Floria Sigismondi – OCA Grad’s Shock Rock Videos the Surreal Thing

Floria SIgismondi

A version of this feature appeared in The Toronto Star on Wednesday, February 5, 1997



Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

Wednesday, February 5, 1997



The dark, surrealistic, fantastically costumed video visions Floria Sigismondi produces are not for everyone.

Floria SIgismondi

But they have big-name rock stars like David Bowie and Marilyn Manson beating a trail to her studio, opening the door to precious international and MTV airtime.

And that, in turn, may prompt the deceptively cheery 31-year-old Toronto video/filmmaker to turn her grisly imaginings to feature film.

So what can a wider audience expect to see? Sitting in the boardroom of Partners film company, she describes “Tourniquet,” one of two videos she shot for industrial goth shock rockers Marilyn Manson as “a Romeo and Juliet Frankenstein.”

In it, a bald, blue-skinned half-human seamstress mannequin is attempting to escape its stifled, confined environment. In one memorable sequence, singer Manson being transformed into an insect larva with his wings pinned against a wall.

An earlier harrowing video,”Beautiful People,” finds Manson transformed into a four-metre military dictator who looms menacingly over his idly marching brainwashed populace.

For David Bowie’s “Little Wonder,” a briefcase-toting alien retrieves the dismembered head of a mutant baby in a crowded New York subway car.

Each frame teems with optical overload, as the malformed misfits in Sigismondi’s world writhe, contort and twitch their way through their particular torment, crippled by either their own shortcomings or circumstances.

Sigismondi’s roving camera eye peels away the layers for some fascinating viewing: the ghoulish discomfort of her characters heightened by alternating soft and sharp focuses; film acceleration and abrupt lighting hiccups.

She has no problem describing her work as dark and intense, eerie and haunting — even MuchMusic has found the Manson videos disturbing enough to restrict them to late night specialty programming — but Floria Sigismondi stops short of calling them nightmarish.

“They’re not nightmares to me,” she protests.

“I find those things very beautiful. I’m so close to them, I can’t even imagine what a reaction from a stranger who has seen it for the first time might be. But to me, it all makes sense. It’s all actually very passionate and very emotional, so I don’t think of them as nightmares. If I did, I don’t think I could do them.”

She pauses for a moment, tilting her head in afterthought.

“Maybe that’s how I’m dealing with my fears.”

Fears? It’s difficult to imagine the Ontario College Of Art graduate harboring any.

In person, she’s cheerful, confident and poised. When she speaks, the words pour out of her with the rapturous enthusiasm of someone totally in love with their career.

“It is my life!” she bubbles. “I spend every waking moment thinking about stuff, but I love it. I enjoy it. I don’t think of it as work. And because I get paid for it, I think it is such a bonus, such a luxury, to be able to do that. It’s amazing to me.

“I’ve always been a creative junkie. I just get high off creativity. Just to think there’s nothing, and then a thought, and then something, is just wild! You really have to trust yourself and believe in your instincts to be able to take it through the next level. I’m still pretty fascinated by that whole process.”

Tall, thin and sleek, with an oval face that highlights her authentic Mediterranean splendor, a modeling career seems within Sigismondi’s grasp if she so desired.

She doesn’t.

“I tried it once, and was really bored,” she says, obviously favoring the multi-faceted career as an award-winning photographer, video director, filmmaker and visual artist that has brought streams of accolades from the advertising, fashion and music professions.

Instead, Sigismondi prefers to harvest her dreams.

“`I start to get these pictures, and usually they come to me just before I go to sleep or just as I wake up,” she explains.

“I find that I work better if I don’t sleep, if I’m in that state of really being tired. It’s that dreamlike state that opens the door to your subconscious and all these things pour out. I’m usually up til four or five no problem, just thinking of ideas, just lying in bed.”

Born in Pescara, Italy, to Lina and Domenico Sigismondi (pronounced See-jis-mon-dee), Floria emigrated to Hamilton when she was two as her parents pursued a career in opera.

Art has been coursing through her veins “since I was born,” she recalls.

“As far as I can remember, I would just look at paint brushes and go, ‘Ohhh!’ Art was just part of me. I always, always drew and painted.”

Named after a character in the opera Tosca, she grew up in Hamilton with her sculptress sister Antonella, attending private and public schools, and eventually moved to Toronto when she enrolled in OCA for painting and illustration. During the third year of her four-year course, she discovered photography by accident.

“I loved the immediacy of it,” she recalls. “It was just so quick. I got to shoot something and see the film right away, where painting took such a long time.

“By the end of it I ended up with a whole portfolio of photographs instead of paintings,” she laughs. “It was wild! I became obsessed with it.”

Photography offered more opportunities for work than other forms of art, so Sigismondi found herself employed immediately upon graduation.

Her first assignment, a 1990 Globe & Mail  magazine layout, won her a National Magazine Award, and since then Sigismondi has added a stack of gold, silver and bronze honors from Toronto’s prestigious Advertising And Design Club to her accomplishments.

Four years ago, Don Allan, founder of Revolver Films — which has since been absorbed by Partners — and a video director in his own right, suggested that Floria make the jump from stills to motion.

She admits it was an adjustment.

“With photography, you just come up with one or two pictures and you do it,” Sigismondi explains. “With film, it’s a moving picture, and hundreds of shots, and movement and feeling and it becomes much more three-dimensional.

“Basically I got into the field without knowing anything about it, and just learned as I was going.”

She’s completed approximately 30 music videos, including Alex Lifeson‘s solo project Victor, Windsor progressive rock trio The Tea Party and Toronto bands I Mother Earth and 13 Engines, winning several Canadian Music Video Awards in the process.

Citing Tim Burton, David Lynch and Frederico Fellini as inspirations, Sigismondi — who abstains from watching television — says her next goal is to helm a feature film, although she has several personal projects in development.

“My dream is to do films and my own artwork,” says Sigismondi. “A healthy mixture of everything. It would be a healthy mixture of installation pieces, photography and film projected onto three-dimensional sculptures.”

She’s thinking about relocating to somewhere outside Toronto, although for the moment she’s comfortable in the West End house she shares with Rumble, her “big black half-Doberman, half-German Sheppard.”

There’s also the next video, and whether it’s as somber as a Marilyn Manson or as airy as Catherine‘s “Four Leaf Clover,” you can be sure it will reflect Floria Sigismondi’s idyllic fantasy.

“It’s more of a fairytale to me,” sighs Sigismondi. “I don’t like living in reality. For me, it’s escapism. Because I can’t be in these worlds, I create them. Because I can’t live there, I live them in my mind. Every environment I create, I wish I was there. I wish I was experiencing those things.

“On the set, it’s very unglamorous. You have the camera. You have people running around. When you’re finished with the whole thing, and the finished product is exactly what you saw in your mind, that’s very romantic to me.”