'The Love Witch': If You Aren't Using Style as Substance, You're Doing it Wrong
"You can have political, feminist, and intellectual ideas in a movie. But putting them in the visuals is the best way to make them work."
If you think the style of your film is "presenting reality as it is," you may be missing out on tools of great filmmaking. What about when lighting functions as psychology, or when color functions as symbolism?
No film is a better case study on this debate than Anna Biller’s The Love Witch, out in theaters this Friday courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories. (Find a theater that can project it as it should be seen—on 35mm— here.)
"I wanted not only for the witch to cast the spells, but I also wanted the movie to cast spells over the audience in terms of cinematic techniques."
In the few years it’s taken for the digital revolution to take root, we’ve shelved many techniques of classic cinema. Resurrecting classic Hollywood lighting, color symbolism, and screenwriting techniques, Anna Biller has created a delightfully handmade Technicolor thriller that gives you a rare glimpse into both the external and internal workings of a woman who loves men—to death.
Biller sat down with No Film School to talk about writing controversial female characters and how to use film as a construction.
No Film School: Some criticize films for prioritizing "style over substance." What do you think about this style and substance debate, and how does The Love Witch fit in?
Biller: In this case, the style is the substance. Content is very important in movies, and I think that the style directly informs the content. The style of The Love Witch is very much part of what I’m trying to say with the movie and the character.
The character is a witch. She makes magic. And I think cinema is a type of magic. I wanted not only for the character, Elaine, to cast the spells, but I [also] wanted the movie to cast spells over the audience in terms of cinematic techniques. The lighting technique, the gauzes over the lenses, the meticulous way that the color and sets are designed—it’s all very deliberate to create a type of hypnosis, or trance, over the audience.
"Whatever your own thing is—what you’re most obsessed with, what you love the most, what turns you on the most—just make that. Don’t listen to other people."
My favorite movies are the ones that are very conscious of not just being a documentary-like presentation of reality, but of making cinema into art. This is what we tried to do. It’s just how all movies were shot up until the modern period: they used film and certain types of lighting techniques to enhance the story and glamor. I’m interested in those techniques. Not because they are retro, but because they are incredible tools. The tools enhance the storytelling. The style is not in any way divorced from the content.
NFS: When you wrote this script, were you playing with or parodying the genre of films of the 1960s?
Biller: I’m not trying to write in the style from a certain period. It’s more the way I like to tell stories, rather than trying to make a commentary on the way in which scripts used to be written. I’m interested in certain types of pacing and telling a story in a certain kind of way that I think is old-fashioned.
It’s because I watched so many classic movies. Every filmmaker watches a lot of movies in order to figure out their own process. It’s just that most people are watching newer movies. Their screenwriting is more informed by films that have been written in the past five years. My screenwriting is informed by watching films in the early '30s up until the early '70s. I’m using those movies to learn my craft.
NFS: It’s interesting to think about being informed by cinema history because the majority of films ever made have been directed by men. There’s this concept of the "male gaze" in which female characters are seen through the eyes of a man, often as objects more so than functioning characters. So how do we write female characters without being influenced by the male gaze?
Biller: I’m interested in this idea of there being a female gaze. When I watch a movie and there’s a woman in it, I identify with that woman. My feelings are about the insides of that woman, how that woman is thinking, feeling. If that woman is glamorous or beautiful, I’m not thinking, "I want to sleep with her because she’s so hot." But I am also thinking, of course, "It’s great that she looks so good." Maybe I’m inspired by her hair and makeup. I want to look like her, too. Maybe I have a fantasy of being that beautiful.
"There haven’t been a lot of film theory essays talking about the female gaze. Just because film theory hasn’t examined it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist."
This is how I created the character of Elaine: as if there’s a female gaze. The women who respond to this movie aren't saying they are interested in sleeping with this woman. They’re saying, "I want to learn how to do my eyes like that." It’s the same gaze that exists in the beauty and fashion industry. Women look at other women in fashion magazines, and they’re wearing a ton of makeup, and they look beautiful. We recognize that the fashion industry isn’t created from the male gaze. We know the fashion and beauty industries are created for women. And they’re mainly run by women.
I don’t know why you can’t have that in a movie. There haven’t been a lot of film theory essays talking about the female gaze. Just because film theory hasn’t examined it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
NFS: So with the character of Elaine, it seems like her character is an open construction, with the audience experiencing both the internal and external aspects of her character.
Biller: That’s what I was trying to do exactly, to make these two things happen: look at Elaine internally and look at Elaine externally. I was trying to flip back and forth between those two positions throughout the film. When Elaine has voiceovers in her head—having flashbacks, or being in love—the audience is feeling her internal experience. When she’s being a total bitch to Trish in the Tea Room, stealing her man, and being an otherwise total sociopath, you’re looking at her from the outside, judging her.
I wanted to put the audience in the role of judging women, and at other times to have the audience just look at her: an opaque, beautiful woman. I wanted the point of view to keep flipping. It’s almost never like that with pictures of women.
"There's a kind of schizophrenia that women experience in our culture, a weird way that you distance yourself from yourself, and you become just an image for other people."
If you just did one or the other, you wouldn’t get the feeling of this split. There’s this split women experience within themselves, looking at themselves from both the inside and the outside. I think sometimes we experience ourselves as a shell, a surface or an image for other people, and not as a person. That’s a kind of schizophrenia that women experience in our culture. There’s this weird way that you distance yourself from yourself, and you become just an image for other people. It's an experience that men have much more rarely in our culture.
You mentioned the male gaze. I think women may watch films this way. Women are used to watching movies that are made primarily for male consumption. When they watch a woman in a movie, they watch a woman as if they themselves are not women. It’s a weird thing. That’s how, as women, we may often experience ourselves: continuously shifting points of view.
Biller: There’s a dimension that women will get out of this film that men may not get. Transsexuals may experience this split, and maybe some gay men and gay women, too. But historically, men are not used to watching films that are made from the point of view of women. They are almost never called on to do that.
Women are necessarily paranoid about their image because everybody is judging you by your image—not by what you can do, who you are, what your skills are, how smart you are. You are treated differently depending on how you look. There’s all this pressure to be an image. It’s a terrible burden to bear, and that’s partly what I’m talking about in creating a character like this. Elaine is a hysterical embodiment of this perfect woman that every man wants. But what does it take to construct herself in this way every day? And have that be her whole identity? With the film, I’m trying to say that that pressure can drive you crazy.
NFS: It seems like you want the audience to be aware that the film is a construction. What does it allow you to do as a filmmaker— to give the audience that awareness?
Biller: That’s another way that you can politicize the film without being overly political in the text. For example, Elaine has this incredible, long, beautiful hair. You can get obsessed with it. Then she takes her hair off. Her hair underneath is much shorter and thinner. That’s a kind of construction that you can make your audience aware of so that you aren’t taking that initial obsession with her long hair for granted. She labors to be this way. It’s a construction in itself. Femininity is a construction.
"You don’t want to say, 'We’re looking at reality. This is exactly what’s happening." You want to say, "This is a construction of a certain type of reality. And we’re constructing it for a reason.'"
You also want to say that about a movie. You don’t want to say, "We’re looking at reality. This is exactly what’s happening." You want to say, "This is a construction of a certain type of reality. And we’re constructing it for a reason." You may have to think about why someone is constructing this reality. Why does this reality look the way it does? What does it all mean?
It’s like you’re breaking the fourth wall. It’s Brechtian. You’re making the audience think, "What are the themes and ideas of this movie?" You want to make people think about what they’re watching. It’s kind of a sly way of putting your ideas in a film so your ideas will be thought about a little more consciously. Rather than it being like a dream that washes over you, where you are unconscious, and you remain unconscious afterward, it’s a way to get the audience more engaged.
NFS: Can you speak to the use of color and how it fits into this notion of style as substance?
Biller: Color can be very symbolic, and I had fun with that. Creating witchcraft symbolism colors, for example. There’s other color symbolism that when we talk about it, which sounds very obvious: Trish wears black when she’s in mourning, Elaine wears white when she wants to be a bride. In the Tea Room scene, the colors change. The first time we’re in the Tea Room, the color is pink. The idea is that, in the beginning, in this feminine Tea Room space, both women were the same. The second time we meet Elaine and Trish, they are on opposite sides, so they’re not both wearing pink.
Sure, it sounds simple, the idea of color symbolism. But it’s subconscious for the audience, and it’s very powerful. If you had those two characters dressed in the same color again, you would be implying a similarity or a circularity, or the idea that they hadn’t changed. That filters unconsciously into the audience's mind. If you want to characters to feel opposite, you put one in white and one in black. It’s almost too obvious to even believe it would work, but it actually does. It’s almost Pavlovian! Certain colors affect people in certain ways.
"You can create psychology in the script, but you can also create it with the lighting and the color."
You can create psychology in the script, but you can also create it with the lighting and the color. That’s one thing that film is so great at doing—creating these emotional effects. Film is not at its best when it is entirely intellectual! It’s at its best when it pulls things out of people emotionally, and we can relate to it on that level. You can have political, feminist, and intellectual ideas in a movie. But putting them in the visuals is the best way to make them work psychologically. That’s the craft of filmmaking.
NFS: You designed a lot of the costumes and props (and even some of the music) in addition to writing and directing the film. Do you have a background those other areas, or are you self-taught?
Biller: I have a background in art, but I’m self-taught at sewing and design. Ever since I started making films, I’ve been making my own sets and costumes. That’s back when they were very tiny, short films. I’ve maintained my same process as my films have become bigger. I like the feel of control I get, but also I just like to create a very cohesive world.
When I was a studio artist, everyone created everything in their studio for a show. Creating a set is like creating an installation for a show. You do paintings, or people make clothes and dresses for their shows. So I guess I never stopped working in that way—making a movie like people make art in their studio. It’s not so organic to me to think about hiring other people to do everything. It’s also never been in my budget because I have these very ambitious films, in terms of the visuals. You need an army of people to create all this stuff, and you have to pay those people.
"Creating a set is like creating an installation for a show."
So I just go ahead, and say, "Okay, let’s create this, let’s start filming, let’s see where this takes me." I do a lot of sketching, and the things that I can’t buy, I’ll make. I’ll try to find vintage things for cheap. What I can’t find, I’ll make. Usually that ends up meaning a lot of sewing—costumes, drapes, pillows.
Biller: Or Super 8!
NFS: Yes, Super 8! For The Love Witch, it’s obvious that for aesthetic reasons it had to be 35mm. What do you love about film and what was your working relationship with your DP, M. David Mullen, like in pre-production and on set, especially in coming up with this style?
Biller: There’s something about the texture of film: it looks great, no matter what you do to it. That is really the opposite in video—you have to work extremely hard to get a good image.
Biller: In terms of my process, shooting film is very different on set than video—partly because you’re more mobile and you don’t have video village. I like the pressure of shooting fewer takes with the limitation of film. It makes everybody more focused. You need an extremely skilled crew that knows what they’re doing, so you get that level of professionalism on set, which I enjoy.
To expose film, you need high levels of light, and high levels of light create the kind of glamor and magic you used to have in older movies. You take film stock and combine it with light and you get cinema magic. If you use really high-speed film, and you don’t have to use a lot of light, and in that case, film and video aren’t as different. It’s really the light that creates the magic.
Everybody uses soft light now, or they try to use no light—they try to make it look like they aren’t using lights. They’ll enhance light, but it’s meant to look like they’re using natural light and not artificial light.
"The only way you can try to make something original is if it is personal."
You asked me about style and substance earlier, and the lighting is a big part of that discussion. For example, if I’m trying to make an actress cast a spell over the audience, a lot of that spell has to do with the way her face is lit. You can take the most beautiful girl in the world, and you can stick her in a room and not light her, and she’ll just look normal. Like a selfie. It's not glamor until you light it.
M. David Mullen and I had worked together before on a short film, and because of that I 100% trusted him. He’s a genius. I worked really hard to get him for this movie. I knew he knew how to do everything we needed for this kind of look. We met a few times during pre-production to go over the script, and he was very meticulous. He asked me a lot of questions. When we were on set, we hardly communicated at all because he’s so good as knowing exactly what I wanted. He would just light something, choose the right lens, the right framing. Everything would be perfect the first time!
NFS: Was there specific reference material you shared with Mullen?
Biller: We are both cinephiles. The films I wanted to talk to him about were already in his collection that he’d seen a million times. It was more about getting him to watch a film again. Developing an eye for this required years and years and years of being a cinephile. We had the same movies in our eye.
I gave him a few more obscure titles, just to show that there was a range that we could go in. At times we could get into a more low-budget look, for example, if we didn’t have the resources. I wanted him to know it didn’t always have to look like a perfect studio movie. He did lots of stuff with filtration on the lenses, and other stuff he didn’t discuss with me—he just did it. Because he knew exactly what I wanted. I was very lucky.
NFS: What's your advice for filmmakers looking to explore topics and bend genres?
Biller: Make whatever movie you want to make. Make whatever your own thing is—that you’re most obsessed with, what you love the most, what turns you on the most. Be as weird as you want. Make your own movie. People should stop copying other people and try to do what’s inside of their own head. [Filmmakers] are always successful when they do what is really personal to them. The only way you can try to make something original is if it is personal. Because we’re all different.