Artist Floria Sigismondi Opens Up on Working with Bowie, Kristen Stewart and Achieving Transcendence
David Bowie. Tilda Swinton. Christina Aguilera. Kristen Stewart. Dakota Fanning. Marilyn Manson. These are just a few people who have been enlightened by Floria Sigismondi’s lens. Born in Pescara, Italy, and raised in Hamilton, Ontario, the 51-year-old Italian-Canadian director has spent more than 25 years reshaping the identities of artists, singers, musicians and actors with her camera, unleashing a vivid, unabashed vision that is uncorrupted by Hollywood trends or popular opinion.
Her music videos for songs such as Bowie’s “Little Wonder,” Manson’s “Beautiful People,” Rihanna’s “Sledgehammer,” Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” and Aguilera’s “Fighter” can be counted as artistic turning points. Her aesthetic style has been called “neo-gothic,” “underworld-inspired,” and a cross between “vampy and vampiric,” yet through the years it has evolved beyond those tags. Her debut film, The Runaways—which is based on the lifespan of the all-girl 1970s rock band of the same name—included major breakout roles for actors such as Stewart, Fanning and Michael Shannon.
Her latest project is bringing a full-scale live-performance piece to Toronto’s prestigious Nuit Blanche with a work called PNEUMA (translated roughly in Greek to “breath of life”) at Nathan Phillips Square, from October 1 at 6:58 p.m. to October 2 at 7 a.m. There, look at a two-sided water screen replete with shimmering images that will reflect Sigismondi’s captivating psyche.
The idea of transcendence is a big part of your work in general and also at Nuit Blanche. Why are you so hooked on the idea?
It’s about touching other worlds. This piece for Nuit Blanche is a quest for me to reach a different kind of level in the human existence. Everyone’s got this vehicle of ascension. It’s just about igniting it. The idea of playing with sacred geometry, frame of mind, meditation and reaching other dimensions excites me.
Have you felt that you’ve reached a different dimension in the process?
Who knows what dimension you and I are talking in right now or if in another dimension we would have ever met. They do say that you have parallel lives and you can kind of shift things with meditation. I do feel that it’s happened with me since I’ve been meditating. It’s been three years now. It is just a quiet moment to hear yourself.
As a child, did watching your parents sing opera give you an early sense of transcendence?
Watching my parents sing opera linked to some kind of passion as well. When you think of that feeling that you can put yourself in different places, it’s like a higher vibration. Watching them be so passionate about what they do in the moment—it’s like channelling. If there’s anything my parents gave me, it’s that. My father’s 92 and is still singing! I think the first time I saw them onstage was in Aida. They were in Egyptian costumes. I can’t remember, but I was anywhere between 5 and 7. My sister and I basically grew up in rehearsals with my parents.
Why so personal with this public project? I’m wondering what was the decision to be this open about yourself.
Now that you mention it, it is too open! Can we close the book now? When I create, it’s a personal act. I’m just with a couple people in the room when I’m editing it. I’m never in a public place when it’s shown. It want to capture that intimacy in the square. I want it to just feel like a dream, like you’ve just slipped through the cracks and are submerged in the deep waters of the subconscious.
Which image would you say was a standout or something you feel is incredibly important right now to the project?
I’d say the Merkaba symbol [taken from early Jewish mysticism from 100 BCE]. It’s basically a triangle of transcendence. There’s an inverted triangle on top of that, so it’s a star. It’s three-dimensional. It enables travel, essentially. Without going into the education of it, it’s in all kinds of religion from ancient religions and tribes to Catholicism and Judaism. It’s a spiritual tool.
You’ve worked very closely with people such as Tilda Swinton and Bowie. They are experts when it comes to transformation. Why do you think they are so good at transforming?
David started giving me a kind of transcendence ages ago…I’ve worked with him four times. He gave it to me in the very beginning and is still giving it to me. He really believed that there is such freedom to being an artist. Total liberation. Tilda’s got that quality too. She’s incredibly intelligent and feels like she’s lived many lives. David’s creativity just kept blooming. It was really beautiful to be around because it kept changing and evolving because he allowed it to.
What was the greatest lesson learned from spending so much time with Bowie?
Not to listen to anybody else. He’s very precious of the creative process. He never interfered. I remember the very first video I did for him [“Little Wonder”] and I was telling him that the record company was giving me a hard time. For me, it was such a stressful situation and he just started laughing. He said, “You don’t listen to them.” In the end, you have to be able to defend your work. It’s almost like a freedom to not care. If you’re second guessing and don’t know which angle you’re hitting it from, you’re left on a foot.
You’ve worked for so many people in the Hollywood system and the music business. Have people like execs or gatekeepers try to lighten up your style or make your work more palatable for the masses?
People come to me knowing what they’re going to get. I hit on themes that make some people uncomfortable. There’s a reason why I don’t get the call sometimes. When I’m writing my idea, whether it’s something for Star Trek and Rihanna—I was free to do what I wanted. If I look at the Justin Timberlake video, that was a more personal experience with him and his grandparents. It was about me trying to extract that and make it into something.
Tell me about your process before filming music videos. Do you sit with the artist for a while and marinate their vision with yours?
Normally it’s music. I sit with it. I let myself go. I’m not married to it. It’s mostly the music or the lyrics that drive the plot or story of the film.
Your work plays with the beautiful and the grotesque. The concept of good taste and bad taste colliding—do you think these things have a lot in common?
If you dissect something, you can always find a beauty in it. It doesn’t matter how grotesque it is from the outside. If you package something so pretty, for me it’s about peeling off the layers and finding out what’s inside.
You grew up here, but your hometown is Abruzzo. The Italian culture that you came from…I look at your work and I see inklings of Pier Paolo Pasolini. Was his work with Maria Callas a turning point for you?
Maria Callas was like our Farrah Fawcett. She was our idol in the home. I remember, as a kid, we only had a couple of albums. Even in the opera world…we had the little suitcase that opened up and turned into a record player. With that album cover, I was always looking at her face and hearing her music. Even today, she’s transcendent. She takes you somewhere else. Pasolini is one of my favourites. Salo is incredible. Mamma Roma, too. Fellini’s got a great way…there’s something about the Italian culture. I go back to Abruzzo all the time now because my parents moved back there. If you walk around Rome, you feel the history and the art and the ideas in the stones.
You also grew up Hamilton, Ont. What was that dichotomy like?
It was rougher. It was industrial. My parents foraged their own little creative world in Hamilton. A great mosaic artist and painter would come by the house and my dad would give him singing lessons. In turn, he’d give my sister and I art lessons. We were doing things that I probably didn’t do until I went to art school.
When you first started in your career, you were photographing for FASHION magazine. Do you have any memories that stuck?
There was a point in a photo shoot when everything clicked while we were trying to make a great image. It was just about creating a feeling, whether it’s having the model evoke something or the mood of the lighting or the framing…it all kind of came together. At first, it was just about creating a painting with it. It wasn’t really taking advantage of the human element of it. When that started coming together, all of a sudden the girl was no longer wearing the outfit. They were one. I do remember those moments. I also wanted to go beyond clothes and styling and create something else. I wanted to create something beyond a story… I was trying to create universes.
Joan Jett has said that many of the scenes in The Runaways—especially the one where Joan confronts her manager—felt like she was reliving her past. What does that kind of reaction give you as an artist?
She slipped back in time! My god! There were so many walls she had to break down. I’m working in a man’s world too so we’re trying to change that. Canada’s doing a great job of it by highlighting all these female directors at TIFF. That’s what was so great about that scene. I thought it captured being told that you can’t. That was the spark of her courage. There was something beautiful in that scene where they were in the studio and everything was falling apart around Joan. She bangs on the window. She’s kind of pissed. She throws the beer bottle at the window. I loved the emotion that came through in that moment.
You will be shooting your next film, “Delivery Man” next. Have you spent time observing Las Vegas strip and the sex workers who work there?
The reason why I was drawn to that film or book is that you’re dropped in the middle of that world. It’s not really a study on prostitution. It’s a study of people growing up in their environment. Their moral barometer is very different. In another film, if kids wanted to experiment, they’d go behind their school and smoke a cigarette. Here, kids who are used to seeing pamphlets of these women decide to call a hooker and have her come to their house so they can stare at her. That intrigued me and the main character is an artist. He’s trying to make it. You talk to people all the time—people who went to art college and wanted to be writers but aren’t doing what they want to do. That’s the same story as our main character. He has a passion but he doesn’t know how to get it out. He gets stuck back in the melting tar of Las Vegas.
You’ve nurtured young talents such Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart at an early age. When you look back at your collaboration, what stands out?
Their confidence. I also felt like I needed to protect them. With Dakota, once she was inside the beast of fame, she was like, “It’s not for me.” Hollywood is more about stardom and celebrity than about art but she’s managed to find a good balance. When I was shooting The Runaways, paparazzi were whistling on the street and there were photographers everywhere. I’m shooting dialogue and they’d yell over it! It was awful! They get rough and tough if you don’t give them what they want. Dakota and Kristen were kids! It was mostly for Kristen. I don’t think she knew what was going on. I hired her before Twilight but it came out before The Runaways…I saw a beautiful film she did called Into the Wild. We were in some awful place in the valley—some Kardashian place—you’d look out the window and couldn’t do anything and couldn’t get out.