Floria Sigismondi, Goddess of Grotesquery

The Canadian-Italian music video director on her career and second feature film, “The Turning.”
Floria Sigismondi, Goddess of Grotesquery

The Canadian-Italian music video director on her career and second feature film, “The Turning.”

Words: Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

photo courtesy of Floria Sigismondi

February 12, 2020

Floria Sigismondi looks exactly as you’d expect her to—like she just stepped off the pages of Italian Vogue. With Elvira-black hair, midnight blue nail polish, and a smattering of purple eyeliner dashed across her upper lids, she inquires about the Welsh rarebit at the UK-themed gastropub where we’ve met. The food rings a distant bell, and I later recognize it as part of Reynolds Woodcock’s fussily seminal order.

Sigismondi is presumably less of an emotional dictator than P.T. Anderson’s Woodcock, but no less of a style-maker. Best known as the director of music videos for everyone from unruly trailblazers David Bowie and Marilyn Manson to pop queens Christina Aguilera and Katy Perry to gentler icons Sigur Rós and Leonard Cohen, Sigismondi’s visual signifier is dark doom and drama, inspired by the Quay brothers, David Lynch, and her parents—who were both opera singers. “The tragic stories of opera,” she says of her artistic upbringing. “I didn’t grow up on the happy endings of cinema. Also, the costuming and fashion sensibility; my mother was a seamstress, and I grew up at her lap watching her sew.”

The director made her full-length debut in 2010 with The Runaways, a grungy biopic starring Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and chronicling the history of the titular all-girl rock band who struck gold in the ’70s. Her second feature isn’t technically music-centric at all—an adaptation of Henry James’ horror novella The Turn of the Screw, a mixture of a ghost story and a slow-descent-into-madness tale driven by a potentially unreliable narrator. She updated the story from the 1880s to the 1990s, setting her film’s opening alongside news of Kurt Cobain’s death, and made her lead character Kate (Mackenzie Davis) an audiophile who owns a copy of Hole’s Live Through This. The ’90s—if an economic golden age—is a more frightening decade in which to set a horror film, Sigismondi believes, because the now-primitive technology made it harder to dial 911 in a crisis or research the troubling history of a house before moving in. 

Most horror flicks favor foreboding orchestral scores, but Sigismondi and her partner/collaborator Lawrence Rothman wanted something cooler. “When we first met, we were always talking about great soundtracks like The Crow or Romeo + Juliet,” she tells me. “Why aren’t people doing that anymore?” They thus soundtracked The Turning using modern indie artists Mitski, Soccer Mommy, Vagabon, and Empress Of, along with a few legends like Courtney Love and Kim Gordon, requesting that they write original songs influenced by the new characters. 

The Turning follows Kate as she becomes a live-in nanny to two orphans in a gothic mansion, somewhat unconvincingly anchored in Maine (they shot the movie in Ireland on a manor property equipped with a koi pond and Shining-style maze, both of which are used to great effect). Kate’s charges are Miles and Flora, the former a sullen teenager with a supernatural secret (Finn Wolfhard) and the latter a chipper but lonely kid played by The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince. “I had trepidation bringing a six-year-old who had never left the country all the way to Ireland for months and months,” Sigismondi admits of Prince, who is one of the best child actors in recent memory. “But she was fantastic. She has a great ability to keep things natural.” 

The movie’s reception has been a little divisive; critics aren’t nuts about it, and most viewers felt the ending an unsatisfactory cop out. We’re left uncertain as to whether Kate has inherited her mother’s mental illness, or whether the mansion and the kids who live there are haunted by ghouls past. But Sigismondi asserts that ambiguity was purposeful, unfazed by audiences’ annoyance. “It’s in the spirit of the original story,” she explains. “I wanted to stay faithful to it because there have been adaptations that didn’t stay true to the material. And for me, what made that story resonate is the fact that people are able to come up with their own interpretation.” 

“When I got out of college, the thing that was running through my head was, ‘I don’t need a lot of people liking what I do.’ I could have five for the year.”

When I note that viewers in my screening seemed to hope the visual onscreen during the film’s end credits—Kate’s hand trailing along a wall—would reveal some hidden meaning, Sigismondi is surprised. “The hand on the wallpaper was really just a statement of Kate,” she shrugs. “The paper is different than it was in her room; it changes as she moves. There are birds and flowers, and then it slowly starts to decay, and the birds start to fall. It depicts her state of mind.”

Fortunately, Sigismondi isn’t burdened with the need for universal appeal. In contemporary music, she particularly admires Billie Eilish—and would like to direct a video for her. “She and her brother created this unique sound,” she says of the singer. “And I love how she presents herself: she’s not naked. I’m all for it if you want to walk around naked, but I don’t like the idea of having to be sexy because you’re a musician.” Eilish, it seems, is deliberately unsexy in the sense that she rejects conventional femininity. Her aesthetic is more challenging than pleasant, an attitude right up Sigismondi’s alley. “When I got out of college, the thing that was running through my head was, ‘I don’t need a lot of people liking what I do,’” she tells me. “I could have five for the year.”

After directing the visceral, pioneering “The Beautiful People” video for Marilyn Manson in 1996, Sigismondi claims audiences were “terrified”; it’s all aggressive, choppy cuts and Manson donning creepy orthodontic instruments and medical prostheses. But the effect launched them both into the spotlight. “I don’t mind disrupting the status quo,” she says. “That’s the stuff that I love. Going back to Nirvana—that was like, ‘what the hell is that?’ It’s important to have those artists. What matters is that you’re experimenting, pushing forward. There’d be no David Bowie if we didn’t have people like that. Between that [Manson video] and Bowie calling me right after, it cemented the idea of ‘nothing is too weird.’”

Sigismondi directed four Bowie videos in all, and the first one he called her for was “Little Wonder.” When asked what wisdom the much-missed glam rocker imparted, she smiles. “I remember handing in a first cut of ‘Little Wonder,’ and I was upset the video commissioner wasn’t really happy with it,” she recalls. “I told [Bowie] they were giving me a hard time, and he laughed. It was a revelation for me, that he was laughing. He was like, ‘we don’t care what they think!’ And I realized, if I could go to bed every night, and just do what I love…you can’t live your life on the approval of other people. We’re not McDonald’s.” FL