How many filmmakers are there in the contemporary space truly carving their own lane into the ether? There are great films out there, and great filmmakers, but if you were to compile a list of the modern auteurs, it might be shorter than you think. Someone who has more than earned their spot, though, is Anna Biller, who shot to mainstream acclaim in 2016 with her now-beloved kitschy comedy-horror film The Love Witch . But what truly separates the LA native from the rest of her contemporaries is that she seems hellbent on taking the ghosts of movies-past with her as she rides into new cinematic dawns.

Take 2007’s Viva for example: a bodacious ode and critique of seventies sexploitation, inspired by old Playboy and Viva magazines except dragged kicking and screaming through a biting satirical lens; or The Love Witch, a campy homage to the technicolour horror flicks of the 60s but powered by a wry feminist core. Biller’s worlds are built on love affairs with the celluloid masters of film history; you’ll be able to spot strands of Jacques Demy (Donkey Skin) and Luis Bunuel (Belle de Jour) in her colourful fairy-tale set-pieces, as well as everything from the Hitchcock masterpieces to the classic Hollywood musicals. In Biller’s eyes, this is cinema at its most glorious and glamorous, and you’ll be hard pressed to find another filmmaker right now who can so accurately capture the charm of the bygone eras all the while re-contextualising them into a modern framework.

Talking with Biller, a bracing vulnerability shines through every word. In one of her answers below, she writes what’s perhaps one of the hardest things for a person to admit publicly: “I’ve always been sort of a sad person.” However, for Anna, some of her most notable trademarks as an auteur were conceived in response to the melancholy—technicolour dreamscapes, vibrant sets decorated with painstaking attention to detail, tongue-in-cheek dialogue. “I can see the layers of tragedy in people. So working with lots of colour and ludicrous dialogue and humour is a way that I cheer myself up” she writes, before adding, “but the sadness seeps through.” It’s that same honesty that ultimately gives a film like The Love Witch its depth, and Biller’s bold themes the urgency that they deserve. 

Anna Biller
Anna Biller for A Rabbit’s Foot, 2023. By Barry Morse.

Biller is an expert at bringing her imagination to life, and you can see it viscerally in not only the characters that she conceives, but in the music she scores for each film, and the sets and costumes that she hand-crafts herself. She famously spent six months hooking a pentagram rug from scratch for about twenty seconds of screen time in The Love Witch, with the movie in itself taking around seven years to make. This is what makes Biller such an admirable filmmaker; you get the sense as you watch Viva, The Love Witch, A Visit From The Incubus, Three Examples of Myself as Queen, and beyond, that her vision and all that encapsulate it are not for sale nor compromise. For both an indie-filmmaker and a woman in an industry dominated by men, that’s about as radical as it gets.

Looking forward, the auteur has big plans. She’s hard at work on her first studio-led film, and is a few months away from publishing her debut novel, an ambitious interpretation of Gothic-horror staple Bluebeard. It’s hard to know what to expect from the aptly titled Bluebeard’s Castle—though Biller does allow us the pleasure of a short excerpt below—but still, a few certainties remain: it’ll be sharp, it’ll be stylish, and it will unequivocally be Anna Biller. Dreams, nightmares and all.

Anna Biller viva
Anna Biller in Viva (2007). By M. David Mullen.

You’re a classic cinema obsessive, but are there any modern films from the past 5-10 years that you think stand up with that era? What do you think is missing from the current landscape of film that classic cinema offered?

I love the way they used to light movies, the look of black and white and Technicolor film, the way soundtracks used to sound, the way actors used to look, and the way sets and people were dressed. Suddenly all of these things are now taught as bad craft in film schools. Since the New Hollywood era, filmmakers have been striving to get away from makeup, glamour, colour coordination, expositional dialogue, linear plots, stock characters, presentational acting, three-point lighting, constructed sets—all of which is now considered phoney. The classic movies also had great female protagonists, which the modern era ushered out because femininity was seen as part of the embarrassing old phoney style. But that lost craft is, to me, what makes those movies such a sensual and visceral experience, and so sexy. The sexiness, the glamour, the pleasure—that’s partly what’s lacking in the newer films. There’s so much bleakness and nihilism now.  I like modern movies that contain some glamour, wit, and humour, with interesting female protagonists— Phantom Thread, Gone Girl, The Neon Demon, movies like that. And art films by Matthew Barney, Guy Maddin, Peter Strickland. I also like some of the newer neo-realistic films, like Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene or Never Rarely Sometimes Always. And I love Sacha Baron Cohen.

Shooting on film allows you to accurately capture the aesthetic of the eras that your films pay tribute to. What else do you feel like film has given you as a filmmaker, as opposed to digital?

I think people look better on film. Film has a slightly unreal quality, and I like for my movies to feel like dreams. Digital can look too hyper-real. And I don’t like to fuss with the image too much in post. I like to set everything up so that I can capture the perfect image in camera, so that the images look magical right out of the gate. I used to edit on a flatbed, and I would hold the little strips up to the light and look through them. It was incredible, the physicality of it. Also, film loves light, and it beautifully captures things like a silver lamé dress or a sparkling diamond necklace. 

Viva Anna Biller
Anna Biller on the set of Viva (2007). By Steve Dietl.

Because you have such a strong visual aesthetic, I imagine that some people may at first glance see your films as exercises in style, despite Viva and The Love Witch actually being very substantial and character driven. Do you often feel misunderstood as a filmmaker? 

People often dismiss the content in my films—or, even insist that there is no content. A lot of people seem confused about what I’m trying to say, or they insist that my work is just empty pastiche. I’ve had critics say things like, “it isn’t really a movie.” And “it isn’t cinema.” Or they say I’m parodying filmmaking styles instead of creating social satire. A lot of people don’t think the work is serious. Some of the resistance is from men who are irritated with my feminist themes. Once when I was sharing a scene in a class at CalArts a male student stormed out of the room, saying, “I refuse to watch a scene where the man has no agency.” Once a man nearly struck me with his fist when he was explaining one of my films to me, and I told him I put the themes there on purpose. Once a French philosopher lectured me that my films are retrogressive, “Because we already had Simone de Beauvoir.” But feminism has now become corporate, a buzzword to sell products to women, which has effectively killed it. So I don’t know if I’ll make feminist films anymore. But a lot of young women relate to my work. One of the comments I see most on Letterboxd from young women is, “She is so me.”

The love witch
Samantha Robinson in Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (2016). By M. David Mullen.

What was the most interesting thing you found researching witchcraft while preparing for The Love Witch? 

The most surprising thing was the elusiveness of it. Some sources say that witchcraft is a continuation of pre-Christian paganism, like in The Wicker Man, and others say that witchcraft as it’s practised today started in the 1950s in England. And there’s a lot of talk about multi-generational families of witches, going back to the middle ages. Most Wiccans do a grounded spiritual practice—candle magic, recipes, moon rituals, healing, positive spells using crystals and incense. But witchcraft has also arguably been used as a cover for the worst criminal activity. And then there are the black magic rituals, as described in Là-Bas. The less said about those, the better!

On the set of The Love Witch (2007). By Steve Dietl.

Thematically, why do you think you gravitate towards fairy tales and fantasy to communicate very real, sometimes very tragic themes?

As a child I loved fairy tales and classic movies, so that’s where a lot of the style and ideas come from. When I was sixteen, my favourite movies were Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and Peau d’Ane. I watched these films and I wanted to be a filmmaker. At the same time, I was obsessed with Rimbaud and Baudelaire, all of the dark melancholic French poets. I’ve always been sort of a sad person. Maybe it’s because I’m so entrenched in my brain, and I have such heavy thoughts. I’m hyper-observant, and I can see the layers of tragedy in people. So working with lots of colour and ludicrous dialogue and humour is a way that I cheer myself up. But the sadness seeps through. 

What are some of the props, sets, or costumes you’ve designed for your projects that you’re most proud of?

I spent over a year making the Renaissance faire costumes for The Love Witch, so I’m proud of that work. I like the costume I made for Viva’s song number with the gold headdress, which was inspired by Anna Mae Wong’s headdress in Daughter of the Dragon. And I really enjoyed making the showgirls’ costumes in Incubus—all of that pink tulle, ruffled organdy petticoats, and jaunty little velvet hats with ostrich plumes! I think the best set I’ve ever done was the saloon set in Incubus. I copied it from the saloon in The Harvey Girls, and I designed it by myself and hired two guys to build it on a soundstage. I think some of the walls that we rented from MGM for that were used in Gone with the Wind. 

Tell me about your love for Gothic Horror literature and your interest in the Bluebeard genre?

I’ve always loved fairy tales, and Bluebeard in particular fascinated me. It’s the shadow side of Cinderella, my first exposure to the fact that sometimes men may not want to whisk you away to a castle because they love you and want to make you happy, but because they hate you and want to murder you. My initial inspirations, because it started as a film, were classic women-in-peril movies like Rebecca, Gaslight, Sudden Fear, Rosemary’s Baby, Night of the Hunter, Caught, Dracula. Then while writing the novel I started to devour Gothic literature. I mostly kept my reading to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the exception of Daphne du Maurier, because I was trying to capture something quintessentially Gothic in the writing style. I’ve always been an avid reader, but reading around forty or fifty Gothic novels in a row really steeped me in the conventions of the genre. At one point I even read an article in the Guardian about the elements that make a Gothic novel and I tried to cram as many as possible into my story. But in many ways I feel that it’s closer to Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Diary of a Madman.

Bluebeard's castle
The cover art for Bluebeard’s Castle (2023) by Anna Biller.

Can you tease us with a favourite line or passage from the novel?

At first, his pleasure in witnessing her submission was evident, but soon he noticed her lacklustre expression and he stopped. “Princess, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing. I’m just not in the mood.”

His face darkened, and he yanked away the paddle and threw it violently across the room. “All right, Little Missy. I’ve done everything you said. I agreed to be monogamous. But if we’re issuing ultimatums, then I need to demand some things of you as well.”

She lay back exhausted on the bed, pulling up her knickers. She was so tired; she just wanted to sleep. “What would you like me to do?” 

“For one thing, you need to be more expressive in the bedroom. I’m bored to death with your vanilla lovemaking. All you do is lie there.”

She sat up, stunned. “But you ordered me to lie still! I’m not even allowed to—”

“True, but you don’t put your heart into it. You’re just going through the motions. I want to see genuine fear in your eyes.”

What fulfilment has writing a novel given you that filmmaking can’t?

The best thing is being able to get into the minds of your characters. It’s really hard to do that in dialogue, especially because people often don’t say what they really mean. While writing the novel, I absolutely luxuriated in expressing my main character Judith’s point of view. But when I got inside of her head, it wasn’t pretty. And it was fascinating to realise how much she was lying to herself. Because when you’re living with Bluebeard, how can you not be in massive denial? When I was shopping the screenplay around, everyone was mad at Judith for not seeing the situation she was in, so I tried in the book to have her justify in her mind every decision she made. And that just made her seem more crazy! But as a side effect the story became more serious, more momentous, more literary. It was the psychological story that had always been lurking underneath the film story.

Bluebeards castle Anna biller
Concept art for the film adaptation of Bluebeard’s Castle (TBA). By Anna Biller.

You’re taking a deep-dive into horror with your next few feature films (Bluebeard and The Face of Horror) as well as this novel. As a feminist filmmaker, how do you want to play with this genre that evolved so many stereotypes built in and around its female characters?

Men write most horror movies, and they seem to enjoy watching sexualized women being raped and slaughtered, and male protagonists conquering evil forces and protecting the family. I don’t have fantasies about conquering or killing, or fears about losing, but I do have fantasies about gowns, glamour, castles, colour, fantastic interiors, sparkly jewellery, handsome men, and beautiful women, and fears of having to ward off cruel, predatory, and treacherous people. So those are the kinds of things I’m interested in. Also, I’m not going to be presenting femicide as light entertainment. I want people to feel sad about it, the way they would if it happened to someone they know. Everyone wants movies about women being empowered and performing cartoonish acts of vigilante violence, but I’m more interested in what really happens. Because often, when a woman gets involved with a dangerous man, that’s the end of her life. 

Bluebeard's castle Anna Biller
Concept art for the film adaptation of Bluebeard’s Castle (TBA). By Anna Biller.

I love the cover for Bluebeard’s Castle—like all your work, it feels of such a specific time. Do you think of nostalgia when crafting your cinematic or literary worlds and aesthetics?

All of my work has taken inspiration from vintage artwork and photography, especially Viva which was named after the softcore seventies magazine Viva. I have my character Barbi reading it in the opening sequence in the tub, which begins her journey into sexual liberation. In the next scene, she and her friend pose while flipping through a Playboy magazine and comparing themselves to the models. I created the screenplay for Viva by literally tearing out ads and cartoons from Playboy and laying them out like scene cards. The inspiration for The Love Witch came from the occult section of a San Francisco bookstore, where there were all of these covers featuring young female witches surrounded by flames, sitting inside pentagram circles, wielding witchcraft tools—sometimes nude, and always wild, sexy, and powerful. And when I wrote Bluebeard’s Castle as a novel, I wrote what I imagined would be inside of those covers of women with great hair running from castles. 

I grew up staring at all of this laden sexual imagery of women and wondering what it would be like when I became one of these magical, dangerous creatures someday. Suffice it to say, the shift never happened. I remained just an ordinary human being. But starting at age fourteen or fifteen, men started to project all of that baggage of womanhood onto me. Men defining me by my sexual appeal and trying to push me down in all other areas has been relentless. When you try to accomplish things as a woman, you meet with so much resistance. At one point I was hyperventilating that I wrote a novel. I thought, I’m not allowed to do this! Someone is going to kill me! But I love being a woman, the whole performative aspect of it, and all of the challenges and surrealism and highs and lows. My work is about expressing how all of that feels.