INTERVIEW: ANNA BILLER
June 27th, 2020
Interview by Nicole Stunwyck · Artwork by Elena Santa Maria
At the core of Anna Biller’s cinematic philosophy is a relentless devotion to depicting female pleasure on the silver screen. Her picturesque features “Viva” and “The Love Witch” are masterful demonstrations of her ability to write on all sorts of womanly subjects while evoking the glow and luxury of vintage Technicolor films. If you’re a lady who wishes to make movies in the near future, I assure you that you can carry out a film school level of education all by yourself just by studying Biller’s approach to her craft. Her feminist films have made it clear that she is one of the most gifted and visionary talents in the movie business right now, and in this conversation (aimed at creative hearts who may or may not be familiar with Anna’s bewitching filmography) Anna and I discussed everything from screenwriting and self-isolation to the wonders of glamour and forgotten movie stars.
How have you been spending quarantine?
I’m mostly doing a lot of writing. I’m also spending time with my kitten and doing a lot of cooking. And I watch movies at night.
Film historian Jeanine Basinger once stated that many women begin their first serious research into their future lives as female persons by going to the movies. In which ways has your love for film been fundamental to your own personal growth and well-being?
I became obsessed with classic movies as a child. I love old black and white films – especially musicals and movies featuring glamorous women and gowns. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that this was a form of self-therapy, watching all of these woman-centered films in an era where women’s pictures had all but disappeared. But it’s also the artistry of the films that’s been so sustaining for me. The look of silver nitrate film, or Technicolor film, the incredible musical scores, the costumes and sets, the acting, the lighting, the witty dialogue, the amusing or heart-wrenching stories – all of it is magic to me, and has been since I was a kid. The female role models that remain most important to me are the old screen stars, including Marlene Dietrich, Ida Lupino, Jennifer Jones, Mae West, Vivien Leigh, Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, and so many more.
There’s a common misconception among film enthusiasts who assume movie females in pre-70s cinema didn’t embody anything but the oppressive expectations of what the era thought women ought to be. In my opinion, this kind of an approach erases the fact that a lot of vintage pictures, in particular pre-code ones, were highly subversive at the time of their release (see: "Baby Face"). You’ve previously mentioned you borrow from classic movies when writing your own female characters; what type of storylines featuring Hollywood heroines thrill you the most?
That’s a very ignorant view, and seems to be held mostly by people who don’t actually watch classic movies. So many movies of the classic era were female-centered, and the storylines were about women going after things they wanted and getting them. "Baby Face", which you mentioned, is fantastic – a woman making her way to the top, man by man – and there are many more movies like that, about women who are down on their luck using their wits to gain fortune and fame. One of my favorite in this vein is "The Blonde Venus" starring Marlene Dietrich. I also love musicals like "Gold Diggers Of 1933", which are just sheer fun and fantasy with a staggeringly innovative use of camera and design. Or noir films, about bad girls you identify with because they are trying to escape traditional roles, like "Double Indemnity" or "The Postman Always Rings Twice". I also love “Bluebeard” movies, about women with husbands or boyfriends that are either dream lovers or serial killers, who keep them guessing, like "Gaslight". In these movies, women become detectives in their own whodunnit, but the mystery is a man. I also love movies about showgirls and dancers, like "French Cancan" and "The Red Shoes".
As opposed to old movies in which the movie stars were frequently adorned with shimmering gowns and jewellery, it seems as though the costume design for most female characters in contemporary movies only strive to look “realistic” and plain. Based on your writings on the subject, could you expand on why glamour personally enhances your movie-watching experience?
Glamour for me is sheer pleasure. I can’t really explain why I love it so much. But movies are visual, and glamour is a specific type of visual pleasure. It’s partly because I am interested in costume design and makeup, but partly because it’s just a sort of fantasy that’s relaxing, like flipping through a fashion magazine. It’s an ideal of womanhood, something to aspire to and dream about. I also love non-glamorous movies that feel real and authentic. But I miss glamour. It seems that when they have glamorous characters in movies now they’re always portrayed as evil and shallow. I remember once I tweeted part of an interview where Bret Easton Ellis said that being a filmmaker requires the male gaze because women aren’t visually aroused, and a woman tweeted, “Women aren’t visually aroused?? Has Bret ever seen a sequin???” I thought this was hilarious.
This is a really specific question but are you a fan of film actress Jayne Mansfield? I always lament how she never got the dramatic roles she so badly desired because her sex symbol status got in the way...
Jayne Mansfield seems like she was a nice person, but I thought she lacked the naturalness and charisma of other great actresses such as Marilyn Monroe. It’s hard to know what kind of an actress Mansfield might have become if she had been offered more serious roles. She seemed uncomfortable playing a siren, and that’s the only kind of role she got. Most screen sirens didn’t seem to really enjoy being screen sirens, whereas Marilyn revelled in it, and that was a testament to her acting ability in general.
Years ago, your blog introduced me to 1930s child star Shirley Temple, who has now become one of my most beloved movie actresses. The fact that she commanded entire film narratives despite being just a “little girl” has been an object of admiration for you before. Could you further describe your appreciation of her?
When I first started watching Shirley Temple movies I was a baby. So I was viewing her as a friend and a peer, and going through her adventures with her while experiencing them very directly. My sister and I had a recording of some of her songs, and we learned all of them by heart. When I see her movies now I still experience them very personally. What’s remarkable about her movies is that she had the best screenwriters, directors, costume designers, and acting coaches. So they are top-notch movies on every level, made for adults to enjoy as much as children. Her gowns were designed by Orry-Kelly, Ginger Rogers’ designer. She worked with some of the great stars of the day, and she matched them in technique while always appearing totally natural, as if her performance sprang up spontaneously. She was a real entertainer. So her movies aren’t so much about her being a cute kid as about the experience of watching a great entertainer. Later when she became a teenager her acting suddenly became self-conscious, and she lost the spontaneity that made her a great star.
On previous occasions, you’ve been pretty vocal about the frequent misogyny you have encountered upon reading scripts that herald containing “feminist characters”. I once read a screenplay by a film school graduate that legitimately seemed as if it had been written by one of the creepy men in "The Stepford Wives". The female co-protagonist, lover of the male hero, fully lacked a personality of her own and existed to please the man in every imaginable way. It was truly terrifying, especially considering it was conceived last year. I’m prompted to ask: Could you offer some advice on how to give substance to women’s problems and dreams when crafting female characters?
To write good characters in general you have to have some insight into human psychology. So I would tell writers to gain insight by reading psychology and good novels, and by speaking to human beings. The best way to gain insight into female characters is to talk to women and listen to what they say. Stop the chatter in your own head and your preconceptions and just listen and observe. Ask them what they think about and how they feel, and get a sense of what their concerns are. Spend time around groups of women and girls. Ingmar Bergman, arguably one of the best writers of female characters, spent a great deal of time talking to and listening to women. I would also say to men that they should watch classic women’s pictures!
Recently, you tweeted that if you didn’t watch so many old movies, it’s likely you’d feel incredibly depressed. As we both know, many of the star-driven films of the classic Hollywood era had an escapist purpose in mind - something many people have turned to lately in the hopes of temporarily shutting out the terrors of the pandemic. While on lockdown, what genre would you recommend to someone whose COVID-related anxiety has become unbearable?
Musicals, comedies, women’s pictures, dramas, and noir films. Even war and gangster films. In other words – any good classic movie! You can find lists of the best classic movies on many websites, and people can start from there.
Despite your extensive knowledge on all things film-related, you still avidly watch movies and develop your own theories about the art form all of the time. What would you say is the best way to learn about filmmaking and come up with a signature style?
The best way to learn about filmmaking is to watch films. As for creating your own style, you need to figure out what excites you. You need to know yourself pretty well. Because if you don’t know yourself, you can’t express yourself coherently to an audience. Write down what excites you about movies, which movies you love, and why. Make a list of your favorite types of stories, and your favorite types of visuals and sound and music. Write down anything that obsesses you, any life-changing experiences. Keep writing until you find patterns that suggest the form a movie might take. Make a short film. Make another short film with the lessons you learned from the first film. Keep making short films until you have enough ideas and technique for a feature. If you have no money, shoot it on your phone using your friends.
Pauline Kael once expressed fear over cinema becoming an object of academic study and “appreciation” that only practitioners of the art can understand, and I’m under the impression that a similar phenomenon is currently occurring with filmmakers who create highly inaccessible art that only like-minded audiences are able to understand. Since you consider yourself a feminist filmmaker, do you agree movies should try to make themselves as clear as possible if they intend to be truly revolutionary?
I think that there is value in creating difficult art to be shared with a few people. But I try to make work for a wider audience because I’m interested in reaching more people, and also because the movies that have meant the most to me were mostly popular films (albeit from other eras). Also, although I do consider myself to be a feminist filmmaker, my films are not ideological or political, although they have a definite point of view that I would call “feminine” rather than “feminist.”
Lastly, do you have any film recommendations for Nearness readers?
Yes. Here’s a list of 40 classic Hollywood (and a couple of classic British) films, mostly women’s pictures, that I recommend:
"She Done Him Wrong", "Leave Her To Heaven", "The Red Shoes", "The Awful Truth", "Gold Diggers Of 1933", "Double Indemnity", "Vertigo", "Bringing Up Baby", "Mildred Pierce", "Stella Dallas", "The Postman Always Rings Twice", "Blonde Venus", "Trouble In Paradise", "All About Eve", "The Thin Man", "Baby Face", "The Scarlet Empress", "Stage Door", "The Women", "Dance, Girl, Dance", "Black Narcissus", "Johnny Guitar", "The Big Sleep", "Some Like it Hot", "Dark Passage", "Cluny Brown", "Too Late for Tears", "The Blue Gardenia", "Marnie", "My Man Godfrey", "Gaslight", "Rebecca", Ball of Fire", "Easy Living", "Duel In The Sun", "The Prowler", "Swing Time", "Dial M For Murder", "The Night of the Hunter", "Gun Crazy".
Nicole Stunwyck is a writer and director from Peru. Inspired by classic Hollywood cinema, she explores feminist subjects in her movies while intending to create cathartic visual experiences for women moviegoers. You can find her work @nn.icole
Elena Santa María is a graphic designer and visual artist from Guatemala City. She explores illustration and photography based on introspection and the use of personal files. You can find her on Instagram @elenasmaria