Interview: The Runaways Writer-Director Floria Sigismondi

Floria Sigismondi has a slew of music video credits to her name, but zero feature length films, but that didn’t stop her from uniting with two of Hollywood’s hottest young actresses, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, to bring the world first all-girl rock band back to life in The Runaways.

Not only did Sigismondi direct the film, but she adapted the script from Cherie Currie’s memoir Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway. With producers John and Art Linsons’ blessing, she went on to pick and choose from the extensive source material and shape a story of The Runaways that was film-appropriate and could deliver a proper depiction of the band and fitting message as well.

Sigismondi dished on familiarizing her young cast with the 70s music scene as well as helping Stewart and Fanning own their characters through new haircuts and sharing one-on-one time with the icons they were portraying. For more from Sigismondi, check out the interview we did with her at the Sundance Film Festival here.

Can you talking about creating the milieu that these girls were in? You typically work on music videos, so how did this compare?

I had the musical performance, which I felt very comfortable with because I’d done it for so long, so that felt like a very similar world. The prep was just so at lightning speed and so insane and I’d know I’d see some people only once or twice before we got on set that once I got there, I felt relieved. It was really good to be on set. Because I was comfortable with the music stuff, I was able to concentrate on the directing of the acting.

How’d you go about choosing which portions of the experience to include in the film? There are so many dramatic elements that could have gone in, like Jackie Fox’s suicide attempt, the arrests.

Well, we didn’t have Jackie’s rights. I had four rights. I had Cherie, Joan, Sandy and Kim’s and I was able to talk to just three of them because Sandy passed away. After meeting them and just doing a little bit of research, I kind of knew the story that I wanted to tell was basically about Cherie and Joan, so once I established that, I knew what would stick and what wouldn’t. I’d throw things out and be like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t stick.’

Even within that, let’s say the story of when Cherie’s mother left for Indonesia; in the movie it’s pretty calm, but in actuality Cherie followed her to the airport and desperately called out for her mother, but she completely ignored her. Why didn’t you include that?

I couldn’t do some of the stuff also because of budget, especially when you’re in an airport. That’s got to be one of the most expensive shots! [Laughs] It’s sort of like, how can I retain the essence of these girls and what they went through and just do it – I had all kinds of challenges and parameters all the way around, so that was one of the things that had to go.

How’d the cast come together?

It started with Kristen Stewart. It started with Art Linson, he’d worked with her on Into the Wild, so I saw her in that and the short amount of time she was on screen, she was so captivating. Her eyes, you know, just told a lot and when I think of teenagers and these girls too, teenagers really don’t sit there and express their feelings and talk. It’s all in the face. I really wanted someone who’d emote visually without talking that much and she’s got that kind of quality. And so when I met her, I instantly knew I wanted her for Joan. And then Dakota, she kind of became that age right at the time when we started to cast, so when I was writing, I hadn’t thought of her and when she was interested, I was really excited because of the fact that everybody’s grown up with her and that you would know how’d it feel for a 15-year-old to do the things she did, I think, hopefully.

What’d you do with the girls to help them prepare for shooting?

I gave the girls CDs so they could listen to music that was happening at the time. I also had a room where I had the script go around the room, but from floor to ceiling I put pictures up on the wall of things that were going around because they didn’t experience this time and now, you know, we’re a little bit jaded, we’ve seen it all. I sort of tried to get the girls into a place where this wasn’t happening, this was a first time thing.

I put them through some lessons and [Kristen had] already known how to play guitar, but just to kind of polish up. And then Dakota, I put her in front of live band so she could rehearse with a live band behind her so she knew what it was to feel like to compete against drums and big amps and really loud music. We put them together with all the rest of the girls and for two weeks they practiced as a band so I think they bonded. And we recorded them live, we recorded them for the movie. So I think they also had that experience in the studio, singing it over and over again until they got it right. I think by the time they got on set, they really felt like they knew that side of it, which would have been a new side for them.

The actresses really had to go through a transformation to become their characters, especially Kristen with her haircut. Once Kristen had Joan’s look did you see her really become Joan?

They did, especially for her because she had to go home with it, 24/7. From the first time I met her to rehearsal to just going through the prep, I could see her change. Like on stage, when she was rehearsing with the girls from the back her body started to change, like really, physically transform and I think it was because she was standing like Joan does and getting that kind of arch in her shoulders and that was really interesting to see.

You said that everything is understated in relationships with teenagers, but could you define the relationship between Cherie and Joan?

They were best friends. They called them salt and pepper and they bonded immediately and of all the girls and all the politics with the girls, the two of them always remained good friends within the time of the band and – well, obviously until they broke up. It was just an experimental time for them, so I think they shared a lot.

Did you have discussions about this with the two actresses?

Yeah, I did. I did because Joan kind of looked out for everybody. She was like the head figure, but more [so in that] she wanted everybody to stay together. She always kind of looked out and made sure everybody was okay. She had that kind of quality about her. I think that you can see that in Kristen. She’s always in her character, she’s always looking and making sure that Cherie’s okay.

Is it valuable having someone like Joan on set?

It was valuable for Kristen. I think it made her feel good because it gave her a comfort level that if she veered so wrong that somebody would say something or that she would. They had a close relationship. They started to build a nice friendship.

I’d imagine she’d be valuable for other things too, like making sure that everything looks the way it did then.

Yeah, but at that point it was too late. When you’re on set it’s way too late. [Laughs]

Was it valuable for Dakota to have Cherie around as well? She was on set too, right?

A little bit. Yeah, she was on set a little bit, not that often. I don’t know how much she consulted her actually during shooting, but she did teach her the mic trick and stuff off set.

So what’s next for you? Are you going back to music videos or will you tackle another film?

I’ll probably tackle another film. I just finished Jack White’s new project with the Dead Weathermen. That should be coming out any day now, probably. I don’t know where I fit that in, but that somehow got in there. [Laughs]

What’s the one thing you want to accomplish with this movie?

Well, for me it’s a cautionary tale on Cherie’s side and it’s an inspirational tale also on Joan’s side and how committed and how she persevered. And so it was just like a crazy ride they went through and hopefully it just gives girls more courage to follow their dreams if they have a musical dream. It happened for Joan.

What’s your favorite Runaways song?

I love ‘Cherry Bomb.’

Any particular reason why?

I love the insanity of writing that song. What, in 15 minutes while she waited outside the trailer? There’s something so personal, yet not, because she couldn’t even say the lyrics. It’s a crazy mix when you put them together. This girl that they pluck out of the club and they’re going to write a song about you, but it’s nothing about you and then she becomes the song. She’s a cherry bomb by the end of the movie, so there’s a kind of all- telling in that song for me.

She did a great job of acting as though she couldn’t really sing the song too in that scene.

Yeah, and hold herself back! Because she knew how to sing, she already recorded it. It must have been harder to actually know the song and not sing it right. Especially the tempo. Her tempo was off and, yeah, it was great. But she couldn’t wait until she could actually sing it right and get on there and do it the way she wanted to do it.

Perri Nemiroff

Staff Writer for CinemaBlend.