Henry James’ seminal novella, The Turn of the Screw, has been adapted countless times since its initial publication in 1898. The novella’s ambiguity lends itself to multiple interpretations – be it for stage, television, or film (perhaps most notably in 1961’s The Innocents). It’s a deceptively simple story – a governess, tasked to care for two orphaned children, discovers they may be haunted by malevolent spirits… Yet within this seemingly run-of-the-mill ghost story, James and subsequent adaptors have instilled the piece with commentaries on sexual repression, male toxicity, and women’s limited roles in the 19th century.
All of which is to say – The Turn of the Screw feels particularly timely now, especially with the rise of #MeToo and the toxicity of the incel movement. Floria Sigismondi’s latest adaptation, The Turning, fully taps into these undercurrents, showing how a toxic patriarchy can cause a woman to lose her mind.
In the following interview with filmmaker Floria Sigismondi, she discusses adapting Henry James’ novella, setting her adaptation in the 1990s, and the meaning behind the film’s ambiguity. For the full interview, read below.
Of note: mild spoilers follow below (particularly for those unfamiliar with the novella).
Collider: To start — Was the script for The Turning always set in the ’90s?
FLORIA SIGISMONDI: No — that’s something I wanted to do. I wanted to modernize [the story] but take away the technology. The 90s felt like the perfect era – when you look at the music, the fashion, everything’s deconstructed and rebellious. It’s a very angsty time, so I could correlate that with Finn [Wolfhard’s] character of Miles…
Was there anything personal about the ’90s that spoke to you?
SIGISMONDI: I love the ’90s. I created a lot of stuff in the ’90s – so it was a very instrumental time for me. I was learning about myself as an artist and how to have faith in darker images. What intrigues me is the dark areas of ourselves that we don’t know and we don’t understand. I love to create from that place because it’s so mysterious. A pivotal moment for me was with Marilyn Manson. Here, I was with a little sketch in my book, showing he’s going to be this tall with no hair. Then, all of a sudden, it happened… There was this sense that I knew I was in the right place at the right time. This idea taught me to really trust myself, to not kill seedling ideas, no matter how strange they are because they’re just taking shape…
What strange seedlings did you have for The Turning?
SIGISMONDI: That things can get under your skin. So, for instance, Kate’s [Mackenzie Davis] bed covers – you walk into the room, and you think, ‘Oh, it’s so lush.’ But when you get up close, you see that it’s tattered and worn. Even the wallpaper that we painted on the walls, these gorgeous trees and birds and plants… But then later, when the hand goes over the wallpaper, the birds are falling, and the leaves are decaying and black…
Do you see that as the film’s outlook – that beneath the facade of beauty lies darkness and decay?
SIGISMONDI: It’s funny you say that – because I always try to go to two complete opposites and clash them together. So [for The Turning], it was beauty and decay. That’s my way in. And life is like that – under the surface, there’s something darker.
How timely do you feel the film is?
SIGISMONDI: This is a great time to tell more complicated stories. We’ve moved past the notion that women need to be heroes. They can be as complicated as what Phoebe [Waller-Bridge] is doing with Fleabag. [So] when you look at Finn’s character — he represents toxic masculinity; the idea of abuse being passed down through generations and the idea of change – how kids are being brought up and how they’re taught to treat women has to happen at a very young age. And Kate represents how trying to navigate through this toxic world is enough to drive anyone crazy.
There’s a great shot with Mackenzie in the pupil of her own eye– how did you come up with that shot?
SIGISMONDI: I love eyes. There’s a ton of eyes in my work if you go back – from Christina Aguilera to David Bowie. Eyes are the window to the soul, and especially for this, because of the psychological nature of the story, visually – you can actually show someone and move into their eye, into their mind. Visually, for the audience, it creates a different world, a world where you don’t know how things behave and what the actual rules are. It gets you out of your comfort zone.
Visually, how cognizant were you of mirroring Kate’s mental state throughout the film?
SIGISMONDI: That was something that was planned out. I was able to map out an arc with the visuals. So [in the beginning], you’ve got these big wide shots, and [Kate’s] in these bright solid colors when she’s coming to the estate. She’s small, and the estate is big – so you get the sense of how small she feels in this place. But as the movie goes on, it gets a little more claustrophobic. All this stuff starts to encroach on [Kate], and you see a much more claustrophobic camera. It starts to get handheld as the tension builds. When [Kate] begins to lose her mind, you’re in complete madness. The camera starts to be more erratic. Wide-angle lenses way up close. And now [Kate’s] look is different. Even though it’s only been six days, she has these roots that are coming in – it’s her inner world seeping out, her beauty becomes something much more raw.
What was the process of finding the right house for the film?
SIGISMONDI: We saw a lot of places, but they didn’t have everything we needed. When we walked up to this place, though, I just knew. It had a children’s wing, a maze, a pond… It was really important for the atmosphere, for the actors, and for the film, that it all be shot in one location and not one of these films where characters are looking out a window at green screen.
How did you settle on the aesthetic of the house?
SIGISMONDI: I worked very closely with [production designer] Paki Smith. We decided – let’s populate [the house] with things from different eras. In the ’60s, [the family] may have done some remodeling, so we went with some Italian ’60s furniture; then in the ’70s — maybe they’ve gone to an exotic place and brought back a big Buddha Dragon that’s in the front of the house… There’s this mixture, so you feel like you get the story of the family and this idea of passed down objects to create the look of the place instead of it feeling like a museum.
A lot of the film is fairly ambiguous as to what’s really going on – how do you direct actors during these open-to-interpretation scenes?
SIGISMONDI: I was lucky to work with Mackenzie because she can track where she is even though [Kate’s] descending into a more inner world. [Mackenzie] has a great way of mapping out her way of thinking. Even when we shot out of order, she knew where [Kate] was. But yeah, it’s a very ambiguous [movie] – it [comes down to] finding the essence of the scene, the feeling… I wanted people to experience the movie differently than they would experience another movie. Where you experience it more on an internal [level]. ‘What did I just experience?’ rather than ‘Oh, you can articulate the story in one sentence.’
Do you feel like there’s a definitive answer to what happens in the film or were you trying to steer away from that?
SIGISMONDI: I didn’t want to spoon-feed the audience. I was hoping that people can take away different things from the movie. To generate dialogue is what excites me. When I go see a film, and I’ve got something to say or a question, or it opens up something new in me… That’s what excites me about cinema, rather than being spoon-fed with a nice little bow at the end.
Do you yourself have a definitive take on what the film means – particularly the ending?
SIGISMONDI: Yes, I do; it’s the thematic idea of being locked in with this trauma that you’re dealing with… But I don’t want to say too much about it. The ending [of The Turning] is different than the book– because I wanted [the film] to be different and surprising. I wanted to redeem Kate and tell a more emotional story.
Was that decision to change the ending of the book always in place?
What spurred that decision?
SIGISMONDI: For me – it was not making Kate into a monster. When the book was written a hundred years ago, women went ‘mad,’ and they were ‘dangerous,’ and they were locked up. I didn’t want to create [Kate] into a monster. I have a lot of feelings for her. I wanted to be gentle with her.
How much of the film changed in post-production? Are there any deleted scenes?
SIGISMONDI: There are some deleted scenes that you’ll eventually see in the extras. It’s always a process to home in on what’s best for the film. There’s another version of an ending you’ll see… but it was always in service of streamlining and condensing.
The Turning is now in theaters.