Before Floria Sigismondi began shooting the bad-girl rock-band film The Runaways, she redecorated a room. The director pulled all the furniture out of a large space in a Los Angeles studio, and papered the walls, floor to ceiling, with hundreds of photos taken of the seminal all-girl band that combusted after a few short years in the late seventies.
Her motivation was simple: Sigismondi wanted to give her young stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning - who headline as Runaways Joan Jett and Cherie Currie - a sense of what the seventies were all about. The room was meant to show the grit, rawness and unrelenting crap their punk teenage characters had had to take from an industry that was dominated by men who felt women had no place in rock 'n' roll.
In an interview in Toronto last week, Sigismondi, who grew up in Hamilton and now lives in Los Angeles, said that both the cast and crew visited the space regularly during the film's 30-day shoot. "Because Kristen and Dakota are so young [19 and 16] they don't remember the times," said Sigismondi, a tall, slim woman with long, curly dark hair, and dressed during our meeting in a slightly-off-goth getup of tight black pants, a ripped designer T-shirt and black blazer.
"I wanted everything very raw, very real, and I wanted them to be able to see it around them constantly. So we put pimples on them. We gave them bed head. I wanted them to look like they'd really been on the road for a couple of months and were beat up."
Set to open in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver this Friday (with an expanded run starting April 9), The Runaways, which Sigismondi also wrote, is the story of a band that paved the way for future generations of female hard rockers, before bursting into flames in 1979 after a wild ride fuelled by sex, drugs and booze.
Sigismondi's first full-length feature starts amid the colourful crowds of Rodney Bingenheimer's famed Los Angeles club English Disco, where Jett and Currie met their uber-eccentric rock-impresario manager Kim Fowley (played brilliantly by Michael Shannon, Oscar nominee for Revolutionary Road). From there, it follows the volatile, often abusive recording process that led to hits like Cherry Bomb, and five albums.
Sigismondi, 44, an accomplished artist who works in film, video, photography and installations, first got involved in The Runaways almost four years ago, after her manager was approached by producers Art and John Linson. (Art has produced such films as Fast Times at Ridgemont High; John, his son, made Lords of Dogtown, about seventies skateboarders.)
The Americans wanted a female to helm the film. Sigismondi seemed tailored to both write and direct The Runaways, which is partly based on Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, co-authored by Currie. Sigismondi, who was born in Italy to a pair of opera singers (she moved to Canada at age 2), is married to lead singer and guitarist Lillian Berlin of the alternative-rock band the Living Things, and has herself directed videos for the likes of David Bowie, the White Stripes, and Bjork.
"I think they wanted a female director for the details," she says. "They wanted to show what it was like to be a young girl going through these wild things. Hopefully, I've brought some things that are unique to Joan's and the others' experiences from a female perspective."
Stewart and Fanning insisted on doing their own singing and guitar playing. Sigismondi, a devotee of authenticity, signed the young women up for rock-band boot camp, which lasted about a month. They started by coming to Sigismondi's L.A. house, where she and her husband have a first-floor studio. "I had them play with my husband's band because I wanted them to feel what it was like to compete with these really noisy things. It's much more physical than one might imagine. You feel it in your body. As an actress, you're often trained to be more subtle. These roles are very different.
"Once we cast the whole band, we did three- or four-hour sessions on a daily basis, which was really good because they ended up bonding. By the time we got to filming Cherry Bomb for the film, they were rock stars," says Sigismondi, who married her husband in Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto in 2004, close to a bench where she used to sit in the middle of the night trying to strategize about the best way to articulate her latest artistic direction. The couple have a five-year-old daughter.
Once she'd nailed the screenplay, Sigismondi turned her sights to finding actors to play Currie and Jett, who is executive-producer of the film. Stewart, she says, was a no-brainer. "Kristen is so perfect. I'd seen her in Into The Wild, and there was something captivating about her looks. Her eyes - she emoted so much with her eyes. I also saw Joan in her: this kind of tough girl who is also vulnerable and shy at the same time."
Fanning, who was only 12 when Sigismondi signed up to take on The Runaways, wasn't on anyone's radar. But she had matured by the time shooting started last year. "When I found out Dakota was interested, I was over the moon," she says. "She's so talented, and she's grown from a child to a young woman before all of our eyes."
Real life after the Runaways has been pretty sweet for Jett, who landed on her feet in 1982 with a monster No. 1 hit, I Love Rock 'n' Roll and still regularly performs. Currie, in Sigismondi's opinion, is lucky to be alive after countless stints at rehab over the years. She's clean now, and works as a chainsaw artist, carving sculptures out of wood.
"But I see both women, equally, as survivors," she says. "Cherie had the guts to quit because she knew if she stayed, she'd be dead."
Her film, Sigismondi adds, is itself a lesson in empowerment. "It's a coming-of-age story of young women kind of getting too far deep into, and kind of surviving, their time together. They just get too far, lost in their circumstance." But lived, in the end, to see their tale told.