Floria Sigismondi

The Prolific, Distinctive Director Talks Music Videos as Portraiture, Making the Most of Low Budgets, and Her New Horror Film, The Turning

For a body of work that stretches back to 1992 and ranges from mega-budget visuals for pop stars like Katy Perry and Rihanna to indie musicians like Perfume Genius and Yves Tumor, Floria Sigismondi’s music videos have a remarkable continuity. She uses imagery from the occult (it’s not surprising that she directed a short about the filmmaker Kenneth Anger), surrealist art and sci-fi and horror movies in an elliptical manner but pushes it in an optimistic direction, despite the nightmarish overtones of many of her videos. They have an underlying emphasis on the possibility of personal transformation and resistance to narrow standards of beauty. This might be clearest in Perfume Genius’ “Die 4 You,” but the same themes were already present in her clips for Perry’s “E.T.” and Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” which became her breakthrough in 1996 after several years of videos for Canadian indie rock groups.

She recently wrapped her second feature film, The Turning, an adaptation of Henry James’ short story The Turn of the Screw, and has directed several episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale. Turning is currently slated to open next winter. StudioDaily talked to her by phone from Los Angeles in May.

StudioDaily: In Perfume Genius’ “Die 4 You,” he does a dance and even levitates before a creature in a way that reminds me of bird and animal courtship. It draws on imagery from body horror but takes out the element of the “monstrous.” Is that what you intended to do?

Floria Sigismondi: One of the things I intended to do was explore desire, and [I] thought it would be very interesting to have desire personified not by a male or female. I found this artist named Rosa Verloop, and she makes those amazing body parts that clash together. You don’t know if it’s male or female or even if it’s part of the same body. Perfume Genius moves in this very languid, beautiful way. He’s doing a dance, but you don’t know for whom. And then you see it’s this mound of flesh. To me, that’s desire personified. I had seen Verloop’s work for a while. When I had this idea, I reached out to her, and it became part of the video.

When Yves Tumor plays a character wearing horns wriggling in a circle of rope in “Lifetime,” is he meant to be the devil?

I was thinking of it more as the struggle we have with our darker side on our subconscious level. It’s a fight for control. The frustration is sometimes played much more acutely. I was trying to portray that struggle in a very sympathetic way. For every action, there’s a reason behind it.

How much did you add to the landscapes depicted in Rihanna’s “Sledgehammer” and Dua Lipa’s “Swan Song” with CGI? They both begin with the singers in exteriors that start off looking real and get stranger.

For me, exteriors are very important. They become like a character. Both these videos were for movies, but I didn’t want to cut to footage from the movie. I wanted to make a stand-alone piece. I took the world of the film and mixed it in with my own ideas. In the Rihanna video, those are real locations that I colored and wanted to look more celestial, like watercolor paintings. I added elements from the movie, like the spaceships and rocks. Those are CGI. You would’ve seen them from the actual film. With Dua Lipa, I had the idea of her breaking rocks. The garbage pit is not really part of the movie, but they were dumping garbage out of a chute onto an area where people live, so I thought “Let’s see the people who have to clean it.” That was creating a world that wasn’t in the movie. But Dua Lipa’s character lives in that world, in a scene suggested by the movie. I went in with a microscopic feel and created my world out of it. We shot a real location, but I was depicting her apartment at the top of it that looks like the movie.

The Rihanna video, which is on the soundtrack of Star Trek: Beyond, ends with a spaceship approaching. Were there certain demands with those videos that came from working on movie soundtracks, with film directors or producers?

In both cases, it was more the producers. They didn’t want it to be a commercial for the film, since there was already a trailer out. They wanted it to contain certain elements. Rihanna really loved what we were doing with it and the way we created her own story. She’s really playing a made-up character. I was told more “watch the movie and see what you want.” I thought it was great if she became a galaxy of her own, with a spaceship moving towards her, and you don’t know what’s going to happen once the ship penetrates her surface.

It was also the first music video shot in Imax.

That was very interesting, I thought the cameras were going to be a lot bigger, but they were actually very easy to work with. You can really see the difference in detail when it’s blown up that big. It was shown in movie theaters about a month before the film opened.

How did the short film you directed about Kenneth Anger come about?

System Magazine approached me about doing a story. Kenneth Anger and Gucci were involved. They asked me about doing a portraiture piece in connection with the Chateau Marmont, the pieces Gucci had done for it. The concept was “72 Hours at the Chateau Marmont.”

You don’t copy his style, but the editing and costume design feel like part of the same world as his films. Was it hard to figure out how to portray him in a way that was similar without drawing from his work literally?

The piece included stills from his films. Sometimes he was more of a character, as when he’s wearing a nightgown. Maybe what we have in common is creating characters and short films and creating our little worlds around them.

You’ve worked with artists like Marilyn Manson, Bjork and David Bowie, whose music is based on constantly changing personae. More recently, you’ve made videos for younger artists like Yves Tumor and Perfume Genius who are doing something similar with music and image. Have you consciously sought them out?

What’s important to me as an artist is that I’m engaged with contemporary art and music and feeling inspired by it. It’s not a money thing for me. Lesser budgets are more challenging but just as creative as something more mainstream. I want to be inspired as an artist by everything I do. Sometimes it’s the lyrics, sometimes just the sound.

In the past decade, you’ve gone back and forth between working with huge pop stars like Katy Perry and Rihanna and artists on small indie labels. How do the demands of videos differ based on their budget?

I haven’t really had a problem with someone looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do. That’s been fine. A bigger thing is how I approach the job. The music video-making sometimes feels like a photo shoot or portraiture. With Perfume Genius, there was a feeling I was going for, while with Katy Perry, I was able to create a fantastical world. The indie stuff is more like a microscopic version of an imaginary world. Sometimes I’m forced to stick to real locations. There’s more pressure.

The Perfume Genius and Yves Tumor video are limited to one set. That’s an effect of the budget, I would assume.

Having done this for a long time, I know how to manage locations. You get more shooting time if you don’t use locations. The lower budgets require a one-day shoot. It can be difficult with longer songs because the images get repetitive-looking. I hold off on opening up the frame so that there are newer things you can reveal and experience. I try to streamline it. There’s a lot you can do with color, lighting and even wardrobe.

You started an indie label, Mamaroma Records, to release Lawrence Rothman’s music. What inspired you about their music to do so?

I’ve been involved with all their photos and videos. Their music is so cinematic, with the idea of the “alters” — creating a new character for each of the songs and exploring what that look is.

One of their videos just repeats five or six images for its whole length. That’s a very unusual choice. What led you to that?

Well, it’s more portraiture. I looked at it more as a photograph coming to life. The camera barely moves.

You have a background in photography and a parallel career in the art world. What photographers have inspired you?

Cindy Sherman is one of my big inspirations, especially when she was shooting on film. There’s something about film that I really love: the colors, the grain. As a young photographer, I went to art college. I took one photography class. It blew my mind because it was immediate and involved working with people, as opposed to being on my own and making a painting. I did spend a lot of time on my own thinking of ideas, so it’s nice to interact with people, whether they’re musicians, actors or subjects on a photo shoot. There’s something about the color of film that’s so hard to duplicate in digital. There’s so many colors making up Cindy Sherman’s photos, and the characters really create a different world. You can dream when you look at them.

Your video for David Bowie’s “The Stars Are Out Tonight” reminded me of Sherman, particularly the way you use Tilda Swinton to play multiple characters.

David had this idea, actually, that the stars are stalking regular people to try and study them. The stars are so removed from humanity that they need to study it. These stars want to see how this couple act and eventually infiltrate their home while they’re grocery shopping or exercising. They end up in their home and take their place. That’s when we brought out David Bowie’s dead ringer in the matching suit. That was fun to do. In the music video, she strips down and takes off her wig. The stalkers have opened her up into being herself.

Do you have the choice these days to shoot on film or digital?

At the end of the day, film is much more expensive. If I want to, I usually wind up shooting digital, although I miss the colors that are available on film. The colors on video are getting better. My film The Runaways is set in the ’70s, and the producers were pressuring me to shoot digital. I did a side-by-side comparison. That was almost 10 years ago. Digital could not beat the colors. We shot 16mm, so it was cheaper. I’m shooting digital, but on the Arri Alexa camera with old Cooke lenses that give beautiful flares. Our eyes don’t see like digital does. There’s too much information. Film is much more dreamy. I try to use it as much as I can.

How was the experience of making The Turning compared to The Runaways?

It was very different because it’s based on a story that’s very popular because of its ambiguous ending. The challenge is to make a film that opens up questions while still being satisfying to the viewer. They’re also different because The Runaways was an indie film about people who are still alive. The drama had to be based on true events. We’ve shot it, and we’re going to lock picture in the next couple weeks. I’m right at the tail end, although I still have lots of post to do. It was produced by Amblin/Universal. It has a modern setting, in the 1990s, with a bit of an angsty vibe.

You’ve been directing music videos since 1992. There was a recent article in Billboard about the budgets music video directors work with and the difficulty of making a living as a music video director. But even making a living as a filmmaker seems harder now, unless you’re working on very big budgets. How has this changed in the time you’ve been working?

The money used to be spread out more evenly. You always had your big artists, but then the middle and lower tier had money to experiment. Music videos were more of a forum for musicians and directors to make art. Independent artists now have very, very little money. The digital age has also made things easier because you don’t have to develop and transfer film. There are cheaper ways of doing things. So the budgets get smaller and smaller and smaller. Now you see a great difference between established artists and tiny ones, and there are far more of the tiny artists. I love a lot of experimenting and listen to music that inspires me. It’s great to keep exercising. It’s very important to me to have lots going on, whether photography, painting, [or] film, and just mix it up. I don’t want to get bored by one medium.