On Nov. 2, when “Bohemian Rhapsody” — the biopic of Freddie Mercury, lead singer of British rock group Queen — debuts on U.S. screens, it will mark latest in a long string of highly diverse films lensed by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel.
The DP’s work, which goes back to the early ’80s, has encompassed war stories (“Three Kings”), dark comedy (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”), historical drama (“Marshall”), TV movies and series, multiple documentaries — and the genre for which he is perhaps best known – superhero movies, including “Superman Returns” and four installments of the X-Men franchise.
Sigel was attracted to visual art from a young age, and at first honed his skills as a painter. He experimented with abstraction, but always came back to more representational imagery that served a narrative. He arrived in New York City from Detroit at age 18, having been invited to the Whitney Museum’s artist-in-residence fellowship program.
It was the ’70s and “a great time in New York,” he recalls. “Every day was filled with creative inspiration. The Anthology Film Archives on Mercer Street showed films by Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren, and I became interested in the New Wave filmmakers, whose work was so fresh, surprising and invigorating.”
Sigel soon began making personal films and, given the political turmoil of the time, he gravitated to documentaries with social topics. Soon he was travelling to the world’s hot spots with a camera, especially Central America. He shot a documentary that showed U.S. audiences the first images of the Contras’ secret militia in Nicaragua.
His work came to the attention of master cinematographer, director and activist Haskell Wexler, who needed a DP for what became “Latino,” a 1985 film set against Ronald Reagan’s proxy war against the Nicaraguan government. “What drew me into narrative and feature filmmaking was the desire to control the visual storytelling more than you can with photojournalism,” Sigel says.
Despite his subsequent foray into indie and studio features, Sigel’s name still comes up among cinematographers as an under-the-radar trendsetter whose films are considered game-changers – “Drive” and “Three Kings” being the most often cited.
“Three Kings,” directed by David O. Russell in 1999, took a bold, even risky approach to color, contrast, film stocks and lab processes that is still influential. “Drive,” directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, used the then-new Arri Alexa digital camera.
“ ‘Drive’ has its own beauty,” said cinematographer Theo van de Sande in 2011. “It doesn’t look like video. It’s a beautiful digital image … [It’s] not trying to copy film. There’s a very new, positive style of making a movie, telling a story in another way.”
Along the way, Sigel has forged working relationships with numerous directors, working most often with Bryan Singer. The forthcoming “Bohemian Rhapsody” will be their 12th narrative project together.
“What I most admire in a director is a distinctive voice,” says Sigel. “As difficult as it can be to execute, I continue to admire directors who display that singularity of vision, because that’s what makes a movie special.”
Collaboration makes cinematic art fundamentally different from that of a painter, he says. “I like particularly the one-on-one kind of brainstorming with the director about how to tell a story. When I can deliver something that gets them excited, that’s the greatest feeling in the world. Painters can try some crazy experiment and, if it’s not working, move on to something else. You can’t do that in filmmaking. You’re like a conductor who needs the symphony to execute the craft. That’s the beauty and also the frustration of cinematography – your output is the product of your interaction with this army of others.”
The visual artist and social documentary aspects of Sigel’s mindset still have a strong impact on his choices. Director Reginald Hudlin worked with Sigel on “Marshall,” last year’s biopic about the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.
“Tom and I met at the beginning of our careers, and we clicked right away,” says Hudlin. “His intelligence, his sense of humor and his childhood in Detroit all made him my kind of guy. Tom passing on huge projects to do a small-scale movie like ‘Marshall’ was a big statement. He was there because he wanted to be there. He told me he wanted to do a movie about a ‘real superhero.’”
Sigel says, “I love all the films that deal with humanity’s struggle. I love exploring the inner space between politics and expression – and that’s one reason I believe in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ I love making movies and I telling stories. There are just so many more movies that I want to do.”
(Pictured above: from left, camera operator Peter Richardson, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and Rami Malek as Queen frontman Feddie Mercury on the set of “Behemian Rhapsody.”)