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A Chat with Floria Sigismondi

A Chat with Floria Sigismondi

By Jack Giroux

Floria Sigismondi is behind a countless number of truly excellent music videos, you've most likely seen one or two, but now she's finally jumping into feature films with her directorial debut The Runaways. While Sigismondi's videos are highly surreal and, at times, quite crazy she's still managed to carry over that grand visual style to a strong and memorable first feature film. While talking to Sigismondi we covered her visual style, the cheesy fashion of the seventies, and the wonderful madness of Kim Fowley (who's portrayed greatly by Michael Shannon). The Runaways is now in theaters.

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DVD Talk: When you do a film set in the seventies you kind of have to walk a fine line of being authentic while also not making a parody of it. The seventies was a very over-the-top era in terms of fashion and style.

Floria Sigismondi: For me, the style of the seventies that was popular was so over-the-top. Everything had pattern with the colors and the texture used. I just wanted it to be what it would really be like if you were in the seventies. I kind of made a conscious effort to mix different time periods in there. It's not like they had Targets and stuff (laughs). You'd get things handed down to you by your grandmother. That was an element and just designing the color pallet of the environment.

DVD Talk: Yeah, they shift a lot.

Floria Sigismondi: Yeah, so they weren't all kind of poppy or anything.

DVD Talk: It was interesting though how you started off the film in a very bright typical California way, when you get to Japan it's all very distinct colors like red and silver, then finally at the end it's very drained out and bleach bypassed. How did that decision come about?

Floria Sigismondi: I worked with my production designer Eugenio Caballero and we wanted to create a grit that shifted through the film just like our characters do. The opening shot in Los Angeles you're talking about where it's very bright I wanted it to be very colorful. As they go to Japan it gets pretty trippy. That's where things began to get a bit weird. When you get back to Los Angeles I didn't want it to be the Los Angeles they first left. You're seeing it through different colored lenses and it's a little bit grittier. You can see that also in their faces where we drew in pimples. Everyone just doesn't look very good and then it starts to get bleached out. It becomes a different look. Also, by the end of Japan it starts to get colder. The skin gets a little bit cooler.

DVD Talk: Shooting with 16mm you really get that beautiful textured aesthetic. Could you not get that look with 35?

Floria Sigismondi: We could've afforded 35, but everyone was sort of pushing the RED on me. I never shot digital before so I thought it'd be kind of a mistake to do it on this one since it's a period piece. I also wanted you to feel that smoke in their air. I did a bunch of test and super 16 gave me that kind of texture you're talking about. Also the way it flares out, I did a test where you backlight somebody and 16 really grabs that in that environment. The other format kept me in the room where it felt a bit more realistic instead of the fantasy that comes with that time period.

DVD Talk: You're probably getting asked a lot about transition from music videos to doing a feature film, but I'm curious about the visual transition. When you do a music video you get to be more unrelenting and you get to go all out. Now, doing a film you have to be a bit more restrained.

Floria Sigismondi: Yeah, more subtle. That's how I describe it. I describe it as I gotta pull my punches. With music videos I got to be aggressive, because I got three minutes and I got all this stuff to say. It's apart of the format. To me, it's all about how can I say all this in three minutes? (laughs) It was really great here to relax and be more subtle with things. When I want to get a little more emotional I get to go a bit more surreal, but only in those moments.

DVD Talk: I found this odd criticism saying how in the film how quiet Joan Jett is, but that seems very realistic in terms of portraying a teen. She's all bottled up.

Floria Sigismondi: She is, she is as a person. I've interviewed these people and I've read hundreds of articles. Although Joan was very driven, she was shy. That's why I thought Kristen was perfect because she has that kind of quality where it's a bit tough but also a bit shy. For me, teens don't talk about their feelings. You know what I mean? It's at a time where you're just self-conscience. For her character, it's all about bottling up everything that's important to her. She does that until she realizes what she's working for. She comes to a head with herself and she makes a decision that she's going on and do things. They're very two different characters and she had that quality in real life.

DVD Talk: They also have that interesting parallel where Joan seems to know exactly what she wants while Cherie is the complete opposite.

Floria Sigismondi: No, I mean how many fifteen-year olds do anyway? She's just sort of plucked out of the bar because of the way she looks. She didn't think her life was very good and she wanted to see how that would go. She's taken away from that part of her life. She's trying to create her own identity at that age and she tries to connect herself to Bowie. She also wants to separate herself from her sister which kind of makes her go with the band and discover this whole world.

DVD Talk: I loved the moment where you see Joan Jett making her own Sex Pistols shirt, because of you know her relationship with that band you know that the Sex Pistols introduced her to that world. Did you ever consider showing that revelation though? Her seeing the Sex Pistols for the first time?

Floria Sigismondi: Yeah, she was definitely influenced by them. There was actually a whole section where they toured England, but I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it financially. It was either England or Japan, but I thought without going to England because people know what England looks like... I just couldn't fake it. I did Japan, because Japan was where they were the biggest. I wanted to show that pop influence that came in at that time. Also, at that time you couldn't really go out and buy something. You'd have to be creative and make it yourself.

DVD Talk: You couldn't go to Hot Topic for it.

Floria Sigismondi: (laughs) Exactly, right? So, I love that aspect of the seventies where you really had to create the things that you were wearing.

DVD Talk: You also really don't need that Sex Pistols part anyway, because if you know that era then you know the influence and impact that the Sex Pistols had.

Floria Sigismondi: Yeah, she also went to plenty of concerts. She went to England and she was out every night really getting immersed in the music while other members of the band didn't. If you do want it, you really got to show her fevered interest in it. For me, it was how do I do that?

DVD Talk: For the rise and fall, it comes really quick in the film. I'm not completely versed in the history of the band, but did it happen that quickly?

Floria Sigismondi: Oh, yeah. It was thirteen months. Cherie was in the band for thirteen months. That's pretty amazing for someone who was plucked out of a bar then singing to that many people in Japan. Not many people are built for that kind of fame.

DVD Talk: The soundtrack is great, but can you talk a bit about some of the representative picks? Like It's a Man's World?

Floria Sigismondi: For me, it was what was the cool music of the time that said what I needed to say. For sure, that one was there for that reason to represent her emotional state. The other choices were influences or kind of feelings I was going for or just what was playing at the time. Stuff like that.

DVD Talk: Michael Shannon is fantastic as Kim Fowley, but one of the cool things about Fowley is that he seems to stand for what rock and roll was at the time.

Floria Sigismondi: Yeah, he'd hanged out with a lot of people and was really in the scene. He had a very kind of big persona, but you can completely look at him that way actually. He does actually end up swallowing them up. Joan sees him in a very different than Cherie. Cherie wants him to be a father figure and that guy cannot be a father figure (laughs). He was too interested in other things. Yeah, he's probably more teenage angst than the way he introduces the girls to that world (laughs).

DVD Talk: Also in a sense that he is tough, dirty, and also really cool. To me, that's rock and roll.

Floria Sigismondi: Yeah, there's method to his madness when he was throwing shit at them.

DVD Talk: It wasn't madness for the sake of madness.

Floria Sigismondi: Yeah, he just had an awkward way of doing it (laughs).

DVD Talk: At the end of the film though he doesn't seemed bothered at all by the band's downfall. Was that the way it was? He does seem like the guy who'd watch a car crash and burn and do nothing.

Floria Sigismondi: Absolutely. When he heard Cherie left the band he didn't try to get them back together. Remember the article he did that caused the big fight? He had done that at the height of their fame. That article didn't break them up... I mean, it's exactly as you said. He'd watch a car burn and watch for the artful sake of watching. You know? He'd think it was art. (laughs) He said something great to me once, "I never did drugs, because I wanted to feel the pain of the world." He wanted to feel every punch. I think he came out like that. He just came out fighting.

DVD Talk: His speeches about rock are also handled really well. You see scenes like that all the time in biopics and they come off really heavy handed sometimes. Can you talk about working with Michael on those speeches?

Floria Sigismondi: Yeah, Michael grabbed it right off the top. We didn't get to work with him, he came in a few weeks after we started shooting. I didn't have much time with him at all. I didn't have anytime with him except for when we were on set. After meeting him he had this perfect quality to him where he could be kind of menacing, but then have that little smirk at the same time. That spark and little curl in his lip. That was very important to me for how the two girls looked at him. One looked at him as fun while the other looked at him as abusive. It was important he had those traits and when it came out of his mouth I was pleasantly surprised. It could've been a monologue that went on and on.

DVD Talk: It could've been what Walk Hard made fun of.

Floria Sigismondi: (laughs) It could've been terrible. That is the one character in the script where I knew it was either going to really work or go completely wrong. You know? Thank god he wanted to do it.

DVD Talk: I know on a movie like this you get asked a lot about what the influences are, but have you seen Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains? That's the only film I thought this was similar to.

Floria Sigismondi: Oh, yeah. I saw that one. Someone actually gave me a really bad VHS copy so it was kind of hard to see, but that was a cool movie. I really liked that. I just watched a lot of movies of the seventies, but I don't know if anything was a heavy influence.

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