Floria Sigismondi Wants to Make Every Breath Count

‘The Turning’ director Floria Sigismondi on her life in the arts, Federico Fellini, and her life-changing collaborations with David Bowie and Marilyn Manson.
Floria Sigismondi
By  · Published on February 7th, 2020

Floria Sigismondi‘s imagination has been leaving its mark on pop culture for over 25 years. Born in Italy and raised in Hamilton, Ontario by opera singers Lina and Domenico Sigismondi, she is acclaimed for the unworldly yet tactile images in her music videos, photography, paintings, and feature films.

After studying painting at Ontario College of Art, Sigismondi went on to direct timeless music videos in the 90s that shook up the status quo. At the time, the raw rock consuming pop culture was perfectly suited to the artist’s taste and style. Sigismondi’s first music videos were for Rita Chiarelli and The Tea Party, but it was her classic 1996 music video, “The Beautiful People,” that took her vision and career to another level. Manson and Sigismondi’s macabre sensibilities were a match made in heaven. The result led her to a life-changing collaboration with David Bowie, who Sigismondi ended up working with several times throughout the years. Their first music video was “Little Wonder,” followed by 2013’s “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” and “The Next Day.”

After directing Bowie and Manson, Sigismondi put her heart and soul into videos from The White Stripes, Robert Plant, Rihanna, The Cure, and the list goes on and on. Many of these videos allowed the filmmaker to merge her different interests, too. There’s more often than not a handmade quality to Sigismondi’s visual because she actually sculpts and crafts props frequently seen in her work. “My first rule is to go practical with everything,” she told us. “It all depends on where the time is. If you’ve got the time when you’re prepping, do it practically.”

In 2010, Sigismondi finally made her feature directorial debut with a music biopic, The Runaways, about the classic rock band of the same name. It was a true story both beautiful and ugly, just the way Sigismondi likes it. It was also a story about raw passion and young artists with a new vision they wouldn’t compromise. The movie championed artists moving only to the beat of their own drum.

Finally, the director has made her sophomore effort, The Turning, a psychological horror movie based on Henry James‘ nineteenth-century novella, “The Turn of the Screw,”  which also inspired the classic 1961 film, The Innocents. Sigismondi was interested in the project because of the interpretive quality of the symbolism in the book. After signing up for The Turning, Sigismondi made the story more female-centric, unsettlingly relevant, and set it in the 90s.

During the ten-year gap between The Runaways and The Turning, Sigismondi directed the first IMAX music video ever with Rihanna’s “Sledgehammer,” directed horror shorts for The New York Times, as well as episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, and, most recently, released another book of her photography, “Eat the Sun.” Following the release of The Turning, Sigismondi talked to us about her wide-ranging career, her point-of-view as an artist, and shared stories from a handful of her iconic music videos.

In the early and mid-2000s, so many music video directors transitioned from music videos to horror movies. Did you have an opportunity to direct a horror movie early on in your career? Did you always imagine making one?

I just feel like it’s a natural place for me to live. What was special about this one and why I jumped at the opportunity was, it was more of a psychological horror film rather than straight-up horror. I’ve always loved the films that walk on a tightrope between insanity and sanity, and the perception of reality. That’s sort of the world that excites me. So I got an opportunity to direct an adaptation, I jumped at it. The writings of Henry James being so interpretive was so exciting to me. You could read it two different ways. One time it’s a ghost story, another time it’s a woman going mad. All those things challenged me as a director.

What are some of the films you love that walk the tightrope between insanity and sanity? 

The Tenant. You ever see that film?

Polanski? Yes.

Another one that he’s done is Repulsion. I guess you can say The Shining has a little bit of that as well. You know, you’re just trying to piece it together if he’s going mad or if he’s actually talking to ghosts [Laughs]. I also think we have that within ourselves. Our imagination is so big and there’s so much of it that is unknown and so it makes for such great visuals or such great cinema, I think, to be able to depict that in images.

Since so much of the imagination is so unknown, what have you learned about yourself through your work?

Yeah, it’s funny because sometimes it’s as eye-opening as that. When you just look at it and you go, “Well, why didn’t I see that before? That’s exactly what I was going through.” Or another time it’s just a feeling, just the overall thing that I’m trying to say with a project. For me, creating is to get to know myself, to get to know the world around me and for me, it really is about exploring, because you just grow as a person, you know?

Absolutely. Was The Turning originally set in the ’90s?

That was a time period I wanted to set it in because the original one I read was a period piece, like 1800s, I want to say. It didn’t really say exactly what the time period was, but I wanted to make it more relevant, make it exciting, have a different kind of take on the original story. The 90s felt like the perfect balance between not being today, so you can actually get rid of technology and immerse yourself into a world that exists on its own, but then not making it too old to where you’re completely it’s too much of a leap for people to jump in.

Maybe this is a leap, but setting it in the 90s, that makes Mackenzie Davis’ character roughly the same age you were at that time. Any connection there for you?

Oh, that’s interesting. See, these are the things we learn [Laughs]. Keep your eyes open. There are things I think and I hope that women can identify through her character. It’s not necessarily that she goes crazy, but the idea of what it feels like to be a woman maybe surrounded by these more hostile environments that I think every woman feels; whether you’re walking in a parking lot on your own at night and just those similar kind of feelings.

I had a lot of my growth spurt, creative growth spurt in the 90s, so I really do hold that time period very close to my heart. It was a time period when I was experimenting with film. I was very new at it and coming to it as a painter, as an artist. I remember doing these little drawings, I was working with Marilyn Manson on “The Beautiful People” and just these visuals being so burned into my head, exactly what something should be like and drawing them out. But they were intangible. You can’t touch them, you can’t see them. They’re in your head, you can’t share them, but then being on set and watching him be that character was just incredible. I was hooked on the creative process and how you can translate from just this idea to the physical world and to me it was like giving birth. It was a beautiful explosion that happened and I’ll never forget that time. So yeah, the 90s were a special time for me.

Are you a nostalgic person at all?

No [Laughs].

[Laughs] Always look forward then?

I was born the year of the snake, so I’m constantly shedding my skin and moving forward. Apparently, that’s one of the traits of the Year of the Snake [Laughs]. It’s here and not nostalgic and you just keep moving. I’m an experimentalist at heart. I always throw myself in situations I’ve never been in, no matter how scary they may feel because I’ve never done them before. But for me, it’s about growing and about learning, because otherwise I just get bored. So it’s just about reinventing myself more by experiencing different things.

Are you an artist who works on a project, that’s it for you, or are you someone who’s thinking four or five years down the line of what you want to create and achieve?

I do that every five years. I go and go and I’m very in the moment, and then I go, “Hey, hold on. Am I where I want to be?” But I do take work that is creatively challenging and where I feel I can really put myself in something new. I do every five years step back and go, okay, so now I’m here, where do I really want to be? Do I want to do more storytelling? Do I want to do more arts-driven stuff? Do I want to get more work out there and have people see it? I do check in every once in a while.

Where are you in that five-year cycle? How do you feel about now and the future?

Should we do this together?

[Laughs] Let’s do it. I know I’m not where I want to be yet.

[Laughs] We are always the hardest on ourselves, aren’t we?

That’s a good thing too, right?

That’s a good thing. Even when you’re happy, you know? Even when you’re like, “Oh that was so fun,” it’s so fleeting and it’s something that you can’t hold on for too long. Which is an interesting thing, because life does run out. I mean, you get the feeling that you stay in one place for too long. Time continues. You get a grasp of every breath that you take in your life and at some point, it’s going to die, and that’s what gets me motivated every five years, maybe three years. Where I look back and go hey, there’s a certain amount of breaths you’ve got left and you’ve got to make them count. Either they’re challenges or they’re opportunities that make you happy.

But yeah, where am I right now? I mean, I’ve just released a bunch of work. I think I want to put myself in a situation where really … that’s a hard question to answer, isn’t it? To put the dream in tangible because sometimes it’s a feeling, you know? Is it important to be surrounding yourself with immensely talented people that you can really go on a great ride together? There’s that. There’s the joy of creating, surrounding yourself with people that have the same mentality. I’ve done this since I was a young artist, and I didn’t do it on purpose but now find that it’s been incredibly freeing for me, and I’m sure you as a writer can identify with this idea of working in different mediums. Like in your writing, you can do an interview but then you can write a novel, a short story, something for fun, something that can truly be obsessive for years and years.

Definitely. I think, why not try it?

Yeah, you’ve really got to through these pieces of something. I’ve always felt that that, as an artist, bouncing from photography to film to music videos to TV, have in a way opened up a lot of options, so I never feel like, how did I get here? Why am I only doing this? For me, it’s quite freeing. I also get inspired by different mediums too. I always think that that’s important, to get inspired by paintings or poetry and not by the thing that I’m doing. To be about an incredible meal. Sometimes that can just completely blow your mind too.

What’s inspired you recently?

Well, I’m kind of a little on the other side right now. I’m just starting to get inspired right now. I’m really getting into Italian cinema. Obviously, growing up Italian, the films that my parents would watch when we could, this wasn’t a time where you can curate your film list as we do now, which is so incredible. But you know, if a film was on TV it was like, okay, let’s all watch it. So I did grow up with Fellini’s stuff. Now I’m really immersing myself in that, in the films of Pasolini and just that ways of telling stories.

You know, Fellini has this great ability to depict the inner world, and David Lynch does this as well, where they open up this door and it’s in a linear format but it’s nonlinear and it’s about how the human psyche works and how the imagination and brain works. Fellini does that so beautifully in depicting his fears and showing them in these beautiful, surreal tableaus. There’s this one scene where he’s talking to his dead mother, and it sounds morbid, right? He’s in the graveyard and he sees his mother and she’s in the grave. And it’s not morbid, he’s just having a conversation with her and all his fears are coming out, which she’s debunking him, like, “You were always this boy.” It’s this beautiful conversation, which you would have in your mind, but with his dead parents. There they are, just roaming the cemetery talking to him, which is so beautiful.

Since Italian cinema is what you’re getting more into now, what shaped your tastes as a teen and when you first got into the arts? 

I think opera, even though I grew up in that environment where we listened to Zeppelin, played a lot of “Stairway to Heaven” and Jim Morrison. I like darker music, but at home, it was 100% Italian so it was opera. My parents were both opera singers. So it’s the tragedies and the opera and what they were singing about, growing up with those stories. Then my mother was the seamstress. I mean literally, she would watch the Sonny and Cher Show and have Cher’s outfit. She was like an architect. I watched her create these things out of nothing. I’d stay up until 1:00 in the morning and have to be at school the next day, but I’d stay up by the sewing machine, watching her foot hit the pedal up and down, up and down, and watching her sew. I just have these vivid memories of that. And also, my parents put on the arts and how if I said I wanted to be a singer, they would just be over the moon. If I wanted to be an artist, oh my god. That was the thing that inspired them so much was to be an artist. They were both the black sheep, where if I said I wanted to get a regular job, they would have a heart attack. It’s like, what? [Laughs]

[Laughs] That’s really beautiful. 

Yeah, and I didn’t realize that that was beautiful until I went to art college in Toronto. I didn’t realize that 90% of the kids that were there, their parents didn’t want them there. They thought they were nuts. “Get a real job, what are you doing?” I didn’t realize that and I was like, my God, I kind of grew up, even though we were poor, I grew up with this trumped life because of the amount of support I had. If I literally scribbled on a piece of paper that looked like nothing, my mom would say, “You’re an artist.” I’d be like, really? [Laughs] Whereas kids were fighting it.

How was art school for you? Was it an eye-opening or exciting time? 

I was so excited to be doing art 24/7, I can’t tell you. I would stay up until 5:00 in the morning, get two hours of sleep and back to school. I was so excited that this was a choice life that I had, that I was able to do something that I loved. So yes, I immersed myself in it. And the one thing that was a surprise to me was, in the four years that I took art and painting, the last year I took a photography course, and then I never went to school for it. I just remember telling my teacher, “I’m shooting, I can’t come to class.” What I loved about it was, it forced me to talk to people and be around people. As a painter, I was always on my own. It can be quite the single life. So it took me around people and I saw much of how needed it was. Painting can be — you’re getting deep into something and getting lost also in finding something. And photography was just, I don’t know, I could see it was something that I could do with my life and be involved in the world as a person. But I have to learn how to talk.

You need to know how to express yourself. I mean, you’re a writer, so you know. As an artist, I don’t need to know how to express myself to do a painting. All of a sudden if I don’t, the film I have in front of me won’t look like what I see. All of a sudden I have to engage in conversations and use words to try to express myself. There are a couple of things that didn’t turn out like I wanted them to turn out because I didn’t have a vocabulary.

After college, I know you did fashion photography, but what was your first paycheck as an artist? What was the job that made you a working artist? 

I guess you can’t say it was fashion because of the fashion photography. Well, let’s go back to that. The money wasn’t, I mean, I got $150 a page or something like that to do a fashion spread, right? That’s not a lot. It just covers film and stuff. But there was something so exciting about going into a bookstore and opening the magazine in a bookstore because you always just think only you see it, only you see it. And now all of a sudden, it’s like, oh it’s out in the world. I remember my first fashion spread. It was a crazy idea because it was a lingerie spread and I was like, I don’t care I’ll do it. I’ll just put my spin on it. I pitched them to do a lingerie spread in the train tracks [Laughs].

It was a train track behind my studio. I wanted to do blue and green. So one page would be all green, there were like no skin tones. And what were these ladies walking around the train tracks in underwear? I have no idea, but Fashion Television decided to do a behind the scenes of me. I mean, I didn’t even have an assistant. I was putting film in my own camera. If I sent you the pictures, I look like I’m in lingerie. I have the bustiers, a satin bustier on, and a girdle all in black with fishnets, combat boots, all this Indian jewelry, and red hair [Laughs].

If I look back now, I’m like, what is going on there? But it’s funny, the ignorance is kind of in a way fearless. It doesn’t know better. And just to think about how I pushed them was really funny now when I look back. But in a way, it sort of sets a trajectory, know what I mean? Okay, so I’m not being showcased as maybe a more traditional artist. And that’s what I loved about that photography, when I was able to make it look like a painting and how I found that little recipe in there, and that’s what really intrigued me.

Like you said, it set a trajectory for you, so when was it you felt you found your voice or identity as an artist?

I want to say it was “Beautiful People” with Marilyn Manson. I was interested in the dark stuff, the theatrical stuff, and theatrical is a good word because it has to deal with lighting and images that were a little bit more surreal. And all of a sudden, here was an artist that I was able to do that with and get them out of their plaid clothing. Because at that time, it was all that, sort of this uniform. You could do creative things but then when you shot them, they’d be in their jeans and plaid, right? And for me it was like, okay, I can project onto him all these wild personas because he will do them and do them well, even though I did have to convince him to go bald, Marilyn Manson bald [Laughs]. For me, I took away the idea that no matter how crazy the ideas were to believe in them and to go for them, because like you said, maybe they mean something later. It’s just like being on a train, going that way versus another road. This is the road that I want to go and then you’re on it and all these amazing things start to happen and you get inspired. That’s when you know you’re on the right path. Also, it validated to me to believe in myself because the video was so successful. It enabled me to go, “Oh yeah. I trust my little ideas, they’re okay.”

“The Beautiful People” video was just such a combination of new sounds and images and made such a cultural impact. What happened after that video came out?

I was living in Toronto, so I was still doing what I did. I was a little bit isolated by the American phenomenon that was happening around that, so I kind of stayed really focused. The incredible thing was, David Bowie called. Obviously, I was a massive fan. And that was amazing because here was a person who truly his body of work and his life was a piece of art.

Living art.

Exactly. The way he navigated, how it’s experimental and he never was really following what was going on and really didn’t give a shit about what other people were doing and always trying to find the new thing. So for me, watching him and speaking with him and spending time with him, there is a way to live where you can put yourself out there experimenting. It’s not necessarily about fitting in in the long run; it’s about doing things that challenge you. You’ve just got to let things go about making other people happy.

Right. Plus, people usually respond to people comfortable with themselves and act like themselves, and I think it’s the same thing with art. 

Yeah, it’s true. And then they come to you for that. Because a lot of the questions I get are like, “When you work with artists like Katy Perry, do they come to you with ideas?” No, they come to me because they want to be involved in that world, whatever it is, right? What’s the song about? Is it a word, is it a sound? The first little sound laying underneath the song? Sometimes those are the things that I get the initial spark of an idea, and you don’t know where it comes from. It doesn’t matter what the package is, it’s about getting in there and being able to express yourself creatively.

I heard you talking about the emphasis on eyes in The Turning and how, for you, the eyes reveal everything about someone. So I wanted to ask, what did David Bowie’s eyes say? 

Wow. That’s saying they’re a dichotomy, aren’t they? [Laughs] The other one’s saying something else, which is kind of who he is because … I talk about him in the present times, because he lives inside of me, his spirit lives inside of me. There’s one side of him that has so much experience and that knows like, “Oh, yeah that’s from that era. Yeah, this tote is inspired by this designer.” So there’s that part of him that completely has done it all, right? Then there’s another side of him that’s like, “Let’s make the world’s shortest music video a minute and a half.” He’s got those two worlds clashing inside of him, always. So that’s how I would film him, like two clashing, amazing forces together and creating something new.

That’s great. I was going to say, after thinking about your comment on eyes and revisiting Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” video, I like how you showed darkness to them. I hadn’t quite seen JT like that before in a video.

Oh, that’s cool. That’s cool. That was a challenge for me because the story when he explained it was about his grandparents and how there was a big family reunion and how the whole family stems from the couple, his grandparents and what that meant to him. I was like, I don’t do this kind of story. How do I get in there? How do I get into this place that enables me to get excited about it? So I thought of the house as a memory bank, sort of like a brain. Each part of the brain has a different part of that memory. Now, the foreman comes in and out different rooms and how those ideas and those memories were housed in these different rooms, so I could put a carnival in a room and I could put a store window inside of a room. That was my way in it. Then when she drops the ring, that’s a little bit dark because the husband passes away. So it does have this idea of reminiscing and memory. So when she drops the ring and he catches it, that brought you in a different … where did you see the darkness in that? Was it the memories or the way that I shot him in the mirror?

The way you shot him in the mirror. There’s a bit of a shadow on his face that just makes his eyes look darker. 

Yeah, yeah, that’s true. We did this really poppy lighting on him, which I thought was very interesting. A scene in that video, in particular, I brought to The Turning, you know, the scene where he’s looking at the girl in the mirror and he can’t get to her, that’s all live. We did a 50/50 mirror because I like to do things as practical as possible because I want to have fun. So JT was like, “Okay, let’s do this live.” I worked with [cinematographer] Matty Libatique on getting that lighting right. I remember doing that in one take. It was the last shot of the day and we didn’t have time to do anything else. It’s so magical the way that it all worked out in the hands because they can’t hear each other and she’s sort of seeing him a little bit and just knowing the light’s going to come on. It was just so magical to watch, so I took that and did a scene with Kate (Mackenzie Davis) looking at the ghost of Jessel in the mirror and choreographed that. It was right for the actors to be able to see each other.

Is it satisfying for you when a video of yours becomes a big part of pop culture and conversations? How gratifying is that?

It’s pretty exciting when it happens. A lot of the times I kind of don’t pay attention to what happens to it after I’m done. It’s weird. I guess go on to the next thing. But again, it’s like that feeling when I opened up the magazine in the bookstore because there is something that validates you being a part of culture. When you’re just behind the scenes of something, it’s not like the artist who goes out and then tours and then those videos are playing. It’s more about creating something. Maybe it’s odd, but it’s exciting and I don’t want to care about it either, in a way. I don’t want that the pressure. You see what I’m saying? Also, it’s about creating from a place that is inside rather than popping out and then that’s when judgment comes in. I just really don’t want to put importance on it is what I’m trying to say.

When you directed The Runaways, did you feel completely prepared or were there some new learning curves?

Oh yeah, there were lots of learning curves. You know the relationship between the girls and how to show that on camera. There was a big learning of telling living people’s lives. You know, there’s a lot of that as well. And there’s many of them, and they have their own interpretations and how to navigate that world, especially Kim Fowley. Some people saw him as a friend and funny guy and some people saw him as the devil [Laughs]. It’s like, giving him some personality and not completely whitewashing him, but not saying one thing or another.

Also, to watch the actors. When Michael Shannon showed up on set, the acting just got a lot better. I don’t know if it’s because everybody was the same age, but then all of a sudden he showed up and it’s just Michael Shannon. By the way, he’s an incredible actor. I can go up into a very serious place, but you feel it when he’s on set, so that was kind of interesting to see as well, what one person’s energy could bring into the room. It was all those little things.

Also, just working on the music was interesting as well, mainly because I have a lot of experience filming musicians, but here I was filming actors being musicians. Because I didn’t want the voice to change from … There were a lot of scenes where they were writing together in the little trailer, and I didn’t want it to go from Dakota’s voice to Sherry Curry’s singing voice, which is completely different. So much fun having them re-record the songs and then having them mouth that and use that as the track. Then there was a lot of new stuff, just working with actors. The thing that I think is different than The Turning, it was just different because of the cast and we created the story from the ground up.

What have you learned about yourself as a filmmaker from The Turning

Oh, it’s so fresh. Yeah, it’s a little fresh. Obviously, I learned lots but a lot of it’s technical stuff. I had the best time with the actors. And maybe because we were all in Ireland and we were all displaced, you feel like a bit of a family, you know. Even though they were very hard on Kate, but I think they wanted it all that way [Laughs].

Do you have a Mount Everest of a project in mind? Something major you’re determined to make one day? 

I want to film a movie in Italy. It’s such a big part of my DNA and whenever I go back to Italy, I’m a little bit of an outsider. Because even though I speak Italian, maybe the accent’s a bit funny. I’ve experienced a culture from afar that’s in my DNA. Then when I grew up in Canada, I wasn’t 100% Canadian, right? It’s like we have Little Italy in my house. So for me, now it’s almost like going back to the motherland and really exploring. The characters are so rich and the people and the way they think about life is very different from American culture. So I’d like to do something there, to get back to cinema history. It’s such a very interesting way of expressing themselves through story. That seems to be the dream on the horizon.

I’m now thinking, I can only imagine what you could’ve accomplished if you were in the 70s making Italian horror movies. 

Hey, maybe that’s next [Laughs].

Related Topics: , , , , , ,

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.