Newton Thomas Sigel
Photo by Andrew Zuckerman

Newton Thomas Sigel: “I can close my eyes and see it”

Short Profile

Name: Newton Thomas Sigel
DOB: August 1955
Place of birth: Detroit, Michigan, United States
Occupation: Cinematographer

Mr. Sigel, like actors who have trouble shaking off their character at the end of the work day, do you as cinematographer also find it hard to leave a film behind?

Well, you're thinking about it, always. For better or worse, it's a very consuming endeavor. It's not like a job where you can kind of get in your car at the end of the day, and you don't have to think about it anymore. It's like a military campaign, from the beginning to the end. (Laughs) And maybe when you finish the film, you can move on. I've been very blessed to be able to work on a wide range of films and genres. But I think if anything, the problem is how to find a new and fresh way of telling the next story, so that you're not just falling back on your old tricks, or repeating your same ideas over and over, you know?

How do you go about preventing that?

I think my cinematography style is much more of a Cubist approach, each film has its own kind of recipe and flavour. The thing about being a cinematographer is that, of all the arts, it is one of the most collaborative. You are not the musician, you're the conductor. So if you think of the composer as the director, they’re bringing together this huge crew, to all work in the same direction, hopefully, and produce a final product, a final image. And you can't really do that on your own, at home. The violinist can go home and play the violin, practice his music. But the conductor goes home and looks himself in the mirror and just waves his arms around. So as a cinematographer, you have this army of people in front of you that you have to direct.

“You have to make those decisions based on what you're trying to express in your story, what mood and emotion you're looking for.”

And not only that, but you also decide on the color palette, the lighting… There are countless articles online analyzing and interpreting the psychology of your cinematography.

Color palette is something that you have to address in every film you do. There's no, like, standard color palette — you have to make those decisions based on what you're trying to express in your story, what mood and emotion you're looking for. And those decisions are not distinct from the environments that you're shooting in. For Drive, it was, pardon the pun, very driven by urban streetlights, by this contrast between the blue cyan color of the mercury-vapor lamps with this sort of orange yellow amber coloration of the streetlighting. I took that as my environment and just ran with it.

How else does environment influence the mood or aesthetic of a film?

For Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, for example, we felt that it was important to show a psychological transition of the war veterans from modern Ho Chi Minh City, to the jungle. These guys were returning to a very different Vietnam than they experienced almost 50 years earlier. And the jungle represented a trip into the past, going back into their own memories and experience of Vietnam. We wanted this feeling of the jungle swallowing them up. There were a lot of questions about how to represent those memories and differentiate them from the present of the story.

And in Da 5 Bloods the aspect ratio of the filming changes between the scenes from the present and the past.

Right, because Spike and I felt that the most appropriate and effective way to do it was to film it in the way it would have been filmed in the seventies: if you were a military newsreel cameraman at the time, you would be on 16 millimeter, shooting reversal film, predominantly handheld… Because an important thing to remember is that Vietnam was really the first war that was televised. Da 5 Bloods is very much a film about memory, and Spike made an incredibly bold choice, in putting the actors into their memories at their present age. I thought that was so interesting, because it really speaks to a lot of what we've learned about how memories are formed.

In what way?

Well, recent science has shown that memories are not like this commodity or a perfectly formed object that you bring up. Memories are stored, like a computer stores data, in different parts of the brain. And when we bring up a memory, we reconstruct it from those different parts. And to a certain degree, that rewriting of the memory can alter the moment that is remembered itself.

Earlier in your career, you filmed several war documentaries in El Salvador and Guatemala. Did you find yourself reliving those experiences when you were shooting Da 5 Bloods?

I think those memories are always there. They're very front and center. But as much as remembering my specific experience there, it certainly informed my instincts about what to do with the camera, where and how to use it; it gave me an insight into treating these otherwise staged, premeditated events in a way that feels spontaneous, slightly out of control and unpredictable, as they are in a real war. I didn't really rewatch any of my documentaries, but I did watch a lot of the documentaries that were done at the time, like the Ken Burns series, or Peter Davis’ documentary, Hearts and Minds, which is probably the best film about the Vietnam War.

“I remember things like the color, the feel, the texture… I can close my eyes and see it.”

What about the representation of the past in a film like Bohemian Rhapsody? Rami Malek said that playing a real life person in a biopic was a lot of pressure. How true did you want to stay to the look and feel of that time?

I think there are different types of biopics, and Bohemian Rhapsody wasn't really specifically one. For instance, you can have a movie like Rocket Man, where you have a very stylized, operatic approach, which allows you to have a lot of liberty with how you portray the character, and where it becomes a question of, “Are you editorializing?” But I think in the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, there was a desire to be very truthful about Freddie Mercury as a character, who he was and how he was. Rami was channelling Freddie alongside with Brian May, so I think for him there was tremendous pressure. But for me, actually, in a funny way, I actually probably had the most liberty!

How did it work for something like the scene where Queen performs at Live Aid? The staging must have had to be very accurate since this is such an iconic performance that everyone would recognize.

The set design had a lot of pressure to be accurate. But what I didn't want to do, was shoot it the way it was recorded the day of the event, because you can actually go on YouTube, and you can watch that live performance! You don't need a movie to do that. I wanted to sort of watch the performance from the stage, to really tell the story from a personal point of view, as if the camera was a member of the band, so to speak.

Do you find it easier to bring a story to life when you have these real-life references to draw from?

I think as artists there are those that will draw on personal experiences when they create — actors do it a lot. And then, there are those that will draw on their memory of other works of art, like, “Oh, it's going to be like that scene in Poltergeist.” (Laughs) And I've always said that I think it's very useful and important to have life experiences outside of cinema that you can use to inform, to elevate, and bring a certain degree of truth to the work that you create. I think for me, my memory is very much visual. I'm not a great reader, I don't have a great memory of names and specifics, but I remember things like the color, the feel, the texture… A lot of times, I'll have memories like that, but I don't even know what exactly they are — but I can close my eyes and see it.