Exclusive Interview: Crafting 'The Turning' with Floria Sigismondi

Opening in theaters this weekend, Universal Pictures‘ The Turning brings to the big screen Henry James’s iconic novella The Turn of the Screw with a stylish new adaptation by director Floria Sigismondi. Although The Turning is only Sigismondi’s second feature film (following 2010’s rock biopic The Runaways), it’s likely that you’ve experienced her craft through music videos. Since the early 90s, she has directed for dozens of high profile artists, spanning from David Bowie to Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry to Marilyn Manson.

With The Turning, Sigismondi pushes the story forward a full century, moving the narrative from the 1890s to the 1990s and following Mackenzie Davis as Kate, a young woman who, having suffered her own personal losses, takes up a job as a nanny for two orphaned children (Brooklynn Prince‘s Flora and Finn Wolfhard‘s Miles) living in a grand manor in Maine. Moviebill had the pleasure of sitting down with Sigismondi and getting a behind the scenes look at what it took to bring her haunting vision to life.

Moviebill: Where did this project begin for you?

Mackenzie Davis headlines The Turning movie alongside Finn Wolfhard and Brooklyn Prince.Floria Sigismondi: I read the book when I was in high school. What I loved about it — I mean it was terrifying — but what I really loved about it was that you could read it one way and it’s a ghost story and then you read it again and it’s a story about a woman’s descent into madness. I just thought, “Wow, that’s amazing. That you could read the same thing and get two very different interpretations, if not more. There’s great symbology in the book. So that really drew me to it, because I thought, “Oh, this is a great framework to do something interpretive”. It has a great structure for doing something interesting visually.

How did this cast come together?

They were all my first choices. It was kind of crazy. You know, Mackenzie and I had one meeting and boom. I just loved how strong she is as a person. I knew she could be very vulnerable, because she feels safe as a person. She gives me 100%. I mean, we had her diving into cold pools and doing all kinds of stuff. She just makes you believe that it’s real. It’s all in the face. She doesn’t have to say anything a you know what she’s going through. With Brooklyn, I had worked with her on for the New York Times. I was hired to do the year’s best performances and actually took the job secretly to meet her because I wanted to not meet her in a casting session. I wanted to meet her because she’s younger than what we had put in the script. She was being celebrated for her work on ‘The Florida Project’ and I turned into this demon child, because it was called ‘The Horror Show’. She was fantastic. She had this whole backstory that she made up. It was fantastic to see her. I was like, “Okay, you’re in!”

Click here to watch Floria Sigismondi’s ‘Great Performers’ series

Then Finn [Wolfhard], I had seen on ‘Stranger Things’, but I was just flipping through a magazine and saw this photograph of him where he was wearing the schoolboy outfit. It had a check and emblem on it with the little tie, the palem pale skin and his black locks. I was like, “Whoa, he’s like a dark angel!” There’s something really beautiful and innocent about him, the dark coloring of his hair and his dark eyes. So I paired him up with Brooklyn and they had the same color. I just darkened Brooklyn a bit. It was like they were a part of the same DNA. They really do feel like siblings in it and they really got along super well off camera.

Does that change the way you interact with a cast when what’s happening in the scene is not necessarily definite?

Yes, exactly. It’s all about how much you give them. When I’m with Brooklyn, obviously, I’m saying sort of simpler terms with her, although she understands beyond her years. She is an old soul. She creates the most incredible backstories in her mind. She is always — always — thinking, even when her character’s not in the room, about the longing that she has for an old nanny or something. It’s amazing. Because you build it with atmosphere when you choose what to show the audience. For instance, you know, Mackenzie [Davis] has got a great ability to track her madness and what she’s thinking. It’s always very practical, even though she’s going somewhere that’s not practical, which is really great. That’s how you want to keep it. You want to kind of keep it kind of real.

Is it ever as literal as “Let’s do a take where something supernatural is happening” or “Let’s do a take where you’re going crazy”?

No,  because everything actually is the opposite. If you stripped it down, it’s more of a feeling, right? If there’s a feeling that there’s a presence in the room, that’s enough or it’s the idea that, if we stripped the entire movie of ghosts, what would they be thinking? Miles is an angsty, rebellious kid who is between boyhood and manhood and grappling with some awful toxic masculinity that Quint has imposed on him. He has sort of learned this behavior and Kate has, obviously, experienced some kind of trauma in her childhood. Coming to this house, that’s tension. There’s the feeling of the house and how the house is in the DNA. You know, I believe that furniture can hold memories of things and that houses can hold memory. Between that and the kids, it’s the key that unlocks Kate and opens her up to her darkness that she has hidden.

Is capturing that something that you definitively know on the day you’re filming, or is it found in the editing room?

I’ve always wanted to keep it ambiguous. I’ve always wanted to keep the ending sort of interpretive. I wanted to make it different than the book because I wanted to make it a little bit more surprising and not make Kate into a monster. I mean, that was always our our goal, to stay as close to the book.

It felt like there were maybe a few touchstones from some other, classic horror films. I’m curious what works were influential to you?

I watched Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ and I saw ‘The Innocents’. I loved the sound design in ‘The Innocents’ and how you could see things two different ways. That movie was really cut to quite great effect. We also looked at a lot of photographs, especially the photographs of Francesca Woodman. She would do these long exposure self portraits, so she’d be a sort of ghostly figure and would kind of walk through places of decay. There’s something really beautiful about her work that influenced me.

Mackenzie Davis headlines The Turning movie alongside Finn Wolfhard and Brooklyn Prince.I feel like this is a movie that kind of continues to play after the credits. I went home last night and, having slept on it, began to remember things and make new connections. One of those that was particularly strong was seeing Kate’s mother sitting in the bottom of an empty swimming pool, which is not that far removed from the body in the lake.

Oh good! You got all that stuff. You know, that was a surprising location for me because, when you walk into a location like that, I always tell myself, “Never impose on a location.” So I ask myself, “What do I feel from this place?” There were many rooms at that location and I had thought, “Okay, that’s going to be her bedroom. This can be the institution. This can be the art room.” Then I saw the pool and I was like, “We need to shoot the pool!” They’re like, “What are you talking about?” I’m like, “We need to be in the pool!” “You want to fill it with water?” “No! It’s the absence of water that is what I want!” The water represents that. The subconscious represents the connectivity and her being in a place that should be filled with water is a place where she first meets her mother before she goes [to the manor]. I’m so glad you caught that. I’m always constantly working the details. Did I talk to you about the wallpaper? Everything’s kind of  underneath the surface, let’s say, from a wide shot. Some things look a certain way and then you get closer.  When Kate first walks into her bedroom, her bedspread is this beautiful crimson color with these gold colored pillows. Then you get up close and they’re like dragons embroidered on the pillow. At night, you’d see this dragon head there and you see that the bedspreads have been tattered. It’s all decaying and then the wallpaper in her room has been painted with images of this beautiful garden. At the end, though, when you see the hand going along the wall, the birds are dying. They’re falling off the trees. The leaves are disintegrated and gone. Brown. It’s just those little things. But you’re the first person that mentioned the pool. You’ve kind of made my day.

Step behind the scenes of ‘The Turning’ with Floria Sigismondi and her cast in the below featurette:

The Turning is now playing in theaters everywhere. If you missed the film’s trailer click here to check it out. Also, be sure to read our exclusive interview with star Mackenzie Davis. 

(Photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

Silas Lesnick is the Senior Editor of Moviebill. He has been covering entertainment news out of Los Angeles for more than a decade. You can reach him via e-mail or on Twitter.