Director Floria Sigismondi Talks David Bowie, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘Fleshy’ Love and Fellini

Floria Sigismondi talks at a Coversation
Maria Jose Govea/Red Bull Content Pool

Floria Sigismondi was quick to absorb the opera and cinema that she grew up with. “My father was a massive film buff,” she told Variety. “We watched a lot of Fellini.” The director — whose career has spanned from music videos (Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna) to film (“The Runaways”) and TV (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “American Gods“) — first learned to channel her creative spirit through the stroke of a paintbrush.

“Painting is my first love. I always go back to that because there’s something intuitive about it. It’s quite insular,” Sigismondi said backstage at USC’s Joyce J. Cammilleri Hall before stepping out for a Red Bull Music Academy Q&A. She said she loves directing because it encompasses all the forms of media that she loves: “sculpture, fashion, sound, tone, lighting, mood, and time. We demand time of people which is like no other medium, except for music or a painting or a photograph, where someone can give you three or four seconds. But there’s something interesting about asking someone of time. That’s the most fulfilling medium.”

She told Variety that her ultimate projects involve the marriage of two opposites, such as clashing together “something quite textural and brutal” and “something quite beautiful and light. It’s like blending two worlds.” One artist who captured that contrast for Sigismondi was the late David Bowie, for whom she directed four music videos. One of her favorite creations was her 2013 music video for Bowie’s “The Stars Are Out Tonight,” starring Tilda Swinton and the rock legend himself. “I had worked with him in the ’90s. When he called me… we thought he had stopped making music. It was exciting that he had always been creating and wanted to share with us again.” She also expressed her admiration for Swinton, emphasizing how she sees the actress as Bowie’s doppelgänger: “They share this great mystical, alien-like quality.”

Sigismondi’s set props have often been her own creations. “If I don’t create them myself, I design them or draw them,” she insisted. “I can get quite tactile detailed as far as what I see.” Take, for example, Perfume Genius’s “Die 4 U,” which Sigismondi directed the music video for this year. “Mike [Hadreas, of Perfume Genius] has a little bit of a strangeness that I love to tap into,” she said. “He wanted to do this chair dance and I came up with the idea of having this kind of fleshy mound… sculpture… that I nicknamed ‘Fleshy’ and gave this sort of sexual allure. I loved the idea that it wasn’t man and it wasn’t woman. It was just the idea of desire. We created the whole dance and movement based upon that idea.”

Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” video, directed by Anton Corbijn, left an indelible mark on Sigismondi when she saw it on MTV. “The colors were striking,” she said. For years she has felt a deep connection to the “dirty and raw” element of bands like Nirvana and Hole. “It was such a wonderful period for experimenting, but also the music was very heart-bearing… It’s like you’re ripping up your chest and showing your guts and your innards fall on the dirty floor,” she said with a mischievous smile. “It was exciting for me, especially coming out of painting, to see the texture in all that. It wasn’t slick. All that stuff from the ’80s was gone. There was this early ’90s raw, textured filmmaking.”

That decade has continued to inspire her. Sigismondi said she is setting her new film, “The Turning” — based on Henry James’s 1898 ghost story, “The Turning of the Screw” — in the ’90s and plans to “play with music.” She will commence shooting in January.

One of Sigismondi’s most recent works was Episodes 6 and 7 in the first season of Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The show, based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, has received widespread acclaim, including honors at the Emmy Awards. “Growing up in Canada, [Atwood] was quite the hero in my eyes. To have worked on that particular book coming to life… there was magic in the air.”

As for music videos, Sigismondi intends to keep working with innovative artists in the vein of the strange. “I’ve always had a secret fantasy of working with Nick Cave,” Sigismondi said. “He tells such vivid stories within his songs. I say that because I’m able to daydream and I see things when I listen to [his music].”

Later during the Q&A, flanked by her own art and props, the conversation was interspersed with clips from Sigismondi’s impressive catalog including her 2010 film, “The Runaways.” Creating the band biopic, which starred Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie, was a rewarding experience for her, but to consider making another music biopic, “It would have to be someone special,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s the micro, tiny thing you focus on rather than the whole career. Those kind of films are hard to do because you have it in Wikipedia. We have those things at our fingertips now. It would be more about, ‘what’s the story that we don’t know?'”