Written by Dylan Callaghan
Over the last decade and half, music video auteur Floria Sigismondi has breathed a new sense of twisted grandeur into the weary, post-flannel world of rock and roll. Working with acts like Marilyn Manson, The White Stripes, Interpol, David Bowie, and Christina Aguilera, the Italian-born, Canadian-bred video director has redefined the form with ultra stylized, jarringly surreal images that have helped re-infuse rock with its fundamental sense of immortal defiance by embracing the sexy goodness of apocalypse.
Now, with her feature debut, The Runaways, the writer-director dives deep into a supercharged era of rock and roll, when its power was at a white-hot apex. The film stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart and is about the creation and ascent of one of rock’s first all-girl bands, an assemblage of sneering, lingerie-clad jailbait called The Runaways. The group was formed by Svengali/creep Kim Fowley and Joan Jett, who tapped a 15-year-old Cherie Curry to be lead singer after discovering her in a minors-only disco. The group made a global splash with their 1976 hit “Cherry Bomb,” a shamelessly taunting Lolita anthem that turned rock and roll’s fondness for sexual innuendo on its head.
Sigismondi spoke to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about her own strong identification with the era and ethos of The Runaways, the challenges writing poses to a predominantly visual artist, and how, exactly, she got Dakota Fanning to sing like a Runaway.
What brought you to this project, other than the fact that it’s obviously really freakin’ cool?
One of the things I wanted to do with it is to make a coming-of-age story, so I focused on that. It’s based in a world that I knew. It was raw, young girls and the ‘70s. It was very appealing to me. Also because of what the girls stood for. They were obviously the first girl rock band so they had some obstacles.
Was it based largely on [Cherie Currie’s 1989 autobiography] Neon Angel?
No, I wouldn’t say that at all, actually. It was very loosely based on Neon Angel. That was the initial source material because that’s all they had, you know? It was loosely based on that because that was just Cherie Currie’s part of the story. Then I interviewed Joan and Kim [Fowley], and I read hundreds of articles. Then a lot of it was also just how I wanted to tell the story.
Tell me what they stood for, in the simplest terms, in your mind.
Well, it was the first girl power that young girls could identify with. Young girls could look at them and go, “Wow, they’re doing things guys are doing. Why can’t we do that?”
They had a huge female following, a 99 percent female following in Japan and Australia. They looked at them as role models.
You are and have been primarily a visual artist. Can you tell me, on a process level, what you most enjoyed and despised about the actual writing process?
Photo: © 2009 Fox Searchlight
Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, and Alia Shawkat in The Runaways.
I loved… Hmmm, what did I love about it? What did I love about it? Chaining myself to the desk? That was definitely a challenge. That’s how I come up with ideas, but then I get to do them. This was kind of like coming up with ideas for a long time and not getting the physical aspect out. So that was a little bit challenging.
And it’s kind of lonesome, too.
Well, that’s it. I love working around people. There’s such a great transference of energy and excitement when you’ve got something in your mind and it’s starting to come into the physical world. It starts to show itself, and it’s so beautiful. It’s a struggle and you hate it here and love it there, but all of sudden it starts to become the thing you expected to come out of it. It’s very visceral. But with [writing] you have to live in your head for much longer. That was challenging.
But what I liked about it was coming up with the ideas, having information stew and then figuring out how I could write a scene that says all this stuff I want to say in an interesting way.
So bottom line, creating a way to translate the stuff you want to express.
Yeah, and also not knowing where I was going. That’s interesting too. I love that about creating. You get these ideas, you nurture them, you don’t cut their heads off right away. You’re just like, “Okay, maybe you don’t belong now, but I was really excited when I came up with you, so I’ll keep you in here for now.”
And then going through the process and seeing what sticks and what doesn’t. Once you’ve found the story, some things stick and some things won’t.
I’m curious if, by knowing the power of visuals to advance story and instill emotion, you automatically had a better understanding of what so many screenwriters struggle with – the idea that less is almost always more.
I started that way. My descriptions were heavy. For directors that are writers, their [scripts] are kind of like shot lists in a way. But people don’t want to read all that, so I have to strip that down and just keep that in separate notes for me later. I just kept things very simple. Like you said, having worked with talent and the visual medium, [I know] that I can convey something in many ways, whether it’s with a look or the camera being in a spot where it separates two people at opposite ends of the frame – just the tension you can create by composition.
Your husband’s band The Living Things play the Ramones in The Runaways, yes?
That was an initial idea, but that didn’t happen.
Okay, but we do have Dakota Fanning singing “Cherry Bomb.”
Oh yeah. Dakota sings all her stuff and so does Kristen Stewart. I re-recorded all the songs. Joan and her band did the music and then the two girls came in and did the vocals.
It was very important to me. I had a lot of rehearsal scenes with Kim kind of putting them through boot camp, and I wanted the same voice that was coming out of that actress be the same voice that comes out of her when she’s singing.
Was there a lot of rock and roll boot camp vocally for the actresses to get them to a place where you wanted them?
Yeah, we did a lot of rehearsals. Every girl had her own interpretation. It wasn’t necessary that they had to sound like the original singers. For me, it was just to get the vibe right, to get the angst right and to get the kind of force that you have when you’re the front person for a rock band. I had a good month with Dakota so I put her in front of my husband’s band in the studio in our house to rehearse. I wanted her to feel what it was like to have big live amps behind her and real drums. As an actor you can be subtle, but as a rock singer you can’t be subtle otherwise you’ll be drowned out.
I wanted her to feel that energy and power behind her and how she would really have to own her place at the mic. That really helped. And then when we found the rest of the band, they had rehearsals all together. I put everyone through drum school and guitar school and everything.
It was a good time for them to bond, too.
Your aesthetic as a video director – that kind of surreal, twitching, horror feel –where does that come from creatively?
There’s maybe some ancestral memory working or something in each of us. Sometimes when you see something you don’t know why but you identify with it or it grabs you in a way. It’s that kind of thing. I like to go into myself to places I don’t know because I can work them out. I think they’re changing and my preoccupations or interests are different, but there’s something comforting to me about going deep into that place. It’s more me than the me that stands here. I’m just kind of going through things and stubbing my toe and showing up late for stuff, you know? Like, “Shit, can’t I get there faster?” But the other place is kind of a warm place for me even though sometimes it can be kind of horrific.
But this film isn’t in that aesthetic at all. It’s just steeped in the real era of The Runaways.
Yeah, I wanted to do that. I thought, Where can I go here? I can’t all of a sudden be surreal. So I really sunk my teeth into the research, the era and keeping it raw. I really wanted to smell the alcohol and feel the pimples, you know?
You wanted to smell the ‘70s.
Yeah. Lotta polyester, right? That stuff smells awful. I wanted to really feel that. I felt like, if I’m going to sink my teeth in somewhere, it’s going to be in the rawness of that time period, so I kind of went there and kept the storytelling very simple. The next one will be wild.
What will the next one be?
I don’t know, but it definitely won’t be from this world. I’m not saying a scientific thing, but something I can get into visually and obviously with a story.