Floria Sigismondi

Floria Sigismondi
If you watched music videos in the late '90s, the intricate macabre aesthetic and now-familiar jarring camera work of Canadian director Floria Sigismondi is likely to come to mind. Having directed her first clips for early singles from the Tea Party and Our Lady Peace, she quickly became responsible for some of the most memorable videos for some of the biggest artists at the time, including Marilyn Manson's massive and creepy "The Beautiful People." This year, Sigismondi branched out into feature films for the first time, bringing former Runaways singer Cherie Currie's memoirs to life. Equal parts music biopic and a classic coming-of-age tale, The Runaways is also a visual first for the director, stripped of the surreal in favour of raw rock and roll reality as lived by a handful of teenage girls tearing their way through the music industry in the '70s. For the recent release of The Runaways DVD, Sigismondi talked with Exclaim! about working with icons Currie and Joan Jett, preserving their careers and stories, and delicately detailing intimate moments of female reproductive functions.

You're in L.A. right now, right? What are you up to lately?
Yeah, L.A. Just reading a lot, figuring out what the next project is.

The Runaways DVD has just come out, and it's been a while since the film's release. Overall how would you say the experience has sat with you?
I enjoyed the experience for sure although, you know, when you're making a film there are lots of challenges. But all in all I enjoyed making it, and now I'm kind of keen on making something else right now.

Is it safe to say you took a lot from it? It was your first feature-length film.
It was a very small film, so I wouldn't say I took a lot on. Well I mean, it took four years to make, because I wrote it also, so by the time I was shooting it I had already lived with it for three years.

This is the first screenplay you've done too I guess, right?

How did you find the process?
It was good! I loved how I had to play sort of... to sort of find the story. I had Cherie [Currie, Runaways singer]'s book to work from but that was all her side, and that was interesting to me. All the other people and trying to sort of figure out what the story was, like meeting Joan [Jett], then meeting Kim Fowley, and just going back and looking at hundreds and hundreds of articles. Just trying to find what the story was. Sort of playing ― well not a detective, but sort of mapping out what the road was going to be.

Is writing something you'd like to tackle again? Either a screenplay or something else?
Yeah, I'd like to do that again.

The research process sounds pretty cool.
Yeah and that's what was so rooted in reality. There was a lot of really rich source material, and that kind of made it fun.

I know there was a lot made of both Joan Jett and Cherie Currie being on set during filming, with Joan especially taking on an executive producer role, right?

And listening to the DVD commentary it's clear that Kristen Stewart really took a lot from her, both in the role and personally, and I'm curious if you could say the same in some way?
Yeah, I mean it was great having her on set because of the support she gave Kristen [Stewart]. Kristen hadn't had a lot of prep time. We were shooting in between two Twilight films, and so I think I had about a week or two with her, so having Joan on set with her really helped because Kristen was able to really sponge off of her, and she really did get her mannerisms down and stuff like that, so that was great. Kristen felt secure in having her around, and it really helped her. And then Cherie, she didn't show up that often, but she was there a bit, yeah.

How about yourself, through working with them? Did any of their input influence your decisions in making the film?
Oh yeah, for sure. I did many, many interviews with them, and it was... how do I get their character, how do I inject their character in such a short period of time, and create scenes that informed that pretty quickly. When you know somebody, how do you do that in an hour and a half? So that was the challenging and fun part of it at the same time. Like that scene where Joan gets her leathers, and right off the bat when she says, "I want what he's wearing," that scene sort of tells you what sort of person she is. When you look at the film it's sort of a character study, it's more of a character-based film.

I assume there would be pressure. Listening, again, to commentary, both lead actors [Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning] said they felt pressure to do the story and the people justice. Did you feel it too?
Yeah, for sure, though maybe I didn't feel it as condensed as they did because for them it was pretty much in the shooting, so it was pretty much a month of this intense pressure, whereas mine was spread out for four years [laughs]. But for sure you do feel it because [The Runaways] have such a big fan base, and especially Joan, because not only with the Runaways, but then her own career, so you do want to do her justice, and her career. And then you wanted to do Cherie ― some people don't know as much about her and you want to shoot her in her right light also. And of course present that in a light that they would like to be presented in. I know it was a very raw time, so I wanted to make sure to keep my details all right, and do lots and lots and lots of research. I was a little bit younger than they were, but I did live through the '70s, so sort of inject that, and try to get that right as well.

And aside from being a biopic and a rock history film, this is also just a great coming-of-age story.
That's what I wanted to make. I went in and said I didn't want to make this a straight-up biography. I want to make this a coming of age, because that's what's so interesting about them. And if you want to compare them to anybody else, that's what makes them so special, is how young they were, and that they were all female. So those kinds of things really resonated with me. And it wasn't important for me necessarily to say "they played here, and they played there, and to really go through the historical ― I mean, first of all we were a tiny film and we couldn't go off to all of those places! We couldn't go to England; I couldn't do that stuff ― so for me it was really important to hopefully capture what it was like to be that age, going through that, and being thrown into that rock'n'roll world, and what that meant for them. And I think for each of them it was very different. Even their relationships with Kim for instance are different; Joan thinks he's very funny and her buddy or a partner in crime, where Cherie is kind of intimidated by him, and he comes off pretty strongly to her. So all of those things.

Do you have any favourite films of that ilk that influenced this?
Yeah, I looked at Christiane F. ― which is a German film ― a lot, I loved that film, I love the kind of reality that the '70s brought. It was shot in the '80s but that's close enough to the '70s that it had that feeling; that sort of excitement that anything was possible, and you know, hugely experimental, and the music that was coming out of there was phenomenal, also just fashions and everything was kind of daring and raw at the same time, and a bit primal. So I was drawn to that, and yeah, Christiane F. was a big one that I went back to. It hit the right tone for me.

Do you think it was important to the Runaways' story that this interpretation be directed by a woman?
Yeah, the producers really felt that that was important, and I would think so. Because, you know, all that stuff was so sexualized ― the girls were very sexualized, and sort of sold by Kim, in a way. And not saying that it would have been done wrong by any means, but maybe the subtleties are different. I wanted it to obviously feel daring, but not to feel like I was putting Cherie Currie in this, sort of... I didn't necessarily want it to be titillating, but just sort of more informative about what she was going through, and why she was doing certain things. So maybe ― hopefully! ― those subtleties make a difference! Maybe a male [director] wouldn't have started the film with Cherie getting her period!

I was going to say! It was an immediate impact.

And for me it's a very normal thing for women, like, everyone has been caught in that. I don't think there's one woman on earth that's not been caught in that situation, sort of like "Oh God!" you know? So you kind of understand the film you're going to go see right off the first scene I think.

Was there a lot of reaction to it from people, on that personal level?
You know it's so funny, yeah, some, but I thought it was going to be bigger! And I think a lot of people just didn't know what to say. Women have been commenting on it, and that kind of feels good, they're kind of like "wow, you never see that in a film," I don't think, like that. But mostly, everyone's been on the quiet front. I don't know what that means!

I'm curious also how your previous experience directing music videos influenced this. Was it hard to sort of incorporate or alternately keep that familiar process or aesthetic at bay?
Oh well it's different, I think. It's different in film for me. My work doesn't necessarily stay in reality, I like to go and make it my own little world. And even though that is an interpretation of a world, for sure, I kind of wanted to stay rooted in reality. I took license a couple of times in the film to kind of maybe be a little more symbolic, or portray a feeling of loneliness, or kind of feeling like your world is falling apart, so I kind of do a little bit of that, but for me it was important to stay in that real world and tell the story without too many bells and whistles. It's just sort of a decision I made early on in how I was going to approach it. But the music videos obviously brought a ton of experience with the music element of the film, and that was very important to me that all that stuff came across super authentic, and that the girls, especially being actors, and it's not necessarily what they do, that their fingers were all in the right place, and, that it looked like they were really playing their instruments. It was also really important that Kristen and Dakota [Fanning] sang all their parts.

I was going to comment on the live performance scenes, they're incredibly rich looking and I was going to ask if the video experience translated that way. Clearly it did!
Oh yeah, definitely. And normally I would have a couple of days to shoot that sort of thing with a music video, where for this, I only had like three hours! So it was really intense and it laid a lot on the actors to get it right and not have that much time to play with it. But I think they did a really great job. We were moving at super, super fast speed. But I think it helped, I mean, if you were lip-synching to someone else singing, I think that would have showed. But because they'd gone in the studio and done that, I think it helped.

I noticed in the commentary, and you've mentioned it a few times, how rushed it was to get this done. Was that because of Kristen's Twilight schedule, or just budget stuff?
No, that was budget stuff. They took two days away from me at the last minute, so we kind of had to scramble. But I'm sure that happens on every film, no matter what the budget is I'm sure you're kind of restrained with what you want to do, or what you could do. But we were moving at lightning speed, and because of the nature of the story, we were moving location every day. So when you do that, you lose two hours just setting up. And if I didn't get what I wanted, I wouldn't go back to that location again. But if I did, it would be a domino effect, and I'd have even more days set out, so it was like this train that left a station and if I hit a bump, it would have resonated throughout the whole project, so, thankfully, we just kind of kept on going.

Did that urgency influence the finished product at all do you think?
I guess working on low-budget music videos I've always had that kind of thing. It's not the same as doing, like, a commercial where there's lots of money, but the music video aspect of it is that you always want to do more than you can (laughs). So there's always that element of rush, so in that respect, that didn't freak me out. It was just that, on this film, if something went wrong, it would completely derail us. Like if the set wasn't ready, or, just, a little thing, could completely derail it (laughs). It was just so tightly wound.

So I guess there wasn't much time for some lovely female bonding then.
No! But you know, we did a week of rehearsing, and I really wanted that to happen. So it was great, because we had, you know, just four hours of musical rehearsal, so they really felt what it was like to be in a band and they all got along which was great. They had their time before we went to shoot, and I think it helped.

So what can we expect next from you? Any more features, or new videos coming up?
Yeah, more features. And I did a Dead Weather video not that long ago.

Where was that done?
In Nashville, at Jack [White]'s record company. He's got a record company there, and a little studio, so we just shot there. And what else? I'm just figuring out what to do next!

Have you ever considered releasing one of those video compilation DVDs, like Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry?
Yeah! I mean if I were to be approached I would like to do that. I know those things take a lot of work getting together, all the rights and all the clearances and stuff, that can take years to do, but yeah that'd be nice to do, I'd like that.

Is there another artist you'd love to work with, whether a feature type thing or videos?

I've always wanted to work with Nick Cave or P.J. Harvey. I think they sort of...speak to my soul (laughs).

And would you like to venture outside of music-based projects as well, do you think?
In film? Oh yeah, for sure. Yeah, I'd like to open it up. In life, in that way, you should sort of experience all that you can. I've done my music movie and I'd love to do something else.