Welcome to Ways of Seeing, an interview series that highlights outstanding talent in photography and film—the people behind the camera whose work you should be watching. In this week’s edition, senior content editor Michael Beckert chats with the director Fiona Jane Burgess.
You were commissioned to direct the 2022 remaking of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” video. How did that come about?
The label reached out. The brief was quite broad, since it was a 20-year anniversary and re-release. They weren’t entirely sure what they wanted to do, but they wanted the film to relate to the idea of “beauty” in some way. That was the beginning point. I went back and looked at the original video. It was so successful because Christina wasn’t afraid to question beauty standards, or to show anxiety, depression, anorexia, all these things, and really confront them head-on.
I just kept thinking, “You know, this is a moment to reflect on the last 20 years…So what’s happened since 2002?” I was thinking about myself as a 14-year-old, when the song was first released—what life was like for me, what life is like for 14-year-olds now. It’s worth mentioning that prior to becoming a director full-time, I worked for nearly a decade in an adolescent psychiatric unit with young people. I’d facilitate drama workshops and encourage them to build confidence and self-esteem. All this work provided me with the opportunity to share a dialogue with young people. And right now, children are the guinea pigs for all this technology. We don’t really know how it’ll affect the rest of their lives, but you don’t need to be a therapist to know that trauma can stem from childhood experiences. So ultimately, when I was making my treatment for Christina, I knew my take on “Beautiful” had to be about young people specifically, since they’re the most vulnerable and also they are the future.
How did you find out you’d won the job?
I jumped on a call with Christina and she spoke at length about how my concept resonated with her. I think it helped that she has children of her own, so she really got it. She was so respectful and empowering of me, as a creative person. It gave me the confidence to really go for it and be uncompromising.
Was there any part of making this film that felt cathartic for you?
The most cathartic scenes were the exteriors, because the kids were so joyous, and they loved being outside. We put a tire swing up and, honestly, I didn’t have to direct them much—they just ran around and played on their own. That was great because the kids got to meet each other and connect in a really natural way.
And what scene was the hardest to shoot?
The hardest scene to film was the one with the bodybuilder, Toheeb, shouting at the young boy, Pierre. The scene was inspired by something Christina brought up on our phone call, this man named Andrew Tate. I hadn’t heard of him before, but after Googling him, I could see how toxic he is, and the kind of misogynistic views he preaches. Christina was saying that, for a lot of parents of young boys especially, there’s a big conversation around Andrew Tate and his influence. Christina wanted to find a way to address this sort of toxic masculinity; this scene was about visualizing that toxic masculinity and the harmful messages these online influencers are sending. The scene was really difficult to watch and facilitate, but I’m thankful to everyone who was able to help us pull it off.
Your main creative medium is filmmaking now, but what did you do before that? What’s your artistic background?
You know that Spike Milligan quote, “I don’t have a plan, so nothing can go wrong”? That’s definitely my life motto. I’m impulsive and I follow what excites me at the time—I don’t worry about the long-term. Back when I was a teenager, I had an interest in photography. My uncle ran a photography shop called Quick Snaps in the local town—you could get studio portraits done there. He bought me my first camera, and once a week, I’d take my film roll into Quick Snaps and develop and print my own black and white pictures. Then I got really into acting and drama, and at the same time, my mom worked as a teacher. The combination of those two things got me really into the intersection of the arts and education. I ended up applying to drama school, and trained in using theater and drama in social contexts—so I worked in homeless shelters, prisons, hospitals, schools, old people’s homes, community centers. I was also really interested in gender studies, so I worked with a company that would run workshops in schools, educating teachers and students about the difference between gender, biological sex, and sexuality.
I also heard you were in a band.
Yes, that was a bit of a curveball. I’ve always loved music. I started playing with my brother, and in two years, we were signed and touring. We were with a label called Secretly Canadian, which worked with artists like Bon Iver, The War on Drugs, and Angel Olsen at the time. I started doing visuals for the band—stage design, album artwork, and our music videos. I remember being inspired by 1970s New York performance artists like Vito Accanti—actually, one of my first videos was an homage to his piece, “Pryings.” While I was doing the band and working in social care I also did a masters degree focusing on performance art, so a lot of performance artists have really inspired my practice.
How did you transition from being in a band to becoming a filmmaker?
Well, around this time, I was really confused. I had moved away from theater because I found it elitist and film felt a lot more accessible. As I was getting more into film, our band was getting ready to put out our second album, and it was around this time I got pregnant. I was very determined, insisting that having a child wouldn’t get in the way of my work. And so after having twins I was back in the studio while working on our second album, but then the band broke up. I didn’t see it coming, but it was a decision everyone wanted to make. That was a turning point for me, when I had to re-evaluate what I wanted to do. I began directing music videos for friends who were musicians, and that’s really how I ended up directing. It’s funny getting older because only then can you look back and sort of connect the dots and see where everything was leading you to, and directing was a way for me to channel all of my creative interests into one: music, performance, art, film, photography, politics.
You’ve also collaborated with fashion brands like Gucci, Burberry, Calvin Klein, and more. What does working in fashion as a filmmaker allow you to do that other genres don’t?
I love styling as a form of personal expression, so I get to create worlds and narratives that complement a brand’s visual identity. Working in fashion as a filmmaker right now is also really exciting because for so long fashion photography was the main medium for editorials and commercial work, but now with phones and screens playing a much bigger role in our lives, there is an urgency to create films. It’s great to see brands like Gucci and Burberry really embracing and celebrating filmmakers as well as photographers.
What are you most proud of in your journey as an artist so far?
When I look back on my journey, I see how my band broke up, I had kids young, and how I had to confront my demons because of all that. I’m most proud of myself for overcoming deep insecurities and feelings of failure, both as an artist and as a human. I’m proud of myself for taking my failures and seeing them as opportunities for growth. I’m learning to embrace failure and use it as a tool.