Floria Sigismondi calls herself a realist. That may come as a surprise to fans of the Juno-nominated video director, best known for creating lush otherworlds for Björk, Fiona Apple, The White Stripes, David Bowie, Christina Aguilera, Marilyn Manson and other musical elite.
“I’m just depicting things the way I see them,” she says. “There is a surreal element to it, and once it’s put out into the real world, I guess that’s how people see it. But I find that I get inspired directly by life, the way that I see things, and my love of colour and composition.”
Colour reigns in her Video of the Year-nominated “Bom Bom Bom,” a rock menagerie for Living Things (husband Lillian Berlin is the band’s vocalist). Lemony acid, nail-polish crimson and steamy pink backdrops, reminiscent of classic silk-screened concert posters, spill across the screen, as elephants and lions casually walk through the viewfinder and over tightropes.
Sigismondi collaborated with UK artist Andrew Wilson, who designed the band’s album cover, to create background plates. Band members were shot on green screen and then all the images were layered together. “Bom Bom Bom” explodes with the extravagance of The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus, which is fitting considering Berlin swaggers charismatically like a young Mick Jagger.
“I really wanted it to be a celebration, like a circus out on the street,” explains Sigismondi. “After thinking about where the circus comes from, there’s a philosophy of this little subculture of people that don’t belong. A lot of them are politically active in a more leftist way of thinking, so I thought it would be really great way to show the city.”
Regardless of whom she’s directing, Sigismondi is one of the few video artists who maintains that precarious razor-thin line between commercial marketability and artistic integrity, ranking high along with Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and Mark Romanek in elevating the video form well above booty shots and bad choreography.
“I like to keep things quite personal—things that are bothering me at the time, whether it’s out in the world or whether it’s something that’s affecting me,” Sigismondi says. “I don’t look at what’s being done out there, I don’t know the trends because I don’t watch television or MTV, so I think I take a much more internal approach to it.”
Born in Pescara, Italy, to opera singer parents, and bred in gritty Hamilton, Ontario, Sigismondi attended the Ontario College of Art & Design for painting and illustration. She discovered photography in her last year of art school, which eventually led to her first breakthrough—a photo fashion spread for The Globe and Mail. Don Allan, founder of Revolver Films, suggested that her theatrical worldview was well-suited for videos, and in 1996, Marilyn Manson asked her to direct “Beautiful People.”
The video, memorable for Manson’s torturous dental appliances, was instrumental in forming the goth icon’s controversial image, and introducing Sigismondi’s gorgeously grotesque aesthetic to a wider audience. “It’s a very important video for me because that was the first time I trusted my intuition and my creative,” she says. “I let it grow into something that I was not even sure of the day before—‘Is it crazy? Am I mad?’ That was also the video where I didn’t separate the performance; it was all intertwined in one world.”
In November 2005, Sigismondi released a book of photographs, Immune, which chronicles her interest in the evolving human form, “whether it’s war or biotechnology or cosmetic surgery.” Free from narrative, Immune is a dystopic tale told through images of Sigismondi’s sculptures—a naked mannequin sporting four breasts appears clinically defenseless—and from video sets, including The White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid” (that’s Sigismondi’s baby daughter Tosca in the video, perched behind Meg on the drums) and Sigur Ros’s “Untitled”—inspired by Sigismondi living near the World Trade Center during 9/11—where kids don gas masks to frolic, playing in sooty nuclear fallout.
Yet, as in all of Sigismondi’s work, she maintains a dream-like optimism.
“Early on when I first discovered I could go to these new places, it was so exciting,” she says. “What can I do to escape the mundane? In painting, you’re creating a world completely from scratch and in photography everything looked too real. It was a place of escapism for me, although some people might have found it horrific...they are comforting to me.”