As someone who manages the “cult” section at the video store I work at, I tend to pride myself on the general knowledge of all the titles we stock having seen most of them, as well as knowing the differences between all of the many sub-genres that make up the “cult” section. When I first glanced at the packaging for the DVD artwork for VIVA, I just assumed it was a vintage “sexploitation” flick that had somehow slipped under my radar. It wasn’t until a customer had starting talking to me about it at great length that I realized it was actually made just a few short years ago in 2007 and that the film’s star Anna Biller also served as VIVA’s writer, director, production designer, editor and co-producer.
I’ve always wanted to expand the genres we covered here on ICONS OF FRIGHT to include things that fall within the “cult” category, primarily because it’s not that a far a stretch from the tastes of both ourselves as film fanatics and you, our faithful readers. So the more I read up on Anna’s inspirations for VIVA, which spanned everything from musicals to film classics to old Playboy magazine advertisements to sexploitation films, I knew she’d be the perfect interview to help kick off the “cult” side of ICONS. So after viewing the movie again, ICONS sat down with Anna to discuss tackling all the above mentioned creative roles for VIVA, as well as the promotional tour for the film that followed and also what’s next on the agenda for the filmmaker. Read on!
First things first – I usually ask people for ICONS what their earliest recollections of the horror genre are. For you, what were your first impressions of filmmaking in general? There’s always a point where you realize films are made by a collective group of people doing specific jobs to tell a story, so for you when did you become aware of that?
That’s really broad! But if you narrow it down to sexploitation I can pinpoint that because that came much later on… I can go really far back though if you want.
From the time I was a small child, I was really fascinated by old Hollywood and glamor, especially the old black and white musical from the thirties. My parents were both big fans of these movies, so sometimes we’d go out to see them on the big screen, and my mom would watch them on TV and had all the records that we would sing to. So my sister and I were singing Marilyn Monroe and Fred Astaire songs with all the lyrics by the time we were three! My sister and my mom also watched soap operas and contemporary TV shows, but I never liked watching anything other than the old movies. So I’ve always had this taste for older movies, from the time of my earliest memories. Then when I was living in New York in my early twenties, I happened into a job as an assistant to a stylist at a commercial photography studio, and they were doing wallpaper catalogs. So we made little sets where the wallpaper matched the curtains and bedspreads and pillows and tablecloths, and it reminded of some of the monochromatic set design in the old movies. I got really inspired by seeing how easy it was to make sets, and I had this idea of making a film featuring girls wearing dresses made out of this awful printed chintz that matched the furniture and the wallpaper.
Yes. I’d purchased a Super 8mm camera at a garage sale the year before and made a few short films with it, and I’d done some video work in school, but this was the real start of my interest in making films. I would drag these leftover rolls of fabrics and wallpaper home to my basement apartment in the East Village, and make these little sets with furniture I found on the street. I also taught myself to sew, and made Victorian-style costumes out of wallpaper fabric for four girls, and had them each sing a song I wrote while sitting in their own matching set. So it started with just these simple vignettes, and later in graduate school I started to work in 16mm, and made a film where put several musical vignettes together to make a longer film which including dialogue scenes. And it just grew from there. I was always very focused the sets and costumes, and with having the actors be more incidental in the frame. I think you can see that in VIVA, that the sets and the costumes really take over the movie and the people themselves are like dolls moving around.
Because of the level of detail in both the sets and costumes in VIVA, I had a really tough time even wrapping my head around it all!
I mean, I don’t even know how many costumes you wear through out the duration of the flick. Within the first 15 minutes you’ve got 5 different outfits! Every frame is packed with so much color and detail; it’s almost like sensory overload.
I came to film from a fine art background, so I’m used to composing things in terms of the frame. My dad’s a painter and my mom is a fashion designer, and I studied art in school. But I just had a revelation in the last few weeks. I never really played with dolls as a kid; I was always interested in more adult things. My sister liked baby dolls, but I only liked costume dolls. Recently, while doing storyboards, I thought it might be good to get dolls to pose and draw from. So I started looking online for dolls, and ended up purchasing a vintage brunette Barbie doll. She came with a carrying case and a whole wardrobe, and I thought, I’m going to splurge on this because it looks so great. Her wardrobe all looks like stuff right out of VIVA, and the doll looks like me too. I got a couple of vintage Ken dolls too. Then I realized that these dolls were just like my actors, and that dressing them and posing them is just what I do when I’m directing. How perverted is it that little girls get this Ken doll who’s a grown man, and they get to undress him and decide what he’s going to wear! It’s almost like prepping little girls to be wives – carrying their little man doll in his little case and deciding what he wears and what he does. That’s kind of what women are like. They like to control social situations. And I just realized that my way of directing is very female in that sense. I’m going at it less in terms of trying to impress people, and more in terms of trying to create and control this world that is almost like these dollhouse dioramas. But at the same time I try to put things into it that are very personal to me, like my sexuality and what it is to be a woman. I try to do this “female cinema” where the design elements are key, and where I perform these rituals of “women’s work,” like sewing, as part of the process of making films, which becomes a political choice for me. It’s also a feminine cinema in that I place myself in front of my own camera in the position of being looked at, which is a familiar place for women to be, but in a way that I can control.
Well, yeah. I do think of my actors as dolls, but you hear interviews with some of the great directors and they thought that way about their actors too, so it’s not necessarily just a female thing. It’s connected to the way things work in the theater as well. I guess I just had this revelation when I saw the dolls with their wardrobe, of how much I create these dioramas with actors on my sets. And other directors may be interested in manipulating the dolls, but they’re not necessarily as interested in decorating the dollhouse. I love the idea of people in these little perfect worlds who move and speak in a very formalized way. Because my life isn’t like that at all. (Laughs) My life is non-formulaic and chaotic like most lives and it’s not pretty in that way. So, it’s a fantasy in that sense too. I’m trying to put myself into this fantasy world that I can stage and interact with.
It has been up until now. I’m not going to put myself in my next movie because I wrote a character that’s not me. But I think of it as a type of performance art, putting myself in these worlds and just seeing what happens. I never really rehearse my own acting, and I don’t even choreograph my dances. I direct everybody else very closely, but I myself just go in there and try to experience what’s happening. And I am actually experiencing something on camera. It’s not fake for me, even though I seem really wooden. The woodenness is a defensive response to what’s going on. I am still aware that the camera is there, and in a certain sense I become a “doll” too. There is something very fetishistic about the whole process – I’m detached from myself like a doll, and I have a mirror by the camera so I can see what I look like, and yet I’m having this immediate experience. As a child I felt in some sense that I wasn’t really a participant in my own life because I lived so much in movies. It’s sort of the same thing when I make my own movies; I create my identity for the screen as if I don’t have one in real life.
No, no, it’s not that I don’t feel like I have an identity. That’s pretty much what all actors do – you create another personality for the screen that you can identify with that’s more definite than your real-life persona, that’s not so all over the place.
I’m very aggressive when I’m directing a movie, because you have to be, but I’m also very feminine. So I try to show that dichotomy on the screen. Because when I get into the role and I’m interacting with forceful characters, then I’m automatically put in a passive position and I show that on the screen. Unfortunately, when I’m not directing, I can be pathologically passive. I think a lot of women can be that way, especially when men are involved – or maybe when there’s been some trauma in your life.
You talked a bit about discovering the classic films inspiring you, and also the musicals. But the third element in VIVA is definitely the sexploitation sub-genre. How’d you come to combine these three elements for your film?
For my first feature film, I had already wanted to make a sexy movie involving a siren, but more of a film noir siren. I had written the script and I wasn’t happy with it. And then I started looking at vintage Playboy magazines, and something really clicked for me. That’s when I discovered sexploitation films, in trying to saturate myself with sex culture from the ‘60s and early ‘70s. I wanted to get at something about the sexual revolution and how it changed America and created a real shift in gender relations. I was able to really quickly rewrite the script after that. The way I wrote the script was that I tore a bunch of ads and cartoons from old Playboys from the early ‘70s, and I structured a story around those images. For example, there’s a scene of people at a nudist colony growing marijuana – my nudist scene came from that cartoon. The scene of the two swinging bachelors in their groovy pad and the nude neighbor came from a Playboy cartoon, including the décor. The racecar scene was from a cigarette ad, and the wooden duck reference came from an ad for Sears shirts. Those ads and cartoons were right on the pulse of what people thought was sexy and humorous back in 1972. I combined the Playboy world with personal experiences in my life, to give it a raw emotional quality. I wanted to create a mix that seemed irrational, but that was very classically structured. The design came from studying interior design books from that time. I didn’t actually make anything up design-wise for the movie; I stayed really close to the aesthetics of that time.
I’m amazed by the meticulous detail to every aspect of the movie. I’m curious because I’ve only seen the unrated version, but how drastically different is the R rated one from the unrated? I assume you supervised both cuts?
I had to cut out some full scenes (for the R-rated cut).
The only thing I could find somewhat questionable to obtain an R from the unrated was some of the male nudity, which is hard to believe in this day and age. You have whole scenes that take place at a nudist colony…
Yeah, I took that scene out. It’s not in the R-rated cut at all. And I took out the male nudity in the shower scene, and shortened other scenes. The shorter cut seems more like exploitation because of the length.
I did the R-rated cut and I honestly haven’t looked at it since. I haven’t really watched it the whole way through – I just cut what I thought I had to cut to submit it to the MPAA. While I was cutting it, it seemed fine. (Laughs)
The other thing I find fascinating is how other cultures embrace a film. I watch a lot of foreign movies myself. Something that plays well here can play completely differently to say an Italian audience for example. I noticed that you showed the movie pretty much everywhere, or at least I’ve seen you do interviews on-line where there were translators involved…
Yeah, we really toured it a lot.
Well, the Moscow Film Festival was really interesting. It was in competition there, which made some people extremely irate because they thought it was a trash film. There was stuff in the newspapers about how the film was a disgrace to the festival and to the entire country. And there was a journalist at the press conference that shouted that the film was sex propaganda from the U.S. But other people were passionately excited about it. Because democracy there is relatively new, sexual liberation is new as well, so subjects involving sexuality, and especially homosexuality, are all hot buttons. Someone told us that homosexuals in Russia aren’t even “out” yet. So the film really polarized people politically. The old people really hated it and the young people really liked it. About twenty-five minutes into the movie, during the gay scene, people started leaving in droves, and we were standing right by the door so we were practically stampeded. It was quite a shock to get this response, because I’m portraying retro sex, which seems sweet and quaint to people in the U.S. But I won the Russian Vogue Award for best design in a feature film, competing against big budget costume dramas. And the festival director confided to me that although his colleagues hated it, my film was his personal favorite in the festival. So there were a lot of highs and lows. It was like that wherever we went; the reactions were always extreme. For instance in Romania, somebody from the audience stood up during the Q & A and shouted, “You people show us the worst movies that are so depressing and are about terrible things happening in the world, but you never show us movies like this! This is so funny and beautiful. You are oppressing us with your bad films!” He seemed to think it was a conspiracy that the government was keeping films like VIVA from the people, because there’s been a lot of censorship there. Internationally I got into more important festivals than in the U.S., where I mainly played at underground festivals, but I was also often the clown of the festival. In Rotterdam they put me on a talk show and showed the dancing penises clip from VIVA behind me, and had me sing a jazz song with a band. They tended to see me as my character, and photographed me everywhere as a sex symbol. I got on lots of covers. I mostly wasn’t being treated like a director, but more like a model or an actress. They expected me to look like my character, so I had to doll up for the photographs. I found out by making the movie that women are more oppressed than I thought they were. It was so hard at times to be taken seriously.
One thing that happened after VIVA was that I got adrenal burnout. So part of what I learned is that you can’t just go and go for months and years at a time without resting, you can’t necessarily make an independent movie in the style of a big Hollywood movie without a big budget and without killing yourself, and you have to be really well organized so that you can avoid extra stress stress during production. So I’ve taught myself how to write a more traditional script that doesn’t rely so much on lavish visuals and dozens of sets. I’ve been giving myself a second education in cinema, especially in foreign movies. I’ve been studying Ingmar Bergman a lot, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Rosselini, and more new independent films. My films have mostly been inspired by old Hollywood up until now, and so I’m trying to saturate myself with independent and foreign films to get inspired by those techniques. Also, when you do big glamor and big visuals it’s automatically seen as camp, and I’m trying to get away from being viewed as a camp director, while still keeping the productions visual. When I started writing this movie I thought it would be a straight genre movie – it was inspired by ‘60s and ‘70s pulp novels – but after a lot of rewrites it’s now more of a hybrid horror/thriller/sex/art film. But after all of my study of minimal films, I wasn’t able to really make it more minimal. If anything it’s even worse than VIVA in that sense! (Laughs). I’m really excited though because it’s about a lot of ideas that are important to me about witchcraft and about being a woman. All of my films are about different aspects of what it’s like to be a woman. This one is about love and heartbreak. VIVA was about sex, so it was a comedy. This is about love, so it’s a tragedy.
Love and tragedy seem to be synonymous. So good luck with that! We’re definitely looking forward to what you come up with!
Visit the official VIVA website at: http://www.lifeofastar.com/