5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes With… Floria Sigismondi

Production Company
London, United Kingdom
The legendary director on working with Bowie, why we need Free the Bid and being ‘100% creative’

Since her commercial breakthrough with the video for Marilyn Manson’s ‘Beautiful People’ in 1999, Floria Sigismondi’s prolific career has seen her work with some of the world’s biggest artists and brands, via a near-countless number of creative mediums. 

Born to two opera singers in Pescara, Italy, creativity has been a part of Sigismondi’s life since day one. Having moved to Hamilton (a “tough” town just outside of Toronto “with the most steel factories per capita in North America – or something like that”) aged just two, her career is already the stuff of legend, with plenty more still to come.

Wondering where to begin, LBB’s Adam Bennett caught up with Sigismondi to discuss it all… 

LBB> You’ve directed music videos for some of the biggest artists in the world. From when you started to now, has there been any change to your creative process in the age of YouTube?

FS> Oh sure – it’s enabled some possibilities that weren’t available to me at the beginning, like how long a video should be for example. I did a Sigur Rós piece where I was able to mesh two songs together like a short film, and I didn’t have to worry about its commercial value, which was incredibly liberating. Also with ‘The Next Day’, Bowie’s video, we used blood, and that was always a thing that you couldn’t do on television! I remember it was anything that was blood or dark brown you had to change it to a different colour. It’s given us all a little bit more freedom I think. 

LBB> Why is it that you’re thinking less commercially now? 

FS> Well for example, with the Sigur Rós video it didn’t matter what songs I used. It had to be off that album but there was nothing like ‘this is the single’, so we were able to do something that was more narrative.

LBB> Going back to Marilyn Manson and the ‘Beautiful People’ video, that was an artist who had a clearly defined brand of his own. Did you find it constraining to stick to that brand?

FS> Well with Marilyn Manson I worked with him at the very beginning of his career and he had done one music video that had really started to get on the darker side. For me it was quite exciting because before that I was trying to get people out of the black jackets, you know! Everybody seemed to be wearing black, and I wanted to get him into something more theatrical. I kind of want to take somebody into MY world. You know what I mean? I remember I wanted to make him bald, which took a little bit of convincing before he went for it. 

With Christina Aguilera, I once did a music video for her and her image was very different to when I got involved. I wanted to turn her a little bit more towards conceptual fashion and more symbolic imagery.

LBB> That’s interesting, so do you think that’s something that would attract an artist to working with you?

FS> I think that when they approach me they look for that. Like ‘okay, I’m going to do something different’. So I’m very fortunate that when they come to me it’s really kind of a clean slate. It’s fun. Sure they come with their ‘thing’ but they’re also really willing to play.

LBB> So with Bowie’s ‘The Stars Are Out Tonight’, how did the story there [celebrities stalking ‘real people’ to study them]’come about?

FS> Well, that was something David wanted to do. I remember getting the call, I was with a bunch of people and he was like “where are you, what are you doing?” and I was like, “but nobody has heard from you in ten years!!” 

He said, “Are you around people?” and I said, “Yes I’m in a van full of people!”. He said, “Get out.” So I got out and he flew me to New York without telling me ANYTHING. Then he tells me about this idea, of flipping the idea of celebrities and stalkers. So I made a story out of that. There were these stalkers who were glamorous and I also wanted to play with the idea of gender-bending and gender fluidity, sort of using the idea of boys as girls and girls as boys. That was fun to do as well too because that plays on his whole history.

LBB> Was that something that came out of modern celebrity culture or was that a David Bowie thing?

FS> It was Bowie who wanted to do that, I made it into a story with the twist at the end where they kind of get under Tilda [Swinton]’s skin and then in the end they flip. You know the celebrities now are the real people and the real people are the celebrities.

LBB> And when you work with these incredibly high profile artists, do you notice a difference in the way that they operate? Or is it all about the individual?

FS> There’s a good sense of trust with the good ones – the real deals. They completely respect other people’s processes because they live by it. So when someone comes to me with a project really it’s their kind of trusting me to take care of it. There’s that trust that happens even when you’re trying to take them into a different world that they’re not used to or something. Like David [Bowie] is very much like that you know – I would design a suit and show him on set and he would know exactly what to do. It was a really great process and I’m lucky to have worked that way.

Above: Sigismondi with David Bowie and Tilda Swinton on the set of 'The Stars (Are Out Tonight)'

LBB> Outside of music videos, you’ve worked on an astonishing variety of creative mediums, including sculpting. Can you tell me a bit about why that is and how it came about?

FS> Well I went to art college. I was really into painting and just played with anything to do with the things I was really interested in – which were painting and sculpture and music. So there’s that appreciation. 

All of those things inform my directing because the sculpture is the sets. I grew up watching my mother sew costumes every morning so I understood clothing and how that can show a lot about a personality. So they all feed into one another!

LBB> More recently you’ve been working on more narrative-driven projects like Daredevil and American Gods. Do you find when you’re working with more narrative-driven work that there’s less creative space to be abstract?

FS> I mean they are stories first, BUT you can tell stories by images. And that’s where I get excited, especially because I’m a fan of older cinema too, where if you open up your mind to how you tell a story you can find – well – an image is a thousand words, right? So I always look for those moments within a script where I can be abstract or show something through an image that can hit a deeper level. And you know, I don’t really always seek that out, it’s just a natural thing that happens. It’s telling stories through visual mediums or visual language.

LBB> And with American Gods, what was it about the world of Neil Gaiman that really appealed to you?

FS> Oh it’s amazing, I read that book when it first came out and what I loved about it was the idea of belief and the story of immigrants. It’s the story of immigrants coming to America, bringing their old belief systems, their gods and how those gods start to die off and they’re personified as humans living on the streets as these down and out characters because nobody believes in them anymore. And what I find so appropriate today is the new gods being the technology gods, right? We’ve got media you know – the cell phone generation which is now god-like.

LBB> But I suppose that won’t last forever?

FS> Exactly! So that excited me so much, and I actually got to do a lot of designing and a lot of prep work and I was able to be a little bit more creative I think. So that was a great project.

LBB> Going back, you started out commercially in photography. How did that become your first creative outlet?

FS> Ah I don’t know, it was easier for me to go for photography. It wasn’t that I was in love with photography, but I loved the immediacy of it. I was in love with creating images and photography enabled me to do that. But I didn’t like photography for the sheer documentary of it, it was about creating an image with it. I discovered that if I could create a world with this then I’m interested and then I started to do more album covers and work like that.

LBB> And you were the child of opera singers – do you think that affects your creative process?

FS> I think so. I mean we grew up in a tough town – we moved from Italy when I was two and we moved to a town called Hamilton which is just outside of Toronto. I remember it had the most steel factories per capita in North America or something like that, but then inside my house it was like Little Italy. So there was always this major difference between when I was inside and when I was outside. And the art world is a tiny art world in Hamilton and I find that it’s informed my work in that I’m constantly mashing up two completely opposite things. I find that I’m mixing beautiful and tender with ugly and forceful and juxtapositions like that.

LBB> Like celebrities and normal people?

FS> Yeah exactly! Or the heart – I have an image of a heart floating in paraldehyde but I’ve shot it in such rich red hues that it doesn’t look like a heart anymore. You can look at it and stare at all the veins and it becomes something else. So for me I think that that’s what it’s done.

LBB> You’ve also written creative concepts for brands – what was it about that that appealed to you?

FS> Well recently I’ve been working with brands like Gucci, who came to me with the idea of Adam & Eve and it involves taking that and writing something around it. That’s what interests me. How can I interpret that and make it super modern? And how can I make that relevant to what’s happening today? Those kinds of things excite me – especially that story because it’s such a big, biblical mythology that has a lot there but how do I make it speak to me? So it’s about finding that and how to structure it as well. 

LBB> I wanted to talk as well about Free the Bid – what are your thoughts on that movement?

FS> Well that we even have to talk about it sort of feels antiquated but, look, if that’s what needs to happen in order for women to have opportunities, I think it’s absolutely fantastic. Finding work is so much about experience that directors have and if you’re not going to nail opportunities then you’re not going to have experience and your lack of experience means you can’t compete with some of the men who have been doing it for some time. So I think it’s fantastic that it’s there as an opportunity for women to take and also I think just to feel a little bit more accepted as well.

I always just ignored everything so it was fine for me but if you have a personality where you think that ‘oh I have a harder time getting this job’ I think it will allow women to be a little bit more confident about going for it.

LBB> So at the start of your career before you had all of this experience did you find yourself pigeonholed because of your gender?

FS> Well, I’ve never done a car commercial. And I’ve never even had an offer for one.

LBB> Have you done a beer commercial?

FS> Early on but since then, no you’re right, not a lot of beer either. But I don’t know, I think if you’re successful you get pigeonholed but I don’t know if that has anything to do with gender. 

But what’s interesting is my work in music videos was completely creative driven but the commercials were really the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of my style, but they’ve gotten closer and closer which allows me to be more content.

LBB> So how would you describe your style now?

FS> Hmm I don’t really know.

LBB> Well maybe that’s helped with the pigeonholing?

FS> Right, well I think I’ve been pigeonholed through the years depending on the projects that I’ve done. After the Marilyn Manson video I was the goth queen. Or for instance I’ve done loads of stuff completely on location, but then you get pigeonholed with ‘can she shoot on location’ because the commercials I’ve done the last couple of years have been done on set. So it’s not always a male/female thing.

LBB> Finally, do you have any advice for young female directors?

FS> God, ignore everything. Ignore everything and take everything as a challenge. This is kind of how I look at life – if there is one person in the world doing what you want to do then it’s possible. And that’s it. Whether it’s your idea of travelling or working on a certain brand or whatever. I remember that moment came for me when I worked for Bowie on Little Wonder. I remember sitting in bed and coming up with ideas thinking ‘this is what it feels to be 100% creative all the time’. So if your dream is that, then there’s one person who is doing that already, and therefore it’s available to you. 

You don’t need everyone to love you, you don’t need everyone to understand what you’re doing. You just need a small group of people that can see the same way. You don’t need the McDonald’s majority of things. And that I think is very freeing for an artist to navigate their creativity through life.

You can check out more of Floria's work by clicking here.

Photography by: Shane McCauley for NeueJournal c/o NeueHouse

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