This is me: Floria Sigismondi's mix of classical and modern

The filmmaker and photographer discusses her inspirations and creative process.

This is me: Floria Sigismondi's mix of classical and modern

What I love is putting classical and modern together. That’s kind of how I was brought up – creating something new but with a little bit of history in it. I love the tragic stories of the operas or theatre or paintings, that’s the world I come from. And when I got into film I wanted to bring those influences into the medium.

I was born in Italy. My parents are both opera singers who moved to Canada, to a tiny little town called Hamilton. It was a very industrial town with, I think, more steel factories per capita than any other city in North America. So, already that was two big ends of the pendulum. 

In my household, there was opera and Italian food – it was like "Little Italy", with art and painting. I’d scribble on a piece of paper and my parents would say: "Oooh, you’re an artist." Outside was much grittier and harder, for sure. 

I would sit up with my mother till one in the morning watching her sew. She loved The Sonny and Cher Show. She’d watch that, make herself an outfit like Cher’s and then go to the opera. She would be wearing a mermaid dress in copper, with her hair up in Princess Leia braids, and my dad, with his Sonny moustache, would have on the suit that my mum had made for him and they’d be off to the opera on the bus.

But what’s so wonderful about growing up in a place that is maybe a little bit more restrained is the way that the environment allows you to dream. There are doors to the imagination that you can find, the "what if I wasn’t here, what could I be?" element.

Working with David Bowie was magical. He really respected the creative process, so he never got in the way, never pushed on an edit – he just really trusted me. That was the first time after having the door opened into an artist’s world, and really following a path, when I thought: "Oh wow, daydreaming and coming up with wonderful images and just creating art all day long, you can have a life in that." 

It is a challenge to decide where to channel my creative energy. If I do the same thing too many times, then it becomes work, and god forbid I should work, right? It’s got to be challenging and fun; experiencing the world and life. I want new environments and new challenges.

When I first found film I was so excited because I was able to put it all together. I’m really interested in wardrobe, in make-up, in sculpture, which is set design and interiors, I’m interested in music and dance – all those things. 

Because I can bounce around between different media, that allows me to be a little more choosy with projects and find the most creatively interesting ones to work on. I love mixing it up, from big-budget work to tiny-little-budget music videos – they all exercise certain muscles and I love flipping from one to another.

I take commercials jobs as they come. Right now, I’m shooting an ad for Royal Salute whisky. The script really appealed to me because it involves different worlds – a courtier walks into these different rooms that have something fantastical about them, so it has the aspect of a journey and an unfolding story. I’ve brought to it my perspective of what this world looks like: the colouring, the people and a modern opulence. 

When I’m directing ads, I don’t mind that there’s a clearer commercial ambition that I need to respect. I don’t put my ego into that place, because the projects have started way before I became involved. So I have to look at it like this: "What are they coming to me for? What can I bring to the project?" I need to have an eye on what is important to the brand and the agency, because that’s the mix. 

I don’t know why there aren’t more female directors. Perhaps a lack of opportunities for women to move up is an issue. As soon as you’re in and you’ve got your work, it speaks for itself. But if you don’t give women experience, then how can they have the reels to compete?

Of course, work should go to the best person for the job, but for us to get to an equal place I think the pendulum needs to swing back the other way a lot. Then you settle on somewhere that’s fair.

Floria Sigismondi is a filmmaker and photographer. She is currently working on a film for Dreamworks called The Turning, based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. She has directed music videos for Rihanna, David Bowie, Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry, among many others. 

Sigismondi, who has also directed ads for brands like Gucci, Samsung and Adidas, has just finished working on a commercial for Chivas Brothers’ Royal Salute whisky, with ad agency Leagas Delaney, through Believe Media.