At the South by Southwest Film Festival, I sat down with The Runaways director Floria Sigismondi (and a few other journalists) to talk about her film, her first time as a screenwriter, selecting Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning as Joan Jett and Cherie Curie, and more. If you missed the lengthy interview with Stewart and Fanning be sure to check it out, as well as my review of the film.
Did you get to go out and have fun last night? Did you get to enjoy South by?
Floria Sigismondi: A little bit. Yeah. I’ve been here [to Austin] before with my husband a lot, because he’s in a band, but I’ve never seen it on this scale.
We don’t see too much of the other members of the band. Was that an artistic decision, or was that something that was brought about because these real life people didn’t really want to be a part of this?
Sigismondi: Yeah, sure. I didn’t have their rights. You know, we didn’t have… When I got involved they had already settled on the contracts, and it was Cherie, Joan, and Kim [Fowley]. And, um, then it became like an artistic decision. Once I decided what the story is and I was really compelled by the two of them — just because they’re so different — and they just exploded in this band. It was just something that was really special to both of them in their lives. So once I decided that was the way I was going, it kind of shaped everything else around them.
This was your first screenplay. What’s it like directing your own work? You wrote it and you’re directing it. Who jumps in to give you feedback?
Sigismondi: Nobody. [laughs] Yeah, but actually that was really good because I’ve never done that. Obviously I write my own concepts all the time, so I’m used to that kind of control on set. But because I wrote it, and it took me three years by the time I stood on set, I had three years of research behind me. So I felt a kind of… like I had this big ball of great stuff I could draw from constantly because I had read so much, I collected so many interviews, saw films, articles, pictures… Even photographically. I covered a room about half this size, put the script around the room, and covered it from ceiling to floor in images of how the film changes and how it arcs. Also, musically what was happening and how people were changing. Even people the streets. You walked into this room and I think you got a lot of rich information.
We talked with Kristen and Dakota about how it was kind of done at a breakneck pace. You didn’t have a lot of free time. Kristen mentioned this scene — that I thought sounded particularly interested — with Joan after the Runaways had their breakout.
Sigismondi: Oh, the ones I snuck in there? [laughs]
She said there was a scene where she’s playing a solo. Were there any other scenes in your script that maybe you didn’t have time to shoot or were hoping would make it in there that maybe didn’t?
Sigismondi: Yeah, there are. Two days got cut out, but it was near the end and they kind of, you know… I had already had scenes that told that part of the story, so I was… willing to live without them. Because once you write it, you’re emotionally attached to it. But I was willing to let go because other scenes said those kinds of things in a different way.
So it was an acceptable loss?
Sigismondi: Yeah. But it was all parts that… Like when I say “I snuck that one in” there were literally… I had to cut out a lot. Not a lot, but two days worth. But I snuck other things in…
The recreations of those 70′s club scenes were really fun. How did you pull all that together? Did you just post something and get people out there?
Sigismondi: No, no. I wish. I tried to do that, but they wouldn’t let me do that. No. You know, it was a very specific time. Los Angeles looks a certain way. Hollywood has it’s own look. Then it was pre-all these things and musical things were happening. So it had a very distinctive look, which I was very excited about. I thought, “Oh, this movie can own it’s own thing.” But, you know, people were wearing garbage bags for dresses, but then they had some disco elements happening. The Farrah Fawcett hair was still lingering, but they had this glam thing going on, so it was really interesting. So I just got a bunch of pictures together. Basically you can transform anybody, really, because it was so out there. The biggest problem I had was with guys because guys don’t have the long hair. Kind of that wiry, stringy hair. Everything’s a bit more groomed now, so I had that problem with guys. I just put lots of make-up on em.
Sigismondi: But the girls, as long as they had long hair you could kind of do something with it. Because girls never really… they didn’t have short hair. So it was a very specific thing. I just picked people that I could transform.
How difficult was it to instruct them on the mindset of the time? The President had just been shot and the Vietnam War is winding down, etc.
Sigismondi: I tried not to overwhelm them with that. I wanted to educate them on what was going on on the streets and how they would have been affected by that. And how guys just weren’t ready for girls… Well, not all guys. They had really kind of split. People that were fans and people that were appalled by them. But obviously they knew what it felt like to be on the side where people adore you, so for me it was to educate them on the side where people couldn’t understand why they would be up there at fifteen and “you can’t actually play that” idea. Kind of being surprised at the mere sight of them. But also, they kind of own their sexuality up there and I think that confused a lot of people, you know? Guys did that on stage. Girls played acoustic guitars and sang folk songs.
On Top of Old Smokey?
Sigismondi: Yes! [laughs]
Do you think your film is going to bring out sort of another generation of girls? There are a still a lot of girls who are struggling to find their way past the man mentality. Do you feel like this is a film that is going to help those girls see that you can get past that if you just stay strong?
Sigismondi: Yeah. It’s funny because the feminist movement has changed a lot too. In those days it really was about being like a guy. You know what I mean? You have to, I think, with any kind of movement that happens… It’s sort of the natural thing to do… You sway way over here and say, “Hey look at me! Treat me equally.” But I think that today, hopefully, is a little bit different. Hopefully it inspires girls to just believe in themselves, and follow that little voice that says, “I’d rather be doing this.” Follow their little, um… What’s that called?
Voice? Conscious? Bliss?
Sigismondi: Yes! Follow your bliss. Thank you. Yes.
Did you face any pressure from outside sources to change history and to not adapt the film in the way things actually happened?
Sigismondi: Um, no. But, you know, in the beginning I didn’t want this to be a biopic. I didn’t want it to be like they played here, this is what audiences thought of them, then they played here, then they got bigger, and then they… I kind of didn’t want to do a documentary. There had already been a documentary any way, so I definitely wasn’t doing a documentary. For me it was more about how does it feel to be in the skin of a young girl in this time and experimenting. The 70′s were very experimental. But also with [David] Bowie coming out and that whole androgyny thing and what that does too. What does that do on a more social level? These girls were just at the very beginning of creating their identity at fifteen. You’re just kind of like, “Wow, I’m in this body. People are looking at me differently. I just got my period and I’m changing and it feels weird. Oh, I’ll do that. That feels good.” That was really important for me. Those kinds of more subtle, tactile things. Obviously they were in The Runaways world and they were being swept in that.
Did you ever feel you should bring down the rating to maybe a PG-13?
Sigismondi: I don’t think I would have. Going in, I said I couldn’t because I felt I was really going to compromise Joan and Cherie. Their story.
I agree. Was there ever any pressure of “This is too much. These are 15 and 16 year old girls?”
Sigismondi: Oh, no. From the producers? I never felt any of that. No.
It was really nice to see a coming of age story about girls, instead of most about teenage boys. I wonder what the response was when you were pitching this? Was it something where people were excited to do their way or did you have to really work to get your film back?
Sigismondi: Um, I had met Art and John Linson. They had the rights to these girls. They had been working with River Road on something else. So I think it just kind of happened. Obviously, you’re waiting until the last minute to see if it goes, but I always felt like there was support from the beginning. Yeah, I don’t know what it is about the story that kind of excited people.
Kristen and Dakota are obviously phenomenal in this film, but can you talk a little bit about Michael Shannon? [As Kim Fowley] he’s the glue that holds the band together, and I think Shannon is the glue that sort of holds this movie together…
Sigismondi: Well, he’s the voice of the outside world, but he also is defending them. But he’s condescending to them…
There’s such an intensity there. In trying to direct that, is that something he brought to the set?
Sigismondi: You just kind of watch. [laughs] No, I was nervous because the dialogue was so heavy, and it could come across as a really bad monologue.
It could have been cartoonish.
Sigismondi: Yeah! I remember the first time he showed up on set. I’d already shot about a week. We were a week or two into it, and then he showed up. So just the dynamic of his character in that setting kind of woke everybody up. It was so much energy and because he’s such a great actor you feel it. You really feel it. So it was really refreshing. That’s why, at the end of the film, I decided to bring him back because I find that he is that thing that, you know… They’re fifteen, they obviously had dreams, and Joan was incredibly driven, but I think without Kim I don’t think they would have been out there. He has a huge mouth. He sold them as a little bit derogatory, but he obviously believed in them. So there’s this constant fight between dialogue that supports there’s a method to the madness. Like he’s throwing shit at them, but he knows it’s going to be better because they’ll actually finish a song instead of sound like idiots on stage. But he’s doing it such a vulgar way, you know? There’s this constant battle going on.
It’s such an amazing performance by Michael.
Sigismondi: Yeah, I thought so too.
Plus he’s got the money line. “Jail fuckin’ bait. Jack fuckin’ pot.” Because he’s basically selling these young girls.
Sigismondi: Yeah, and they had some antagonistic problems with that, you know? When they’d go and do interviews they were pissed. They were pissed that people would call them… “sex kittens.” Sex kittens! I mean, Sandy, could you imagine? Joan, could you imagine? “What the fuck?” It’s funny because he put it out there and kind of advertising these girls in a certain way so people were at least listening. It was interesting. And then they had to fight that the whole time with interviewers and the press.
Plus they were lucky because their parents sucked so bad. They needed a family. They couldn’t have gotten, you know, Dakota Fanning to be this sort of character.
Sigismondi: Yeah, Cherie had a hole and she was trying to fill it with secondhand love. Well, he was selling them this dream too. “You could be like all your male idols.” And it was like “Wow. We could?” You know? And they had them. They had their male idols.
You’ve done music videos, so you’ve worked with musicians getting them to act. And here you’ve got actors and you’re trying to get them to be musicians. To sing. To perform. Were there big struggles there?
Sigismondi: More than it was going to be as authentic as possible, I was really, really pushing the fact that they needed to play their own instruments. All the girls did at some level. Even Sandy, she already knew how to play the drums. But I got them into lessons because I wanted them to know the songs inside out. It was very important to me, especially since they got heckled so much as young girls. People didn’t believe they played their own instruments. So I thought that was very authentic that actors are doing this and they have to own it. I think it’s actually good for them. As an actor and you’re playing a musician and that’s your life… The thing I was saying to Sandy was, “Drummers are constantly drumming.” You’re sitting in a room waiting for your McDonald’s, you’re constantly [Taps out a rhythm with a pencil] It becomes part of their, you know… Everything that helps them. But that was something that was very important to me, that they nailed. And they did. I put them through… They had two weeks of band performances and they performed every day. We had people watching to make sure they knew their instruments. Then they’d do lessons, but they bonded as band so it was really good for them. Then Dakota, I had her a little bit longer than I did Kristen because she was working on New Moon. I put her in front of living things and played as part of a band to see how it was. You’re a singer, you’re competing with amps, drums, and these people all want to be heard. There’s nothing subtle about it. I think that helped her too. The physical kind of experience.
Did you and your production designer come up against any real challenges like “Did they have that then or not?”
Sigismondi: Yeah. The biggest thing for me was because I didn’t have enough money to build everything. Thankfully I shot in Los Angeles because, you know… They were talking about Detroit and I was like “That’s not going to work.” And in the Valley some areas, some places are completely untouched. But when I did shoot outside that’s when it was like, “Did the glass block exist? When did the glass block come in. There’s a building right there…” Everything else on the street I knew, but the glass block… The glass fuckin’ block. I thought it was 80′s, but my production designer was like “No, it’s no problem. It’s pre-80′s.” He came with a lot of knowledge. Eugenio Caballero. He won an Oscar for Pan’s Labyrinth. One thing that was important for me was not to make a caricature of the 70′s. Because the 70′s were really… they went far out in design. There was a pattern in everything. Curtains, carpets, couches, wallpaper, then your clothing. And your top was different than your bottoms. It was insane. And the colors… So for me it was like, “How do I make that feel real?” It was just about mixing the eras. Getting stuff from the 70′s, a table from the 50′s, maybe something from the 40′s. You didn’t go out… I mean, now you can go to Target and get your whole new house. It’s accessible, but in those days furniture got handed down to you if you didn’t have a lot of money. You got your grandmother’s chester drawers and blah blah blah. That was one of the important things that made it feel real and raw to me, and also shooting on Super 16 was also very important to me. It kind of gave it that authentic feeling, you know? That felt right. I worked with some really great people.
Joan and Cherie have both seen the movie, and Cherie said she was really blown away by everything. What was the greatest compliment you received as a director from both of them seeing the work you had produced with The Runaways?
Sigismondi: I don’t know. I don’t want to put words in their mouths. I don’t know. Oh, the biggest compliment was maybe watching Cherie cry.
Yeah, she mentioned she actually wept.
Sigismondi: She actually wept during “Cherry Bomb.” I know she was probably watching the other performances going, “I would’ve…!” So I had this… “Dakota hold back. Hold back. Hold back.” Because this is a film, so you got to save it for “Cherry Bomb.” So I’m like “Nothing sexual.” I’m sure she was looking at that kind of going… But when we did “Cherry Bomb” and Dakota totally nailed it, I think it affected her in a way. But also seeing her relationship with her sister.
Has her sister seen the film?
Sigismondi: Yeah. Yeah. She was really happy with it. The whole family.
You chose this film because you wanted to do their specific story. Is there another artist who you feel like merits a spot on the big screen?
Sigismondi: Um, I don’t know. After doing this I want to do something…
Sigismondi: Yeah, I want to do dragons. [laughs] No, I want to do something fiction and something creative. Where there are no rules. Obviously I had to kind of dance a line between telling the story my way, but also what really happened. They characters are these people, so I couldn’t do anything of what I wanted and still keep it true to their character. So it’d be great to do something… I just want to experience life to the fullest. These things take so long to make, so I was thinking something a little more fantastical. Talking mice?
You’ve done some things involving Bowie and in this movie there are references to Bowie. How would you feel about the idea of doing a David Bowie biopic?
Sigismondi: Oh wow. Yeah… Bowie. I mean, he’s so amazing.
No one has really done the definitive…
Sigismondi: I don’t know. Maybe he won’t let it.
Sigismondi: Exactly. Multiple personalities. I wonder if he’ll let that happen. I don’t know. Is it him that’s not making this happen? I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to him about it. But you know the thing about portraying someone that famous… Yeah, who’s going to play him? Who’s going to play Mick Jagger?
That’s a good point. How did you know who to pick for this? Did you have a lot of people in mind?
Sigismondi: No no no. I knew. I was lucky, actually, to get who I… was like, “They’re perfect.” So I’m happy it actually happened. Doing a film it’s like a miracle you’re even on your first day shooting, so I sort of really felt like… And even getting Michael Shannon, again, was… He was doing working with Scorsese on his pilot and trying to find the time. It was kind of insane, but it worked. I kind of felt like things were… Even though it was chaos, I kind of felt comfortable in it. I felt, “Okay, this is coming together.” Because things were starting to work out. But it is a wild experience.
On the first day of shooting did it cross your mind, “Oh Christ, I hope I’m going to be able to pull this off.”
Sigismondi: [laughs] You know what, I’m one of those people that’s just like, “I’m here. Fuck. Shit. I gotta do it.” You know, I’m one of those people like that. I’ve had nightmares before shoots and it’s terrible walking in like that. But I actually had a dream of Francis Ford Coppola before. I met him and his wife. I don’t know. I woke up in peace. I don’t know why. I just woke up calm, and everybody’s looking at me like “You must be shitting your pants.” And I’m like, “I had a good dream. I had a good dream that’s going to take me through today.” [laughs] Oh, it was kind of crazy. You know, I obviously learned so much on this, so the more I went the more I learned and I got more confident. That little thing helped me and gave me that edge instead of fainting when I got there.
Well, it worked out. Congratulations. Thank you.