing a really iconoclastic expression of feminism in this film, and yet in the end Elaine is ultimately a psychopath.
Biller: I don’t think that the fact that she is a psychopath takes away from the film’s feminist message. I am not blaming her sociopathy on herself, I am blaming it on the abuse she has received from men and how she’s been pressured into being a male fantasy. It has caused her to be crazy and manipulative and unkind to others. She is a weak person in a weak position, and this is a tragedy: she’s too weak to handle the abuse and the misfortune of being so beautiful that she is never taken seriously as a person.
This actually happened to a friend of mine: she was so beautiful she could only see herself as a projection of male fantasy, and this happens to sex workers a lot. They can lose themselves in drugs and self denial. The attention can be empowering at first, but then it can turn; it’s no longer a game, it’s not fun anymore, because you’re a sex object and a fantasy, not a person. I have seen this so many times, having been around sex workers who are not able to get out of a hurtful cycle. I had a job that was kind of like sex work, which I did not see as that at the time, but the clients I saw did show me their condescension and hatred of women, it was so powerful, and they got off on talking to women like that, treating women like they were less than human. I loved that job, but I was only 19 and I have never gotten over it; it really informed my views about sex work.
Diabolique: I’ve worked in the sex industry myself (as an exotic dancer), many years ago, and so much of what you’re saying really does ring true. I’d like to ask you about another aspect of the film’s portrayal of the feminine: the amazing tea room scene at the beginning, and all the cakes!
Biller: Well, as for the cakes! (laughter) I used to be a baker, and I absolutely love baking. I had to stop eating sugar, but I still find baking to be very magical. There are all these things that women do, and there is a kind of magic in women’s work. I wanted to make the making of the film like women’s work, too, like all that time I spent making that pentagram rug. (Biller made a number of the film’s elaborate costumes and props herself).
The tea room is a foreshadowing of the Renaissance faire scene; it’s all Elaine’s fantasy world, all dolled up, in a tea room. She gets changed to have tea and I think it shows she is a bit mad. Trish takes her there and she falls right into the environment, all the fairy princesses, like a little girl’s play time. Our fantasies may change, but there are female-created fantasies that are not what men dictate. This is what women have to do, create our own fantasies; men are not involved in that in any way.
This is a women’s-only environment. A friend took me to one of these places and it was just like that, hats with flowers, long dresses, everyone treated like a little girl at a tea party, except they’re women wearing lace. I was so freaked out by it I had to put it in the movie. There are a few of these in southern California, with someone playing harp or piano, everyone speaking in hushed tones, these women have these fantasies of themselves as a princess, and I found it spooky but also great. There is this ‘Stepford wife’ thing going on but in real life this kind of thing horrifies men, the bridesmaid thing. I am trying to create a voice that speaks about female pleasure; this is not just a horror movie, this is about female fantasy.
Diabolique: Can you talk about your vision of the film’s color structure and, in particular, the symbolism of the rainbow, in Elaine’s clothes, and the rainbow lighting effects? Is that a nod to 1970s pop culture or something more?
Biller: I have no explanation for the rainbow thing other than this: there was a book I was reading from the 1970s and there was a female character who lined her clothes with rainbow fabric, and she was also a witch. As for those filters, we were looking for psychedelic filters, and that rainbow filter was one we found that looked great. And the unicorns and rainbows were also a ‘60s and ‘70s thing, the pictures little girls liked. Those symbols are in Elaine’s paintings, and even in the song at the Renaissance faire.
Diabolique: I noticed Elaine’s eye shadow changes color throughout the film, was that intentional in terms of the color symbolism? It starts out blue, which symbolizes innocence, and eventually it’s purple, which represents the occult and death.
Biller: The rest of the film’s color structure comes from creating a specific look. For example, Trish says the paintings in the apartment Elaine sublets are all based on the Thoth tarot deck. I designed the rooms around those cards, some have shades of blue and purple, some have red and range prominent. The living room is also the sun room. I wanted to have Elaine’s costumes and makeup reflect that vibe too; her eye shadow was supposed to be a bright block of color to accent her outfits. Purple is the color of her bedroom, where she effectively “kills” her victims, and purple is a witchcraft color, it’s an occult color.
The apothecary, that was her magic room, that is what I called it when I was sketching it, her magic room. I’d been to a lot of witch stores and they always have one. Elaine has her own arsenal, she can make anything. She’s like an alchemist, she can make potions. I went through a time when I was teaching myself how to make soap, like she does. I did the calligraphy in her spell book, and made the wands and soaps that she sells in the shop.
Diabolique: What made you decide to use such authentic trappings of contemporary witchcraft and Wicca?
Biller: I’m interested in realism, even when people think I’m doing fantasy, because of all the color. I’ve been to a lot of rituals; this has a bigger budget than the rituals I’ve been to, the altars are bigger and people are more put together. I’ve seen some very shabby altars. Also, I was basing a lot of this on Janet and Stewart Farrar’s writings, like A Witches Bible Compleat (1987). Maybe there will be an extended version on DVD, but I had to cut it down because it’s not a documentary on witches.
Diabolique: You should make one, though!
Biller: That one big ritual scene is right out of a video with (1960s witchcraft tradition founder) Alex Sanders. There’s a mix of pagans in these groups; they’re not all witches, not all one tradition. The ritual includes things from Wicca, Santeria, Satanism, Voodoo, Druids, all in one ritual. You hear Gahan (the high priest) saying that “back in the day, we had everything all together, we hung up Baphomet posters.” The witchcraft in the film is not about one type of practice, the idea is that witches are individuals. You can have evil Christians, and good ones, and everything in between, and no one has a problem. But because it’s witches, people are sensitive. I could be a black witch easily, if I practiced more, because I have a lot of anger. You can’t always control that when doing a spell. Not everything is 100% white light. I thought of this when creating Elaine; she may be doing all these white witchcraft spells but she has so much hatred because of the abuse she’s suffered. That was my intention, to have Elaine harbor all this hatred, even though everything she is doing seems benign.
Diabolique: That makes me think of the scene where Trish (Laura Waddell) tries to become Elaine; can you talk about that?
Biller: Trish tries to turn into Elaine by putting on her makeup and wig. What happens is that Trish is completely unhinged; her heart has been broken, and she has realized that she’s been doing it all wrong. She thought she could be herself, and keep her husband, but now she is thinking she has to be like Elaine, sexy and devious. But she comes to her senses and realizes Elaine is crazy and creepy. You get all these male constructed movie stereotypes, and Elaine is a construction, and Trish can also be that construction because women are not just one thing. Feminism is about choice.
Diabolique: So why the Renaissance faire? Is that what Elaine ultimately wants?
Biller: Elaine’s fantasy is to be like a fairy princess at a Renaissance faire, and it comes true in that scene but not in real life. I wanted to show her actual fantasies coming to life as if it were a dream, but to have it actually happen in the movie. I wanted to show how that produces the heartbreak that happens later. The idea is that there’d normally be a wedding at end of a film where the couple get together, but because this is a romantic tragedy, and not a romantic comedy, at the moment where she looks like she is going to have everything she wants, it’s all lost, and her fantasy is gone. It shows how Elaine’s world, the world of seduction and sex and drugs, is made up of things she does for men, that are male fantasies. Her female fantasy, of the wedding with the white horse, is her version of true love. This is the only time she ever seems happy in the film, she is smiling and free, and for me that is the heartbreaking thing. You see that she is capable of real love, of taking off the mask, and that makes everything that happens earlier take on new meaning. You see what she almost could have had, but it’s too late, and she’s gone too far.
Diabolique: Like the song, “she’s come undone.” And yet we also see that Griff (Gian Keys) is part of the reason why things fail; he’s a jerk, and he’s not in love with her.
Yes, and I think it shows that it’s true that the kind of relationships you can sustain are the ones where men are detached, and the ones that fall apart are where men are too in love or they get too jealous, the men who are too into you. But the men who are more mellow, they stick around, and yet you miss that feeling of intensity.
The relationships in this film are grounded in my personal experience. I have examined my own relationships and my own life. I have used psychology to try and make sense of it. One reason Elaine is so deeply flawed is that I am so deeply flawed, and I had to explore this idea that other women are not perfect.