Prior to its limited release in November, The Love Witch spent several months on the worldwide festival circuit, in that time amassing kudos and cheers for its innovative visual style and fresh spin on genre storytelling. The titular character (played by Samantha Robinson) uses various incantations and potions to invoke her magic to find a true and lasting love, but her efforts lead to tragic results.
The Love Witch comes from the mind of writer-director Anna Biller, whose filmmaking career began back in the ’90s after receiving her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. Biller’s feminist bent eschews the traditional positions of women filmmakers; her films embrace sexuality in a way that others might feel would undermine their own stance. In 2007’s Viva (shot by C. Thomas Lewis), Biller takes a ’70s sexploitation-style storyline to extremes while imparting her own unique perspective.
For her latest feature, shot entirely in the Los Angeles region, Biller chose fellow California Institute of the Arts grad M. David Mullen, ASC, as her director of photography, reteaming after he shot Biller’s 16mm short, The Hypnotist. Mullen, a two-time Independent Spirit Awards nominee, was unavailable when Viva was made, but Biller reached out to him again when the cinematographer was in Atlanta, busy shooting 90 Minutes in Heaven with director Michael Polish.
“The Hypnotist had been done in a Technicolor style, as Anna has always been a fan of old Hollywood techniques,” Mullen notes. “For this new one, she had already interviewed a number of DPs, but she felt I was the most informed with how films of the ’60s were photographed.
“Some recent films have tried to create the look of the ’60s studio style, but end up using a more modern soft lighting approach,” elaborates Mullen, who has a long history with shooting projects written by the Polish Brothers and directed by Michael Polish. “She didn’t want any of that; she wanted a real old-school approach to lighting. Viva was in that style, though more like Radley Metzger [The Opening of Misty Beethoven and Camille 2000] and Russ Meyer, a Playboy/suburban culture kind of look—almost that of an AIP Library movie. She wanted The Love Witch to be more lush, almost like any Hitchcock film shot by Robert Burks during the ’60s [The Birds, Marnie].
“We were very low-budget, which made it hard to duplicate that big studio look,” he adds. “But I knew her love of film goes back to the ’40s with Vincente Minnelli, Michael Powell and Technicolor.”
Mullen wound up watching a variety of films from different eras for reference, ranging from Season of the Witch (directed and photographed by George Romero) to Belle de Jour. “I looked at a number of ’60s witch-based films, along with a lot of British horror,” he reports. “There were also melodramas of women dealing with husbands and lovers that didn’t even have a fantasy element, too.”
Chief among the “traditional” (i.e., “old”) ways being employed to garner a period look was originating the film on 35mm.
“That meant having to remind myself how sharp the image would be shooting on film,” Mullen admits. “I used slower film to make it seem more like an image being lit for then-current stocks, using Kodak Vision3 200T  and 250D . I also overexposed the negative, rating 200T at 100 ASA and 250D at 160 ASA.”
FotoKem handled film processing employing their nextLAB system to facilitate HD dailies via ProRes 422 LT.
Except for special cases like directors Welles and Frankenheimer, ultra-wide lenses weren’t in vogue during this period (with trippy dream or fantasy sequences aside), so Mullen elected to avoid ultra-wide-angle or extreme telephoto lenses. Instead, he relied on 35mm and 50mm focal lengths, covering at 25mm when in close quarters. Mullen reserved the 65mm or 75mm lens for classic portraiture, and shot the whole film composed for 1.85 aspect ratio. Otto Nemenz provided an ARRICAM ST 4-perf 35mm camera, along with the Zeiss lenses and a 24-290 Angénieux Optimo zoom.
“I used Zeiss Super Speeds for much of the shoot,” says Mullen. “They will drop off below a 2.8, but I managed to keep most of the film at that aperture and light level, even though that meant 100 foot-candles on most interiors. My worries over sharpness turned out to be needless, since by printing down [Mullen used printer lights in the high 30s and 40s], that kept blacks very black and made things snappy by enhancing the feel of both contrast and thus sharpness.”
With diffusion a given in reproducing the desired look, Mullen took time to test various net filters. “Bill Wages, ASC, turned me on to this black veil material you can get at fabric stores,” reveals the DP. “It’s essentially a nylon mesh wedding tulle, far lighter than any pantyhose I’ve ever found. Then I had Dior and Fogal stockings stretched over a 4×5 filter frames; those were heavier and used only for extreme close-ups. When I needed to modulate between wides, mediums and close-ups, I’d start with my black tulle, then add a Schneider Classic Soft filter.”
Mullen also employed filters to differentiate environments. “We were shooting on the second floor of the old Herald-Examiner building that features a standing police set,” he reports. “I used the lightest Tiffen Soft/FX filter possible for the police scenes, all of which needed to look different from the rest of the picture. While it’s not shot completely clean, it’s still more of a conventional look than the rest of the film.”
Mullen’s period stylings on the film deliberately verge on the theatrical, with illumination directed onto objects of interest within the frame for artistic effect, without rigorous concern for matching the placement of practical lighting.
“A lot of this was really about lighting the subject rather than the environment,” Mullen states. “Even bold key light overpowered any natural ambiance, which kept it from seeming too contemporary. If Anna had some nice paintings up on the wall [as part of her process, Biller usually creates her own props and costumes], I’d have Gaffer Keith Morgan spotlight them so they would read well in frame, but let other parts fall off to darkness while keying the subjects with a 2K [Mole-Richardson] Stage Junior.”
For close-ups, 1K tungsten Fresnels were often employed for the key while utilizing fill from a 150-watt Fresnel for a hard eyelight, or a 1’x1’ Litepanels. or a bounced light for general fill in the space. “I felt fine about using soft light for fill since it’s not only a source that shouldn’t be obvious, but many older films used a softened lamp for fill on close-ups.
“Even for our stage work we had a couple of rigging days to get all the needed bits,” says Mullen on the subject. “We used backlights and kickers for that lush period look. Also, while shooting location interiors, the director liked following her usual work routine, during which she takes the first day of the week to load in and dress the set, and then wrap the set at the end of the week. That gave us all day on Mondays to set everything up and work out the lighting scheme before shooting material Tuesday through Thursday.”
Mullen’s only concession when dealing with stylizing The Love Witch came with the reality of dealing with current daylight-balanced lighting technology. Period films traditionally relied on [the now long obsolete] carbon arcs when shooting outside, so clearly these weren’t an option for Mullen—even for the more extravagant Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! Production could only afford reconditioning a handful of such antiques for use on location.
“I didn’t have a ceiling grid to work with or a lot of power to play with on location, so the look was going to change a bit,” says Mullen. “I thought about it and realized, well, this is what even Hitchcock and Burks would have to face on location back in that era. You’ll notice that the lighting often gets far less elaborate compared to the studio work, and is often lit with units mounted on stands rather than hung from a grid.
“For daylight-balanced location on interiors, I still had to maintain the Fresnel lighting style,” Mullen continues. “The classic approach was to gel tungsten lights blue for interiors, but I didn’t want to deal with that, as it would mean using a bunch of 5Ks and 10Ks on location to get my required 2.8 stop. I used the new dimmable daylight LED Fresnels from Mole-Richardson, which gives you the look of classic tungsten Fresnels. It wasn’t all the way there, but very close. I had ARRIs—the M90s and M40s and M18s—for the big lighting jobs, but they wouldn’t give me the sharp shadow needed for our portrait lighting.”
Camera movement was achieved primarily on tracks. “The one exception was during our renaissance faire sequence,” Mullen recalls. “We needed crane moves in a setting on a steep hill, so our track began on the ground, but needed to be built up into the air well over five feet in height, and I used a small remote head on a jib arm. Everything else was very traditional dolly work.”
The last day of filming included a driving scene done with rear projection. Mullen shot these background plates at a variety of locations using his own Sony NEX-6 camera. “I didn’t feel the need to shoot film for the plate elements since the image was going to be out of focus behind the actress’ head anyway,” says Mullen. A 15K lumens LCD projector played back QuickTimes onto a 12×6 RP screen, with “sunlight” achieved again via LED Fresnel. “I used the daylight LEDs to key because the projector was daylight-balanced.”
With the director firmly opposed to relying on post VFX, Mullen accepted the challenge of doing as much visual magic as possible in-camera.
“For a shot featuring the witch walking through flames, I performed a glass reflection gag rather than rely on double exposure,” Mullen reveals. “We did a lot to the image with filter work. Cokin had a Diffraction grating filter that gave us a wonderful rainbow effect. 1st AC Hunter Sandison put it into a rotating filter holder in front of the lens, and we used a zoom motor to spin it during the drug sequences. That was combined with ChapStick to give a Vaseline effect on the corners of the frame. Then I’d create color vignettes by cutting a hole in a colored gel and taping that to the front of the lens.”
For shots requiring a “kaleidoscope” effect, Mullen initially sought out another Cokin filter to do the trick, but was both surprised and pleased when Otto Nemenz provided an actual kaleidoscope lens. Mullen was also fortunate to work with the same color timer he had utilized a decade ago.
“By virtue of being the only film lab in town, FotoKem does get all the work, and so they still stay pretty busy processing negatives,” he reports. “We did a traditional photochemical post, though due to the director’s strong use of color, I wished at times we could have gone the DI route to bring out certain hues even more. One scene that featured green velvet curtains in a dark wood-paneled office had green that didn’t come through as much as I’d hoped.
“By finishing on film, we’ve been able to show prints at all of the festivals,” elaborates Mullen on the release of the film. “The director did make a DCP [the DI was handled by Senior Colorist Lynette Duensing at Cinelicious], and that was after we finished answer printing and struck an IP. That was scanned at 2K and was more or less a straight transfer of the color-timed film image.”
This ode to exploitation films is impressive not only for its masterful Technicolor hues, but also for its vivid costumes, incredibly accurate ’60s mise-en-scène and an appropriately seductive cast. Both Mullens and Biller worked in unison throughout the shoot to attain a level of control that’s unrivaled in cinema, and this includes icons such as Wes Anderson and the late, great Russ Meyer.
Visit the Anna Biller Productions website at lifeofastar.com to learn more about The Love Witch.