On the Paramount stage in Austin with Cherie Currie, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, it was Floria Sigismondi who shined brightest, and it wasn’t just because of her sparkly black dress. Credited by Apparition chief Bob Berney for bringing them all together on this evening at SXSW, the filmmaker, photographer and visual artist who was born in Italy, raised in Hamilton, Ontario and traveled the world making otherworldly music videos for the likes of The White Stripes, Sigur Rós and Incubus settled down in Los Angeles and wasted no time in chronicling one of the area’s most legendary (and short-lived) rock acts, the ’70s all-grrrl group The Runaways, for her feature directorial debut.
Featuring Stewart and Fanning as Joan Jett and Currie, “The Runaways” may seem at first glance like the all-too-usual tale of a band that burned bright before burning out after just four years together, but Sigismondi is less concerned with the career trajectory of The Runaways than the emotional rollercoaster of the young, rebellious rockers who are patched together by the screwy impresario Kim Fowley (played by a particularly demented Michael Shannon). Although hits like “Cherry Bomb” are naturally cranked up, Sigismondi’s most inspired move is to dial things down to a slow simmer, lingering on long takes and filming in cramped quarters to convey the intimacy of the era. While at SXSW, Sigismondi took the time to talk about being patient in making her film debut and the film itself, as well as being pestered by the paparazzi and the pessimism of young people.
Did you have a connection with the Runaways growing up or did this seem like a good movie for you to direct?
Yeah, I had a connection in art college – I’m younger, so I didn’t experience [The Runaways] firsthand, but they were still playing them ten years later at a club that I used to go to work at actually as a beer bar girl through art college. For some reason, “Cherry Bomb” was a staple and I remember dancing to it. But [my representatives] gave me Cherie Currie’s book — it was a captivating story because of how young she was and everything that she had gone through, and Joan, being her first band and how that’s informed the rest of her career — it just felt like it was the right thing to do. They were at the forefront of something — I think they really put themselves out there and I admired that.
For you personally, was this a situation where the time was right to make a feature?
Yeah, I had been wanting to make a feature for a while, just nothing stuck and [“The Runaways”] happened like three months after I moved to Los Angeles, so it was okay, this is why I’m here. I took it as a sign. And after making a film you realize how many things can go wrong and when they come together, you know when it feels right.
Is it difficult to move from a medium of music videos where your story is in service of the music to features where the music is in service of the story?
I had a little bit of back and forth on that because I would get information from the Runaways’ songs and I’d use them to tell the story, like using “Love is Pain” near the end where it served the storyline there and then in the airplane going to Japan [where the band plays their first major concert], “I said I want you! I want this! I want that!”, the people were grabbing at them — it was all about wanting, so I did use the songs in that respect; I listened to them, listened to their words and these were young girls singing about their lives and that kind of was the first time I think there was music talking to people of their age. I found that in writing the script, the more I listened to the music, the more it actually inspired me to come up with scenes, maybe because I’ve done that in the past so often that it’s the trigger for creativity.
It was interesting how this film seemed to deal more with the creative process of the band than the decadence of fame and success that is standard of most rock-related movies, which most people probably have a good idea of in the case of the Runaways.
I think everybody does, too, especially today. My God, it’s so crazy. That part to me was sort of easy, you need one scene to say maybe when they arrive in Japan and for me, the most exciting part was how do they react to that fame, so I kept it kind of insular and made it about this little fight that happens backstage more than about how they end up signing autographs and becoming this thing, which we’ve seen a thousand times. Actually, in any kind of rock movie, there’s something about that, so I wanted to stay away from those kind of clichéd things and keep it about how does it affect them personally.