By Edward Douglas
While the name of Floria Sigismondi might not be that familiar to cinephiles other than maybe for her 2010 feature “The Runaways,” which had Kristen Stewart playing Joan Jett, she may be one of the busiest artists working in all sorts of mediums from television to music videos to photography and straight-up fine art. Maybe you’re more familiar with her from the music videos, such as the iconic Marilyn Manson video for “The Beautiful People,” which may be hard to believe, but it came out 24 years ago.
Whether or not you’re familiar with Ms. Sigismondi, she has directed a new horror movie called “The Turning,” which the well-read will recognize as a modern horror adaptation of Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw,” which has been turned into other movies, most notably the 1961 film “The Innocents.” This iteration stars Mackenzie Davis (“Tully”) as Kate, a woman hired as a governess for a seven-year-old orphan named Flora (played by the wonderful Brooklynn Prince from “The Florida Project”) who lives in grand and Gothic mansion estate. Kate’s new job starts out well until she finds out it’s more than she bargained for when Flora’s older brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) returns home, expelled from his school. Kate is equally perturbed by the kids’ tales of their parents, who died in a horrible crash, and some of their former caretakers who also succumbed to a grisly fate.
Next Best Picture spoke with Ms. Sigismondi over the phone a few weeks back with her telling us about the force that is Brooklynn Prince, as well as sharing an eerie ghost story of her own that occurred while making the movie.
Next Best Picture: I have to admit that I was not all that familiar with everything you’ve been doing other than movies and television directing, but over the last half hour, I started watching all of your music videos and reading about your artwork and photography. I had seen “The Runaways” but we never spoke for that, so I really wasn’t that familiar with your work otherwise. Knowing you directed that movie, I thought doing horror was such a strange choice…
Floria Sigismondi: And then you went down the rabbit hole of darkness. (laughs)
When I realized you directed Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” that’s such an iconic music video, and I didn’t realize you directed it. It’s a classic.
Yeah, “The Runaways,” I would think would be more different than [“The Turning”] if you were to look at my work as a choice, but what I liked was the women and the feminist story behind it for sure.
I’ve been meaning to rewatch it since I just rewatched the Joan Jett documentary, and I’ve been meaning to go back. Had you been looking to do a feature horror movie? I know you directed an episode of Eli Roth’s series “Hemlock Grove”…
Yes, I did, and another kind of horrific story is also I directed “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “American Gods,” and it’s not necessarily to work in the horror genre rather than psychological thriller and what you can say with that kind of genre. It’s a very creative genre, and especially right now, too. It’s kind of having a comeback. You’ve got Jordan Peele doing these amazing pieces of cinema that are super-creative and character-driven. This is such a beloved story as well. I read it when I was a teenager, and it’s kind of stayed with me. The ending, and also that you can read the book as a ghost story and then read it again, and you can read it as a woman going mad and descending into madness. For me, it was very intriguing. It opens up a visual world, and you can tell the story visually.
Had you seen any other things based on the novel, or did you just go by the novel and script?
I wanted to stay with the novel. I did watch The Innocents. For me, that’s the best adaptation of the book, but if you buy the book right now. The novella is like 120 pages, so it’s not that thick, but you buy it now and the book’s about an inch thick, and it’s filled with these essays and people’s interpretation of the story and of the mythology in the book. It really captures peoples’ imaginations. Also, because the story is not exactly set in stone, it takes a path that you can interpret the path you want to take. I think it’s more like life. If there are a few people in the room watching the same event, everyone is going to walk away with something different. I think that’s the beauty of the story.
Had Roy Lee and the writers been developing this for a while before you came on board? Or were you involved very early on as well?
The first iteration of the movie didn’t go, so they had been working on it for a while, and then when I came in, I didn’t get to work with the Hayes Brothers directly, but they set out a really great structure for the movie, and we decided as a group to make it more female-centric and more in the POV of Kate. I worked with other writers mapping that out.
How long ago did you get Mackenzie Davis, since she’s very much in demand? Actually, all of your actors are very in demand, I’d think.
I started the process in 2018, and I was really fortunate because they all were my first-choice actors, all of them. I had one meeting with Mackenzie, and I was 100% convinced. She said “yes” right away. She has this amazing ability to be vulnerable, but you meet her, and she’s very strong, so there’s this great teeter-tottering that she really brings to the piece, and also her face. You can just put the camera on her face, and there’s a whole world in there. She can really tell a story with her eyes and her expression.
Finn, he was my first choice. I upped him in age compared to what’s in the book, and I wanted to create this tension between Miles and Kate and put him at the crossroads of choice. What kind of man is he going to be? He can choose. He had a very angelic-looking face. This cherub that is really quite pale, almost like a dark angel – pale with these black curly locks – and there’s something amazing about him playing a darker character we had never seen. I was really excited about that.
Brooklyn, I met her on the “Performances” shoot for the New York Times, and she’s younger than what we wrote, so I was like, “Is this the right thing to do? She’s kind of young,” and when I met her, I just absolutely fell in love. She’s definitely an old soul.
She’s also quite adorable so when things get darker, it’s almost more terrifying seeing her in that light.
Yeah, she’s a little mischievous, and it’s so amazing to see her switch on set. She’ll say something really sweet, and I’ll just give her a couple of notes, and then it was like “Whoa.” She’s just amazing to watch. She’s really got an amazing ability. She’s also got this great ability of creating a backstory. Even that shoot for the New York Times where I spent maybe three hours with her, she’d created a whole backstory for this character, so I knew that she had something super, super special.
She hasn’t done very much since “Florida Project,” has she?
Since “The Florida Project,” she’s done a TV show you can look up. It’s a true story where she plays a detective, so she’s been working on that. When I got her, she had come off of “The Florida Project.”
You also have Joely Richardson in the movie, but I spoke to another director who put her in his movie, Richard Stanley, also a genre movie, and I was really surprised she was doing a genre movie at all. So seeing her in your movie made me think that maybe she’s okay with doing genre.
I spoke to her about that, and she just has so much fun doing them. She said she really, really loves doing them, because I didn’t know what she was going to say when we approached her. I think it’s because it’s very creative and imaginative, and as an actor, you can really create a character that doesn’t necessarily have to live in the real world, in a way. You can be a bit more creative.
It’s a bit cliché about the location being a character, but in this case, it’s very much true. That manor and the location was absolutely amazing, but oftentimes, places like that have to be created by piecing together other locations including soundstage work. Were you able to find one place to do it all?
It had almost absolutely everything. I really wanted a big, long driveway, and they had that beautiful drive up to the house with the scary, spindly trees that line the road, and then when you came up to the house, you could see people living and dying in there. The walls had a history. They had secrets, those long hallways. The maze was in there, the koi pond, the lake, so it had a lot of what we wanted. I think we had to go out for maybe the stables and the pool, but that’s it. It had everything else, which was amazing for us because if the weather conditions were bad, we’d just move inside the house. It really helped us with the schedule.
I don’t talk with directors about production design very much, which is a shame since it’s such an important part of moviemaking that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves. With this movie and a lot of your other work, are you very involved with the production design and making sure everything looks a certain way? Especially your music videos, they all have such a distinctive and specific look.
I’m kind of involved in the whole thing from what Kate looks like, her hair and that deterioration, and then the set design, the production designer is Paki Smith. We basically hit it off, because he put together a feeling of what he wanted to do with references, and the collection of images I had put together, they crossed over a lot, which was amazing, because he’s an artist. I had a lot of paintings in mind, and so did he. We looked at the work of Francesca Woodman who does all these amazing long exposure kind of ghostly portraitures – she’s a photographer – and then we looked at the work of Arnold Böcklin, who has made paintings of these beautiful ghostly figures, and these tall cypress trees. Also, Caspar Friedrich’s work, one of whose paintings actually made it into Kate’s bedroom of that spindly tree. We had the same language going into it, and it was really fantastic.
This is one of the only estates that I was able to paint the walls. They’re (usually) museums, so we were really creating. The first thing was the entrance, and what do we do with it? This beautiful moxy green. We tested a bunch of colors, and that was the one that set the tone for the whole film. We were able to paint the hallways a certain color and Mrs. Jessell’s room, and really go in and do Miles’ room, this dirty, kinda blue, and you could see that he had taken paintings off the wall, so you saw where the paintings used to be. He had taken all this furniture out and decided to put his bed on the floor because he was being rebellious. Now, he’s the master of the house, and no one is telling him what to do. We really had fun creating this world, and also this idea of not having parents and what spoiled kids in a house of that nature looked like. There’d be toys everywhere, and they’d kind of have the run of the place, you know? That was fantastic to create that, and also to create the shadows of the place, the long, red carpet, and the mysterious hallways.
(At this point, someone knocked on her door, and she went to see who it was – probably room service – but I made a joke about how weird it would be if no one was there. That spurred her to tell me this strange ghost story mentioned above.)
I have a story actually that happened to me on the very last day of the shoot. I like to meditate at lunchtime, and everybody was out of the house, everybody was meditating. There’s this rustling, like the door know moving, just like you were in a film, and I was like, “Who is bothering me now?” because I’m meditating. So I open the door and no one’s out there. Absolutely no one is out there. I really take a listen, and I go out into the hallway, and… the house is pretty big and there’s always somebody in there, always the crew or somebody. You always hear something, but in this case, nothing. The needle dropped, and I thought, “Okay, everybody must be out in the tent eating. That was weird.” So I sit back down to meditate again, and I don’t know what made me open my eyes, and one panel out of a six-panel window goes up and it just does this little curly thing as if it was haunted or something, and then it went right down poker-straight again. I just felt like, “Okay, that was the ghost saying farewell,” but they were very friendly ghosts in that house, which was fantastic because I don’t think I could have handled something [not friendly]. I wanted to create darkness. I didn’t want the darkness imposed on me. [laughs]
We were talking before about the production design of the house. I’m not sure you see the production notes for your movies. Nowadays, they’re just writing but there used to be press notes where they were in color with amazing pictures. Maybe they still do that in Europe. I’m not sure if you took a lot of pictures of the sets.
Oh, tons of pictures on set. That’s really important to me. The composition is very important, and I also paint, so I was drawing what Kate’s look would be and working closely with the stylist on getting that right. I do my own storyboards, too, when it’s not an action sequence. I do my own boards.
I know you’re from Canada but have an Italian background, and there’s a great tradition for Italian horror from Bava and Argento. Are you a fan of any of their work? What are your horror inspirations?
Yes, Bava and Dario Argento! Love Dario Argento’s work. Yes, definitely! I was born in Italy, and my parents are both opera singers, so I kind of grew up with the tragic stories, and nothing had to be tied up in a bow. It was always these tragic endings. They’re both opera singers and my mother is also a seamstress, so I was always around costuming and making things. That’s sort of my world.
I’m not sure I mentioned this earlier, but I saw an opera based on “The Turn of the Screw” maybe 20 years ago at City Opera.
How was it?
It was great. It was definitely like a horror opera, and it was quite spooky, but I have no idea if it traveled or was performed anywhere else. I remember that distinctly.
Wow. That must be really challenging to do.
It was the City Opera which had a big stage and big sets. Do you think you’ll jump into another feature film now? You must have had to take off from television and videos and other projects to make this movie. Will you just continue going back and forth?
Well, right now I’m going to announce soon an independent film that I’m going to do, but I can’t really talk about it until we do that. I also just put out a photography book last month called “Eat the Sun.” I go where the creativity is and where my heart desires to go. That’s why I love working in different mediums because I’m able to jump around.
“The Turning” opens nationwide on Friday, January 24.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW
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Martin Eden - OFCC
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Time (14) - AFCC, BFCC, BRA, DFWFCA, GFCA, GOTHAM, GWNYFCA, LAFCA, NBR, NYFCC, OFTA, PFCC, SDFCS, SEFCA
Collective (10) - BSFC, CEHA, EFA, IPA, LFCC, OAFFC, SFBAFCC, StLFCA, TFCA, VFCC
Dick Johnson Is Dead (9) - CCA, CFCA, COFCA, DFCS, IFCA, IFJA, NCFCA, OFCS, UFCA
Boys State (8) - AFCA, CIC, DFCS, LVFCS, OFCC, PCC, PFCS, WAFCA
All In: The Fight For Democracy (5) - AAFCA, AWFJ, HCA, NDFS, NTFCA
My Octopus Teacher (3) - BAFTA, HFCS, PGA
The Dissident (2) - KCFCC, NFCS
The Painter And The Thief (2) - AWFJ, BOFCA
Beastie Boys Story - HFCS
Class Action Park - HCA
Crip Camp - IDA
The History of the Seattle Mariners: Supercut Edition - SFCS
Mucho Amor - LEJA
John Lewis: Good Trouble - NAACP
The Reason I Jump - BIFA
A Secret Love - AARP
The Social Dilemma - MCFCA
Stuntwomen: The Untold Holywood Story -WFCC
A Thousand Cuts - GOTHAM
The Way I See It - NYFCO
The Year Of The Discovery - ICS
You Don't Nomi - FFCC