“I’m Actually Trying to Create a Film for Women”: Anna Biller on The Love Witch
Over the last decade, Los Angeles-based film artist Anna Biller has eked out a small but fervid following; watching her films is like undergoing hypnosis by means of feng shui, wherein the viewer is lulled into a stilted, cheeky and brilliantly manicured simulacra of golden-era Hollywood staging, blocking and delivery. However indebted these forms are to their masculinist forebears, Biller is not content to be considered a pastiche artist: in the below discussion she concedes that her choices are guided by what gives her cinephilic pleasure, although — because? — the feminist interrogations of her work are impossible to ignore. She headlined her own 2007 feature debut Viva, a dissection of would-be sexual liberation in the ’70s San Fernando Valley, whose entire screenplay was a riff on a specific strain of lecherous Playboy cartoons from the era — the kind where a saggy old codger has his secretary on his lap with her clothes ripped off, and the punchline is “Wait, Miss – I’m not through promoting you yet!”
Like a rear-view-mirror mirage of the liberated studio system that never arrived (and remains unlikely, all-female reboots of cherished 1980s toy franchises be damned), Biller’s new feature The Love Witch was snapped up by Oscilloscope after a rapturous premiere at Maryland. Shot in widescreen 35mm, the picture proffers a unique seduction: it concerns the pains of being written off as a beautiful woman in a tightjacket-straight man’s world, vis-a-vis the titular Elaine (newcomer Samantha Robinson), who sets out to avenge the psychic flotsam of an abusive marriage. The costumes and decor, painstakingly designed by Biller over years of pre-production, harken back to coastline apparitions like Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me or late-Technicolor musicals like Vicente Minelli’s On A Clear Day You Can See Forever; the politics are immersively complicated, made hilarious by moments of leaden passivity that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Hawaii Five-O.
Whenever the (often hilarious) screenplay appears more chaser than shot, The Love Witch remains unafraid to “go there”: when Elaine seduces a college professor (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) by… walking up to him and introducing herself, her prey chortles each line with the self-satisfaction of any man convinced he’s about to get laid. Biller has made yet another film of niche artistry par excellence; if too many American independents are released to satiate pre-established (and/or market-traceable) appetites on whatever remains of the sputtering arthouse circuit, it’s hard not to view The Love Witch’s distribution deal as something of a breakthrough. I believe moviegoers — women and, hopefully, men alike — will buy tickets to Biller’s film this autumn and exit genuinely provoked: entertained, startled, hungry to learn more, and perhaps haunted by the occult, day-glo world they just occupied — and what if it’s not so different from our own?
Filmmaker: Let’s start by talking about your actors: when you first mentioned The Love Witch to me, everything seemed to be coming together based on the casting of Samantha Robinson, and you intimated you were rewriting to adjust for the talent.
Biller: Well, it’s interesting because with all of the cast except for Samantha, the people that I picked were people who came in and gave me a finished performance in their audition — which takes a great amount of skill, but it also takes an incredible amount of work. These people were very committed, so I did not rewrite anything for them. The actors knew exactly what they wanted to do. But for the lead role of Elaine, I rewrote her a number of times because I was very open to having any type of Elaine. There were just so many possibilities for her, because I wanted the actress’ personality to really come through. Elaine is loosely based on a woman I knew in the past who was, in fact, kind of sociopathic; Samantha Robinson is not. She has her own coldness and innocence and bitterness and her own kind of thing going on, which I had to really study and learn. We worked together very closely, and I developed the role around who Samantha was. We met many times, and we watched a lot of movies.
Filmmaker: What did you watch?
Biller: Leave Her to Heaven, The Razor’s Edge, Angel Face, Secret Ceremony, X, Y and Zee, Black Narcissus, Repulsion, Belle de Jour, All About Eve, La Strega in Amore, Marnie… mostly for the great sociopathic performances of the actresses. We had a lot of discussions — we kind of threw things out, both of us, to see what worked, and that was really interesting. The character could have gone in so many different ways. What we really did was workshop, in an old-fashioned way; people take my work as so stylized, but the way we worked was almost like Cassavetes or something. We were working out stuff about her, about me, our personalities, how we felt about being women in the world, about feminism. We wanted the truth, and Samantha is so intelligent that she’d tell me sometimes: “I don’t think I would say it that way; I’m not going to say this,” and so on. We ended up partly rewriting The Love Witch to suit her personality.
Filmmaker: This sounds like a loving, even a luxurious recreation of the classic star-driven picture, where everything relies on the sensibility of the leading lady – the casting package, if you will…
Biller: Exactly. So like, if you’re casting Barbara Stanwyck, it’s a 180-degree different performance than if you had cast Lana Turner. I was really excited to do that; Samantha’s a very exciting person, and she didn’t have that much of the character’s evil in her at first, but she did have some. We all have a dark side, so I was just trying to tap into that, to bring that out in her. She’s very young, so she hasn’t developed a lot of — you know, the way actors develop tricks as they get older, things they know about themselves they’ll put into their characters. She’s so young that some of the darker aspects of her personality haven’t been explored yet in her career, but I can see them in her. (Laughs) I was really just trying to observe her and figure out how to replicate that on the screen.
Filmmaker: You two must have grown quite close in this process.
Biller: Yeah. I mean, I really wanted this film to be about women’s lives — in general, young women have a lot in common with each other that they can’t have in common with men. Call me essentialist, but there are things that only women share. And you don’t see that in movies anymore. So almost any woman who’s grown up pretty, especially, it means something to have to negotiate that in the world — what it means to be hounded, judged, criticized all the time, for that. They talked about it a lot in Hollywood pre-code films, and also in ‘60s exploitation films. Some of those films talk about female sexuality, which is what Viva was about. The Love Witch is about that too, but it’s more about a woman who goes crazy looking for qualities in men that she can’t find.
Filmmaker: How do you describe it to people? Elaine has a thesis about the world she goes out to confirm, or she’s just testing boundaries and it goes too far?
Biller: People like to compare my work to Mario Bava or something, but I’d say this one is closer to Dreyer’s Gertrud. It’s about love; a woman who’s disappointed when men don’t have the same capacity for love that she does. She’s looking for a real life partner who can really do this dance with her, and she hasn’t been able to find him, so she turns to manipulation to get it. She thinks, “Maybe this will work.” And of course it doesn’t, because the genders don’t see eye to eye. And it’s really quite classical: the tragedy of gender difference, star-crossed love, love that can’t happen. Not because of the witchcraft, but because of the genders, the personalities, and stuff like that. People can’t believe the tearoom and the renaissance fair scenes — people think these are weird feminine-leaning things I threw in the movie just to be insane. But those are the thematic backbone of the film, because the thing about Elaine is that she was a little girl at one time. Little girls don’t usually grow up playing with action figures or trying to blow things up in their mom’s basements. They grow up with fairy tales, the fantasy of the prince on the white horse, the manor, the castle, and all that, and then they become teenagers and the reality is that men are constantly trying to rape them. So the film is about that transition, that reality, and how Elaine’s spirit is broken through an abusive relationship. So those scenes are expressions of an inner fantasy life coming on the screen, and seeing how the fantasy life is very different from that of the men, who just want to watch her strip and get naked.
Filmmaker: I showed the Love Witch trailer to a friend and he said, “Oh, this is a comedy.” Now, there are some huge belly laughs, and the vernacular is comedy, but it’s really not. But one of the funniest scenes in the movie for me is the seduction of Wayne on the park bench, because it comes so easily — every dude’s fantasy, in essence.
Biller: Well, that actor Jeffrey Parise gave a very comic performance there; I didn’t have to direct him at all — I let him do his thing, and I thought his reading was intelligent. He was very funny, but a lot of tragedy has comedy — some of the funniest scenes ever written were in Hamlet. Comic relief, anyway.
Filmmaker: But there’s also pathos when the character is afflicted — if that’s the right word…
Biller: It depends on your point of view. A man might feel pathos for him; a woman is really going to feel depressed when, after they make love, he’s talking about his feelings about women. And he obviously has this extremely limited scope — he’s somebody who could never really love Elaine. And her disappointment, at that moment… we cut back to her face and her heart is being broken in that moment but she’s pretending it’s not. She’s pretending everything’s great. So the tragedy depends on who’s watching it.
Filmmaker: Well, the film is doing a very sophisticated balancing act. How did you begin to sink your teeth into this idea?
Biller: It started from my interest in actually discussing this idea: little girls and their fairy tale worlds that get destroyed, when they get to know who men really are. It’s really kind of brutal to be a girl, and then have to deal with actual men whose only interest is sex. Wanting to talk about that, and also about the fragmentation that happens with how women are treated by men — especially beautiful women. How do you negotiate an authentic self as a woman? It’s very difficult. A lot of girls who seem like they might be crazy, or sociopathic, or just stupid, they’re actually trying to negotiate all that and they may not know how. And that’s what drives them insane. So I wanted to make that kind of character: somebody who has never been valued for her brains, for her personality, for anything that she has to offer, but who only really gets valued for her beauty. So I choose this very beautiful actress, and what happens for men is, they’re bringing the same thing to the woman onscreen as they do to women in their real lives. They’re so blinded by her sexuality that they can’t see her as a human being. Now, I knew that would happen. Maybe not all men will do this, but some will. And I knew women would see her beauty differently. It may be accessible to men on the one level — because in this society, everything is accessible to men (laughs). But I’m actually trying to create a film for women.
Filmmaker: You may have changed dialogue or character stuff, but the main structure of Elaine’s trajectory — including the surprise ending — that was all there from the beginning?
Biller: It was all there. I was actually teaching myself how to write a script. It’s very difficult to write a script that holds together. It has to be traditional enough to get the right response from the audience at the right time, to tell the story in a way that’s compelling, Most of the rewriting was about getting the structure better, making the characters clearer, cutting out extraneous stuff and anything that might be misleading. Many of my ideas were too intellectual, and turning a thesis into a script — that was hard. When you write a script there tends to be too much going on, too many things that need to be simplified. When you start from a strong character, that’s really fun — working outward from there, it makes for a better script.
So most of my rewrites were technical, while nothing changed about the essence. Except the ending: I don’t want to give it away, but I’ll say this — the original ending was similar but I watched the original fine cut and it wasn’t sad enough, so we had a reshoot day. And I reshot it to make it more tragic. I thought my original ending would be sufficiently tragic, but it didn’t play that way.
Filmmaker: The kind of thing you can only figure out after you’ve seen it all shot, edited, etc…
Biller: The problem I had was that the flashback — the fantasy sequence — was still there, and it was too beautiful, too sweet, too pleasurable. I am trying to make a Shakespearean tragedy, so I made it more sad.
Filmmaker: You once described Viva as the more experimental film for you — I believe the original phrase was “more awkward” — and then you described the attempt, in The Love Witch, to write a classical narrative.
Biller: Viva was much more experimental, because it was episodic. Now I’m drawing comparisons between The Love Witch and Gertrud, but Viva is more like Buñuel’s The Milky Way. He takes texts from the Bible and from Scriptures, literal texts verbatim, and he makes scenes out of them, and the effect of them is just outrageous and absurd — because all of the texts contradict each other. People are asking questions like: “How is the immaculate conception possible?” The experts on religion try to answer, and the longer it goes on, the more strange it sounds. (Laughs) You get this odd picture of all the contradictions of Christianity. Now for Viva, I tore these cartoons out of Playboy, and that’s how I made my narrative: just, people saying these lines from cartoons and ads, stitched together into a narrative. So it’s a similar project: we’re looking at the sexual revolution through Playboy, and we’re looking at a world that doesn’t exist, that never existed in the first place. Advertising as a part of sexual culture — books, magazines, movies and TV, the way a “playboy” lifestyle was sold to men when in fact it never really existed in life. Maybe it did for certain swingers, but it was really a cultural phenomenon that happened just for a few years, that was very influential — and that’s the world I was trying to create. And then, to take my own experiences and insert a human being into that context, a sort of a Candide to show how ridiculous it all is…. People thought Viva was an homage, or a pastiche — that’s definitely not true. I was taking more from literary texts than from movies. So the way it was conceived and written was quite experimental.
But with The Love Witch, I was trying to make a very traditional narrative; in fact, a lot of it is based on Hitchock’s Psycho, which I realized only later, after reading that film’s screenplay after I had finished writing The Love Witch. There are many similarities, I think because Hitchcock’s scripts were so classical. And also, they’re two films about sociopathic lead characters, and that’s not too common.
Filmmaker: I saw you on a long Twitter thread this morning about pastiche and homage, and I have to ask: as you’re gaining prominence — The Love Witch has performed very well in its festival engagements thus far, after all — do you find yourself pigeonholed as some kind of retro-affective filmmaker? I could see that argument to a point, but the works are contemporary because their issues are evergreen, regardless of the production design or whatever.
Biller: That’s why I was having the argument. You can’t talk about new work like it’s old work. If it’s new, it’s new. It doesn’t matter what it references or how it’s lit. Classic three-point lighting or color-coordinated, custom-designed sets — I don’t see how these things are necessarily of the past. They still use that kind of 35mm photography and styling in the fashion industry. Why can’t people look at something and just see what that thing is, as opposed to continuing to talk about the past, you know?
Filmmaker: But it must be some kind of a compliment — a couple frames of your work and it’s obvious you’re in conversation with these classic Hollywood modes and forms.
Biller: Well, obviously they say that, because the visual aspects of film have changed so radically — this kind of lighting is antique, actually, at this point. So I guess if you’re going to do that, people will say it’s retro. But again, somebody could write in the style of a 19th century novel, and wouldn’t it be annoying for that writer if people only talked about the style as opposed to the content of the book? The style is one aspect of it, but that’s not all it means. Lighting and design are just techniques to create the look and feeling I want to create, which to me is the most important thing: How do you feel when you’re watching a movie? How do those images, those colors, those costumes, those faces – what feelings do those things create?
Filmmaker: And yet it would appear some throwbacks are non-negotiable. In the movie I thought I was maybe hearing snatches of Johnny Mandel’s score for The Sandpiper, I was just unbelievably impressed by the with-it ness of your composer. Then the credits roll and it turns out you’re repurposing stuff by Ennio Morricone, Giovanni Fusco…
Biller: The music is all retro, that’s true. But it’s just the music I like. I am trying to create a ’60s, ’70s aesthetic — not because it’s from that time, but again, because of trying to create a feeling. The music of that time was heavily interested in occult, mystical, sexy elements — “when women were women and men were men.” That’s not just a literary idea: you can feel and hear it in the music.
Filmmaker: Personally, I have a real soft spot for the kind of acrylic Technicolor production design — My Fair Lady, Dr. Zhivago, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, whatever — movies shot with the widest possible frame, where every possible color pops, and the net result is… the opposite of coordinated; it’s almost rancid. I felt like some of your set pieces were playing with that type of cornucopia.
Biller: Okay, but I didn’t look at any specific movie and say “I’m going to copy this.” Not to say I haven’t done that in the past; For A Visit From The Incubus, we built a saloon that I based on George Sidney’s The Harvey Girls. But for this movie I didn’t copy anything in particular. I looked at all the movies I could find about witches and witchcraft, and other than Bell, Book and Candle, there really weren’t any Technicolor movies about witches. You know what I mean? And that movie is so mod — it’s great design, but I wanted something a little more psychedelic. So I had to just make it up. It says in the script that the rooms were designed after the colors in the Thoth tarot deck, and that’s what I did: I took that deck as a concept for designing Elaine’s apartment.
And some of the choices were just practical. I tried to find a burlesque club bar in Los Angeles, and there’s nothing like that, so I had to make it: I take what’s there and try to make it more aesthetic. I bring in my own drapes, my own stage, and put bar lamps and stained glass everywhere, and a pool table; I try to make it seem dressed, and when all is said and done it looks “retro.” (Laughs) You just take all the junk and trash on the periphery of your vision and eliminate it, and you coordinate things so that they’re streamlined, so there aren’t too many colors, too many things going on, and it ends up retro. Good set design is going to look retro usually no matter what you do.
Filmmaker: My favorite homage (or satire) is in the vein of something — maybe “the vibe” is the right word — and yet it’s hard to pin down. There’s something old-fashioned about the amount of symbolism you use in your films. — the “coding” you have referred to in your work..
Biller: I use symbolism to get ideas across. A lot of people think symbolism is really hokey but I love movies with strong symbolism: Bergman films, Pre-Code films, films that use archetypes. If you make something that has a moral lesson today, people think you’re just doing kitsch. But I take morality quite seriously.
I was trying to do this Bressonian thing before — he spoke of his actors as “models.” Hitchcock and Dreyer used actors like models too, telling them only where to stand and where to look, posing them for a picture rather than directing a performance from the inside. But with The Love Witch I wanted to collaborate more closely with the actors on their performances. It’s less of an art film and more of a film-film. I wrote a more conventional script, to make the experience of watching the film less distracting in terms of it having an odd structure and style, and to enable people to get more into the story.
Filmmaker: You’ve mentioned a lot of women’s issues as inspiration for your work. Would you say then that your film Viva is kind of a moral tale?
Biller: Yes, Viva is a moral tale, about the sexual revolution but inspired mostly by pre-code films. A lot of women in the pre-Code films would “go astray” and have adventures, and those movies were about social strictures that made it difficult for women to have adventures. Viva feels trapped with her husband and she also feels trapped in the world, because it’s not safe out there. That’s a very corny message for a lot of people, because many people think of gender issues themselves as corny — that we’ve solved them, and that we’re equal now. Ever since the French New Wave, these kinds of questions have been out of fashion, but for me they feel urgently current.
I’ve never watched Mad Men but from what I’ve heard, it sounds like that’s what people like about it – that it’s a series of moral tales.
Filmmaker: I think the characters’ moral dilemmas become the audience’s in a way — from a safe remove, obviously — so it’s kind of a safe, role-playing way to get a leg up on a prior generation. Vicariously.
Biller: Yes. The idea is that we can set something in the past and people will feel more comfortable about these dastardly men, these strong women. But I don’t think we have come that far. Things aren’t better now; they’ve just shifted. In the early ‘60s a woman couldn’t express her sexuality without being considered a fallen woman, but now we have other problems. The pornification of the culture kills female sexuality. It makes men the only people who can actually own or enjoy sex. That’s what Viva was about: the fact that sexual freedom was promised to everybody in the ‘60s, but it ended up serving men at the expense of women. In my movies I like to create visual pleasure for women on the screen, and part of that pleasure is sexual pleasure. In representation, male sexuality runs the gamut — every fantasy you can possibly think of has been expressed in some form. But female sexuality has to be confined to this proper/not-proper debate. If I have masochistic, perverse fantasies, why shouldn’t I be allowed to express them in the same way that men do? Women are not supposed to use imagery that supports male fantasy, even if that imagery reflects their own fantasies. Or if you’re a person of color, everybody gets hysterical when you make anything, worrying about whether it represents black culture correctly. But why can’t a black person just be a person? Forcing people to make work that fits a stereotype is a form of ghettoization. Radical feminists actually expect women to exit culture. They don’t want anything to do with culture or history – they want to create their own history, (or as they call it, herstory). But although I align myself with radical feminists in some important ways, I like to embrace culture and history. That’s what all artists do. And I think that my work is an ongoing feminist project, in that it creates new ways of seeing classic forms. But I do love the classic forms. For someone like me, who loves cinema and literature — how can you love those things if you can’t like what men have created?
Filmmaker: But we all live under the same patriarchy. On paper you turn around and say, “I can’t support this” — but stopping the actual influence is far trickier.
Biller: Right. But as a woman, I think I have a pretty good barometer for what is sexist and objectifying in representation, and what is empowering. I know what makes me uncomfortable in movies, and I avoid that imagery and only choose imagery that supports my own fantasy life. With The Love Witch, I’m working very directly with female fantasy. When heterosexual women look at images of other women being sexual or beautiful, there’s a kind of narcissistic voyeurism going on — very different from how a man will look at a woman. There’s a sense of pleasure in fantasizing about receiving the kind of love or admiration that a woman gets when she is looked at by men. It has to do with status, love, a greater position in society. I don’t agree that women are appropriating a male gaze when they do that; I think there is a female gaze, a narcissistic gaze. I’m trying to get into how that’s attached to love. Almost every movie you’ll ever see has a man winning in some competition, whether it’s winning the love of a girl or winning in some other way. But a lot of the classic films had women winning men, and they weren’t just sappy, dopey comedies – they were firmly entrenched in a specifically female kind of agency and desire. I’m trying to understand where female desire and fantasy come from, and make movies from that place. And they may not seem that different on the surface from the movies that men make, but the emphasis is different. If I look at ‘60s and ‘70s exploitation cinema, what I take from it is entirely different from what Quentin Tarantino will take from it. I’m taking food, décor, color, romance, clothes, manners, diction, etc.
Filmmaker: The excess in Viva is almost oppressive.
Biller: Right, because that’s what I fetishize about classic cinema – not the violence or the sex, but the visual world of set design and the way film can capture color. And the design from that era was oppressive.
Filmmaker: Making a movie is always gonna be exorbitant, but you work with a certain amount of financial independence, is that correct?
Biller: Yes. I had total creative control with Love Witch. That was almost bad, because what happened was, all these backdrops and costumes and set pieces were not actually in the budget. That’s why it took me, like, seven years, which is truly insane. We had money for production but no money for pre-production, so pre-production was just about me making everything. That my investor allowed me to take that time, that was my creative control. I don’t know if I want to do that again, though — I think my next film will be a lot simpler, visually. All of these big set pieces with witches, bar patrons, tea ladies — none of that would normally be in the budget for a film of this size.
Filmmaker: How much did The Love Witch cost?
Biller: I can’t say exactly. But what I will say is that usually a movie of this budget doesn’t have any set design. Because it’s a SAG movie, you know? Most of the budget is paying people and supplies. So I bought some fabrics and stuff, but for the most part the budget for period costumes is all labor. If I had somebody hand-make each of those costumes, they would’ve cost about two, three thousand dollars apiece minimum, rather than the two or three hundred we spent in fabric. The renaissance costumes took me literally a year to make. I also had to make the patterns — there weren’t any from that period I could find. To afford an actual designer for all that —including all of those headdresses, hose, capes, codpieces…. that’s like a major Hollywood movie. So I’d get excited — “Okay, let’s get ready to shoot!” and then realize, wait, I haven’t done my Ren-Faire costumes yet, and we’d delay production. (laughs)
Filmmaker: I’m not sure asking this is the same thing as asking if you’d give up creative control, but: could you see yourself working with a different costume designer, a different editor, or…?
Biller: Not editing — that’s as personal as directing, and that’s where you really make the film. Nobody could edit my stuff because while I’m storyboarding, the editing is all planned and I know what I’m preparing, but nobody else does. Nobody else can know what that is. It would just be a mess. At my screening in LA last weekend I was joking that my next project is going to be a mumblecore movie. “We don’t need costumes and sets, we can just do what other people do…” (laughs) Why not? It would be so easy to costume. People could wear whatever they’re wearing that day.
Filmmaker: But of course, some people find real freedom in that.
Biller: Well sure, but it depends on the project. If I was going to make something documentary-style, then that’s what I would do — but I’m trying to make a Technicolor, classical Hollywood picture about a witch.
Filmmaker: Shifting gears: what interests you about exploitation movies?
Biller: I like the way the better ones foreground a woman’s sexual desire and experience, which is so rare in movies. But my movies are actually the opposite of exploitation – they’re more exploration. Even if a female is being exploited in my movies, she’s still driving the narrative. The exploitation movies of the ‘60s were certainly voyeuristic, but the better ones also focused on the tragic elements of a woman’s experience — a woman who has very few options socially. And those are the stories that interest me. With Joe Sarno for instance, you get some films about social and personal vice that end up telling complex stories about women’s lives. Ostensibly we’re going into her consciousness to see how a “dirty girl” ticks, but in the end we are still going into female consciousness, and that was already starting to be rare in 1960s cinema. Some of those films seem progressive to me, even if they were created mainly just to excite men, because prior to these movies people didn’t consider female sexuality at all (or at least not since the pre-code films).
Filmmaker: Are you a fan of Radley Metzger?
Biller: Oh, absolutely. He’s as intrigued by spectacle as he is by sexuality, I think, and he’s also a good storyteller — he uses classic stories like Carmen, Pygmalion, and Lady of the Camellias and emphasizes the sexual elements of these heroines.
Filmmaker: Right – so I interviewed him a few years ago and he told me it was easier to make an honest film about people’s sexual desires four decades ago than it is today. (He blamed the studios for that).
Biller: I think that’s correct – there really was a kind of a budding interest back in the ‘60s and ‘70s in human sexuality, including female sexuality. The Kinsey Report, people trying to discover themselves, all of these women’s magazines encouraging women to let go, people were taking that very seriously. It was hip! Then sometime in the ‘70s, hardcore porn destroyed the market for softcore, and it became all about marketing sexual fantasies only to men, because that’s where the real money was. And female sexuality is threatening or uninteresting to men anyway, so they stopped making films about that. And the way porn has escalated… If the woman doesn’t suffer, if she isn’t really degraded, people aren’t interested. They want to create a men’s-only space. Women can enjoy porn just as much as men, but the majority of porn today relies on elements that are repugnant to women. Have you seen Naked Came A Stranger?
Filmmaker: I haven’t.
Biller: It’s a hardcore Radley Metzger film about a married couple having the best sex of their lives. They’re having affairs with other people too, and it’s a comedy, but the climactic scene of the movie is this long sex scene between the two of them that’s very tender. A mainstream X-rated movie, about a couple who loves one another. Can you imagine? They even go to a party and cross-dress together – he goes as Ginger Rogers, she goes as Fred Astaire. Sex and love were much more closely intertwined back then, I think. Those films were part of a human project to understand sexuality. And Metzger’s films are probably not popular right now precisely because they’re not sadistic enough.
Filmmaker: You’ve also talked about the discrepancy between liberal and radical feminism.
Biller: I think I ranted about that in the first interview we did, because I was reading a lot about that and I was very upset about what I’d discovered. I’m over that now, but I think what happened is, the sex community tried to swallow me up as a sex-positive feminist, and I found out “sex-positive” means you support the sex industry… and I decided I don’t support it. It’s weird that I’m considered almost a kind of sex-industry filmmaker, but that’s neither here nor there.
Filmmaker: Have people ascribed labels like that to the film? To your project at large?
Biller: With Viva, they did. I think what happens is, if you make films about sexuality — and they include nudity — then the sex industry will try to claim you for their own, especially if you’re a woman. Because they want to promote this notion that women who like sex and support nudity are supporting some of the extremely evil things that are out there — human trafficking, the worst parts of the porn industry, egregious violations of human rights. Ex-sex workers, madams, people like that, they use those women as their mouthpieces, and they wanted to use me that way. I was invited to be a columnist for Hustler, accompanied by nude or lingerie-clad photos of myself, for example, because they’re looking for any woman who’s at all in the public eye who’s willing to endorse them. I decided these are the enemies of all feminists, and I decided any woman who educates herself about the sex industry can’t support it. After doing all that research, there’s actually less nudity in The Love Witch than originally planned — and that’s on purpose. It’s too bad that you can’t make work about female sexuality through your own fantasy life that isn’t coopted by male fantasy, but that’s the way it is. I didn’t want people taking my actress and sexualizing her in evil ways — I didn’t want to do that to her, because I didn’t enjoy it when people did it to me.
Filmmaker: This is what I mean when I say you’re striking a fine balance. The film doesn’t shy from her looks, but the film portrays a society that’s nowhere near as evolved from normative gender roles as it wants to believe it is.
Biller: I don’t think we’re evolved at all from those roles. I don’t think there’s any progress at all. Women who actually deal with men, who live with men, they know this! I don’t know if men do, but… The fact that the sex industry, for example, is so strong right now — that human trafficking is so strong right now — shows that maybe things are worse than they’ve ever been, in some ways. But we just take it and put it someplace else. It’s kind of like in Victorian times: the wife would be a paragon of virtue with no sexuality, a worker who bore the children and kept the household, while the men went to prostitutes for sex. It’s still like that: men have wives and girlfriends that they respect, but what about internet porn? What about all the strip clubs? I’m not trying to be a prude here, I’m just saying there’s still a split. And that underbelly has grown, exponentially, outrageously. A rich white woman in the West has more rights than in the past, but what about sex workers in third world countries or among the poor in general? They aren’t human beings? That there’s some substratum of the population that’s designated to fulfill men’s sexual needs, any man’s needs, just out of poverty – there’s something wrong with that picture. The only reason a woman will take that job is usually poverty. It’s actually a class thing.
Filmmaker: Interesting. Speaking in broad strokes, I still can’t let go of class. I find myself thinking that whatever we tell ourselves about inclusion, equality, intersectionality even — class is still the Big Arbiter.
Biller: Of course it is. And 99% of the prostitutes in the world are extremely poor, so to use the .01% of rich college girls who want to do sex work on the side as if that represents an industry — it’s very pernicious. They use the tiny percentage of women who actually have a choice to represent the industry as a whole, when it’s really not a choice for the majority of women who go into it.
Filmmaker: Your work is steeped in visual pleasure: antiquity, modern design, cinephilia, an inventory of 20th century emotional intelligence. Do you ever want to make something more… confrontational? Polemical?
Biller: I think my work is confrontational but it’s very coded, still. The thing is, I think about the movies I actually like to watch, my go-tos when I’m tired and I want to relax, and those are the kinds of movies I want to make. Michael Haneke says he makes movies to make the audience want to turn away — that’s the opposite of my project. I want to make movies that make people want to look. All my favorite movies are very pleasurable to watch, and for me the pleasure comes out of high art — even if a movie is confrontational, difficult or dark, if it’s good, then it’ll be pleasurable. The only way I can imagine making a non-pleasurable movie is if I made something low-quality, shoddy.
Filmmaker: The mumblecore you were talking about earlier…?
Biller: (Laughs) I don’t want to judge anyone. I haven’t seen most of those. Extraordinary things can happen with an off-the-cuff approach, as we see with somebody like Rossellini, but I think it’s really hard to make a good film if you’re not planning things. Some people can, and they make amazing films. But their ideas have to be very deep, they have to have a lot of clarity in what they’re looking for. But I don’t know. I could get into making a much simpler, more naturalistic movie, if I actually felt I could pull it off. Designing everything to the last detail is just my way of ensuring that I don’t come back after spending all that time and money and realize I didn’t get a film out of it.
Filmmaker: A lot of independent productions — smaller than yours, I mean — the tradeoff is, you may not have any money but you can perhaps make up for it in preparation, if you have time to get the recipe right.
Biller: I know some filmmakers who go into it with so little prep, I just can’t believe it.
Filmmaker: Why do you think that is? Faith in some kind of artistic process?
Biller: I think they have a different idea about what the artistic process is, maybe; a magical way they think chaos can work for them. Cassavetes, he’d workshop his cast to death and then improvise on set — that’s kind of a hybrid approach, right? But in my opinion, his films would be so much better if they were tighter-scripted. A lot of people will tell me I’m wrong, but you know… I love Mikey and Nicky. I think it’s much better than Husbands because of the tight script, and I think the quality of Cassavetes and Peter Falk’s performances come through so much better when the script is more tightly controlled — you see what they can do, how they can bring out the pathos of their characters.