Floria Sigismondi On Directing Rihanna's "Sledgehammer" Video

Floria Sigismondi On Directing Rihanna's "Sledgehammer" Video

The mythical director talks to V about creating another world for her latest music video with Rihanna

The mythical director talks to V about creating another world for her latest music video with Rihanna

Text: William Defebaugh

At 10am this morning, Rihanna released the music video for her new song "Sledgehammer" (watch above). A co-write with Sia, the track is the lead single from the soundtrack to Star Trek Beyond, out this Summer. Shot by legendary director and photographer Floria Sigismondi (who has created clips for the likes of David Bowie, Fiona Apple, P!nk, The White Stripes, Bjork, Christina Aguilera, and more), the music video is the first in history to be shot entirely with IMAX cameras. V chatted with Sigismondi about the groundbreaking project, filming in the desert, and turning Rihanna into an otherworldly goddess.

I just had the pleasure of watching the video for Sledgehammer. How did you go about concepting it?

Well, I’ve been obsessed with the idea of the universe. It’s always floating in my hemisphere. When the opportunity came up [to shoot this] and with the involvement of Star Trek and Rihanna and her song about breaking down walls, for me it was about transcendence. I visualized this mystical being on this planet that has the power to conjure up all the elements. She starts with the rocks and the sand then she can actually manipulate light and create stars, ultimately becoming the universe. I wanted to create that as an idea for the video. And it worked really well in terms of the themes of her lyrics and the theme of exploration in Star Trek.

I understand it was the first video to be shot entirely with IMAX cameras. How did that feel to have broken down that boundary?

Well, it’s really big. [Laughs] I had a lot more information to play with. The contrast was really beautiful and I was able to push things. And the vivid colors! The other thing was the sound. It was remixed in IMAX so the sound is really quite amazing. It gives it a really 3-dimensional sound. It’s all about that viewing experience. In terms of shooting on set, it wasn’t really much different. I think the camera is only ten pounds heavier, so it wasn’t a big, cumbersome thing to deal with. I was quite amazingly surprised on how easy it was.

Where did you shoot the video?

We shot it in the desert in the Trona Pinnacles [in California]. And what’s so great about that place is nobody is around. It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere. It has those otherworldly peaks. And then creating it and changing the color of it, I was wanting to find a location that had that kind of character.

And how long did it take to film?

I think in the end I shot for nine hours. We had a one-day shoot. Rihanna was touring so we found a date between her dates and shot the video. It was lightning speed.

Was this your first time working with Rihanna?

It was my first time working with Rihanna. We had talked about doing something before, so when this came up we had already met and so it was kind of fluid. For me it was more about creating this being, and I think in her movements and all that, it was almost great that we were in the middle of nowhere because we kind of all lost ourselves in this other-worldly terrain.

What kind of guidelines did you have, if any, in terms of incorporating Star Trek into it?

It was pretty loose. I wasn’t given any guidelines except to watch the film and extract elements of it. It stood out as a stand-alone piece. I kind of looked at the film and thought about what I gravitated toward, like the nebulas and floating rocks. I took those elements and created the story around that—her using elements and harnessing her power.

And in the end she kind of become this cluster of stars in this galaxy that’s part of the universe. How does that ending sort of fit in with the narrative that you’re telling?

It was about the transcendence of it. You know, we are much more fluid than our body parts. For me, it’s about the idea that we can be whatever we want and that we are connected to everything. That last image of the Star Trek ship going and meeting her is [the idea that] we can be out there. We can be in the tiny little rocks on earth—it connects us all. It was more about playing with that idea.

I also liked how it was kind of putting the man-made ship in opposition to her and as this natural force that you’re seeing.

Yes, exactly.

What do you hope viewers will get out of the video?

I wanted to leave the viewer with the feeling of an expansive universe, one where we all live in and one where we know so little about.

In terms of the fashion in the video, were you involved with that at all or was it mostly Mel [Ottenberg]?

We talked about it, and I wanted to create something that had a little bit of movement with the wind but still had a structure and wasn’t feminine, but strong. Sort of other worldly and “What is that supposed to look like?” We ended up going with this Rick Owens outfit, which sort of gives her the structure and the strength. Then we added this big same-colored scarf and this movement and that way she was part of this environment, part of the wind, part of the world. It was a good balance, I think.

What was it like working with Rihanna on set?

It was amazing to watch her really get in there. This is a character that she’s probably never played before and she kind of gave it her all. The subtle, beautiful hand movements she brought to it were magical and mesmerizing. She really embodied it. Just to watch her work was incredible and amazing. She has incredible stamina as well—we were in rough terrain.

Do you have any fun anecdotes from the shoot?

It went by too fast! [Laughs] Maybe trying to catch the light. It was amazing because you have all this stuff to shoot and you’re chasing the sun, and we’re all for shooting at night. But we knew the sun was down and we were in the middle of nowhere–it got dark. It was very interesting because during the daytime you could see as far as the eye could see. There was nothing, it was beautiful. And then everybody’s walking around at night tripping on things, looking out for snakes and scorpions.

Tell me more about your process. How do you go about bringing songs to life visually?

Usually what I do is I listen to the song many many times until it kind of eases into the subconscious and disappears in a way. This one it was on the serendipitous that I was already wanting to transform a human into galaxy. This ended up really working out with this idea and then listening to the song and getting into it, you know. That’s more of my process. A quiet process. And then piecing it all together. Normally it’s the first things that come to mind are the ones I end up going back to and sticking to. So whether it’s seeing the Star Trek film for the first time or listening to the song for the first time…those are the ones that seem to grow. And you know you can’t develop everything around them, but that’s what I found with this process.

When you plot the whole thing out, do you know which theme corresponds to which part of the song or does it kind of come together more in editing?

In this one I knew we had to go from day time to night time, so I wouldn’t at nighttime I wouldn’t necessarily shoot the beginning of the song because I knew it would drive me crazy in editing. Even if it’s a loose story or a loose narrative or abstract narrative, I kind of know that beforehand so I’ve got some kind of framework to work with instead of a live performance video where you can go anywhere. I wanted to give it some structure. For me, even if it was a live performance, I think developing the three minutes into something so every time it’s something new that you get to look at. So this one was very laid out in terms of what was happening where. I knew that she had to slam her firsts in the ground to create a crater to have a light come through because she then will fall into it and become the universe. So for me when I was looking at that planet I sort of thought of it as the inner world. The hollow earth theory. The porthole into the inner earth, which is a universe inside of that. It’s sort of a way of looking into life, really.

Rihanna aside, you have worked with everyone, from David Bowie to Bjork to The White Stripes to Justin Timberlake. What are some of the works that you’re most proud of?

In different times I would say different ones. I would like to say this one for it's sort of, you know, theme and transcendence and color and creating a new world. I would say the David Bowie, for another reason; and then the small video I did for Sigur Ros is something that I’m really proud of as well. They’re so great. What I love about their music is it’s a soundscape, you know. It doesn’t matter what the lyrics are, you kind of get lost in the sound. Creating an idea coming from in that is completely abstract and I don’t know, sort of really challenging because you get so many images, like, “OK I have this one now where is this going to go,” you know. [Laughs] So the structure is much looser even though I created a story with the narrative.

In what ways does creating a feature or short film different than the process of creating a music video?

I find that the process of having a script—even if you write it—there’s something a little bit omitting, different very much than a music video. In a music video, you can have a narrative but you’ve got music and that’s what you have to kind of take you in and out of things. It’s much more fluid. With cinema, everyone needs to kind of know what they’re doing, super-fast and it’s written on the page. Part of that for me would be, you know, to kind of change that up a little bit and shake it up and it would be amazing to create a feature film that’s fluid in that process. It would be a long one.

I understand you have a few other new projects in the works, including one with Alejandro Jodorowsky, is that right?

Yeah! I’m a super-fan of his work, for sure and his being as well, like a super-warrior. The book Bouncer—or if you read the comic-book—has a sort of larger than life character and you know, again, in the desert kind of creating a world away from everything else so there’s that. Then there’s Delivery Man, which is the story of a young kid that takes place in Las Vegas. We’re just in casting stages for both. I don’t have any release dates as of yet, but hopefully in the next few months. And then I’m directing an episode of American Gods on Starz, I’m excited to join that crew and Michael Greene is very talented.

And how involved is Jodorowsky going to be in the process of translating Bouncer?

Until we go into production I won’t know, but I’ve met him before and he’s quite an amazing character as you can imagine. I just love his spirit.

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