The Love Witch: The Technicolour dream that almost became a logistical nightmare
Forget casting conundrums and the challenges of financing a feature film, Anna Biller's biggest problem in making The Love Witch was finding someone who could edit it.
A tribute to 1960s "Technicolor" thrillers, this tale of a modern-day witch who uses spells and magic to get men to fall in love with her has been a seven-year labour of love for the Los Angeles-based filmmaker.
But while more money might have helped speed up its creation, it wouldn't have assisted in finding someone adept at negative cutting any quicker. An avid lover of classic cinema, Biller was determined to shoot and cut on celluloid, even though virtually everyone else had made the move to digital.
"There's only one film lab in Los Angeles now and they' actually forgotten how to do certain things," Biller laments down the phoneline.
"It was very difficult to colour-time the print because they don't have some of their traditional equipment anymore."
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Admitting that she only saw cans for one other film while she was there – Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight – Biller says more troubling was the fact she had to fly a negative cutter in from San Francisco since she couldn't locate one within the whole of the supposed movie-making capital.
"He was probably the only one on the West Coast and he retired years ago. I had to beg him to cut the negative and he had to take his equipment out of storage."
So was all that trouble worth it? "Oh, yes. The colours are richer and deeper than a digital print and the blacks are blacker."
Really it was all part of the attention-to-detail and authenticity that Biller wanted to bring to her project. "I made many of the costumes and props [including a hand-pulled pentagram rug]. I spent so long working on the script and casting and working out all the details because I wanted all of it to be perfect. I even studied so much witchcraft."
Wait, what? "Oh yes, there are a lot of witches in LA. I have a lot of friends who are and I went and hung out with them. I was open about the fact I was making a movie and they had no problem with it. When I was in Melbourne, there were a lot of witches there too. I don't know how many you have in New Zealand, but we have a lot in California. It's not such a strange thing really. It's become like an alternative religion and one that's recognized officially in the States."
Biller says one of the results of their input and the long-gestation of the project was that the story became a little more serious than when she first conceived it.
"It got more tragic and became a little bit more about narcissism and mental illness. That could have been a reflection of our now more serious times, but I also think I got better at screenwriting and became more interested in trying to paint characters that were a little bit more reflective of the kinds of problems people have today with identity and mental health."
There was one trait she couldn't shake though. "I kept trying to take out the camp. I was hoping there would be no campness by the time we shot it, but I don't think I quite succeeded," she laughs.
Yes, The Love Witch does come across like something that Hitchcock, Russ Meyer and Douglas Sirk might have cooked up. That's part of it's appeal. As well as a mesmeric performance from its leading lady, the hitherto unknown Samantha Robinson. But what made Biller choose her ahead of the around 200 other actresses she saw for the part of Eleanor?
"She very much stood out. She has a lot of natural power in her eyes and she was very still and very poised. She wasn't really trying to please like a lot of actresses – she was self-contained. I felt that even if she does almost nothing in the film she will be incredibly powerful. She has this very expressive face that if she keeps it very still it's even better. It's almost a silent movie, Greta Garbo type of face, which when you light her makes it easy to capture all its little nuances. Don't get me wrong, all of the other short-listed actresses were very good, but she just had these additional qualities – very cinematic qualities."
Delighted with how the film has been received around the world, Biller was fascinated at how the 35mm prints are being flown in and out of our country for special screenings in Auckland and Wellington as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.
"I think the film has a certain type of audience appeal built into it, but you never know because sometimes you have a film with a direct appeal and it doesn't do very well – it gets buried and you never know how it was to be received. I'm very pleased people are enjoying it and wanting to watch it on the big screen."
Already plotting a "Technicolor melodrama" about a woman who is tormented by her difficult and murderous husband, Biller says the best feedback about The Love Witch actually came from the head of Kodak.
"He phoned me and actively encouraged me to continue shooting on film and said they were planning to expand, which was very nice. I guess as long as some of the bigger film-makers [Tarantino, Christopher Nolan] continue to use it as well, then hopefully they should continue to make it."
The Love Witch is screening in Auckland and Wellington as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. For for information and session times, see nziff.co.nz