Inside the Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy of Pioneering Director Floria Sigismondi
From Marylin Manson to Rihanna to David Bowie, Sigimondi's work has shaped how we look at music for the better part of 25 years. We talk to the polymath about her career, the future, and capturing the soul of her subjects.
If you don’t know Floria Sigismondi by name, you’ve likely encountered her work in some form over the course of her 25-year career. The renowned Italian-Canadian talent is a narrative filmmaker, music video director, photographer, painter, and general creator of what she rightly calls “magic.”
Her dramatic, boutique noir aesthetic has shaped some of the most captivating music videos of the last two decades, including works by longtime collaborator Marilyn Manson, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Perfume Genius, and Katy Perry. Driven by both a passion for music and a penchant for outsiders, Sigismondi works in formats as varied as her collaborators; in 2010, she directed the eponymous Runaways biopic centered on 70s trailblazers Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, and recently helmed episodes of Hulu’s Emmy-winning original The Handmaid’s Tale. She also directed Björk’s interactive clip “Webeo” for the song “I’ve Seen It All,” and one of the first IMAX music videos, Rihanna’s “Sledgehammer.”
You know her work when you see it: Sigismondi’s creations are marked by a kind of stylized luridness, influenced by the films and operas with which she grew up. There’s a pervasive uneasiness to her imagery—think shadowy sets, uncanny movements, and striking costumes—an ongoing exploration of the unseemly tidbits of our psyches. That seems to never be more apparent than in her work with Manson, which catapulted both of them into the spotlight thanks to her direction on his 1996 video for “The Beautiful People”, which has clocked 106 million views and counting on YouTube.
Sigismondi recently returned to the spotlight with a series of short horror films she directed for New York Times Magazine’s “Great Performers” issue. The works features ten of the year’s best actors, including Saoirse Ronan, Nicole Kidman, and Jake Gyllenhaal, each cast within the kind of dark, disturbing scenarios that could only come from the mind of Sigismondi.
Following her recent career-spanning discussion at LA’s inaugural Red Bull Music Academy, Noisey gave Sigismondi a call to talk more about her unexpected crossover into filmmaking, carving out her own path, and how she’d like to spend her future days as an artist.
Noisey: In your final year of university in Ontario, you had been pursuing painting but ended up taking a photography course. You mentioned at the Red Bull discussion that you mostly skipped class, and instead spent time experimenting with the camera. How were you feeling that final year?
Floria Sigismondi: I was feeling itchy. I was feeling like three years is probably enough. I just wanted to make, I wanted to produce, I wanted to do, and that’s where the fun starts, you know? There’s something to be learned, and then there’s something to be learned through doing. I felt like that’s where I was at the time. Instead of going to class, I’d say, “Okay, I’ve got a shoot set up, I’m gonna go do a shoot.” They’d be like, “Yeah, no problem, go shoot.” But that was one class that I took that ignited something that was much more instant gratification rather than doing a painting and going through the process of taking like a month to finish. It was something [where] I photographed, and then I got into the development of the film, and then I got into the printing, so every aspect was a surprise, you know? I caught the bug.
At that age, did you have any ideas about making this a career?
No, well, I grew up with nothing, so for me it was just...I don’t know if it felt like it was a way out, I don’t even know if I knew about that, but I just knew that I wanted to spend my life doing something that I loved, and not doing a job that I felt like I was wasting my life. Right? There’s a difference. We all get in situations like that where we have to do stuff and we’re like, “Okay, I can’t wait till I get off.” I knew that there was something that I could be happy doing and growing as a person, so I just kind of threw myself into it to be better at something. I didn’t really know where it was going to take me, except that it excited me.
Do you think you were meant to be a director?
Well, I think of myself more as an artist. I think of the tools that I use as just sort of different mediums that I choose to use depending on how I want to express myself. The one thing about directing I have to say, I felt like oh, this is the one medium that I’m able to use all the things that I’m in love with. I’m in love with three-dimensional objects and sculpture, and I’m in love with music, and I’m in love with costumes. It was also time. You can walk by a painting or a photograph and just give it a couple glances and you’re done with it, but at the cinema you’re asking people for your time.
What aesthetically are you interested in these days? How do you think your style has developed?
I’ve always been drawn to maybe a darker aesthetic, a darker world, but I’ve learned just through the process of doing [that] I’m kind of peeling back the layers of why that excites me. I think it’s just about looking underneath the carpet, looking under your skin, like what is the thing under the glossy facade that excites me? A lot of that has just kind of stuck with me growing up in opera with the tragic stories that are told through opera, and also European cinema. That kind of idea that it was never the McDonald’s happy ending—it was always, what’s at the soul of something? I continually have that sort of theme in common with that work over the years, it’s just about, I guess, simplifying it and honing it in. There’s something still about that that really excites me.
Did you expect the rabid cultural response to those Manson videos?
No. I was creating, just creating for myself. I have this dream and an image and a vision and then I go do it. I’m kind of in my backyard. Those videos were shot in Toronto, which is sort of my backyard, and I was just making them. And when they blew up, it was interesting because I was doing some photography for magazines, and it was always odd for me to walk into a magazine store and open a page, and there was my work. But I liked to do that just because it was interesting, that was the closest I could see to it being in the public eye. Then when you hit television, it’s a different thing, especially MTV at the time reached a big audience. It was a little bit shocking for sure.
Are there any pieces you’ve done in the past that stand out to you as ones you got right?
Of course. “The Beautiful People,” because I was just kind of playing around with my thought, How do I get my style out to cinema? I take a photograph and it’s just me and a camera. Those days, I didn’t even have a photo assistant. To see it actually come to life was when I thought, “Okay, this is what I want to do.” Because the adrenaline and the dream to reality really hit me, that this was something quite exciting. I don’t know if that’s just human. Maybe for me that’s just an interesting way to get to know the psyche. If you go deep enough, are we all the same? If I go deep enough, what are those things that come up to the surface? That one hits me, the Sigur Ros [video] hits me because I really came up with the idea just on emotion, not on lyrics, so it was a different kind of way to hit the music.
You’ve worked with an impressive range of artists—Manson, Bowie, Rihanna, Christina Aguilera, The White Stripes, to name a few . Why do you think these artists are drawn to you?
I have no idea! Sometimes it’s dangerous, too, as an artist to step outside. If you step outside, you’re worried about what other people think, and that’s a different place to create from, and then you become too self-aware. I pride myself in being a child. There’s something wonderful about seeing the world through fresh eyes. A simple thing could ignite an idea. Anything could be inspiring, you know?
Twenty-five years into what has been a very influential career, what do you want for yourself looking forward?
That’s an interesting question, because projects take quite a big chunk out of my life so I deal with them in blocks, and then years go by and you’re like, “Wait, wait, wait, hold on, hold on! Was I meant to be here? Is this where I want to be?” And you’ve got to stop every three or four years and be like, “Okay, is this where I want to be or can I just steer the ship a little bit this way?” Because time flies, it really does. Also, for me I value every breath I take, so sometimes I’ve got to just stop and go, “Okay, what’s important? What’s not important?” I think it’s what makes me happy at the time. There’s a sense of experimentation that I always want to be part of my life, because a little bit of the unknown is what excites me as a person. Some thrill seekers tend to jump out of planes; I just like a little bit of the unknown. Having this idea of, “How am I going to do it?” And there’s a little bit of danger in that and some excitement in that. So many moments can fly by you in terms of inspiration but also in terms of when you’re shooting and you see something interesting and you get a flash of an idea. If you don’t grab it and you don’t get everyone to go with you in that moment, it’s gone and it’ll never come back. I think basically I just want to be witness to magic. There’s something to capture. It’s the kid in the candy store. Everything else is boring. Really, life—the mundanity of brushing your teeth and doing dishes and taking care of yourself because you will rot and die if you don’t…death is happening at every moment and I guess that’s what enables me to go. So I ask: where do I want to spend the remaining moments and the remaining breaths of my life? I just want to create and explore. If you explore the hidden parts of yourself, are you exploring the bigger, larger parts of the universe? The unknown is what excites me.
Sam Fragoso is a writer based in Los Angeles. He’s the host of Talk Easy , a weekly podcast about how people exist in the world without falling apart. His work has appeared in NPR, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and Playboy. Follow him on Twitter .