Floria Sigismondi is a maverick, an artist, a photographer, and a director. She’s best known for helming visually striking avant-garde music videos—for everyone from David Bowie to Rihanna—but she’s also done a handful of short films and two features.
Her first feature debuted 10 years ago. It was a biopic on an all-girl 70s rock band called The Runaways. The music angle certainly hit Sigismondi’s sweet spot, but she has a flair for horror too; just look at her take on Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” or the quirky short she made with Nicole Kidman for New York Times Magazine Great Performers Series in 2017.
No bones about it, Sigismondi’s second feature film is pure horror with a Gothic pedigree to show for it. The Turning is based on Henry James’s classic 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw, which has in turn (see what I see did there?) spawned several adaptions to the stage, on TV, as well as the silver screen.
The Turning takes place at a mysterious fictional estate in Maine, where newly-appointed nanny Kate (Mackenzie Davis, Terminator: Dark Fate) is charged with the care of two disturbed orphans, Flora (Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project—also “The Demon Child” a short directed by Sigismondi) and Miles (Finn Wolfhard, Stephen King’s IT). Before long, Kate discovers that both the children and the house are harboring horrible secrets and as the fashions of the 90s, everything starts to fray.
While preserving the spirit (see what I… okay, I’ll stop) of the original story, this version brings the action into the 90s, which, for Sigismondi was perfect. “I wanted to modernize the story with a fresh take,” she told us. “But I didn’t want to make it present day because of the technology; I wanted to put Kate (Mackenzie Davis, Terminator: Dark Fate) to be in isolation.” The 90s vibe is strong, right down to imagery of Kurt Cobain, post-suicide, tacked to the wall of a young boy’s bedroom. “That era so rich with rebellion and angst and it was all about deconstruction,” Sigismondi continued, “whether it’s in clothing, it was all about taking apart, even in the design world – designing things with frayed edges. So for me, it was such a great era for my character and for her as well, coming in and quite exposed to this world.”
While the movie isn’t quite a highbrow arthouse horror, one can see that there was a lot of artistic influence at work in the minds of Sigismondi and her production designer Paki Smith when they put the pieces together in pre-production. Sigismondi told us that she was especially in tune with American contemporary photographer Francesca Woodman, Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin, and German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich while shaping the look and feel of The Turning.
“In fact, we hung a reproduction of one of Friedrich’s paintings in Kate’s room. I remember it was so striking because when I first saw the house where we’d be shooting in Ireland, there were these trees. I fell in love with all these personalities all over the grounds, these amazing trees. And when I saw Friedrich’s work I went, ‘oh my God, this is crazy, he’s done a painting that looks like right now, a hundred years before.’ In the credit sequence of The Turning, when Kate’s hand goes over the painting, [it] helped me build the atmosphere and to get into the layering of things.”
What’s more, Sigismondi made her own storyboards and did watercolor paintings to define Kate and her look. “I had so much fun creating Kate’s visual arc, how she disintegrates as the movie goes. She’s very put together and prim in the beginning. Blunt haircut, a beautiful platinum tone that has many different colors in it, but by the end of it, her roots are coming in and it’s all gray, unkempt and unruly. What you saw her from the beginning is, by the close, worn and textured, and we start to lose her a bit in the background [as the house consumes her].”
The story provides a fertile playground for all sorts of metaphors, as does the horror genre itself. “The reason I like this genre is that there’s this sense of the unknown. There’s the unknown in our lives, the outside world and how it works, where we come from, where we belong, what does life mean? There’s a lot about ourselves we don’t know, yet we’re discovering through the act of living. And so there are these dark corners everywhere literally and figuratively in The Turning, and that kind of fascinate me. Also, horror films are such a great medium to talk about things in an interesting way. So this world that Kate walks into, there is this idea of this toxic masculinity that’s got a hold on Miles. And the generational abuse and the cyclical nature of abuse that Kate might have suffered, her own darkness, and spiraling that out.”
Even though the house and its most malevolent spirit are male, it’s the females who are the fiercest. There’s Jessel (Denna Thomsen), the ghost of the previous nanny sending clues from beyond the grave; brave young Flora; hardline housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), and of course, Kate herself. There have been 37 adaptations from the novel but it seems only fitting that a woman director finally takes the reins of this tried and true favorite horror tale in 2020.
When asked what advice Sigismondi might have for aspiring women wanting to break into directing and she said, “Shoot, shoot, shoot.” Don’t wait for a movie. Make your own art on your iPhone—photos, videos, anything, and everything. “Nothing should stop you from realizing your dreams.”
Or nightmares, as the case may be.
The Turning opens in theaters everywhere on January 24, 2020.