‘Sledgehammer’ video director explains Rihanna’s space witch character
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Floria Sigismondi has directed music videos for some of today’s biggest pop stars: Justin Timberlake, P!nk, Christina Aguilera. But she’s never shot a video like the one she directed for Rihanna’s “Sledgehammer,” from the movie Star Trek Beyond.
The clip marks the first time a music video has been shot entirely in IMAX. (Adele’s “Hello” music video had two IMAX shots, director Xavier Dolan told EW last year.) The video also shows Rihanna like we’ve never seen her before: with no eyebrows and a whole lot of face tattoos, playing a mystical space witch-like character who transforms herself into a powerful celestial being. (When Sia writes you an epic ballad, you’re going to need an epic concept.) Below, Sigismondi tells EW about designing a video for IMAX, creating Rihanna’s look, and where they shot the incredible landscapes.
How does shooting a video for IMAX change your creative process?
We’re used to seeing videos on such a small screen nowadays, so I was able to take advantage of a vast location and what that would look like on screen. [IMAX cameras] are only 10 pounds heavier than the regular cameras, so it really wasn’t cumbersome to shoot with. You really feel like you’re in it. In the opening scene, when you’re going through space, that really comes to life. Because there’s no bottom [of the screen], you’re weightless. It helps create that feeling for sure. And the quality is just really amazing—even on your laptop, the quality will be better.
How much of the video’s world comes from Star Trek and how much of it is your own creation?
We wanted to use some of the elements from the film. I watched the film and gravitated towards some, like the floating rocks. I thought that could help elevate my world and make it otherworldly. We used the broken moon, we used the swarm ships, and we used [Starbase] Yorktown—that’s the big floating thing that looks like a planet but is actually a base where people live.
We tried to incorporate those elements but create a standalone piece where Rihanna is a mystical being on this otherworldly planet. She has her own character not rooted in the film. She’s harnessing her power to manipulate the elements. She is able to conjure light and stars and ultimately transform into the universe itself, becoming the stars and the planets. I love the idea of transcendence. When you listen to the lyrics of the song, she’s this sledgehammer breaking things down. It’s about pushing through your boundaries, and Star Trek is also about exploring the unknown, so I drew from that. I wanted to leave the audience with the feeling of an expansive universe, one we all live in yet know so little about. I wanted to evoke that feeling on a really large scale.
How involved was she in her look and her character? Rihanna fans aren’t used to seeing her with no eyebrows and face tattoos.
I had some ideas. I worked closely with the makeup artist. Rihanna was really into having tattoos on her face, which was amazing. She was really into getting rid of her eyebrows. It was a unique look. And we love her because she’s so daring and tries new things. I feel like she really become the character, which is a director’s dream—when someone’s really going to go there. Even in the way that she’s moving and creating a language with her hands and her body. She’s in it. She gives you her all. In every performance there was something I could have taken. It’s really amazing the amount of times she performed the song, and every time she gave you something. It was really magical to watch.
Your videos, from P!nk’s “Try” to Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors,” often have a lot of interesting body movement and choreography. What was the idea behind her moves?
When I look at film, there’s so many ways to communicate, and using the body—especially in a music video, where it’s much more fluid and you can use the body as an art form—really excites me. I seem to create to some kind of body language that gets interpreted. You’ll see me behind the camera doing weird things. It’s sort of like becoming one with the music. We talked about motion: if she’s conjuring things up from the earth, what would that look like? Rihanna is just so incredible with her hands. They are mesmerizing. So it’s about giving direction, but they totally become her own.
Where did you shoot the video? It looks like another planet.
It’s in the Trona Pinnacles, which are about four hours outside of Los Angeles. It’s really surrounded by nothing. Once you’re dropped in, you’re halfway there mentally. I don’t even think cell phones were working, which is great. We had to move fast, but there was something magical about being face to face with these massive pinnacles that sometimes looked like humans, with rocks dropped on the heads on them. It already had this mythical quality to it. It was challenging doing it nine hours, and I only say that because when it’s dark in the middle of the desert, it’s dark It’s a bit cumbersome getting two and from set.
Women made up much of your crew—your director of photography, your executive producers, your choreographer. There’s a big conversation in Hollywood right now about the lack of women directors. Are music videos great incubators for women who want to step into those roles and eventually make feature films, as you did with The Runaways? We’ve seen people like Marc Webb go from directing Ashlee Simpson music videos to directing The Amazing Spider-Man.
Yeah, I think it is, definitely. If I put together all the hours that I’ve been on set, it’s just an incredible experience. But it’s an experience to get to know yourself. What are the stories you want to tell? What excites you? You get to play with this stuff for a couple of days and experiment with ideas. You get to create the people around you, the support systems. You find out what personalities you surround yourself with. So for sure, and that experience is just invaluable when you’re moving into a feature.
I remember when I was doing The Runaways, the hardest time I had was prepping, because you’re prepping a massive film. I had four weeks, which is not very much at all—the norm would have been seven weeks for a film that size. I did all the prep work, and then I remember getting on set and being relieved, going, “Oh, thank God! I’m here, and I know this world.” It’s taught me lots. And the biggest thing it’s taught me, and this comes from painting and being a photographer and being on my own creating images, is that intuitive knowledge in knowing yourself. Knowing when to do something and when to stop hearing other people’s voices and go inside [yourself]. Even if you’re surrounded by a hundred people, how do you still hear that voice? In painting and in photography, you’re more one-on-one. I try to exercise that and keep that going because I think it’s a great muscle to have when you’re surrounded by an extreme amount of challenges and lots of people. How do you still get that? Because when you’re doing a film or a project like this, it’s not like, “Today I feel like creating!” It’s like, “You’ve got to create—now.” You’ve got to be able to put yourself in that place quite quickly.