Activating The Vehicle Of Ascension: An Interview Of Filmmaker and Artist Floria Sigismondi

text by Oliver Kupper

Floria Sigismondi’s work, like her music videos for Marilyn Manson, David Bowie or Leonard Cohen, is a perfect amalgamation of her unique upbringing. Spending her early years in the coastal town of Pescara, Italy and her formative years in the rough steel manufacturing town of Hamilton, Ontario – with opera singers for parents – Sigismondi has developed a unique aesthetic that blends classicism with a certain darkness that harkens 1970s Giallo films and the nightmarish tableau vivants of Joel Peter Witkin. As a music video director, Sigismondi brings a distinctive world to life with an unsettling and jarring pastiche of imagery that flickers as if each scene was shot with a camera perched on the wing of a hummingbird. Lately, though, her work has taken a turn for the meditative and ethereal, like her most recent music video for Rihanna’s track Sledgehammer – made for the newest Star Trek film. The music video, set in an otherworldly atmosphere, was the first ever made for IMAX. Sigismondi is also pushing further into the world of feature length filmmaking, which is a promising venture considering the success of her 2010 debut – a biopic about The Runaways starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning.  Currently, she is in the casting phase for the adaptation of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Francois Boucq’s comic series "Bouncer" – about an armed gunslinger and saloon bouncer seeking revenge in the vice infested Wild West. We got a chance to catch up with Sigismondi at the Chateau Marmont to chat about her upbringing, her work creating some of the most iconic music videos of the last two decades and her venture into feature length films. 

OLIVER KUPPER: Both of your parents are opera singers and music is a big part of your life. Was that your earliest introduction to music?

FLORIA SIGISMONDI: It was. I grew up on Tosca and Caruso and Maria Callas. That kind of music enters you. It’s not really just about what they’re saying, but it pulls on your heartstrings. And I fell in love with it by just hearing violin and piano and then kind of got into different kinds of music. But my parents...I always came across some strife because it was just amazing to them that these singers were having careers with this music, while I just thought they were singing the same old song and I wanted to experiment and try new things.

KUPPER: So were they very supportive when you started digging up things and discovered art?

SIGISMONDI: Yeah. My dad was a big Italian film buff and if they saw me scribble on a piece of paper they’d say it was art and that I was going to become an artist. I realized that they were the black sheep of their families and I guess that’s why they gravitated toward each other.

OLIVER KUPPER: So you knew you were an artist at an early age or that art was somehow part of your identity?

SIGISMONDI: I always did.

KUPPER: And you were mainly drawing?

SIGISMONDI: Yeah. Seeing just the tools like a little paintbrush or a professional sketching pencil got me really excited. It was this feeling almost like butterflies fluttering inside your body, and I just knew that it was what made me happy--that spirit. I think because my first language was Italian and I was kind of learning English in school, I really gravitated toward that as my means of communication. I was by myself and wanted to discover who I was by making art.

KUPPER: What was the culture like when you were growing up?

SIGISMONDI: It was rough. I lived in Hamilton, which is outside of Toronto. I was two when we immigrated [from Italy]. There were more steel factories per capita than I think in all of North America. It was a really tough town so there’d be fights at every party, every weekend. If you stared at somebody for more than 2.5 seconds they’d ask what’s your problem ­– it was that kind of thing, even as a young girl. So it was very tough. But then I’d go home and it’d be like little Italy. We’d be making pasta and singing, my mother would be sewing at two o’clock in the morning making costumes, and I’d be watching Westerns with my dad. [laughs] So it was two completely different worlds.

KUPPER: So, Hamilton was very tough.  

SIGISMONDI: Yeah it’s a very special place. I used to ride motorcycles and I remember I had a tiny baby Triumph. Loved my little English bike! It would always break down, though, so I was tired of it and was going to get a Harley – of course it had to be one of the biggest Harleys you could get, but I bought it off of a guy who was not happy he was selling it to a woman.

KUPPER: And photography is something that you really gravitated toward and you went into the direction of fashion photography, right? 

SIGISMONDI: I actually did music and fashion. The thing was, I was at school and did my four years. It was the last year and I had to pick an elective and I kind of thought, ‘okay I’ll try this.’ And I remember this roll of film just turned out blank because I didn’t even know how to expose it. But there was one picture that turned out kind of like a painting. I remember it being over exposed and having super bright colors. I was just thinking, ‘what the fuck did I do’? [laughs] So I think I stumbled into photography in a more impressionistic way where I didn’t see it as documenting things but more for asking ‘how can I use this a tool?’

KUPPER: And your approach to start making music videos…was that something that you knew you wanted to do or you thought about doing then?

SIGISMONDI: Well, it’s funny, I didn’t know that, but I read an interview when I was just taking photographs, and I was saying that I wanted to make film back then. So I guess there was something attractive to it. I grew up watching Fellini films, Pasolini, the Italian Spaghetti Westerns. And I remember watching as a kid and always asking things like, “how did they get that?” I’d always imagine what was behind the scene of getting that shot. I guess I knew sort of subconsciously about the creation of it as an art form. And when I do finish work I rarely look at it. So I think for me it’s more about the process, what you learn as you’re watching things.

KUPPER: In terms of inspirations, people throw around Joel-Peter Witkin or other artists. How would you describe your aesthetic? Because it is really unique to you…

SIGISMONDI: Obviously I gravitated to likeminded people who view the world in the same way as I do, seeing beauty in maybe the ugly or beauty in unexpected places. Also, the combination of two extremes (like in the way that I grew up with the steel-factory-rough-thing mashed together with the high art), so I kind of gravitated toward artists like that. But it’s been a long time since I’ve actually referenced anybody. For me it was more of like, ‘Wow, that person is doing what they love to do, no matter how crazy it is.’

KUPPER: And what was the connection with Brion Gysin, who made the Dream Machine?

SIGISMONDI: Oh yeah! He had this Dream Machine, that’s right. I did an interview for the documentary. I think there may have been a prior connection. He was in Toronto so maybe he’s Canadian.

KUPPER: He inspired a lot of people not only when he and William Burrough’s first developed it, but there’s weird connections between it and Kurt Cobain and stuff like that. So I was curious if there was some kind of connection between that and not just the aesthetic of your work, but also the idea of these sort of dreamlike images.

SIGISMONDI: Let’s just put it out on the table that dreams are more fun. That dimension is more fun than ours where we have to brush our teeth, this disease, that disease. There’s a lot of things we have to do that won’t allow us to completely go and daydream into different worlds. So for me it’s kind of what most excites me about life. And then you can extract that and make it into something physical to share with people.

KUPPER: Does any of your work come directly from dreams that you’ve had?

SIGISMONDI: Yeah, especially when I see them in detail. Sometimes they’re more vague and sometimes I can see the hairs almost coming out of the skin.

KUPPER: When you come up with a concept for a music video like the iconic one you made for [Marilyn] Manson, does the idea come to you right away? Or do you have to listen to the music?

SIGISMONDI: I have to listen to the music, because music to me sort of puts me in a trance. I have to listen to it so much that it actually has no form and then images starts to come up. So it’s kind of there and I’m not paying much attention to it, and I think that that’s when you kind of slip through the gap of this ‘other.’ And that’s what I used to do, I used to do a lot more sleep deprivation or listen to it when I was really tired at night, when you’re not worried about the stress of the day. It was more about a meditative or pre-meditative state whereas now things come to me while I'm walking or talking. I don’t have to put myself in those places.

KUPPER: Do you write things down or do you keep them in something like a memory bank?

SIGISMONDI: Scared of that, but yeah. I do write them down and I have so many notebooks scattered all over the house that it’s crazy for me to find anything. [laughs] I’ve actually had to go through them and put stickies on them, because one project can be in ten different notebooks. So it kind of drives me crazy and I don’t know how to organize myself. Because when you have that inspiration you have to write it down.

KUPPER: What do you notice is the biggest difference in the music videos made now versus twenty years ago?

SIGISMONDI: I don’t watch them.

KUPPER: So did they become less interesting to even engage with at all?

SIGISMONDI: I think our culture was a lot simpler back then, you know what I mean? We didn’t have all this other stuff to analyze. So you did it because you were on the fringe, or there was a real kind of just bubbling into the mainstream, but you still felt it was yours to be a part of, you know? Whereas at least for me, now you really have to search. And so you have to be particular with your time and ask, ‘Do I want to create?’ or ‘Do I want to search?’ And I don’t watch television and I haven’t had one for many years. I finally got one just to watch Netflix but I don’t watch regular television.

KUPPER: There is an art form to making music videos, it’s filmmaking. In a condensed form.

SIGISMONDI: Yeah, for me it was always important to introduce something new in every section or in a fluid way. For me, the thing with a song in a music video is that if you put it all in the first minute then you’ve seen it.

KUPPER: And you made a feature. Was it daunting to go into making a feature film? Was it a completely different experience?

SIGISMONDI: It was so daunting because I was told that a film of that size would’ve been seven weeks, and I had like four or something ridiculous. I didn’t know and that even seemed like a long time to me, but you just don’t get through it. You meet your car guy or whatever person once, and can’t think about it even if it seems like the wrong guy for the scene. So that part of it was so different and crazy. I remember when the shoot started, I went ‘Oh my god,’ because the shooting of it was relaxing even though I was moving locations every day, and even if I didn’t get what I needed to get, I couldn’t go back. So I had to move very quickly. It was nuts.

KUPPER: I want to talk about the music video you made for David Bowie, starring Tilda Swinton, which sort of played with that idea of celebrity. How do you feel about those themes regarding celebrity?

SIGISMONDI: It’s not a concept that comes up, but it’s a strange way to live. I don’t think it’s natural to have that much attention and that we’re built for it. It’s a desire that's kind of dreamlike. It’s a’s a fantasy.

KUPPER: How did you meet Bowie? How did that collaboration come about?

SIGISMONDI: After I did the Marilyn Manson music video, I guess he had seen that and wanted to meet me. I remember for our first meeting he kept me waiting for an hour. But he was so amazing and we ended up spending five hours talking about art, so it was so great. I remember he had some ideas that he wanted to do. Since they were coming from him I took them very seriously but didn’t know what to do with them. And then I remember getting this amazing message on my answering machine where he just went like, do your own thing or create your own thing. He was giving me permission to be the artist that I was or that he respected. So we met in an artist-to-artist way.

KUPPER: Which is a great way to connect.

 SIGISMONDI: He was just really supportive in the artistic process and taught me that this is all we have. I remember the record company not liking some cuts of Little Wonder and I told him, “Oh my god, they don’t like this. I don’t know what to do,” and he just laughed, saying, “You don’t listen to them!” Because if he had, he’d be manufactured art. So then it became so exciting for me to think that all I had to do was come up with weird images and I could actually live in the world and have fun like that.

KUPPER: Are there any artists that you want to work with in any sphere of music videos?

SIGISMONDI: There are three new artists that I was thinking were so interesting. My mind right now is going more to features. I’m working on a movie with Alejandro Jodorowsky, which I know you read about that.

KUPPER: Yeah, I did. That’s so exciting!

SIGISMONDI: He wrote it and it’s based on his comic book series. It’s got all the elements but it’s a linear story that follows the life of this little boy who watches his parents get brutally murdered and he goes out to search for revenge and finds out about his family and that everything is interconnected. So it’s very Shakespearean in scope.

KUPPER: What stage is that in right now?


KUPPER: And your current video that’s out now with Rihanna. How did that come about?

SIGISMONDI: Well we were looking for something to do and this one was very special because IMAX was involved and the film Star Trek was involved. So when Rihanna and her team approached me it was really intriguing to create this other world. It was very different to anything that I think she’d done before. But also what was so great about it too was that it’s a stand alone piece, it wasn’t about using footage from the film, so I was able to just take all the elements that I wanted and give her the power and create her as a new character in a way. So I created a mystical character living on this planet, just conjuring up all these powers and she’s able to move the elements like rocks and sand and then transform herself into the universe. So it has this transcendent theme of how I think that people have such a big power that they don’t use.

KUPPER: And you premiered it in IMAX right? It’s a much different experience than watching it online.  

SIGISMONDI: Yes it is. Quite immersive and if you actually watch it in the IMAX theatre, the sound is pretty incredible too. They took me through the regular sound, the old IMAX sound, and this new IMAX sound, and you’d think you could barely hear a difference, but it’s incredible how you could actually hear the sound going right through your clothing to inside your body. So we had to remix the song to the IMAX sound and sound effects.

KUPPER: Amazing. And right now you’re working on something for the show in Toronto?

SIGISMONDI: That is part of a show called Oblivion which has three artists. I got the square with Director X and he’s done titles like the Death of the Sun and mine’s about activating and transcendence - it’s a little bit witchy. It’s all about activating your vehicle of ascension.

You can explore more of Floria Sigismondi's work on her website. Interview, text and photographs by Oliver Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE