The Love Witch was definitely one of our favorite movies of 2016 so we were thrilled to chat with Director, Writer, Producer, and Production Designer (yes you read that right) Anna Biller about her witchy feminist masterpiece.
Do you consider yourself to be a witch?
I’m not really a practicing witch (I only dabble), but in some ways I would say that I’m a witch. I think that women who know their own power are witches, and also women who are artists are witches. I was not raised with any religion, but I believe in magic as a real force in the world. When I was a child I was often told that I had an old soul, and sensitive people knew that I’d lived many past lives and that I was wise. I’m also very intuitive, to the point of being psychic. In those senses I am a witch.
Most films depicting witchcraft, unlike The Love Witch, tend to be wildly inaccurate or overly sensationalized and fantastical. Why was it important to you that it be true to life?
I am always interested in getting at the truth of things. I don’t see the reason to invent what witchcraft is, when there is such a vital community around it. It’s much more interesting to me to document what’s actually happening than to make up nonsense. I also feel that it’s disrespectful to treat witchcraft as a made-up thing when so many people practice it as a religion. It drives me crazy in movies when people mix up witchcraft with Satanism and Catholicism and stuff about the devil, and perform exorcisms and have people move spoons around and stupid stuff like that. I would have liked to put much more realistic footage and ideas in the movie about witches, but I ran out of room. I think that someone needs to make a film that spends more time going into about the practices and beliefs of modern witches.
Do you consider the film itself to be a spell and is there a ritual element to creating your own costumes art and props by hand?
Yes, the film is a spell. All films are spells, some good and some bad. That’s why you have to take a lot of responsibility when you create a film. You are doing emotional work on your audience, and that work can either be healing or destructive. Making things by hand connects me to the project so that I can live in the world of the movie and become empathetic to its needs. When I direct, I am always in a sort of trance.
What is the appeal/power of your particular aesthetic to you? Is it a statement in itself?
I don’t think I really choose my aesthetic. Like all artists, I work until something feels right to me. My films tend to look like all of the films I love best. Sometimes I wish that my aesthetic was more contemporary, so that there wouldn’t be so much discussion about my aesthetics. But I can’t get used to the dark flatness of so much of digital video production today, everything shaking around in the frame, drab colors that are bleached out further in post, etc. If suddenly everyone else suddenly adopted my aesthetics, no one would be talk about my aesthetic. It’s all context.
The film appears to take place in time out of time, which the viewer is led to believe is the unnamed past, but towards the end of the film, Trish uses a cell phone, which breaks the spell. Was that meant to be jarring intentionally? Why did you choose to anchor it in the present?
The film was always intended to be set in the present. All of the technology is modern, including cars you see in the first five minutes. I think it’s the photography that makes it look so retro. Some of the makeup and clothes and cars are vintage looking, but young girls today wear that retro kind of makeup all the time, and people also dress vintage a lot and drive vintage cars. So it’s really more the photography that sets it in the past. The reason it needs to be set in the present is because the ideas are current, including both the ideas about gender and the ideas about witchcraft.
Abuse of power through sex and other means by spiritual teachers is sadly very common and often swept under the rug within spiritual communities, as in the case of the character of Gahan. Was this something you chose to comment on specifically or was this intended purely as another element of Elaine’s backstory and motivation?
I created him that way because that’s what seemed realistic for that type of character. Beautiful girls are almost never allowed into any situations where males are in power without suffering some coercion or abuse, and I felt that it added to Elaine’s history of abuse to make her relationship with Gahan a confusing one with bad boundaries. So it had less to do with him being a witch, and more to do with him being a male in a position of power. Some people may think this puts witches in a bad light, but I purposefully had his wife be a real healer and feminist, because most of the women I’ve met who are witches are good and benign. That’s confusing for people because I’m not saying witches are good or bad – I’m just saying that they’re people.
Elaine, for me, operates simultaneously as both a hero and a villain. I found that at times I felt intense dislike for her and at other times I deeply identified with her as a survivor, a feminist, and a woman who has chosen to reclaim her power through the practice of witchcraft. Was this intentional?
Yes, this was intentional. When you are creating characters, you have to choose between political correctness and psychological truth. If you want to create realistic characters and not just have your film be a political manifesto, you have to choose truth. The truth of a character like Elaine is that she is creating bad karma for herself with her demonic spells, and that she is not going to do well under the kinds of pressures she’s been subjected to. So she has a severe personality disorder as a result, and this will eventually lead to the destruction of everyone around her. I see it almost as a Greek tragedy. Her character is complex because she has all of these layers of good and bad, just like real people do. I studied personality disorders a lot, and it seems to be an ironclad fact that sociopaths routinely create destruction all around them, no matter how charmed and taken in by them we initially are. We’re not used to seeing characters like this so much anymore on the screen, because movie characters have become simplified in order to fulfill some structural goal of being a hero or a villain. But again, people are more complicated than that.
What are some of your other favorite witchcraft films?
THE WICKER MAN (1973), SEASON OF THE WITCH (1972), ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), HORROR HOTEL (1960), LEGEND OF THE WITCHES (1969), BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (1958), HÄXAN (1922), DAY OF WRATH (1948), THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957), and MEDEA (1971)
You can read more about Anna Biller and The Love Witch as well as find out about screenings at her website.