Anna Biller makes movies about sex and sexy women who are smart, which is a super weird coincidence because she's exactly the same way. Take, for example, VIVA, essentially an ode to the swinging 70s that encapsulates all the best bits of Playboy, Russ Meyer and John Waters films, and lonely-heart love letters written by housewives in need of satisfaction. It was directed, written, produced, and edited by one Miss Anna Biller, and it was her first film. She also stars in the movie, which is lucky because she's awesome.
Vice: You’re based in LA, if I'm not mistaken. Have you always lived there or did you relocate from some other exotic land far, far, away?
Anna Biller: I’m actually a Hollywood native. I think that’s partly why I’m so interested in the history of movies.
Your first short film, Three Examples of Myself as Queen, was made in 1994. Did
you study film prior to that?
I made Three Examples at CalArts. I hadn’t studied film before, but I’d made Super 8 films and videos on my own. It too about two years to make that movie, but I was learning how to produce and direct as well as to use the equipment and edit as I went along.
In all your films you write, produce, edit, set design, costume design, direct, act, and generally do everything else. How did this come about? How do you do it?
I basically just learned by making a lot of mistakes. Although I did go to film school, I never really worked like other students there. I had an art background so I made films more like an artist making work in the studio, preparing sets and costumes for months, and mostly just brought people in for the shooting days and for rehearsals. I’ve watched a lot of films, so a lot of it was copying things I liked from movies, but making it personal. I feel like, for me at least, I need to have a hand in everything to make a film that’s organic and meaningful.
Everything you do is so pretty and funny. How do you do that, Anna Biller?
My first love has always been Hollywood musicals, and fairy tale films such as Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and Démy’s Peau d’Ane. I love films that involve poetry and spectacle, gowns, glamour, and music. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more interested in darker and more difficult movies, and films that deal more specifically with sexuality and identity. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of European cinema from the 50s and 60s, that’s been hugely inspirational. I like pre-code movies and sexploitation movies because they deal with the different levels of pleasure and un-pleasure that females experience in the world as sexual creatures. I do reference other films quite often in my movies. For Incubus, for instance, I studied The Harvey Girls, Horror of Dracula, Johnny Guitar, and Gunsmoke.
Of all your short films I’d have to say A Visit from the Incubus is my
favorite. It's totally brilliant, a deviant devil preying on poor woman in her sleep, and then he has a dance-off with his victim? Where in the hell did you come up with something so insanely genius?
I loved the idea of what an incubus presents: a female nightmare or fantasy of sex with a demonic stranger. What’s interesting about the incubus is that he’s ambiguous in terms of whether he’s a female wet dream or a figure of rape and terror, and also whether he’s real or imaginary. Nuns in the middle ages, for instance, would blame unexplainable pregnancies on an incubus. So I thought it was interesting to play on those strange contradictions, and have an incubus in a film that you think is imaginary, but then becomes a real person--in fact an annoying and whiny person who’s really just a hammy actor. It’s as if her dream of a dark stranger taking her in the night is the construction, whereas the reality is that men are not all that sinister and sexy, are not demons, but in fact are just regular people with their own problems.
I thought I’d set it in the American Old West because it’s all about Victorian repression, but then she also gets a chance to have a “showdown” with the incubus, and there’s a chance to have this gothic vampire-like figure contrasted with the healthy, virile cowboys at the saloon. So it’s really about different types of male sexuality, how they’re constructed in a female’s fearful mind, and how she creates desire out of these fantasy ideas about men. It’s also about films and how using genres creates certain expectations which I enjoy gleefully overturning. I like the way that putting all of these ideas together creates the illogical sense of a dream, which is another level I’m playing with.
VIVA is your first feature film, made in 2006. How did this come about? Did you have any funding? Judging by the production values and the number of cast members, it looks like it cost a ton.
I was lucky to find an investor who loved my script, my short films, and some photos I’d taken for Viva, and offered to fund it on an unrealistically low budget. I was very naïve about the cost of producing a feature film. I was doing and making so much myself that we really were saving a fortune by not hiring a proper art department, but we still ran way over budget. My investor stuck by me though, and we were able to finish the movie. Now that I look at it I can’t believe we shot it for such a low amount, when I hear how much other people spend on much simpler and less visual films.
The story has something of a feminist edge that's similar to Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat
I wanted to make a movie about what it would be like to be a woman in 1972 who bought into everything that the sexual revolution promised to women: freedom, equality, pleasure. Suddenly the message out there was that a woman who enjoyed sex was not a bad person, but a liberated person in charge of her own destiny. When she goes out with all of this optimism her hopes are slowly crushed, because she realizes that the utopia she had imagined is impossible within the actual world of relations between men and women. That was the original point of VIVA, and on top of that I put all of the pleasure, fun, and weirdness of the style and strangeness of that time, to make the audience feel like they were really there. I do consider myself a feminist in a general sort of way, in that I’m consciously trying to create a subjective and pleasurable space for women on the screen.
Where did you come up with the crazy cast of characters in VIVA? Each one is
more outrageous than the next.
I took some of the characters from VIVA from my own life (a little stylized, but the pickup lines are the same), and from movies and television from the 60s and 70s. Some of the actors studied particular characters in sexploitation movies to create their characters, with my guidance. But I mainly wanted to represent a cross-section of stereotypes from the 70s. I think stereotypes are key in creating comedy, and I wanted to produce that uncanny feeling of being inside a Playboy advertisement or British sex comedy or nudie flick.
I’ve finished the script and am doing production design for my next feature, a movie about witchcraft tentatively called The Love Witch, about a woman in the 70s who uses witchcraft to make men fall for her, with disastrous results…. I’m also working on scripts for a couple of sexy short films. One takes place in a circus and involves trapeze artists, the other is about a prostitute and her customers in London circa 1905.