Floria Sigismondi and Lawrence Rothman on conquering Hollywood
One is a non-binary musician, songwriter and performer, the other is a boundary-pushing filmmaker working in male-dominated industry. Together they’re making creative history.
Musician Lawrence Rothman fell in love with world-renowned filmmaker and photographer Floria Sigismondi years before they met, when Rothman discovered Sigismondi’s first photo book, Redemption, at a bookstore in St. Louis, Missouri. Rothman was a teenager at the time. “It was one thing to be watching MTV in my small suburban living room and see those mind-altering images flash across the screen, but to hold a book of those images was a whole other awakening,” writes Rothman in the extraordinarily tender introduction for Eat the Sun, the latest photo book to be published by Sigismondi. She became Rothman’s wife more than fifteen years ago.
“A Floria set is one that always feels like a supernatural dream state. A place you wish to permanently exist in… Through her lens, we see a part of ourselves that we once imagined fantastical, now whole and in the flesh,” Rothman writes, and it’s all very romantic, very fated, very #relationshipgoals – Rothman the non-binary Marais to Sigismondi’s power-femme Cocteau; partners in a whirling creative dance that has seen their lives grow ever more entwined until the boundaries between the two individuals become as soft and opaque as the lighting on one of Sigismondi’s magical sets. Dreamlike, surreal worlds, her many subjects over the past 25 years have included David Bowie, Tilda Swinton, Kenneth Anger, Kristen Stewart, Nicole Kidman, Elle and Dakota Fanning, Rihanna, Daniel Kaluuya, and Andy Serkis – stars who transform the second they step into Sigismondi’s carnival-esque wonderland.
Sigismondi dives deep into her subjects, often emerging with glimmering, offbeat discoveries. Cynthia Nixon becomes a demon bride; Saoirse Ronan a mannequin in an attic. Katy Perry is an extraterrestrial and Timotheé Chalamet serves up his own heart on a silver platter. And through her lens, we see Rothman, whose likeness she has filmed and photographed more than anyone, captured in all their various expressions – a despondent Elizabeth Taylor lookalike, an undead Prince, a bedazzled elf king watching the sun rise over the beach. Sigismondi and Rothman quite clearly have a love that translates across multiple formats.
We meet at their mid-century home in the Hollywood Hills, close to Mulholland Drive, an opium den of inspiration drenched in beautiful natural light. The home is filled with art, books, vinyl, and an array of beautiful crystals, which Sigismondi calls “my friends”. Her favourite is a large lapis lazuli which matches the stone inset on the Eye of Horus pendant around her neck, an ancient Egyptian symbol of royal power.
Sigismondi started her career as a fashion photographer and multimedia artist, but it was the music videos she directed for Marilyn Manson, for The Beautiful People (1996) and Tourniquet (1996), that really put her on the map. “We really clicked,” says Sigismondi, recalling her first meetings with Manson. “Everyone else was wearing plaid shirts at the time, but Marilyn was different. He was already experimenting with a lot of stuff.” Sigismondi’s nightmarish vision (dental instruments and neck braces never looked so creepy) and now-trademark dilating, quivering camerawork pioneered a style that would be often copied by other directors. “Manson was the first person who I was able to really project my imagery onto,” says Sigismondi. “He could own it and be it. He was a great canvas.”
When the Manson videos came out, the industry had trouble wrapping its head around Sigismondi as the source of this visceral, tortured new vision. “Everybody spelled my name wrong,” she recalls. “They thought it was ‘Florio’. Even the record company didn’t want to give me that video at first, because they didn’t think a woman could do it. It was always very shocking to people, when they realised it was me behind the camera. They were expecting something… I don’t know what the expectation was, but it wasn’t me.”
David Bowie saw the Manson videos, and asked Sigismondi to shoot the videos for Little Wonder (1996) and Dead Man Walking (1997). “I remember the first time meeting him and listening to him and how much trust he had in me and the creative process,” Sigismondi recalls. “I was in a hotel room thinking God, it’s so amazing… he really lives like the way he wants to, as a creative person. And it just taught me to always trust your instincts. No matter how strange the little seedling ideas are, don’t kill them too early. Let them bloom and grow. Have faith. He really taught me that.”
In 2004, aged 57, Bowie suffered a mild heart attack on stage and abruptly disappeared from public life. For ten years, he released no music, rarely appeared in public, and refused to give interviews. It seemed, perhaps, that Bowie was finished with his public life as an artist. Then, in 2013, Sigismondi got a phone call.
“I was on a scout in a van with like ten guys, when my phone rings.” (Sigismondi puts on a David Bowie voice.)
“Floria, are you alone?
Get out of the van!
Bowie told Sigismondi about an album he’d been quietly working on since 2011, and invited her to go to New York to listen to a song, The Stars (Are Out Tonight). Their collaboration resulted in a music video that played like a delightful piece of queer cinema, starring Tilda Swinton and Bowie as an “ordinary” couple being stalked by succubus-like “celebrities” who covet their anonymous lives – insight perhaps, into Bowie’s disappearance and his difficult relationship with stardom.
“It was all very hush-hush, so we did all the prepping in our house,” says Sigismondi. “He was getting his haircut downstairs,” Rothman recalls. “All the wardrobe fittings were here,” adds Sigismondi. “He was rehearsing in my studio,” says Rothman. The memory of Sigismondi directing David Bowie’s comeback video is clearly one the couple cherishes. Soon after, Sigismondi shot another video for The Next Day, her fourth with Bowie, starring Gary Oldman as a super-sleazy priest hitting on a stigmata-bearing Marion Cotillard while Bowie performs on stage as Jesus. “You and Bowie are the people I’ve worked with the most,” says Sigismondi to Rothman. “That’s something.”
Not all music video directors are able to successfully transition into Hollywood feature filmmaking; but Sigismondi, having proven her narrative flair, did. In 2010, her shimmering biopic of 1970s band The Runaways (The Runaways, 2010) was released, starring Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie. The score was provided by Rothman, who took cues from Neil Young’s score for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. “I’d read that Neil Young watched the film and just played his guitars to it, and that was the score. So I did the same, and we would record those sessions and pick standout moments as the nucleus of the score.”
After The Runaways, Sigismondi directed episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale and American Gods, but it would be ten years before she completed her second full-length feature, The Turning (released 24 January, 2020). A painterly, sensual, and purposely ambiguous take on Henry James’s 120-year-old ghost story The Turn of the Screw, the story revolves around a nanny with a troubled past (Mackenzie Davis, known for Terminator: Dark Fate and The Martian) who gets a job in an isolated country mansion, where dark deeds are said to have occurred. There, she’s supposed to take care of two orphans, Flora (Brooklyn Prince from The Florida Project) and Miles (Finn Wolfhard from It and Stranger Things) but before long, we’re not sure whether it’s the house, the kids or the nanny herself that are at the root of the mad cauchemar unfolding on screen. “The darkness in the house is the key that turns her,” Sigismondi explains. “It opens up Pandora’s box, all the stuff that’s in her. The house is the catalyst for her inner demons.”
When Sigismondi was brought on board she was clear on her vision. “I wanted to do a very female-centric movie that really inhabited the nanny’s point of view, and I worked with other writers (Carey and Chad Hayes, who wrote The Conjuring) to get that perspective.” The film was shot at the Killruddery estate in Wicklow, Ireland, and Sigismondi was able to have an artist hand-paint some of the walls, allowing her visual storytelling to really come to life. “It’s all in the details,” says Sigismondi. “I’m such a visual artist, I wanted every detail to serve the story.”
Naturally, Rothman was her collaborator on the score and soundtrack, which features 19 original songs recorded in Rothman’s home studio with artists including girl in red, Mitski, Soccer Mom, Warpaint and many more. Recording the song Mother with Courtney Love was a highlight. “She gave such a powerful performance,” says Rothman. “I forgot that no one screams any more! That was the first session of the soundtrack and I kind of carried that energy on to some of the other artists.” For her part, Sigismondi loved having Rothman produce an entirely fresh soundtrack for her film comprised of original rock songs by artists both new and iconic – it was yet another expression of the back and forth, creative symbiosis that has underpinned this relationship for so many years.
Sigismondi has made 17 music videos for Rothman in total. Seven of them were for Rothman’s former band, Living Things. Back then, Rothman went by the name “Lillian Berlin” (Lillian was the name of their favourite grandmother). Lillian was a recovering addict whose politically-provocative lyrics and wild stage persona had earned the band a record deal with Dreamworks, resulting in Lions, produced by Steve Albini (Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Pixies). Lillian and Sigismondi met in-person for the first time in Prague in 2003, when Sigismondi was hired to shoot the video for the Living Things song, Bombs Below. Lillian, the wild child, and Sigismondi, the art world rebel, fell immediately in love. They were aesthetic soul mates, yes, but the connection went deeper than that. Three months later, Lillian proposed. Four months after that, Sigismondi was pregnant with their baby, Tosca Vera Berlin. A month later, the couple were married. She was 39 and Rothman was 22. The rest is history.
Living Things featured Rothman’s two brothers Yves (now a prolific producer) and Bosh (currently in white-hot LA band Kills Birds, signed to Rothman and Yves’ KRO records). When The Stooges were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010, drummer Scott Asheton shouted out on stage, “This is for all the new rockers! Living Things!” (“There was one other band he mentioned, I can’t remember,” says Rothman.) They should have sold a million records, except they came of age exactly when rock‘n’roll was being pushed back underground by pop and hip-hop.
In 2006, Sigismondi and Rothman collaborated on a ten-minute short, Post Mortem Bliss, a story adapted from a chapter of Rothman’s autobiographical novel of the same name. “It’s about a young kid in the ’90s when Ritalin was at its peak, and ADD was identified as a problem for a lot of kids, including me and my brother,” Rothman says. “At that time, if I had ten friends in the room, nine of them were on something. Their parent was their drug dealer. Walgreens was the supplier.” In the film, the lead character, played by Nick Fowler, whispers, “All I know, is that I feel I can relate to girls more than boys.” “It’s a very personal story,” Rothman says.
Rothman’s experience of gender fluidity was the inspiration behind their latest song-based solo album, working title Not A Son. “I’ve gone through my life saying ‘I’m not a son’; it’s something me and my mum would always say,” Rothman says. “Even though I’ve always been confident in myself, I haven’t really talked about it until recently. The world wasn’t really accepting of that kind of stuff. When I was in Living Things, people would say I dressed ‘flamboyant’, and I’d be like, ‘I’m just dressing normal’.”
In 2009, Rothman explored their gender expression in a photo spread for a magazine and “my record label totally freaked out!”, they recall. Sigismondi remembers when that happened. “The spread was about sharing closets; it was supposed to be fun!” she says. “But the language wasn’t out there yet,” Rothman continues. “They didn’t understand it. There hasn’t really been an acceptance of gender fluidity until really two or three years ago.” The day before our interview, Janelle Monae tweeted that she identifies as non-binary. Sigismondi thinks it’s “wonderful”. “I’ve always looked at humans as humans,” she says. “People should just be who they are. It’s so wonderful to see people feeling comfortable and belonging and being part of the world and included. And if terminology helps, that’s fantastic.”
Rothman is no longer with their label, but they did start their own, in January 2019. It’s called KRO Recordings, Rothman says, “because I don’t like the word “bro”, people say “bro” all the time… so I said, why don’t we change it, and you can call me a kro, which is like a magical thing?” KRO’s releases include a vinyl of a River Phoenix song, a collaboration between Marissa Nadler and John Cale of the Velvet Underground produced by Rothman, and a record by Buzzy Lee, stage name of Sasha Spielberg, whose father Steven executive-produced The Turning. Art is a family affair, in these Hollywood Hills.
The gender revolution is yet another journey the couple is on together: Rothman as a non-binary musician, songwriter and performer, and Sigismondi as a filmmaker working in male-dominated Hollywood. “We’ll know when things are equal in Hollywood when people don’t refer to me as ‘female artist’, just artist,” she says. “Not a female director, just director. Then we’ll know. I do feel like the pendulum has to swing way over. There’s progress being made in little tiny leaps, so let’s just keep the conversation on inequality as the focal point and hopefully at some point, we’ll know we’ve arrived at a better place.”
In the meantime, they’ll both continue to do what they do best – create, love, and gaze skywards. “Sun-gazing charges and purifies one’s brain to the fullest extent so that the person themself becomes a vessel of inspiration and light, similar to the sun itself,” Rothman explains in that moving introduction to Eat The Sun. This may be a couple with its roots buried deep in the underground, but they’ll always be drawn to that which burns bright and helps them to grow. In other words, each other.
Photography assistant Jack Shelton, Hair Pamela Neal, Make-up Sara Tagaloa.