In Anna Biller’s vibrantly colored fantasias, there’s not a glimmer of a sequin that hasn’t been envisioned by the artist herself. A writer, director, actor, producer, editor, composer, costume and production designer, and set decorator, she’s a one-woman studio, building a cinematic world that centers female pleasure and eschews the conventions of a male-dominated industry. With images that are saturated with exquisite detail, she pays tribute to a vast repertoire of influences, including old Hollywood musicals, Hitchcockian thrillers, the art-house erotica of Radley Metzger, and the romances of Jacques Demy.
Biller, who was born and continues to live in Los Angeles, has been making films for almost twenty years now, but it wasn’t until the release of her 2016 cult sensation The Love Witch—a horror-fantasy about a spell-casting seductress undone by romantic obsession—that she emerged from the underground to enchant a wider indie audience. Beginning this week on the Criterion Channel, we’re hosting a retrospective that gives viewers a chance to catch up with that film as well as her first feature, Viva, a hyper-stylized evocation of classic exploitation cinema that chronicles the sexual evolution of a bored housewife. Biller’s artistry is also vividly on display in a trio of early short films that round out the series: Three Examples of Myself as Queen, a surreal “retro-fantastic feminist anthem” that casts the director-star as an Arabian ruler, a candy-colored queen bee, and a romantic princess; The Hypnotist, an ode to Hollywood melodramas; and A Visit from the Incubus, a psychosexual horror film draped in the look of a musical western.
In anticipation of the series launching on the Channel, I had a conversation with Biller over e-mail about the costume and production design in her films, and how her process has evolved over the course of her career.
With Three Examples of Myself as Queen, you seemed to arrive as a filmmaker with a distinct and fully formed aesthetic and sense of design. I’m curious to know more about where that came from and how you first started to develop your taste.
I watched almost exclusively classic movies when I was a kid. I was bottle-fed Busby Berkeley, noir films, and musicals, because my mother was obsessed with them. She worked from home designing clothes and had these movies on all the time, and I got so I didn’t want to watch anything else. I’d literally leave the room if a newer movie came on. So I absorbed the glamour and fashions from these films, and the sense of design. I was also quite influenced by my father’s paintings, and he was inspired by Fauvist and Expressionist painters. Later as a teenager I started to get into foreign cinema, and became obsessed with Kurosawa, Renoir, Cocteau, Demy, Dreyer, Rossellini. All of these movies had a huge impact on me. I love the stillness and pageant-like qualities of a lot of this cinema, the way the mise-en-scène was used to create atmosphere.
What does the experience of visual pleasure on-screen mean for you?
The reason I became interested in visual pleasure as a concept is because of Laura Mulvey’s challenge (I took it as a challenge, anyway) to create a cinema of visual pleasure for women. That essay made me think of all of the things that are pleasurable for me, and really freed me from trying to copy things that are current or that other people are doing, especially all of the macho, violent, nihilistic, or even minimalist work that has been so popular in my lifetime. It’s such a personal thing, what gives me pleasure, and I enjoyed the illogic of combining all of these different kinds of pleasure into a movie. It seemed a bit naughty to work like that, especially since working from my fantasies makes my films so odd sometimes. But it’s working from a kind of truth.
Because your films are so beautifully detailed, I’m wondering how you start building these worlds for the screen. What is your research process like?
I usually start with a visual element—like Playboy magazines for Viva or pulp novel covers for The Love Witch—and then start creating a world in my mind around those images. That world grows bigger and bigger as I try to craft something coherent.
Sometimes I start with character and try to figure out who these characters are, what they might wear, where they might live, etc. Then I go into my cinema and interior decorating fantasies and lay those on top of the characters. Or sometimes I start with a world, such as the world of 1930s glamour or 1970s interior decorating, and characters spring from that world. Either way, I watch lots of movies and look through lots of decorating books. I draw and gather pictures and buy fabric and shop and storyboard and paint. The process is a bit like creating an art installation. But it always comes out as an intense amalgamation of character and design.
Was there anything that inspired the general look of The Love Witch?
I became very inspired by photographs of real-life witches in the 1960s, such as Anton LaVey and Alex and Maxine Sanders. I also tried to find films about witches from that time, but they were nearly all exploitation and didn’t really interest me. Bell, Book and Candle was the closest to the feeling I wanted, but it was too modernist. I honestly never found any movies to draw from that were close to what I wanted, so I created a color palette from Tarot cards, and I made and commissioned the original paintings that appear in the film to look like what I thought a witch would paint.
The costume ideas came from her personality, the way I envisioned her as someone with intense princess fantasies who would embody her fantasies in her dress. I found some vintage Gunne Sax dresses and made a few more really romantic long dresses with a Renaissance or Victorian flair that also seemed witchy to me. A lot of choices were made symbolically or to reinforce character and theme. The décor was the same—it came from Tarot cards and from the desire to combine Victorian and hippie elements together, to go with her personality.
Tell me about the process of designing the house that the witch protagonist, Elaine, lives in and crafting its many objects and set pieces.
It took me several years, but over time I was able to slowly make a lot of costumes and props. One thing that took me forever was hooking Elaine’s pentagram rug. It was easy to do but it was so large that it took me six months of evenings to hook. That was for her altar room. I spent a great deal of time on her altar, her witchcraft objects, wands, candles, voodoo dolls, etc., and that scene goes by in about two minutes.
The costumes took me a year and a half, by the time I made all of the Renaissance pieces and accessories. Since I knew I had to make the Renaissance costumes before hiring the actors I made them in the Italian Renaissance style, the period you see in Pasolini’s Decameron, with a lot of loose-flowing garments with drawstrings that would fit a variety of sizes. The Renaissance ladies’ garments had fur trim hand-stitched to the hems and would have been too time-consuming to hem, so I just cast tall women for those roles. I don’t think I’d work that way again, doing most of the pre-production design work myself. But it was wonderful to have the time and control to create her world piece by piece, which I wouldn’t be able to do with a normal pre-production schedule.
I’d also love to know more about constructing the look and feel of the tea room, which is so different than the more gothic and occult motifs of the film.
The tea room was actually one of the easiest sets, because we had a great location to start with, the Herald Examiner building in downtown Los Angeles. It was full of intricate carved stone windows and angels and columns. All we had to do for that set was to bring in pink carpeting and tablecloths, red drapes, pink sheers, round tables and pink velvet chairs, a gold harp, a pink stage, and pink backlighting. The rest was the costumes, all pink and white, and the hats. I wanted there to be this insane suffocating feeling of the feminine, to enhance the conversation the two women were having about princess fantasies and “Victoriana.”
Since you control so many of the visual elements of your films, I’m curious how you and your cinematographer get on the same page stylistically?
It was a dream to work with M. David Mullen the cinematographer on The Love Witch, because like me he is obsessed with classic movies, and has studied the lighting and framing in them in a very detailed way. He knows everything about how to replicate that look, which involves literally painting with hard light and shaping every shadow. That is not easy and can be time-consuming.
Before I got David to commit I was having an awful time finding anyone who could do it, since that style of lighting hasn’t been done in Hollywood with any regularity since the early 1970s, and the older cinematographers who used to do it thought I was crazy for wanting to bring out all of those big heavy lights again, when they were used to working lighter and smaller, like everyone else today. Not only did almost no one know how to shoot this way, hardly anyone wanted to. I interviewed dozens of DPs before David found an opening in his schedule. While I was interviewing these other DPs I would lug around books about classical lighting, but the last thing DPs want is for a director to do that. This is not only because they see that type of lighting as old-fashioned, overlit, and cumbersome, but because they see it as the director stepping on their toes.
But with David we would just watch film clips and talk about the shots and lighting and go over my storyboards. On set we hardly ever spoke, because we were both extremely absorbed in doing our jobs, and I had complete trust in him. Once in a while I’d say something like, “Why is the backlight so yellow?” or “she needs to glow more,” and he’d take the gel or the scrim off the light and then it would be perfect.
In past interviews you’ve talked about how Viva’s interior design was inspired by old Playboy cartoons. How did you go about creating all of those incredible period-specific interiors?
Viva was shot on weekends, so I did the sets one by one. We’d shoot one weekend and then I’d spend the next month putting the next set together. I’d have everything ready to go, all of the props and furniture and draperies and carpets, and then get a building crew to put it together for a day or two. [The protagonist] Barbi’s house was built on a soundstage, with about two weeks of building.
The rest of the sets were built inside of locations, or we’d go into locations and heavily dress them. A lot of the furniture was gathered over the period of about a year when Jared Sanford [an actor and producer on the film] and I drove all over Los Angeles and its environs picking up couches and tables and dishes and vintage knickknacks and dishes and owls from Salvation Army and Goodwill, which we stored in his basement. We’d tie these giant flowered couches or bars or dressers to the roof of the car, a trick my dad taught me: two ropes and a blanket and a couple of slipknots, and you’re good to go! People would turn pale with fear when they saw us doing that, but we never had an accident.
Barbi/Viva also has so many different costume changes throughout the film—from her Mod everyday mini-dresses and the sexy ultra-feminine lingerie she wears at home to the Victorian burlesque ensembles she wears with clients and the sequined gowns in grand finale. Can you tell me about crafting her wardrobe?
Most of it was from vintage shops, but some of it I had to make because it was very specific, such as the red sequined dresses Barbi and Sheila wear, which were inspired by both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Young Girls of Rochefort; Barbi’s outfit with the gold headdress; and a few other pieces, including a lot of the orgy costumes and some of the lingerie. I wasn’t able to find some of the vintage-style underwear I wanted, so I made some of it. Barbi’s peach negligee was made from vintage sheer nylon tricot and dyed. It had to be peach, and I couldn’t find a peach one, so I had to construct it. I also made some other negligees and some bras and panties, and I crocheted an orange bikini for Barbi. I think I wore thirty-two outfits in that movie.
Can you talk about the orgy scene and designing that house and all of those costumes, particularly Viva’s showstopping gold ensemble? Is the rack-focus shot of the apples a reference to Radley Metzger’s Camille 2000? I love Metzger’s films, and they all have such incredible set design, especially that one.
We were lucky to get to shoot in a moated castle in the Hollywood Hills. The interior was very dark, all dark wood and suits of armor, and it had a white tiled floor that seemed too cold and clinical. So we carpeted it with red carpet and brightened it with Mod furniture and silver curtains. That whole scene and the scene after, including the apple shot you mention, were directly inspired by Camille 2000. I also used some of the music from that movie on the Viva soundtrack.
I chose gold for Barbi because I wanted her to look like Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. The headdress was taken directly from one that Anna May Wong wears in Daughter of the Dragon. The rest of the orgy costumes were mostly just thrown together from what I thought people might wear to a mod orgy in a castle in the 1960s. Lots of chainmail, silver, gold, silk chiffon, fringe, partial nudity.
What was the process for creating the feeling of a musical western in A Visit from the Incubus? I know you’ve mentioned The Harvey Girls as an inspiration.
Yes, I sketched directly from The Harvey Girls. Also, I think I must have been inspired by Calamity Jane, because I saw it again recently and there were so many similarities. In those days you could go to all of the studio scene docks and rent scenery for really cheap. Those scene docks are all closed now, and the furniture in the prop departments is not really getting restored and replenished. The best scene dock was at Culver Studios, the old MGM lot. Most of the pieces in the salon scene came from there—the giant red-flocked walls, the bar, the saloon doors, the stairs. Most of the furniture and draperies came from the Warner Bros. and Universal property departments. I rented platforms for the stage from a place that just did platforms.
The main thing was just getting all of this stuff into the soundstage. We rented a U-Haul truck and hired two carpenters, and my coproducer Jared and the two guys and I would haul off this scenery into the soundstage. The walls were incredibly heavy, and the bar. I think the walls might have been the actual walls used in Gone with the Wind. Jared and I built plain flats in his apartment. We bought this awful fake-wood linoleum flooring, which we covered with sawdust to take off the shine. And there is this backdrop place in LA called Grosch where we got that sparkly turquoise curtain.
I had a floor plan and these two carpenters put the set together piece by piece. I’m not sure how we did it with just two carpenters and ourselves, but at the end of a month of building the carpenters were exhausted and we brought in a couple of painters to help finish. Creating the set was just a matter of studying the set of The Harvey Girls and putting all of the elements together one by one.
For the costumes, I looked at a lot of old westerns. I had a vintage sewing machine that didn’t have a working ruffle, so I had to do all of the ruffles by hand, including for the petticoats. I made the costumes from Victorian patterns that were 1/8 scale, and I blew them up on rolls of paper that I taped together to make them wide enough—yards and yards of fabric for the skirts. I also had a book on millinery that I’d had for years and made the hats in the traditional theatrical way, which was fun. The men’s costumes were easy—just 1960s and ’70s shirts, pants and vests from thrift stores, and rented cowboy hats.
Were there specific Technicolor melodramas you looked to for visual inspiration on The Hypnotist? I was reminded of everything from Frank Borzage’s I’ve Always Loved You to David Lean’s Blithe Spirit.
I honestly can’t remember my exact inspirations for The Hypnotist. It was just an amalgamation of all of the 1930s movies I’d seen. I can see why you’re reminded of films like Blithe Spirit, because it’s one of the few movies from that period in color where you see all of that delicious green and peach and yellow of the era.
Most of the house was built on a soundstage, like Incubus. I designed the rooms for color—black, white, and grey for the living room, like a black-and-white movie; yellow for Beatrice’s room, green for the parlor, blue for William’s room. We also had a lavender set for mother’s room, but we hardly see any of that set, except in that sequence where Beatrice enters her mother’s room with a candle at night.
The entrance hall was shot in a real house in Hollywood, and the courtroom was shot on a standing set. Beatrice’s green beaded dress was inspired by a dress in the red and green Technicolor musical Follow Thru, but only loosely. I spent weeks beading that dress but only was able to finish the top part. And her white organdy dress was inspired by Joan Crawford’s dress in Letty Lynton. Some of her other costumes came from 1930s patterns I’d collected. I also love to match the colors of the costumes with the sets, the way they used to do in classic movies.
I love Three Examples of Myself as Queen so much and was especially taken with the set piece in the queen’s beehive. How did you go about conceiving that set piece?
I conceived that set as a way of conceptually linking the beehive to the womb. She is the queen bee, and the hive is her womb, so I wanted it to be pink and ribbed like a womb. I made six cylindrical molds out of chicken wire that I kept in my art studio at school, and I made papier-mâché out of white tracing paper and water mixed with glue. I could only make six panels at a time, as it took a day for them to dry. I hooked them together with wire to create long panels, and hung them next to each other to create a wall, lit from behind with pink light. I made the stairs and round platform in my studio, but I was so stupid I didn’t realize that the eight-foot round platform wouldn’t go through the studio doors, so we had to pry it apart and reassemble it.
Playing the role of the queen bee, I wanted my costume to look like little eggs but also to be pink, so I found this wonderful, shimmery pink sequined fabric that looked like thousands of shimmery little pink eggs. It was the most expensive fabric I’ve ever bought, at 120 dollars a yard, but I only needed half a yard. For the male bees I just did yellow and black like regular bumblebees, but I made their wings out of black organza to make them more Busby Berkeley–like.
All on-set photography courtesy of Anna Biller.