Bright Lights Film Journal

Staging Pleasure: In Conversation with The Love Witch’s Anna Biller

The Love Witch

On The Love Witch: “I like to make films with a kind of dream logic. My films are a mix of reality and fantasy, or a mix of what is happening and what people wish was happening, or what they fear will happen.”

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Anna Biller is a supremely exciting filmmaker. Her enthusiasm and love for all areas of the filmmaking process is infectious. One can’t help but become obsessed with the details of her films, which include Viva (2007) and The Love Witch (2016). The labor that goes into all aspects of her pictures reminds me of Jacques Tati’s Playtime: there’s so much to see, to take in. It overwhelms. On her most recent picture, The Love Witch, Biller is writer, director, producer, art director, costume designer, editor, and more.

The Love Witch concerns Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a witch who flees to San Francisco after her husband dies under mysterious circumstances. In her new home, she reconnects with old friends, sells her personalized goods, and attempts to find the love of her life. The picture is at once an earnest exploration of romance, a critique of the masculine ideal of womanhood, and a how-to guide on creating the richest lighting and color palettes since Douglas Sirk. With The Love Witch now out on home video and video on demand, we discussed, via email, the film’s conception, fantasy, and design.

You did so much to bring this picture to life. What was the process for creating, gathering ideas, managing time? What did you start with? What came last?

In a nutshell, I do one thing at a time until I have all of the pieces I need to shoot. It starts with theme, character, script research, and the script. Then I work on design, find the locations, storyboard, write songs, and secure cast and crew. Often I cast the actors first and make costumes afterwards, as I did with my lead actress in The Love Witch. Then I pre-record the songs that will be used in the movie. Then I shoot and edit.

How does a character’s wardrobe begin to take shape? Did certain character designs stem from a specific piece?

I have general ideas about wardrobe at the script stage, but I mostly design the wardrobe after I’ve written the script and cast the actors. When I design the wardrobe, I think about the location of the scene, what the character is doing, how they want to present themselves, etc. I like for the costumes to match sets or to be harmonious with them, so in the scene when Elaine is driving her red car I put her in a red dress with red accessories. Her dress is short and casual, since she is driving and it’s daytime. She is wearing a moonstone pendant, since that’s an occult piece of jewelry. She changes costume for the next scene in the tearoom, since that’s a pink room and features ladies in hats, so for that scene she wears an appropriate Victorian-style peach dress with a hat trimmed with flowers. Trish for that scene also wears a peach outfit, but hers is a pantsuit because she is a businesswoman. In the last scene at the bar, I have Elaine in a long dress which is in a Victorian style but feels defiant and witchy because it’s in a theatrical red polyester. I put her in this dress because she is defying Griff in this scene, and I wanted her to wear something that shows her power. I thought specifically of the red dress Scarlett O’Hara wears when she goes to the party after having been caught kissing Ashley. I think about all sorts of things like that when I’m designing the wardrobe.

I’d like to know a little more about the witches’ wardrobe design – the sheer capes, Gahan’s robes …

Witches like to wear capes and robes, because they like to perform ceremonies where they feel ceremonial. The sheer black cape Barbara wears is to show her body through the cape, which is very sexy, since she’s wearing almost nothing underneath it. I put Gahan in royal purple when performing his rites since purple is a magical color, and the robe is in a rough linen so it has the drape and roughness of a monk’s costume, making it feel religious and not just for show. Just recently someone sent me a photo of the witch Raymond Buckley in an almost identical robe, which I’d never seen before. Gahan’s red caftan fits in with the bar, which has a red-draped stage, and it’s trimmed with gold to give it that ceremonial, theatrical quality. I also have him and Elaine lots of big showy rings, and I put Barbara in a soft burgundy wool robe on one scene, and a sexy black dress in another scene. I made most of the other witches’ robes in black linen, but some were in white and there were various capes. I used rope belts for the robes, but in gold cord rather than just jute, because gold feels magical.

The Summer Solstice Faire featured such a variety of costume – the joker, the solstice players, the horse, the mock wedding attire. Where was inspiration drawn and what was the process of creation?

I chose 15th-century Italy for the scene, for various reasons. First, since I had to make the costumes adjustable, since I couldn’t cast the actors that far ahead of time. I couldn’t do 16th-century England like most renaissance fairs do, because the costumes are too fitted. Italian renaissance fashions have a wonderful flow and drape to them. It’s also a whimsical period, and features bright, clear primary colors. In addition, it’s similar to some of the costumes in the Rider-Waite tarot deck, which I wanted to visually reference. I also love Italian renaissance painting from that period, and there are very few films that use costumes from this period, so I knew it would be surprising on the screen. You never see those ladies’ turbans, for instance; the only film where I’ve ever seen those is in Pasolini’s Decameron. And last, I wanted a continuity between the witches’ robes and these costumes, so that the drape and very long sleeves could remind the audience of the witches’ other ceremonial robes.

The process was difficult, since I soon found that there are few patterns available for this period. I do have a book with a few patterns, but they are 1/8 scale and are not sized, so I could only use them as ideas for shapes. But I used these as a starting point and made my own patterns. Then I bought a ton of silk charmeuse and some natural linen, and started sewing. All of the costumes involved several pieces, such as an underdress and an overdress, or an undertunic and overtunic plus a cape, etc. Some of the long tunics took ten yards of fabric. Plus, there were hose and codpieces and hats. After making the costumes, I chose the trim and jewels to decorate them, and made cardboard crowns for Elaine and Griff and the main witches. I waited to make Elaine and Griff’s costumes until after I had cast them. I couldn’t source the shoes until I’d found the whole cast. The entire process took about a year and a half, and I wasn’t finished by the time we started shooting. I begged my friend Barry to help me finish the pantomime horse costume right before shooting, and he also made the jester stick. If he hadn’t made it, we wouldn’t have had one.

Elaine’s style is fantastic – her hats, dresses, eyeshadow. How did you conceive of her look?

It’s all stuff that I fantasize about wearing, outfits I would wear if I was that put together. I used to put a lot of time into my own wardrobe, but since I’ve been making films I’ve put a lot of that energy into film wardrobes instead. I love vintage-inspired clothing, and I used vintage patterns to create her wardrobe. I wanted her to look really stylish, but also to be dressed how I imagine a 1960s witch would dress. I know some girls who dress like Elaine, and I love the way they dress and do their makeup.

Does her style follow a narrative path? I’d also like to discuss the palette of The Love Witch. My eyes are always excited by color-blocking, and the film had such strong, beautiful blocks of color. Could you talk a little about your design aesthetic?

Elaine’s style definitely follows a narrative path. One of her most important outfits is the white dress she wears in the last tearoom scene with Trish. It’s a stylish mod short linen dress with a high collar, so it looks Victorian like her other dresses, but it’s short. More importantly, it’s white. Elaine feels she is going to get married, so she unconsciously is dressing like a bride. The white is also in stark contrast to Trish’s black outfit, that she wears while mourning her dead husband. So Elaine goes from red for danger, to pink for female fantasy, to black with a rainbow lining to signal inner danger, to yellow for aggression, to purple for magic, to multicolored for deception, to white for bridal, then back to red for transgression and finally back to black, for death.

There’s a definite thread of fantasy and play that illuminates Elaine and the film itself. Could you discuss the importance of fantasy in the work?

I like to make films with a kind of dream logic. My films are a mix of reality and fantasy, or a mix of what is happening and what people wish was happening, or what they fear will happen. So, for instance, Elaine’s house is a fantasy witch house, because that’s the house she dreams of, and she comes across a fantasy renaissance faire in the woods where she is married in a mock wedding ceremony, because her fantasy is to be married to this man who has appeared to her in a tarot card. The witches are also fantasy witches, with the perfect altars and costumes. This is fantasy space, but it’s also cinema space. There is a way in which cinema takes life and makes spectacle and theater out of it. And since that’s what I love about cinema, that’s the type of cinema I make. But it’s also a great way to delineate character psychology and desire – through the objects, the sets, the lighting, the poetry of dialogue.

Do you begin to find pieces in certain colors and think, “this purple would look great in Elaine’s room”? Does a set begin as a small collection of similar objects and colors? Elaine’s bedroom is a space that I was so excited by. How did it come to be?

Elaine’s bedroom was originally a kind of gold ochre, inspired by the wallpaper in the movie Bluebeard (below), the one from the ’60s directed by Dmytryk and starring Richard Burton.

But when I was actually shopping for wallpaper, I decided that purple was much better for her bedroom since it’s an occult color, and also because it’s a cool (in temperature) color. I already had gold wallpaper for the living room, so more gold was overkill. Plus the purple flocked wallpaper I found was really incredible. So I changed the walls to purple, and I’m so glad I did. It really was the right color for that room. Sometimes the design is a puzzle, and you don’t figure out the right colors and furniture until the last minute. The purple was so much more moody and interesting. I always knew I wanted her to have a canopy bed in red velvet, and several dressers in dark wood – one as a vanity table, and one as a sort of altar where she could put her shrine to the men she’d loved. Her entire apartment was a mix of Victorian and ’60s Gothic, which is why I think the sets sometimes remind people of the Hammer horror films.

One of the most visual spaces in The Love Witch, for me, was the pink tearoom. Could you take me through the design of the tearoom?

I mainly just felt that I needed that room to be really pink and feminine, and I wanted it to be fancy. I saw a photo of a beautiful restaurant in a hotel in Austria, all pink with arched windows, and I wanted it to look like that. I also wanted it to look like the inside of a womb, with all of the pink. So I found candy-pink carpeting and dyed some white cotton tablecloths pink, and bought a bunch of pink-and-white floral tea sets. We were lucky to get to shoot in the lobby of the Herald Examiner building, with its marble columns, arched windows, and gilded angels, and we laid all the pink items in, plus a beautiful antique sideboard, and that’s all we needed to do, besides bringing in some pink sheers and red velvet drapes. My cinematographer also used pink backlighting to bring out the pink even more, and we had all of the girls in pink so their dresses and hats reflected even more pink.

Set design for the tea room sequence

Do you have a specific piece of costume or design in the picture that thrills you?

My favorite scene is the renaissance wedding scene, and Elaine and Griff’s white silk costumes. So many people think I am being ironic with this movie, but that scene is pure romance and I have absolutely no irony about it. When I watch that fairy tale prince and princess, so in love and so innocent, and then I hear their inner monologues where we realize they are star-crossed, my heart goes into my mouth and I could sob forever in the ecstasy of every love I’ve ever had, and in the despair of every loss I’ve ever suffered.

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Note: Images are screenshots from the film. The tea room sketch was provided by the filmmaker.