Talking to the director of Sledgehammer video
VOGUE: On Thursday morning, Rihanna released her new music video for “Sledgehammer,” the soundtrack song for the upcoming film Star Trek Beyond. The stunning video, which sees Rihanna as a Rick Owens–clad extraterrestrial being, is the first ever to be entirely shot on IMAX. Filmed by Floria Sigismondi, a seasoned music video director who has worked with David Bowie, Justin Timberlake, and Katy Perry, “Sledgehammer” will play in theaters across the country until Star Trek’s premiere on July 22. Below, we talk to Sigismondi about the inspiration behind the fantastical video, what it was like to work with Bowie, and whether or not she considers herself a Trekkie.
So how did you get involved with this music video?
Rihanna and I were looking for something for a while now to collaborate on. When this opportunity came up, it sounded right. There were ideas that I was exploring already, and then this just made sense with the whole Star Trek and IMAX collaboration.
What was the idea behind this video?
It was something that had been sort of floating around in my head for a while. When they talked to me about this, I was able to look at the film and extract elements. For me, that was a great guide in terms of extracting the nebula, the floating rocks, and the swarm ships, and I created a story around it. If you listen to her song, it’s really about breaking down barriers. For me, it was about creating a mystical character that harnesses this power; she can manipulate the ground, the earth, the sand. She can even manipulate the stars, the light, and ultimately transform the universe. It’s a beautiful, transcendent story. If you look at the broad themes, the broad strokes of what Star Trek is, an exploration, and then you look at her song about breaking down barriers and kind of moving through something. It felt like the perfect story to tell.
Were you a Star Trek fan?
I was; I kind of grew on the TV show. It’s more of a nostalgic thing for me. I loved the characters. Looking at this film, it draws upon the older characters, so there is something quite close to the heart, for sure.
This video was shot entirely on IMAX. Had you filmed anything on IMAX before?
I hadn’t. So really it didn’t change the way that I shot, the camera is quite small, it’s just a little bit heavier than a regular camera, but the quality is so much greater. And then taking all the information and doing the special effects is a little bit heavier, as well. There are more colors and more contrast, and then the final step is taking it through the IMAX mix, which is a whole other world. Your clothes almost move when the sound moves through you. It’s really impactful. You really have to see it in the theater.
Where was it filmed?
It was filmed in the desert in a place called the Trona Pinnacles, about four hours away from Los Angeles. I was looking for otherworldly locations. I had shot there before, but I didn’t take advantage of it at all. I really knew the location, and the IMAX really brought out the landscape in a much greater way than if I shot with a regular camera.
What about the styling of Rihanna? Did you have any say about the Rick Owens look?
We talked about it. Her stylist collected a bunch of images. I wanted something that was going to stick out against the landscape, so nothing really earth toned. What she wore was perfect, that kind of burnt orange color. I wanted something otherworldly, something that blew in the wind, but not too feminine, something that gave her strength. We both agreed that look was it.
Your previous music videos tend to be quite dark. Is that an aesthetic that you naturally gravitate toward?
It has kind of become my language now. I used to wonder why and I don’t anymore. I’ve embraced that that’s how I see the world. It’s interesting, because I’m a very optimistic person. It’s almost the place I grew up in. Hamilton [in Ontario, Canada] is a steel factory city and it’s quite polluted. But my parents were opera singers and Italian. So I feel like that’s how I create; I take two opposing things, like beauty and something that you would at first think is decaying and ugly, and then mash them together and create this new thing. I don’t think I would call it dark; it’s more that something is kind of off.
You did a video for Katy Perry that also takes place in outer space. Have you always been interested in the universe?
For me, I am looking up. The world is looking down at their phones, and there’s a whole amazing thing happening above us. I’ve always been intrigued with the unknown, and I find the knowledge of what it is we’ve lost. For me, looking up at the stars is where inspiration comes from.
You’ve done videos with a number of artists, but you worked on many videos with David Bowie. What was it like collaborating with him?
David Bowie and I had a working relationship spanning 18 years. I had done “Little Wonder” and “Dead Man Walking” in 1997, just after I did the Marilyn Manson video. He gave me so much. He gave me the permission to be myself, and that’s what he gave to the world. He really did; to all the freaks and all the people who thought differently and all the people who wanted to dress differently, he really gave them permission. I just thought, my God, any idea you think of [for him], you can actually make. Taking from the mind into the physical was the biggest gift he could’ve given me. We knew each other, he felt very safe with me, and I was super-excited to be a part of his continuing creativity.
He always wanted to flip things. It was always challenging. He would say, “Let’s make the shortest music video ever.” He was always looking for something different. I loved that because he never got comfortable and just sold what he was known for. He always challenged. And now that we see that we don’t have him anymore, that’s what he’s left; he’s left us with this beautiful, daring, characteristic that hopefully we can all embody.
You directed the movie The Runaways, and you have two other films in the works. There has been a lot of attention on the dearth of female movie directors. Do you think the music video industry is a more hospitable place for women than Hollywood?
I never saw it as a problem in music videos. I think that the film industry has been lagging, for sure. I feel that there are a lot of incredibly talented women, and just to have someone’s sex get in the way of something sounds very antiquated. You hope as a human being on this earth that it’s not really there, and that’s how I always viewed the world. If I ever ran into any of those problems, I just moved beyond it and didn’t give it any kind of power. For me, I don’t necessarily want to see it, but yes, it’s a good thing to bring into the light and have people pay attention and not just go with the flow—to have them really pay attention to what they’re doing and their choices in hiring.