An interview with Newton Thomas Sigel: the photography director for Bohemian Rhapsody

Best known for his work on The Usual Suspects, Drive, X-Men and House, cinematographer and director Newton Thomas Sigel talks to Mandy News about his experiences working on his most recent work Bohemian Rhapsody. 

30th November 2018
/ By James Collins

Newton Thomas Sigel Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

How did you first come to the camera and how did that take you into the film industry?
I had a funny route. I started making movies in high school. I had a job in a record store - I saved my money and bought a Super 8 camera and just started making little short films. I think I'm partly inspired by my older brother, who was a photographer, but I wanted to do something a little different. I was also painting at the time and involved in the art world. After high school I continued to make independent or experimental films -- they had lots of different names back then.

Then I got into documentary. I started making documentaries and people liked the way they looked. I was sought out by Haskell Wexler, a very famous cinematographer who was about to direct his second film. He liked my docs and gave me my first opportunity on his feature film “Latino” and I've never really looked back.

Was there a specific type of film you wanted to make?
Coming out of documentary and being influenced by art it made me more interested in certain types of films and that continues to this day. Especially when you're starting out, your choices are often limited and while you want to be careful with your choices and to express yourself, you need to work and develop your craft. It’s a conundrum, but by trying as much as you can to do the films that mean something to you, you are more able to evolve as an artist and craftsperson.

What was the journey that led to you working on Bohemian Rhapsody
Well, it’s the 10th movie I've done with Bryan Singer. Although, the beginning of the journey was The Usual Suspects (1995), out of all the movies we have done together Bohemian Rhapsody was a dream project for me. It was a story that I responded to both because of Freddie Mercury’s life history and the rock and roll period, which is really my youth. Live Aid was a seminal performance for Queen as icons of rock-and-roll, so all these elements intrigued me. 

What was the original concept for the look of the film?
It was less about the look and more about us wanting to make a movie that was a celebration of Queen’s music and not a depressing story of Freddie Mercury’s rise to stardom, AIDS and untimely death. I think that informed a lot of the way I crafted the look of the film. The script starts with a tease where you think you are going on stage at Live Aid, but you don’t (we return to it at the end of the movie). Then we go from 1970 to 1985 with the band, so you had a great arc there through glam rock and into the world of disco in the 80s. I tried to create some kind of evolution in the visual language of the film, that moved through those periods to express what was happening culturally and authentically - to show Freddie Mercury and his relationship with the band. My approach was designed to take our audience on an emotional ride with the characters.

Could you tell us more about the camera and lenses and how you used them to create those feelings? 
The beginning of the film has a really romantic, idealised look. It is a starry-eyed fantasy of youth and wanting to be a rock star. I used old Cooke vintage lenses. Everything is handheld, its grainy, very warm, defused and soft. As the film goes on and the band become more successful, and Freddie comes to terms with who he is - it becomes a more focused and sharper look. It’s more desaturated and less golden and that's the evolution of the look up to Live Aid. 

What advice do you have for up-and-coming cinematographers? 
I think if someone wants to be a cinematographer there are a number of things that are really important and it's not all cinematography... life experience can influence your work and your way of seeing the world. 

This can be as great a contribution to your art as learning about the theory and technical things. Having said that, technique and craft are important to learn and the more you can learn and then forget about it the better. To do that, at the end of the day you need to shoot as much as you can, you need to put in the hours both shooting your own stuff and working your way up the ladder as a crew member.  I think it’s useful shooting on your own - make mistakes and learn from them - but also to watch other cinematographers and the way they approach the craft. 

I also think the more you expose yourself to music and art the more your work (and life!) will be richer and more multi-layered. 

Bohemian Rhapsody Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Bohemian Rhapsody