In pallid film landscape of 2016, Anna Biller’s movie The Love Witch was a burst of reviving Technicolor, a delightful feminist romp as pleasing to the eye as it is soothing to the soul. The titular love witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson), is a toxic narcissist, more in love with love than with the men she squeezes to a pulp to get every last drop of whatever feeling they have to offer. The Love Witch is Biller’s singular creation: she is its director, writer, producer, production designer, costume designer, and set dresser. If our culture celebrated female fantasies on celluloid the way it celebrated masculine ones, Biller would be mentioned in the same breath as Quentin Tarantino. Biller and I met at Square One Dining in East Hollywood for breakfast to talk about female fantasy, technicolor cinema lighting, and the proper way to poach an egg.
Anna Biller: I love poached eggs, I eat them almost every day. The first time I had really good poached eggs was in Australia. We went to this little joint and they made them properly. Hardly any restaurants in the U.S. make poached eggs properly.
Extra Crispy: What is a proper poached egg?
The proper way is either to make them a mold or to make them in just water in a small pot. The improper way is to make them with vinegar. The vinegar helps contain the egg white, so the white doesn’t splat everywhere. One reason restaurants do it with vinegar is because if you have a really, really fresh egg, it keeps it’s shape perfectly in vinegar, it will be perfectly round when you poach it, and if it’s not that fresh the egg white will dissipate all over the water. Many restaurants don’t know what kind of eggs they have, necessarily.
The problem with that is that your egg tastes like vinegar, but also, it does something bizarre to the white. The vinegar shrinks the white all up, makes it small. In Australia, where all the eggs are organic, eaten right that day from the farm, they’re very confident about just sticking the egg in water. I get really, really fresh eggs so I know I can poach mine in just water.
The waitress approaches and asks our order, and Biller asks if they poach their eggs in water. She runs to the kitchen to check.
I’ve never heard someone ask about that before!
Nobody ever asks, which is why the servers are always really startled. If they poach them in vinegar, I get something else. Most people can’t even taste the difference, but I’m really weird that way.
When our excellent—and properly poached—eggs benedict arrive, our conversation shifts to Biller’s vision for The Love Witch, starting with the feeling you get while watching that the story exists in no particular time period, but is faintly anchored in the modern day with a few shots of computers, cell phones, and modern cars.
You have very Victorian aesthetics but also draw from the psychedelic era, but The Love Witch is also set in modern times. Can you talk about that time slippage?
I planned on setting the movie in the modern day. All the things in the movie, in terms of the script and the ideas about feminism, are modern day. But then, I started actually making the film and I have certain aesthetics. I wanted to create Victorian references because they remind me of Hammer films, which are a Technicolor-type horror films that I’m trying to reference. I’m also trying to reference the ‘60s and ‘70s because I feel like that was a time when women had really great makeup and hair, and somebody who is self-styled as a siren is going to style herself in that period. That was a time when women wore fetish underwear and glamour makeup.
Elaine’s a modern day character, and she’s out of time because she’s this kind of girl who has these self-fantasies, sees herself as this old screen siren type. Her friends are like that too because they’re witches and burlesque dancers. It’s become my style, to have my projects look so filmic and so retro. Even if they were wearing modern clothes and all the cars were modern it would look that way, because of the lighting and the quality of the film stock.
Do you think there’s anything available in theaters right now that gives the modern audience the language to read your movie?
There’s a misconception, even among a lot of the bigger critics, that my movie is all about the style. But audiences respond to most films on the level of story, on the level of content, on the level of “what does the film say” or “what does the film mean.” If you have a movie and it’s filled with visual tropes and that’s all they are, if they’re just clever references to older films, that’s not going to interest too many people. If you didn’t get the references, the movie wouldn’t work for you.
The way I wrote this movie was as a personal story that had a lot of meaning for me, outside of the style, which is something put on at the end. The style is meaningful in that it’s symbolic, but I don’t feel that it actually makes the movie. You could take the style out, shoot it in a contemporary way, and it would work just as well, because it’s about the story and the characters.
For example, people who love Quentin Tarantino’s films are into his message, not just the visuals, this idea of having romantic fantasies about being male, filtered through this hipster-ness and cinephilia. They’re responding to more the core of his emotional center, bringing back this idea of masculinity that isn’t shameful, this masculinity that you can celebrate.
In The Love Witch, I’m talking about femininity that you can celebrate. That’s why women are responding to it, when they wouldn’t necessarily respond to other films from that period that just have a similar style. I don’t respond to the Giallo films that everybody compares The Love Witch to. They have beautiful women and they have some really pretty colors and some good set design, but they bore me to death because there’s nothing I can latch onto emotionally. It’s like, “she’s pretty, but what else?”
And in your story, you wanted there to be something else.
Some of the things I like about older movies are that they have really incredible female characters and they had styles of acting I really loved: presentational, actors who spoke in clear voices with good diction. I have fetishes about things like good balanced design, or sets that have depth in them, or actors that are shot to stand out from the background. A film that I’m inspired by may not be an exploitation film. It’s probably more likely to be a Hitchcock film.
I wanted The Love Witch to be about female fantasy. My fantasies have so much has to do with things I see in older movies, and my film is about combining my life experience with older movies. The Love Witch isn’t about recreating someone else’s fantasy, it’s about expressing my fantasy.