Filmmaker Anna Biller says she wants to “to create a cinema based on visual pleasure for women.” Her second feature film, the ultra-stylised, feminist horror The Love Witch, does just this, flipping cinematic gender stereotypes on their heads.
Cinema can be a tough space for women; the representation of females as well-rounded, developed characters, instead of solely being sexualised, is sparse. In 2014, a major study found that a mere 12% of all clearly identifiable protagonists were female in mainstream films, which isn’t surprising considering that currently, women only account for 13% of directors.
The Love Witch deals with these issues in Biller’s own imitable style: tongue-in-cheek, vintage-tinged and cast in technicolor. The dialogue is melodramatic, the colours dazzling, and most importantly, the story centres around a real, developed, multi-faceted woman; the beautiful witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) who, upon moving from San Francisco to a quaint California coastal town after the death of her husband, seduces and poisons men to fall madly in love with her before dispatching of them if they don’t live up to her expectations, which they never do.
Inspired by the look and feel of classic Hollywood films, the experimental director gained a degree in Art from UCLA, before studying Art and Film at CalArts. An auteur in the truest sense, not only does she write, direct, produce and edit her films, she also creates every costume and prop herself, even scoring and composing the music.
Here, Biller talks to us about sexism, witchcraft, and how she manages to, in her own words, “create ‘proper’ art films masquerading as popular films.”
Hannah Holway: I was really impressed with how you managed to make the film so authentically 60s – how difficult was that to achieve? And how essential was it to you?
Anna Biller: What’s interesting is that I wasn’t actually trying to make it look 60s [laughs]. I kept working on it until it looked how I wanted it to look, and I think I am obsessed with classic movies. I intended to set it in the present day, with modern cars and modern phones, but you know, she’s a vintage girl, she’s one of these neo-burlesque girls, and I think her look is timeless. But it’s that hard lighting that you don’t really see in films anymore.
Hannah: You’ve said that you wanted to create an environment where the men watching feel like “they’re being voyeurs to an environment where they don’t belong.” Were you worried about alienating your audience?
Anna: Well, I definitely give a lot of pleasure to men in the movie, but I wanted to create some female spaces. I think a lot of film today is almost exclusively for men. It’s interesting because when we were first editing it I showed this scene to my boyfriend [the scene in the Victorian tearoom], and it was about eight minutes long, and he said, “You know you’ve got to get in and out of that tearoom scene in about five minutes, or you’re going to lose your entire male audience.”
Hannah: Making Elaine a witch is clearly a metaphor for men’s fears of women, but she is also the embodiment of a classic femme fatale. Was it essential to you that the film be about witchcraft in particular?
Anna: Once I knew that Elaine was going to be a witch, I really wanted to make the ultimate femme fatale witch movie. Witches seem to represent either our fantasies or our nightmares, especially for men. So I really wanted to show the interior of this witch character, that she’s just a person. She has a consciousness and she has a psychology, but she’s still a sexualised woman. You just don’t see women [in film] who are beautiful and sexy with any kind of consciousness.
“I wanted to show men how it feels to see a movie where it’s all about them as secondary characters for once. I wanted to say, “How does that feel?””
Hannah: Do you feel that your film subverts the stereotypes of women as victims in horror films? Or is Elaine still a victim of her need for men to love her?
Anna: I think I’ve definitely subverted the genre – here’s a horror movie where no women are killed! I wanted to show men how it feels to see a movie where it’s all about them as secondary characters for once. I wanted to say, “How does that feel?” You know, we always have to watch women being unimportant, uninteresting characters who are always victims. And it’s usually their fault, because they’re too sexual, so we don’t feel sorry for them, because we don’t get to know anything about them. To reverse that stereotype was a very conscious decision. But I’m also showing the plight of women: it’s not Elaine’s fault that these men project these feelings onto her. So it’s exposing how the social environment for women can be so toxic for them.
Hannah: So do you think Elaine is a likeable character, despite her murderous tendencies?
Anna: I was more concerned with showing a psychologically real character, with all of her flaws. I really wasn’t sure how likeable she would be, and that was mainly down to the actress that played her [Samantha Robinson]. And I actually let her choose, to just play it how she felt it, and she could’ve played it a lot darker. She ends up being more sympathetic than I thought she would be, because at the end of the day she is a sociopath [laughs].
Hannah: Do you think that’s partly to do with the fact that she is a woman? The film deals heavily with society’s preconceptions of women as ‘emotional’ and men being uncomfortable with their feelings…
Anna: I think she’s a strong character in a weak position. And we always feel sympathy for the underdog. She’s flawed and she doesn’t always make the right decisions, so she ends up being a relatable character because none of us are perfect.
Hannah: There is a particularly memorable scene where Elaine recalls insults she has received from her ex-husband and her father. Did you draw on your own experiences of internalised misogyny when making the film?
Anna: Definitely, and not just in my adult life but in my childhood and probably since I was born [laughs]. I’ve been aware of systemic misogyny before I even knew what to call it. You know, there’s that feeling of not being encouraged to pursue your goals, and only being encouraged to be lovely…
Hannah: And pretty…
Anna: Yeah. And having those confusing situations with teachers and bosses. It was only through doing a lot of reading of feminist texts, and psychoanalysis, that I actually realised there’s this real conspiracy to crush women down into feeling worthless. And I put these things in my movies, because I can’t help but be aware of it.
Hannah: Did you find yourself subject to any casual sexism when producing and distributing this film, or with your debut feature Viva?
Anna: Of course. All women are subject to sexism everyday, and the more ambitious you are the worse it gets – I mean, just look at Hillary Clinton. With Viva I definitely experienced an unprecedented amount of backlash and misogyny, even just when trying to hire actors. And people still aren’t used to women being in charge.
Hannah: Because you were definitely in charge of The Love Witch, doing the producing, editing, writing and filming yourself. It was something of a passion project…
Anna: It was, and people had problems with that. It’s like they were looking for a man to be above me. And it’s not just that I’m a female director; I mean, Kathryn Bigelow can direct a film like The Hurt Locker and I don’t think it makes anyone uncomfortable, because it’s a film for men. But my film is creating one feminine environment after another.
Hannah: You said that you were aware of misogyny before you even knew what to call it. Do you think that some girls who feel that way right now will see your film and feel inspired by Elaine?
Anna: That’s already happening. I’ve had lots of young girls reach out to me and tell me that they they loved Elaine, her makeup, and how strong and amazing she is. Even if I can just inspire one young girl, that makes all the hate worth it.
Hannah: Looking at the film industry now, do you see progress for women?
Anna: I see zero progress in cinema for women. I actually see reversal, in mainstream cinema at least. The proliferation of women being dismembered, tortured, raped, and all these creative ways of women being killed, it’s such a huge portion of mass entertainment – it’s unprecedented. So what does that say? Why are men so entertained by violence towards women? The fantasy of women being killed is so graphic and psychologically charged. But I think the conversation is changing. People are becoming more interested in real, developed female characters.
The Love Witch is being screened at the Prince Charles cinema, WC2H 7BY on 4th April at 15:45.