Just in time for 20th Century Fox’s Bohemian Rhapsody hits the big screens this weekend for the world to see, we get to catch up with DP Newton Thomas Sigel. The renowned cinematographer who lent his singular vision to such films as Drive, Three Kings, and The Usual Suspects was brought on early in the development stage to chronicle the story of Queen. When asked if he was interested, he jumped at the chance.
Bohemian Rhapsody in a word, is brilliant. Rami Malek’s performance is a one-of-a-kind phenomenal transformation that makes every scene purely electric as we see Freddie Mercury’s rise from young immigrant to rock legend and icon and launch into meteoric stardom with Queen. Malek’s outstanding performance in this film, especially at the Live Aid performance is so incredible that you feel the spirit of Mercury watching over him. Those last moments of the film give you goosebumps as you hear that 1985 performance brought to life.
I caught up with Sigel to talk about the film.
Bohemian Rhapsody took a long time to come to the screen. At what point did you come on board?
I came on pretty early. Graham King and Denis O’ Sullivan have been trying to make this movie for ten years. On one hand, I came in very early, and on the other in the course of production, I came in late. For me, it started with Graham and Bryan who sent me the script. They asked if I was interested. Who would not be? The story is amazing. The script is great and the opportunities both from a filmmaker and a photographic point a view were huge.
We tried to mount the film fairly quickly, but because of Rami’s schedule, we weren’t able to start until September. In a way, the postponing had a silver lining because it gave me a time to learn everything there was to know about Queen, Freddie, his upbringing and who he was. I could see the archival performances of the band. I could watch documentaries and I could immerse myself in their music and their evolution as individuals and as a band. I started prepping at the end of May and we started shooting in September.
As a cinematographer, what was the tone you wanted to set?
I’ve worked with Bryan a lot, we’ve done ten films together. There was a certain shorthand that existed between us and I have a pretty fair idea about what he likes, what he doesn’t like and what his taste is and his style. For me, that made it relatively easy. I didn’t get a lot of face time with him in prep and I was a little bit on my own, but it also gave me freedom and I got to develop some cool shots. I got to do some testing to create the look of the film.
You’re tackling on an icon, not just with Freddie, but Queen and their journey. What was that like to take on?
This guy had just come to London from Zanzibar and then between 1970 and 1985, you get to see this guy discover who he is as a musician and who he is as a person. Freddie was such a gay icon, but he himself went through a period of trying to figure out who he was. He’s a complex character and to do a film that reflects that is challenging.
The decision was made early on to make the film a celebration of the music. It was not meant to be one more story of the musician’s life and falling from grace. Some great films have been made, but this was meant to be a celebration of the evolution of their music. It doesn’t shy away from Freddie discovering his sexuality. It doesn’t shy away how he died nor from the internal struggles the band had. It merely focuses more on the music.
That Live Aid performance as iconic, it’s part of British history. Talk about recreating it.
We saw it in London at Wembley with a screen that was over 28 feet wide. It was the largest screen in the UK, 7000 people sang-along and it was amazing.
You shoot from behind at the beginning and then bookend the film with that performance.
We knew our climactic scene was going to be the performance. That triumphant return to center. We begin the film with him getting ready to do something. Then he’s backstage, he makes his way up the stairs, you get a brief glimpse as the curtain opens and you see 100,000 people and boom you cut and you’re back in 1970.
The stadium that held the concert no longer exists. It was replaced with a new stadium so we found a new location and rebuilt the stage so meticulously from the original set design and archival footage. The set design was incredible right down to the plexiglass on top of the grand piano.
The challenge for me was that our movie that was going to have all these different concerts all going to work its way into the open air stadium. The background of Live Aid was so austere. It was meant to be a fundraiser and not a glitzy ostentatious affair. They didn’t want people to think they were putting on a glitzy stage show when they were raising money for famine-stricken people in Africa. It was also in the middle of the day. The lighting was minimal effect. The challenge for me was having to give some emotional resonance.
The thing about Live Aid is you can go on YouTube and you can see the actual broadcast. The challenge with Live Aid for our film was to put the audience in the emotional core of the movie during the performance and to put them on the stage with the performers, with the interaction of the performance and what was going on with Freddie.
When we get to Live Aid, you’re very much seeing it from the inside out as opposed to the audience point of view. The cinema audience is getting an entree into the story that you don’t get simply from watching the Live Aid performance. You had to think about where you put the camera every step of the way and how you put the audience in that space.
From a writing point of view was that Queen came on at 6.40 in the evening and the Sun was behind the high walls of Wembley so it was a softer and more diffused light so it got darker as the concert went on. I used that as a metaphor and transition in the concert so by the time you get to We Are The Champions there’s a subtle shift from a brightly lit exterior to a sunset feel, but it underscores this moment in their trajectory.
You used the Alexa 65 which is a beautiful camera. Why was it right for this?
I wanted to create this transition of the evolution from beginning to end. I started the film with the Alexa SST and vintage quick lenses. The idea was to give the early days of Freddie and the formation of Queen, a romantic and nostalgic feel. These were young guys who were very idealistic. They were very starry eyed about what it meant to be a musical. They were coming in at the beginnings of the glam rock movement. As the film goes on, they move from glam rock into the 80’s, I wanted the film to evolve in its looks so I shifted to the Alexa 65, it’s a progressively more, desaturated, harder look at what it means to be a band and to be in the spotlight, discovering who you are. It’s cleaner and not so grainy. The beginning of the film is handheld, by the end, it becomes more about the Steadicam and dolly. It’s such a spectacular camera, the perfect thing to make the film go from a more romantic look into a bigger canvas.