Anna Biller is a writer, director, actress, set desginer…the list goes on. Her film VIVA explored the pin-up world of 1970s Exploitation.
The Spread spoke to this multi-talented artist about her views on Trash, auteurship and being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
You were involved in several on and off-screen aspects of production. Robert Rodriguez created his own soundtracks. Quentin Tarantino often makes cameos. Why do you think this genre, compared to others genres, has so many ‘auteurs’ who contribute in several ways?
Well, when you’re trying to complete the hundreds of tasks that need to get done when you’re making a film, you basically have three choices: 1) you can pay someone to do it, 2) you can beg, manipulate, or bully someone to do it (remembering that there is no free lunch, and that what you don’t pay for in cash, you pay for in other ways, such as artistic control), or 3) do it yourself. Paying is sometimes not an option when budgets are tight, and free labor is notoriously unreliable. I do more on my films than any director I’ve ever heard of – including the making costumes, designing sets, composing music, writing, editing, and acting. For me, it mostly comes down to artistic control.
VIVA was set in the world of 1970s Sexploitation films. What was it about this setting and genre, which appealed to you?
I’m sort of a brainy person, always in my head. It seemed so relaxing to go into a purely sensual world with VIVA, an anti-intellectual world full of sex, liquor, and relaxing by the pool. I love the old pinup photography with all of the see-through negligees, all of those acid colors and great fabric prints. Another reason is that I wanted to present female glamour and sexuality on the screen in a positive way, from a woman’s point of view. And the third reason is that I wanted to present the world of Playboy magazine in 1972 as a sort of excessive, often repulsive and perplexing man’s world and to comment on that. Your previous films have you playing characters that experience sexual awakenings. Is this a conscious theme you explore?
Yes. I became interested in creating a cinema of visual pleasure for women when I first started making films, as a response to a challenge by feminist scholar Laura Mulvey. From the moment I read her essay about how most or all cinema is dominated by the Male Gaze, I became interested in seeing if I could create a cinema based on the Female Gaze. I think being a woman looking at women or looking in the mirror can be different than a man looking at women, but the point of view is not automatically different – you have to craft it that way.
As women, we tend to objectify ourselves and to adopt a male gaze while looking in the mirror. But I think there is another gaze – a narcissistic gaze – and that’s what I’m trying to explore: how the female gaze shifts back and forth all the time between these two gazes in this incredibly fluid and schizophrenic way, creating a fundamentally ambivalent sexuality in most females.
What is your view on the excessive violence, sex and adult themes in many Trash films?
I’m not into it. In fact, I’m not into Trash films period. I don’t consider my films Trash films. I like art cinema. Sometimes vintage Sexploitation films are actually good art cinema. Those are the films I like. Trash that’s trying to be Trash doesn’t interest me. Sex and violence that serve a story can be interesting, but only with a good script, director and actors. I especially don’t like to watch violence against women unless there’s a really good reason for it (other than entertainment).
I faced all the challenges any director/producer faces, plus a few more because I was running around in negligées trying to direct. The worst thing was being trapped in the makeup chair while lights and camera were being set, which sometimes cost us time. I also was very short on help, so I was doing things like ironing and repairing costumes at night, shining shoes, tagging them with actors’ names, and lugging it all to the set after a very long, full day of work. I had such a limited budget that I often had to choose between buying costumes and props, or hiring assistants. I usually chose the visual materials over the help.
How did you prepare for the roles of Barbi/Viva? Was there a different approach to the personas?
Well the only real difference was that Viva was confident, sexual and predatory, and Barbi was tentative and shy about sex. Since I have both sides to my character, it was easy to switch from one to the other.
Why do you think B-Movies/Exploitation films create such a cult following?
I think because they often have a freshness and immediacy that mainstream films lack, and because they deal with primal subjects. For me, I like them because they are honest about what women’s lives are actually like. Young women spend so much of their time fielding being treated as sexual objects, and it’s therapeutic for me to watch women in films struggling with these experiences. But I don’t think men watch them for these reasons. I think that a lot of men surreptitiously enjoy watching women get raped and beaten, disguised as hipster irony.
How do you think your experience as a visual artist affects your writing?
When I’m writing, I write for sets and locations. I’m always thinking about WHERE dialogue takes place – what the colors in the room are, what the furniture is like, what people are wearing, etc. Floating dialogue doesn’t make any sense to me. The sets and locations are always a character in the script. That’s the way I think when I’m writing – in terms of visual vignettes.
Other genres in the Film Industry have seen women filmmakers bridging the gap. Do you feel like Trash Culture and Exploitation films are still male-dominated? Do you have any ideas why this could be?
I think Trash films are male-dominated for the reasons I stated above – that most of them are misogynistic and are about watching women being violated, humiliated, and killed. Women can’t identify with that.
The vintage Exploitation films are the ones women tend to like more – the ones with less violence, and with sexy, strong female roles.
Women seem to be very into directing Horror, but Horror is not about sexism – it’s about rage, death, and the physically abject. I think women can be very abject and very interested in blood and death, sometimes even more than men.
Finally, what is your advice for filmmakers who are involved in making “Trash Movies”?
Check out Anna’s website for more on VIVA and her other films and news: http://www.lifeofastar.com