Interview: Anna Biller on The Love Witch, critics, feminism and female pleasure
Rachel Bowles | On 27, Mar 2017
Anna Biller is a 21st century auteur. For her new film, The Love Witch, she acted not only as director, producer, scriptwriter and art director, but also designed and crafted most of the costumes, scored the film and had a hand in its sumptuous classical lighting and cinematography.
The Love Witch centres on Elaine (a pitch-perfect Samantha Robinson), a widowed witch who just wants a man to love. Like a classic Hitchcock heroine, Elaine drives through Americana, glancing in her rear view mirror, as she flees gossip surrounding her husband’s suspicious death. Setting up shop in San Francisco, Elaine rebuilds her life, peddling her witchy wares, making friends and trying to mend her broken heart through love potions and sex magick. However, trouble stalks poor Elaine, her beaus begin to act hysterically, and it isn’t long before they start to disappear or die, one by one.
The movie has earned a cult following and critical acclaim, setting the festival circuit ablaze with its feminine charms, stunning 60s aesthetic and cutting gender politics. It’s intelligent, suspenseful and riotously funny, but the film (and even Biller herself) has also received some backlash, dismissal and mislabelling – even, occasionally, from its fans.
With The Love Witch now out on DVD and VOD, we sit down to chat with her about cinema, the reality of being a female director, and the male-dominated nature of film criticism.
Warning: This conversation contains spoilers for the film.
How are you feeling about The Love Witch blowing up as such a cultural phenomenon since it first premiered last year?
It’s amazing. I wasn’t expecting it, so it’s nice to have your work seen and talked about.
What has been the most surprising reaction to The Love Witch?
I haven’t really been too surprised by any of the reactions, but I have been a little disappointed in some of them. I wish there had been more people that just took the film seriously as a regular piece of cinema.
It seems to have been taken seriously within women’s journalism and particularly within feminist journalism.
That’s true; it’s mostly split along gender lines. Then the reactions are also a little bit split along cinephilia lines, so that the men who do respond to The Love Witch and take it seriously tend to be cinephiles. So there’s two splits. I’m not really sure, but I think people who have watched more cinema, those who have a broader understanding of cinema from different periods of time, they seem to understand what I’m doing better. I think that the broader cinema knowledge makes it so that people don’t tend to take such a narrow view of what they think film and The Love Witch should be.
It’s such a rich film, there’s so many… not influences because that seems a little reductive. You’re taking those cinematic influences and doing something entirely different with it, rather than anything derivative.
It’s more that I’ve just watched so many movies in my life so I’m just taking from that general experience of cinema and not from trying to copy any specific type of movie, so I think people who have watched as many movies as I have may understand what I’m doing a little bit better because they won’t have the style be such a block in terms of what I’m doing. I think if you’ve seen as many movies as I have, you’ll actually realise that it’s not a pastiche. You’ll realise that out of maybe hundreds or thousands of films you’ve seen, that you actually haven’t seen a film like it.
I realised when I was writing it and making it that it was a completely original film. What bothers me about being compared to sexploitation directors is that their films were made for a specific audience and a specific market and a specific time. That time doesn’t exist anymore, where filmmakers were breaking apart censorship codes to try to rebel; where sexuality and nudity were seen as a new frontier, and this in of itself being interesting to people. It was sort of a liberal left achievement to be able to go into more explicit forms of filmmaking. So that time isn’t now, it’s passed. Ironically, the emphasis on the sexuality and nudity of the heroine in The Love Witch is quite low. It’s much more about Elaine’s interior life and the things that happen to her. Comparing the contexts of old sexploitation films and cinema now – they were making the most explicit movies they possibly could and showing as much female flesh as they possibly could, and I’m living in a time where what I’m showing is tamer than what you see on cable television, so surely it’s kind of a strange comparison to make.
I think what men fail to see is this phenomenon of how women are excluded from so much of cinema in terms of their fantasies, their desires, their concerns, so they don’t actually understand when they see a movie that is different, that comes from a female consciousness and concerns female fantasies, how different that is. I think that’s the most interesting thing about my film in a way, how it actually is able to depict women without showing them in terms of male fantasy.
Definitely. A big part of that when watching the film is that it really embodies the female gaze. Would you be happy with that label? Is that something you tried to achieve?
Oh yes, absolutely! My whole goal in creating cinema is to see how I can create cinema from a female gaze, and it doesn’t always have to be feminist; it can be more that it’s coming from a female consciousness. Sometimes people use the term ‘feminist’ in kind of a meaningless, generic way.
Would you be happy with your film being labelled a feminist work or would you qualify that in a certain way?
No, I think it is feminist, I just think that a lot of the people that use the word ‘feminist’ don’t know what it means. It’s a little strange, because if someone can say it’s sexploitation and yet it’s feminist, it means they may not know what either of those words actually mean because it’s an oxymoron; you can’t have both. You can say it’s an erotic film that’s feminist, but you can’t talk about exploitation being feminist, issues like that.
Also, I think there’s a way in which the word feminist has been co-opted for use by people who are not feminist at all in their thinking and ideas. For example, the sex industry tries to co-opt the word ‘feminist’ to talk about their thinking, their ideas. They think of these old sexploitation movies as being feminist because they’re allowing women to express their sexuality ‘freely’, but they would also call a lot of hardcore pornography feminist because they’ll say the woman is enjoying herself. This is why the word ‘feminist’ is pernicious, because different people will use it for different agendas.
I would say my film is feminist in almost a purer way, and so I don’t like the word ‘feminist’, because it’s used for movies that contain really ridiculous female superheroes for a lot of men to enjoy, for cinema that’s really quite misogynistic, and it’s just used too much nowadays in silly, meaningless ways. I feel like when people are using the word, they should be using it seriously or not at all. It weakens the movement, it makes the term completely meaningless, so that kind of usage takes a lot of power away from it.
Do you get annoyed at people thinking that Elaine or The Love Witch, in general, isn’t feminist, because the film deals with a lot of issues of femininity?
That’s kind of my point. Women are often feminine, and that’s not a bad thing to be feminine; it’s just that it’s been used against women. I don’t think there’s any problem with femininity and feminism being used together, because if that were a problem, that would mean we should be ashamed somehow of being women, being feminine. That’s a problem; it’s a problem to think feminism is about trying to be like a man. I’ve tried to explore the experience of being a woman and I’ve noticed I actually have some feminine traits and qualities that are innate to me, that I don’t think are results of me being brainwashed by some force that’s been telling me to be feminine or some kind of problem or flaw in my character or personality or who I am. I feel quite strongly about that, because I really wasn’t raised in a conventional way as a girl.
I was closer to my father and was not really socialised as a girl very much, so my discovery of my femininity came later through a lot of psychological examination of myself and soul searching, and so I feel like I adopted it and I felt comfortable with it, but I felt, culturally, it was hard to do that, because there’s so much anger and negativity around femininity. I think it’s horrible for women to have be so ashamed of being feminine, girls having to be ashamed of themselves. I want to make movies that are honest about what it’s like to be a girl and I think that’s something that people need to think about sometimes.
So many people have so much internalised misogyny; it’s probably something that almost every woman has experienced.
I think no matter what kind of woman you are, even if you’re extremely masculine, butch etc., you’re going to experience internalised misogyny. So when women see that there’s a woman in a movie and she’s being tormented by a lot of ominous male voices repeated from memory in her mind – they’re tormenting her all the time and she’s got all this self doubt and she has so much fear, and her response is to create her own image out of make-up, clothes, etc., they understand that that response is real. They don’t think of it as camp or kitsch or that it’s something retro; they feel it in their daily lives. I think that’s a real difference between male and female interpretations of the movie.
It’s a very urgent, pressing film and very contemporary. Was it important to you to use gothic conceits? The gothic deals with excessive pleasure and excessive love and what’s the right kind of woman and what’s the wrong kind of woman. Your film deals with that incredibly well.
I think that’s one way in which we try and go to female fantasy. A lot of romance novels that were written for women and by women were written in a gothic setting because women like to fantasise about sexuality and love and romance in a setting that isn’t threatening to them, which is far enough removed from them so that they can be comfortable. I think that the character of Elaine, her fantasies about herself, are almost based on those type of romance novels, where she’ll be a perfect heroine, either a perfect My Fair Lady actress in a tearoom, or she’ll be a perfect Victorian gothic heroine painting in her parlour, another romantic setting.
Another way I was trying to signal female fantasy was by putting her in these pseudo-Victorian dresses with her perfect hair and makeup – it’s a kind of mask that she was hiding behind where she felt safe. It’s also a barrier between her and the men she dates, because I feel men always want women nude and natural and stripped down and bare, and so she puts on all these layers to protect herself; even [with] her fetish lingerie, the idea is that she has so many contraptions and things to get through before we can get to the real her, and she’s really sensitive.
They’re really pleasurable for her. The Love Witch highlights feminine labour in Elaine’s makeup and food preparation and spells, but these are rituals that are really pleasurable for Elaine to do and for us to watch. You were saying how men want natural women but actually they don’t really want natural, they want what they think is ‘natural’, like, for example, invisible, natural-looking makeup. The Love Witch makes all these pleasurable feminine rituals and labour visible.
Yeah, absolutely. I spent so long on crafts, making those soaps and candles and herb bags and dolls, that was all part of it as well.
One thing that’s happened, going back to an earlier question about the [critical] response, is I’ve felt all this backlash against myself being a woman. I made this movie partly as a response to all the misogyny I’ve experienced in my life, but I didn’t realise how much misogyny there really was until this movie came out.
The thing that’s sad for me is that so many people love the movie so much, and that they love it in a misogynistic, sexist way. They feel like I’m giving them something that they’ve been missing, a way to very overtly objectify a woman in a movie because they feel they’ve been sanctioned or allowed to do that because I’m a female director so it’s okay. In a way that’s a big relief for them, to be able to have this very stark objectification. They can come out in the open about it because they think I’m condoning it. So the sexism that has come at me has been very condensed and has been very sad for me, in a way, because it’s made me feel very objectified as a director actually.
Is it because you identify with Elaine? Obviously, she’s your creation.
It’s more the feeling of being a flesh-peddler madam rather than a film director. Like I’m giving them a sexual spectacle or a sex show, and I’ve done it for men and so they come and gawk. It’s sad for me that people look at it that way, because it’s actually kind of horrifying. Since I’ve been talking more openly in interviews about what my intentions are and [how] I’m not trying to be like Russ Meyer and I don’t think it’s sexploitation, I’ve got a little backlash about that too, so now I’ve got people in their reviews commenting on my comments. Saying things like “she obviously doesn’t know what she’s really doing but she really is doing this”; “she really is doing sexploitation whether she knows it or not”.
It’s horrifying because [of] what it is that people are saying… I’m fully aware that I’ve created a character that men are going to lust after; I’m not unaware of that, that people would have that reaction. It’s not like I’m clueless about the fact that men would find [Elaine] attractive and they would have lust over her. That’s not what I’m saying, but when they’re saying I’m doing this thing but I’m unaware of it, really they’re saying the only consciousness is a male consciousness. They’re saying that their male consciousness trumps my female consciousness, even though I’m the filmmaker; that their desire and their lust trump my desire to explain the interior of a woman’s life and consciousness.
What it makes it feel like, to me, is that men think that I’m painting a negative portrait of men in the movie, but from the response [to the film], it’s more negative than even the movie is. I identify with the character [Elaine], in the sense that it makes me feel that, actually, men don’t care about a woman’s life, what a woman goes through and they’re not interested in it. Even though it’s being presented to them as a story, they’re refusing to look at the significance of it as a story or even to give it credit for being a story or even talk about the story as a story. It’s some kind of simulacrum or a pastiche or it’s a joke, so they refuse to look at the story, so they’re totally uninterested in what a woman’s life is and what they’re saying is that all that women are is to be looked at. That is what they’re saying: I enjoy looking at this woman, this is my sexuality, this is my gaze, and this is what it means. Then, if I’ve come out in interviews and said that I’m doing something more serious, they’re actually rejecting that; they’re rejecting what I’ve said, that I’m doing something more. So they’re rejecting me, my actress and my consciousness and, by extension, the consciousness of all women, the validity of female experience; so it becomes highly political, the reaction of the film.
It’s interesting how the film is a mirror [for how] people feel, not only about gender but about cinema, so I think that if people love old movies, then they don’t have these problems with it. A lot of these problems are like twisted up, strong emotions they have, not only about gender but also about lighting, things like lighting or the pace of editing. So this is why cinephiles that are comfortable with a large range of movies, starting from the 1920s, who are used to different kinds of rhythms and colours and lighting, aren’t having these issues or problems. So there’s also that, there’s the gender problem, but there’s also the problem of people watching cinema that doesn’t look like cinema from today.
Those are two hugely important issues. Speaking as a female film critic, we have a huge problem with lack of representation and it sounds like there have been male critics who have co-opted the language of film studies in general to dismiss you. Like the notion you’re subconsciously putting out an idea rather than that this is your film – to basically deny that you have consciously made this incredible film.
It works on a couple of different levels. One level that I mentioned before is it takes the woman out of the picture as a subject in my story; it makes it more about a male audience looking at her, so it makes it indistinguishable from other movies that were partly or highly sexist, bad for women, terrible for women – misogynistic directors like Russ Meyer. Then, the second thing is a refusal to place me within a history of cinema in terms of some of the things I’m doing, which should be seen as interesting, in terms of an original type of mise-en-scene or cinematography or the kinds of thing that, if I were a male director, they’d be given credit for having made something a little bit more original.
The comparison to sexploitation, first of all, is a comparison to a degraded, disrespected genre that isn’t considered serious cinema; second of all, it’s a way of saying the film isn’t original but is a copy of something, which also takes me down quite a bit, in terms of being an author of anything.
An answer to the first part might be that if we look at The Love Witch as a gothic text, gothic literature was always put down because it was about women, often written by women and women enjoyed reading it.
Actually, men refuse to acknowledge it’s a movie for women. They’re saying it’s a movie for them; it’s for their sexual excitation.
And this is why we can’t have nice things.
It makes me think I don’t want to give men sexual pleasure on the screen. I wasn’t doing it for them; I was doing it for myself, because I enjoy some sensuality on the screen and some beauty, so it was really for me. I wasn’t doing it with men in mind at all.
That response shows a complete lack of understanding of female sexuality and how we see ourselves.
This is because I think men don’t think women know anything about sexuality. In fact, Russ Meyer, who I’m always compared to, had a quote where he said, I don’t know which book I read it in, women don’t know anything about sex, women don’t know anything about sexuality. But, of course, they don’t have male sexuality, but I think that’s because male sexuality is considered the only sexuality.
If anything we’re more sexual because we have to be. If we have the male gaze, most of the time we have to identify with women who are very sexualised, and then we’re finding our own pleasure within perhaps a very sexist text. The next stage of that is making your own, something like The Love Witch, which is taking something that was once sexist and then making it into something pleasurable.
Women have to go through that and it’s very difficult, and their sexuality has to be very mediated through a lot of things before it can be discovered to be what it truly is for each woman. Obviously, women recognise that. The women who have not responded to the film are women who are not comfortable with gender either, in an interesting way. They’re not comfortable with the feminine; they’ve been [patriarchy]-identified in the sense that they feel that feminine women are ridiculous.
Which is so sexist.
Absolutely, it’s a sexist view, but they might think I’m sexist for thinking that I’m buying into this trap of women needing to be this, but the film is a polemic on that and it doesn’t really take one point of view or the other on it. It just presents it, because I present Trish [Laura Waddell] and she’s a sympathetic character as well. There’s moments of the film where you completely go into her world and you get away from Elaine and then you start to hate Elaine, so I feel like most women can relate to both sides, both characters, because they’ve had moments where they’ve had both kinds of consciousness or decisions they’ve made about how to present themselves to the world.
The characters are so amazing, they’re so fully realised. Trish doesn’t necessarily have a lot of screen time but we still know her so well and we can slip into her subjectivity.
Yeah, and I think there’s that whole sequence near the end where we’re [focused] almost entirely on her for quite a while. She has the tragedy with her husband in the tea room, then she discovers Elaine’s apartment and she goes through a transformation, so we stay with her for quite a few minutes there going just completely into her world, and for me that was important.
Something really striking in the film is when Elaine is being sensual and she’s kind of fantasising but she’s remembering things as well, and she’s remembering her father talking to her and her husband saying abusive things to her. That really made me think about how women deal with trauma. One in four women have been sexually assaulted, one in four women have been domestically abused, so there’s a significant number of women that have to get past some kind of trauma in order to feel that kind of sensual pleasure again. That’s something very rarely shown on screen, and you did it with Elaine and it was a really important moment in the film.
That was difficult for me to put that in there. It made me almost a little bit afraid, but it was powerful and I felt it was scary. It scared me because women do have these negative thoughts about themselves constantly that come from their experiences and things men have said to them. She talks in the beginning in a voiceover about how she still has intrusive thoughts, and I thought I have to put in some of her intrusive thoughts, the way that she’s made to feel so worthless and how you can also see that her desire to be perfect is also because her husband rejected her because he didn’t think she was tidy enough or thin enough or anything.
You can see, if you’d like to call them this, Elaine’s excessive or monstrous qualities where she’s really OTT about being perfect and they’ve come from this abuse. Speaking as a champion of wicked witch characters or female baddies, it’s wonderful to have her side of the story rather than just: this is an evil woman that should be burnt at the stake.
This is why I’ll always insist that the character is coming more from the older horror films and pre-code films more than from any later period, because this is where you’ll find these kinds of delicious wicked heroines where you could get inside their modus and their reasons for doing things even though they were so wicked. You could really see why they were going the way they were going and what drove them to it and how they were living in a man’s world and this was the only way they could claw their way to the top – movies like Baby Face , all of the great noir films about wicked women. They were only shown to be wicked due to their circumstances, not because they are women and women are horrible and incomprehensible and evil.
I think some time in the 60s, cinema really changed its attitude towards women and women started to have really terrible roles and this is when they made all the sexploitation movies and all the slasher movies. In slasher movies, women are just killed and mutilated and they’re not real characters. So you have the horror films before that period where there would be women in danger, women in peril; the noir films with a really interesting heroine and you’d feel her fear and go through her danger, but it was not in order to brutalise and kill her and enjoy the spectacle of her death. It was in order to experience her feelings she’s going through – a tragedy. Also, the men were implicated in these films as being the reason for her problem, the men were the violent ones; violent husbands. Now we have killers in slasher films, they don’t even have a face or a name, they’re just wearing a mask. They’re not implicated as real men, like real men in the world who actually kill women. You mentioned domestic violence, but men should have to look at these movies of male monsters killing women, they should be able to look at themselves and their own violence.
They’re not being made aware that they’re voyeuristic and they’re part of the killing; the monster is masked or faceless, there’s no responsibility, there’s no sort of Peeping Tom  awareness.
All male responsibility is taken away for the violence towards women and then the deaths of women are so incredibly gruesome and painful, and I’ve been in public audiences where people are cheering and laughing and getting very excited and happy when women are becoming killed, mutilated, raped and everything like that. They really seem to enjoy that happening and the older films had nothing but pity for anybody who died; the death was treated the way it would be treated in life about someone you loved, so you’d be in deep grief.
Then I get people interviewing me and asking me, “Why are your films about love? Why are you interested in love?” These defensive questions as if what I’m doing is sort of suspect, suspicious. No one interviews a horror director and asks why they mutilate women, but question me about somebody wanting love as if that’s somehow perverted. So that’s where we are.
Speaking as someone who watches a lot of horror at festivals, if a woman’s sexually assaulted you’ll hear smatterings of laughter…
Clapping even, and cheering and rejoicing.
At festivals like Frightfest, there are always wonderful films by female directors but then there’ll be just absolutely terrible films; not just misogynistic but where there is that kind of atmosphere where people are cheering and clapping.
For me it makes me wonder, is that what men think of me, do men want me dead? Do they just want me to be dead? Women dead? They love to watch us dead, it’s their favourite thing.
And it always has been, all the songs, poems and paintings about dead women.
I have this joke where I say I don’t like to watch too many slasher films because I think women are more interesting alive than dead. So I think about a movie like Blood and Black Lace, people compare me to Mario Bava all the time, which is interesting but I don’t think is accurate. So maybe Blood and Black Lace , what I would do if I was directing that movie is that I would keep all of the women alive through the whole movie because they’re beautiful models, and I’d have conversations and dialogues and maybe someone would get killed somewhere but I wouldn’t be killing off all those actresses one by one, that’s for sure. I’d keep them alive and I’d have them do more fashion shows and have some interesting conversations with each other at least, and maybe one or two could get killed for the story, but it would be later, so you would at least get to see them acting and being pretty on screen. So that sure isn’t how I would make a movie.
I’d love to see that, and to see them murdering as well! It’s interesting with Elaine in The Love Witch that she doesn’t actually go around murdering everyone the way maybe a femme fatale character would.
She only directly kills one person. There is a question about the other deaths, whether she was directly responsible or maybe just more indirectly responsible.
The tampon scene, where she’s found out she’s menstruating is so good. It’s just such a simple thing and it’s something you never see. It’s something that’s thought of as so disgusting even to women, which is sad. It’s just wonderful to see that in a film, represented really casually; as totally fine and not disgusting.
So for all the stylisation of the film, in terms of the cinematography and some of the costumes and make-up, what actually happens is a lot of it is very naturalistic in terms of just watching her do the things she would do, go about her life and how she is, just doing things like painting or making crafts; or putting in a tampon or gathering herbs and just doing normal things. I don’t think you see women in movies just going about their lives too much, going about doing normal things. I was inspired by Jeanne Dielman (1975) for some of that. I had a lot more scenes originally of her doing things like cooking and more crafts and things like that, and I had to not make the movie too long so I cut it out. I originally wanted to spend more time just following her around doing just very basic things.
It is so very pleasurable; she’s not just magically there and magically beautiful.
Yeah, you see her and she wakes up and her make-up is a little bit smeared and she has to put her hair on and make herself pretty again for him, to bring him breakfast, and you see the labour of that.
We’re so used to Hollywood films, or even indie films, where the woman wakes up looking perfect and that’s that. I wanted to talk a little about your lighting and cinematography because I think it’s so beautiful and just adds to the richness of the film. I read about you using Dior tights over the lens.
My cinematographer [M. David Mullen] did that, he has all these tricks and one of them is using antique silk stockings over the lenses, which Von Sternberg’s cinematographer did. He used that to create the glints on the chalice – those sparkles where it’s like a big diamond of sparkle that comes out. He just absolutely knew how to recreate the type of classic cinematography that I wanted. It was really wonderful working with him.
It’s so sumptuous to look at and adds a another layer to the sensuality.
It’s very hard to get cinematographers to light that way, because they’ve all been trained that dark is better, not to use too much light or just use available light and make it look as if there’s no lighting. They think it’s artificial and don’t believe in it. To get someone who’s even interested in it is difficult and then you need to get somebody who can actually execute it, because it’s much more difficult than contemporary lighting. You have to create highlights and shadows and then people need to walk through them, if you get someone perfectly lit in one spot, they won’t be perfectly lit in another spot. The actors have to hit very exact marks and they have to keep their heads almost tilted. It’s more difficult for the actors, because they have to not feel self-conscious about hitting a spot.
You have to plan everything out ahead of time, all of the blocking. You really have to have storyboards for every shot. Otherwise, the lighting takes too long because the cinematographer has to know exactly what shots you’re doing in the day and this is why it’s also very difficult to shoot in real houses. You want to pre-light everything on a grid so you have cords and cables and stands off the floor, because every angle you have to re-light, so everything has to be moved so it can take an incredible amount of time, if you’re moving all the cables and all the lights round on the floor. So this is why they shot all the old movies on soundstages and it made more sense. We couldn’t do that, we couldn’t build all of our sets, because it’d have been too expensive so we had to try to light that way on location, it was very difficult.
The Love Witch is so detailed and rich. Considering how incredibly involved you were with every part of the film, it’s infuriating that you’ve had that kind of response from male critics suggesting you didn’t know what you’re doing when every detail is so painstaking.
So often the words used are like ‘trash’ and ‘sleaze’ and ‘schlock’. Negative words are so often applied to it, which is surprising me because of the amount of work and labour and craft that went into the production and lighting, and into the acting. I got very good actors who’ve been made fun of a lot, so it’s been weird. What’s interesting is that a lot of it has been really passive aggressive in terms of getting a four or five star review, but where they say something like how this is such a delicious film even though it’s silly, frilly, trashy, sleazy. They use every horrifying adjective in the book but they love it because they love trash movies or something like that.
It’s maybe a way to dismiss the value of pleasure; and definitely about you being a female auteur.
That’s very interesting, the value of pleasure, because I think we’re living in a time where pleasure is very much looked down on. Of course, male directors won’t be questioned about their pleasures.
Yes, of course. It’s not like a throwaway pleasure. I don’t want to make to distinctions, but something like pornography is a perhaps a trashy throwaway pleasure and The Love Witch isn’t at all.
It’s actually the pleasure of cinema, an aesthetic cinema of images of beauty and a detailed thought process, it’s that kind of pleasure. The pleasure of a pure cinema. I don’t mean to sound arrogant but that’s what I think it is, it’s not the pleasure of a B movie, it’s the pleasure of cinema itself.
I’ve had two people recently compare The Love Witch to Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and that really, really shocked me. I think this is [symptomatic of] how people struggle with cinematography or anything that isn’t just completely current or in the current style. They just take anything that just isn’t the current style and lump it into this category of spoof.
Regarding Samantha Robinson, her performance is just incredible. What was your working relationship like and how did you manage to achieve that?
It was really wonderful working with her because she’s very open and she takes acting very seriously, and we both approach material from an intellectual standpoint. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with an actor who is so intellectual, who’s so much coming from the brain as her. A lot of actors come more from movement or different things. You have to tap into how the actor works, but she and I work in a similar way, so I was able to just explain the concepts behind the character and she was able to take those and try to internalise them as if they were her own feelings and thoughts and values. That’s how she came at the character; to try and understand what everything was, where it was supposed to be coming from, and just create the character very deeply.
In the beginning we watched some movies to inspire her. Different kinds of femme fatales, especially noir films, but it was more that she was just trying to grasp all the layers and nuances of the character so she could, when she was playing the scenes, come from an authentic place rather than her trying to copy anything or do anything mechanically.
There’s definitely nothing she’s parodying, it’s Elaine.
What was really nice about her is I think she played love very well, very authentically, and I also thought she played fear very well. The character is wearing a mask a lot of the time, so I think that’s what people mistake for wooden acting; the character herself is playing a role where she’s putting something on. But then there are moments where the mask slips and she shows real love and longing, and then when she shows real fear when she’s being attacked by Trish and by the mob, and where her real feelings come out and you can see that she’s very vulnerable. I thought that was wonderful the way she did that.
She was incredible. You’re really identifying and rooting for Trish at one point, but then Elaine’s so afraid and your heart breaks for her.
I think, in a way, that’s true; part of the success of the movie is that I did have really good actors. I also wrote them to be really deep characters because nobody is a stereotype, or this person is a good person, that person is the evil person. Everyone has nuances, so the actors were excited to get roles that were nuanced and they did as much as they could with the material they had.
Masculinity and male fragility is also dealt with really well through the male characters.
With the male characters, I didn’t really have to direct any of them, they just came naturally to those performances, and what they told me was that the script felt very real to them and they were pulling the stuff out of their experiences and own lives as well, so that was interesting.
It’s really funny when Wayne [Jeffrey Vincent Parise] the lecturer says that the women who stimulate him intellectually are too unattractive homely, and the attractive women aren’t smart enough, and Elaine’s saying ‘poor, poor baby’. And obviously Elaine’s extremely intelligent and she’s just cooing him, and he doesn’t have a clue what he’s into at all.
Yeah that’s fun in a way to write a scene like that. That dialogue from Wayne came from a friend of mine who said those exact things to me when he was complaining about women.
Oh my god, did you correct him?
No, it was great material. I study what they do, so I can write good characters. So all the men come from men I know, they weren’t coming from movies or fictional characters, and it was fun to write these scenes where she’s cooing at these men and they’re so clueless and, you know this isn’t going to work out very well for them. They’re not really going to get away with it.
The Love Witch is available on All 4.