Sledgehammer director talks creating the year’s most epic music video

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BILLBOARD: Award-winning music video director and filmmaker Floria Sigismondi has created the first-ever music video shot entirely in IMAX for Rihanna’s “Sledgehammer.” Written by Sia and Rihanna, produced by Maavven for the forthcoming Star Trek Beyond film (out July 22), the otherworldly video can be viewed online (Vevo, YouTube, Tidal), but will also be screened in IMAX theaters, starting Friday (July 1).

Sigismondi, who has directed videos for Justin Timberlake, P!nk, Katy Perry, Christina Aguilera and more, and directed the 2010 feature film The Runaways about the all-female rock band by the same name, has always stood out for her highly stylized work. Her career dates back to early videos for rock trio The Tea Party back in Canada, where she grew up, and her big break with Marilyn Manson in 1996 for “The Beautiful People” and “Tourniquet.” That year she also worked with David Bowie on “Little Wonder” and 1997’s “Dead Man Walking” and ended up doing another two for him in 2013.

The director talked to Billboard about her vision for the new Rihanna video, as well as her last correspondence with Bowie and what she’s working on next.

What is the main difference with an IMAX music video and what we usually view? 

The difference between watching the video on your computer monitor and actually watching it at an IMAX theatre is the immersive quality. Because the beginning of the video takes place in space, you really get the sense of floating through and also the sound. IMAX remixed the music, so that when it plays in the theatre it really has such a three-dimensional quality. That low-end is really pushed so it really feels booming.

You’ve done so many music videos working directly with record companies or management. What is it like working with a film studio? Do they give you more parameters?

I have to say it was quite freeing. The idea was to come and take a look at the film. I saw it in pieces. I still haven’t seen the film because it wasn’t finished when I was able to view it and just extract elements that I gravitated towards it and that was it — and basically create a standalone piece. I gravitated towards the floating rocks. They were able to give me a surreal feeling in my landscape and the Swarm ships and the nebula, so I just turned them into my story. But there weren’t any kind of parameters other than that.

So the story I created is I’ve always wanted to do a person breaking apart into the universe. I just think that’s so beautiful in terms of what you can say about humanity. I’ve created this mystical being in this otherworldly planet being that harnesses the power to manipulate the elements and the elements around her being the sand, the rocks and the earth, and that she actually has a power as well to conjure up the energy and create light and stars. So she transforms into the universe itself.

I think when you listen to the lyrics and when you look at the themes of the movie — which hasn’t come out yet — but [Captain] Kirk’s dilemma in his recent goals and he’s not happy and he’s questioning why he’s doing what he’s doing; and it’s about breaking down those barriers. So for me, pushing through life, through yourself, and it leaves the audience with a feeling of an expansive universe. And one where we all live in, but we know very little about. It’s sort of this mystical magical place. And I think it’s in all of us.

Talk about what Rihanna is wearing and your choice of makeup, it’s almost tribal.

She’s wearing a Rick Owens outfit and we just added some fabric to it so that she was able to be part of the environment and you were able to see the wind move. I wanted to give something that tied into the environment. And the makeup, we wanted to create something otherworldly and she was really gravitating towards doing something on her face, which I absolutely loved because it’s so daring and it really takes you to this place that you don’t know who this character is and it’s intriguing and you want to get closer to see what she’s all about. What is that on her face? So I think that worked really well. And I think getting rid of her eyebrows drew you into her eyes in a different way.

Was it shot on green screen or movie set or on location?

We’re in the dessert in the middle of nowhere [in California]. I remember seeing the convoy of the busses coming in and these shiny black busses against this dusty horizon line and everybody following because everybody is coming in at the same time. It was kind of amazing because we were all going into this place where life did not exist except for hares and snakes. So it catapulted us into this other world as soon as we got there and basically that was my set. I used nature and did not shoot on green screen except for a tiny little bit of when she starts to break apart into the stars. But everything was there and it was just about creating, ‘How do I make that place look very interesting?’ and I ended up relying heavily on color and using those elements in the sky. There’s Yorktown in the sky, from the film, which is floating around in the atmosphere there. There’s the broken moon.

And then you have the Enterprise appear.

Of course, yes. The Enterprise. And in the beginning we see it as we fly through the universe and then at the end, kind of discreet.

Are you a Star Trek fan? Did you watch the series and films?

I grew up with the series. That was what my education of Star Trek was. It was real character-based. It was really great because it was a little bit lo-fi. I really enjoyed it because it was just about exploring the unknown. There was something about that that I really gravitated towards, but, yeah, it was just like a childhood thing.

What are you working on now?

I’m putting together my new photo book. This is my third one. And I’m working on a bunch of feature films. Two of them got into casting so I can talk about them. One of them is by the name of Bouncer, which is an Ajejandro Jodorowsky comic book, and he wrote it as well with a comic book writer. And the other one is called The Delivery Man, which is a story that happens in Las Vegas, and the name of the person who wrote the novel Joe McGinnis Jr.

Lastly, you reconnected with David Bowie in 2013 for two videos after directing those earlier videos in the ’90s. Did you have a chance to say goodbye?

I didn’t have a chance to officially say goodbye to him. He’d called me for the videos for Blackstar. He had told me to put some time aside for him and I did, so I was really excited to work on those as well and collaborate on those, and then something happened, and that didn’t happen. And he sent me this cryptic email and when I look at those videos, now I know why. Because the last time I saw him, he looked so healthy, so full of life, and even from “The Stars (Are Our Tonight),” the second one, [“The Next Day”], he looked even younger. I was like, “Wow, you look fantastic,” and then when I saw those videos [for Blackstar], I was like, “It would’ve been the hardest thing because I’ve known him for so long; it would’ve been the hardest thing to make.” So that was it. But he wrote me such beautiful emails. And even in that cryptic email, he was saying, “We’re going to do more things together,” so I didn’t know how to read it, but now I know.

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I am a fan since 2005, a stan since 2007. She is empowering, daring, fearless and anything anyone always dreams to be in their lives. She also makes amazing music and never fails to surprise her fans.

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