Floria Sigismondi with drag superstars Violet Chachki and Gottmik
‘Unholy’ marks your return to music videos; can you tell us a bit about how you got involved and what appealed to you about the project?
Meeting Sam did it for me. I love them to bits. The song is exceptional and what they wanted to express with it as well. I was excited to be a part of celebrating the LGBTQ+ community and knew it would be loads of fun. The casting, putting together a great team and watching it come alive was one of the highlights. As well as it feeling like a live theatre show.
There’s a loose narrative to the film, involving an adulterous husband with a taste for underground kink who gets his comeuppance, but most of all, it feels like an extravagant celebration of the queer world in all its diverse and body positive glory. What were your filmic/artistic reference points and sources of inspiration?
A celebration and the story of the song and I was invited to bring my aesthetic point of view. My inspirations were Mr Pearl meets Fellini and we referenced Bob Fosse’s films. I wanted to call back to the world of ‘Cabaret’ the film, but make it timeless and to live in its own world. We mixed the fashion with elements of pastel latex, pearls and studs. What I loved was the way the dancers have this ambivalent quality to their movement. We played down typical sexy movements, which gave the dancers a more empowered feeling and actually came across sexier.
‘Unholy’’s aesthetic is simultaneously dark and dazzling; grubby yet gorgeous. Much of your work explores the dark underbelly of glamour and celebrity: what fascinates you about this intersection?
I think exploring both beauty and the dark side, in theme and aesthetic, is just a balanced way of looking at the world for me and more interesting. The counterpart to beauty is what’s lying underneath and I’m drawn to the imperfection of humanity, of our life’s journey. We live in a world of debilitating perfection and, in that, we actually have to question what is real or what is an illusion. There is something holistic about grappling with the messiness of life. The sharp edges of life have more to teach us than all the perfection in the world.
The final message in the film is one of female liberation, as the cheated-on wife claims her place amongst the cast. You once said filmmaking was a feminist act; is that something you still believe?
I think there are more female directors now then when I started out, so we have moved in a more positive direction, but it still shocks me when people come up to me after a shoot and say they loved seeing a woman at the helm. When I hear that then I’m reminded of why I made that declaration. We are still at the frontier, marching forward and changing the way things have gone on for a long time. We desperately need diverse perspectives that depict rich stories of our lives. Humanity needs fully represented multifarious perspectives in cinema, it’s just that simple. Let’s get on with it!
Sam Smith is the latest in a long line of musical and cultural icons you’ve worked with throughout your career, from David Bowie to Rihanna; what do you look for in a creative collaborator?
What I look for in an artist I collaborate with is to have a common ground somewhere, a love of a painter, a film, a feeling or statement that inspires what we want to create . If they are willing to experiment and not have a fully concrete idea. For me the journey is as important as the final film. I have to allow the experience to further me along as a human being. Sometimes, I’m not sure exactly where I’m going, but I always have faith I’ll get somewhere interesting. I look for someone I can journey with.
Having been introduced to the world of fashion at an early age – your mother worked as a seamstress alongside her career as an opera singer – you started your own career as a fashion photographer. The past few years have seen you move into fashion film, creating pieces for the likes of Gucci, including a reimagined runway show. How do you envision the genre developing and what excites you creatively about the field of fashion film?
I think with Gucci we were able to express more acutely an emotion of freedom that if it were a straight up runway show. I loved that aspect of it. Alessandro Michele based the Aria show around the idea of the party not being in a club but being in and with nature. Using the medium to express ideas is important for me. That’s what excited me the most. Utilizing the form to express ideas.
You’ve been directing for 30 years: which films and music videos have shaped and inspired – and continue to shape and inspire – you as a director?
Kubrik’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is still one of my favourites – its mixture of social commentary and stylized filmmaking is brilliant. Fellini’s ‘Toby Dammit’, a dark portrait of celebrity told through a ghost story. The paintings of Marlene Dumas and Leonora Carrington.
Alongside your commercial, music video and fashion film career, you’ve published books of photography, made two feature films and even directed a couple of episodes of cult TV series ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ – are there any other creative avenues you’re keen to explore further?
I’d love to try my hand at theatre. I think there’s something wonderful and scary about live performance. I can’t hide behind multiple takes. There is also a sense of magic and energy that is a symbiotic exchange between the performance and the audience. I have been deeply moved by a dance, a song, a beautiful moment in a play. When done right, then it can live with you forever.
Interview by Selena Schleh
Scheme Engine website
Sam Smith, Unholy
Director: Floria Sigismondi
Label: Capitol Records
Commissioner: James Hackett
Production Company: Scheme Engine
Executive Producer: Jannie McInnes
UK Production Company: Just Fred
Executive Producer: Alexa Haywood
Producer: Fred Bonham Carter
Producer: Maurizio Von Trapp
Director of Photography: Joel Honeywell
Choreographer: (LA)HORDE - Marine Brutti, Jonathan Debrouwer, Arthur Harel
Choreographer Assistant: Daniel Alwell
Production Manager: Amanda Tuckwell
Production Manager: Aidan Robert Brooks
Production Coordinator: Scout De Wynter
Production Assistant: Aleff Henrique, Simoes Correa
Casting Company: LANE Casting London
Casting Director: Hannah Ashby Ward
Location Manager: Adam Lancashire
1st AD: Chris Kelly
2nd AD: Lucy Kelly
1st AC: Lami Okrekson
Steadicam Op: Jayy Jaramillo Gomez
Key Grip: Jac Hopkins
Gaffer: Tom Nowell
Sound Recordist: Edwin Weiss
Production Designer: Arthur De Borman
Art Director: Anna Barnett
Prop Buyer: Ella Schlesinger
SFX Supervisor: Mats Rivenes
Stylist: Lisa Jarvis
Wardrobe 1st Assistant: Daniel Gray
Wardrobe assistants: Raphael del Bono, Benjamin Carnall, Jaime Moreno, Maddy Rara, Jamie Sutherland, Yeop Lee, Alice Kim, Eden Lovesee Clark
Sam Smith Stylist: Ben Reardon
Sam Smith Stylist Assistant: Sadie Davies
Sam Smith Hair & Makeup: Sienree Du
Kim Petras Make Up Artist: Anna-Maria Negri
Kim Petras Hair Stylist: Ilham Mestour
Make Up Artist: Elizabeth Hsieh
Hair Stylist: Giovanni Iovino
Sam Smith BTS: Madison Phipps
Post Production: Bonch
Editor and Sound Design: Jarrett Fijal
Assistant Editor: Martin Deen
Assistant Editor: Samantha O'Brien
Sound Design Mix: Lawrence Rothman
VFX Supervisor: Max Colt
Retouch: Digital Beauty Work
Color: Company 3
Senior Colorist: Stefan Sonnenfeld
Additional Colorist: Parker Jarvie
Senior Producer, Color: Blake Rice