Newton Thomas Sigel on Recreating Rock History for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

We chat with the cinematographer about the challenges of putting an audience on stage at ‘Live Aid,’ and capturing period-authentic lighting.
Bohemian Rhapsody
20th Century Fox
By  · Published on December 12th, 2018

Where does one begin when recreating the iconic? Nearly every human on the planet has access to Queen on their TV, their iPad, and their phone. At any moment you can press a button and relive Freddie Mercury’s monumental performance at Live Aid, and bang your head to the most raucous concert event ever filmed. To simply imitate it cinematically would just not do.

As the director of photography on Bohemian Rhapsody, Newton Thomas Sigel was determined to put his audience on the stage with Rami Malek. Striking the right poses and dressing the set appropriately is one thing, but reinforcing the emotional experience of the character living that moment is something completely different. To achieve such a feat, Sigel threw himself into an intensive state of research.

I spoke to Sigel on his day off from shooting his new movie, Dhaka (starring Chris Hemsworth and David Harbour). He explained his trepidation of imitating the Live Aid performance, as well as adhering to Queen’s period-specific lighting design. From our conversation, it is clear that Sigel was happy to step away from superhero cinema for a bit and tackle the real-world of rock ‘n’ roll. We talk about shooting in IMAX, the pleasures of the Alexa 65 camera, and how the transition from Bryan Singer to Dexter Fletcher affected his day-to-day job.

Here is our conversation in full:

So, I thought we should start where probably everyone wants to start, and that’s at Live Aid performance. Having to recreate something that’s so memorable in pop culture, that is a heck of a challenge. Where do you even begin with something like that?

Well, it’s interesting. You know, it was the framing device of the movie. The movie starts with a tease where you’re backstage, and you’re about to go out on stage and just at that moment we cut to the backstory and then don’t return to Live Aid until the end of the movie. So, it’s our sort of critical opening and closing of the movie. And, Live Aid was recorded and was broadcast on 13 satellites by the BBC, so the actual performance exists out there, and you can watch it on YouTube. You can see the exact choreography and dressing of the stage and the set and the lighting that was used. So, it’s all there to be seen, which is both a great resource and also a real challenge because there’s no point making a movie just to recreate what you can watch on YouTube.

Right, and when the film ended, I immediately went to YouTube to watch the actual show.

Yes. So for us, the challenge was only partially real, like how high was the stage? And where was the piano exactly? And how many Pepsi cups were there? That was a challenge, but a fairly straightforward one. The real challenge was how we tell a different story than you saw by watching the concert on TV. And for me at least, that was very much about putting the audience in with Freddie, right inside on the stage, almost as a fifth band member where you’re, as much as possible, watching the concert from the inside out.

While there were too many handheld cameras on the stage from the BBC performance, the broadcast was predominantly sort of more objective, traditional camera coverage. We wanted to put the audience right in the middle of the band as if they were a part of the band to tell the emotional side of the story from the inside out. And also, of course, we are leading up to Live Aid with understanding some things that are going on in Freddie’s life and in the band’s life. And, in doing so, you know, we already have the advantage that there’s more of an emotional resonance right from the beginning. At the end of the day, Rami Malek’s sensational performance just really carried it to a level that is hard to get from the TV experience.

Now you’ve shot for IMAX before, but when you watch something like Live Aid presented in such a fashion – it’s a tremendous tool for placing the audience on that stage as you were saying.

Well, you know, the thing about IMAX today now is of course that there’s IMAX and there’s IMAX, right? Traditionally IMAX was a more square format, and it was meant to be presented on a screen that was 50 some feet high and now, with the exception of some of the museums – space museums and science museums – predominantly, the IMAX theaters have a 1.9:1 aspect ration, so they’re a little more like a traditional theater, just of massive screens and they use a dual projection system, typically with their own sort of digital remastering.

For Bohemian Rhapsody, I pretty much just made a general overall adjustment from the color correction than I did for the DCP, the normal digital projection, to accommodate for the IMAX. Some of the purposeful old lenses and grain and imperfections that were built into the original photography, I didn’t want to lose by just going to IMAX. So, we did very little sort of changing of the baseline color correction for the IMAX screen.

But the one huge advantage we had is that the overwhelming majority of this film was shot with the ALEXA 65 camera, which is already sort of a very high-resolution camera that has a tremendous picture detail and can hold up on the largest of screens. I was fortunate to go to the premier in Wembley Arena in London where it was shown on a 28-meter screen, a purpose-built screen that was the biggest screen in all of the United Kingdom and was absolutely dumbfounded by how well the image held up on that size of a screen.

You recently shot the Thurgood Marshall film as well. Does your process differ when you’re tackling real subjects? I mean obviously, with the Live Aid scenario, it certainly had to because that performance was already available to us as an audience. But how does your process in the beginning stages differ on something like Marshall or Bohemian Rhapsody than the X-Men films or Jack the Giant Slayer or something like that?

You know, I add my own sort of personal aspects to the process, which always sort of kind of stay the same, but clearly when you’re doing a film like Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s a very different kind of a journey you take in your prep than you would on a, say an X-Men movie or Superman. Whereas those films involve a tremendous amount of visual effects and pre-visualization and world-building, so to speak.

With Bohemian Rhapsody, like the Thurgood Marshall film, but even more so, for me it was really about learning everything I could about the band, reading all of the biographies on Freddie Mercury and on Queen, listening to the music, watching all the archival footage I could, both documentaries and live performances because one, they just inspired me and formed the kind of story I wanted to tell. But they also, they really, they showed me their sort of metamorphosis of lighting and lighting design and that was something that I wanted to be very respectful to in terms of our story. You know, starting with the sort of college venues and taking you all the way into Madison Square Garden and eventually into Wembley Stadium.

So, the archival footage for the concert stuff, in particular, was very, very important. I drew not only inspiration, but I really studied what instruments they were using, what was the design, what kind of cues they were doing. And of course, their lighting design changed not only as they grew more successful as a band, but by just by the logistical nature of it, things they had to adapt their lighting rigs to a certain degree to the different venues that they would play in.

So, I tried to, as best I could, replicate the sort of different phases of their evolution of their stage. In their stage shows there was very little poetic license really. And you know, I tried to use period lights, use the sort of color pallet and lighting design that they used over the years as well.

With so much available material to research, I would be afraid of falling into a black hole of information. How do you navigate that material?

I mean Brian May was great in making the Queen archive available, but there’s not as much live footage as you would think, you know? There’s a handful of concerts over the years, all over the world and obviously a lot of still photographs, but the height of Queen’s popularity was before the age of the Internet and the age of video or easy video recording. So, the footage from the relevant period, which for us was 1970-1985, is actually not that voluminous.

I tried to be careful too. I saw Queen and Adam Lambert perform live and I saw some recordings of Queen’s recent tours. I really tried not to watch that stuff too much because the current stage design of Queen’s concerts is far more sophisticated in part because of the financial means they have, but really in great part because of the modern technology and just because I think they chose not to be stagnant as performers.

So, I didn’t want to get kind of confused or sidetracked by looking at too much of the stuff that they did after Freddie’s passing. But the stuff that does exist, it’s a manageable quantity that you can see.

So what is your initial process when you get the screenplay? Not just this one, but also any of the films you worked on.

Well, first thing, you know, I’ll read through the screenplay a few times, and the first time I read through it, which is fairly typical, I’m really reading through it like I’m reading a story like I’m reading a novel. I just want to soak up the story, the drama, the language, the rhythm, the characters. I don’t even read the slug lines. I’m thinking less about, “Oh my god this all night.” Or, “How am I going to film on boat?” Or those kind of things. And really just trying to soak up the story.

Then I get to the end, and I go back, and now I start to break it down, and I start to look at like, “Oh, well what are the different phases of this story? What is the arc? Over what period of time does it take place? What is the environment? What is the context? What do these environments look like? What is the tone?” And then once you kind of feel like you start to know what the movie is, you have the very nuts and bolts thing, which is, how much is day? How much is night? How much in interior? How much is exterior?

You get more and more into the kind of actual mechanics of how you’re going to make the movie. And then you start getting involved with production design, usually first and foremost as well as costume design, visual effects, and that kind of stuff. And, searching whether it’s Internets or libraries or archives for source material for inspiration, for things that you want to draw in or steal or homage or.

Then depending upon where you’re shooting – this was a London-based story and we shot everything in London and 90% of the story takes place in London. So, there was that, you know, sometimes on a movie, you’ll spend more time or a certain degree of time trying to understand the location. You know, I’m doing a movie today, which is supposed to take place in Bangladesh, and we’ve been shooting in India and in Thailand. So, there’s a situation where you try to learn as much as you can about the location and how you can stay true to the location, but also draw inspiration from it.

There are certain things that are similar in every movie in terms of the process, but then every movie presents its own unique challenges. After decades of shooting movies, I’ve never really found two movies that are exactly the same, even having done four X-Men movies and filmed Cerebro in blue in more ways than I ever care to again, there’s still always very different kinds of challenges when you approach a film, and it’s one of those things that makes shooting a feature a little different from shooting episodic television.

With Bohemian Rhapsody, when you first encountered the screenplay, what was the first element that struck out to you?

Well, I think the first thing that I realized is that the story is written as a kind of segue from the end of the counterculture movement to sort of through glam rock and into disco and the ’80s. And so, it’s kind of my youth and coming of age. So for me, it was kind of exciting to delve back into that kind of cultural references that I grew up with and do our best put those on screen in a way that felt true.

You’ve worked with Bryan Singer on all of his films.

Everything since The Usual Suspects. He did one film I think just as he was either right at the end of or right after he graduated from USC called Public Access, but sort of his first real feature film was The Usual Suspects. And yes, I’ve done 10 movies with him.

And on Bohemian Rhapsody, he left towards the end of the shoot, and Dexter Fletcher came on. Did that transition affect your job in any significant way?

You know remarkably, it didn’t in the sense that the film really was near completion on photography and I think I had really found the voice of the film relatively early on and the kind of tonality for it and a lot of the design for it. I’d done a lot of storyboarding for certain sequences and shot-listing for others. So, I felt pretty comfortable with the movie we were making and I think Dexter saw a rough cut of the bulk of the movie and was very respectful to the direction we were going and really, you know, he was a child actor and very successful actor. I think he’s very sensitive to performance and to actors. Between the bond, he was able to establish with the actors and sort of his respect for the look and the style of the movie we had been making up to that point. It was actually quite an easy transition.

What was your big takeaway from Bohemian Rhapsody?

The movie that I’m doing right now is more of an action-driven drama, a very gritty and tough kind of a story, and about as different from Bohemian Rhapsody as you can get. But, I’ve always loved shooting music and Bohemian Rhapsody really reminded me how much I love it and how much fun it was to do and how inspirational the story was. And also how much I’m attracted to real material and material that, however stylized, has a foundation in what’s happening in our world and in commentary on humanity and.

I look to a film like Three Kings, which was a highly stylized film but was very much grounded in real world events and real world issues. I think Bohemian Rhapsody really sort of was great, and it just felt great to get back to something like that. Not that I’m not proud of or didn’t enjoy doing superhero movies and that kind of stuff, but I really do get a lot of inspiration from stories about the real world.

Well, Tom, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I really appreciate it. I’m in awe of the recreations you achieved in the film.

I’m in Bangkok and today is our day off, and I actually went with a few of my crewmembers to the film because they wanted to see it and thinking like, “Oh god, I’m going to see it again.” And I got to tell you; I cried at the end. The moment when Freddie Mercury blows a kiss to his mother just no matter how many times I see the movie, it just kills me every time.

Bohemian Rhapsody is now playing in theaters nationwide.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)