On November 2nd, 20th Century Fox will release Bohemian Rhapsody into theaters, but the Queen biopic has been in the works for a better part of a decade. Multiple actors and directors came and went from the project, but it finally came together with Rami Malek in the lead role of Freddie Mercury and Bryan Singer behind the camera. Singer brought along his longtime cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel for the film, who was tasked with not only visualizing the journey of Queen from formation to their iconic performance at Live Aid, but also putting a unique stamp on a well-worn genre. On top of all that, Singer was removed from the film during production, with Dexter Fletcher stepping in to shepherd the final weeks of filming.
All of this to say, Bohemian Rhapsody was not an easy film to put together, but buzz on the project has been high thanks to a series of impressive trailers and Malek’s transformative performance. Ahead of the film’s release, I recently got the chance to conduct an extended, exclusive interview with Sigel about his work on the film. An industry veteran with credits that range from X-Men to Drive to Three Kings, Sigel is one of the most experienced and dynamic DPs working in the business, and it was a genuine pleasure to pick his brain about Bohemian Rhapsody and beyond.
During the course of our conversation, Sigel discussed his approach to visualizing this truly epic story in a dynamic way, how quickly he knew that Malek’s performance was special, an insanely complex tracking shot towards the end of the movie, bringing something new to the Live Aid performance, whether there was discussion about the film being R-rated, and how the film was impacted by Singer’s exit. Given that Sigel shot the first two X-Men movies and Superman Returns, we also discussed the evolution of the superhero genre and his work on those films, as well as the push-and-pull in the industry between giant blockbuster fare and more intimate, dramatic storytelling. It’s a wide-ranging, fascinating conversation that I hope you’ll enjoy.
Check out the full interview below. Bohemian Rhapsody hits theaters on November 2nd.
So what was your impression having seen the final cut? This movie’s been a long time coming.
NEWTON THOMAS SIGEL: It has, and I think the movie is fabulous. It is a real celebration of Queen and their music and Freddie Mercury’s genius. And I think it’s both truthful and celebratory at the same time, which is a rare and wonderful combination, especially in a period of history that’s not necessarily the most peaceful and tranquil. I think Rami Malek is absolutely sensational. At this point, I can’t actually imagine the movie or Freddie being played by anybody else. He so thoroughly inhabits the character, and it’s really breathtaking.
The small snippets we’ve seen of his performance are really exciting. What’s it like to work on set with someone who is playing such an iconic role and really diving deep into it?
SIGEL: Well, I think it can really be a difference, depending on the particular actor. Rami goes very deep into the character, but he’s very accessible, still, as an actor, when you are working with him on set. So he’s actually quite easy to work with as a performer. And he’s very savvy technically. I think that enables him to move in and out of character in a way that actually makes my job very easy. He’s terrifically easy actor to work with.
Is it one of those things where you kind of know on set when something special is happening? You’ve been lucky enough to be privy to a lot of iconic performances over the course of your career.
SIGEL: Yeah, I have, and sometimes you get fooled. But I’ve got to say that the very weird thing about Rami was I felt it in the very first makeup test. And all we were doing was looking at putting a mustache on, a wig, throwing a few clothes on him, starting to get a feel. And it was like I was looking at Freddie Mercury. It was like, “Oh, my God.” And you knew at that point you were witnessing something really special. It just hit right away.
Well, this project has been in development for a long time. When you came on, what were your initial conversations about how you wanted the film to look? How did you guys approach the aesthetic of what this movie should look like?
SIGEL: Well, Graham King and Denis O’Sullivan had been developing this film for almost 10 years, and it’s a real passion project in the true sense of the word. A lot of people talk about passion projects, but I can tell you from having lived with Graham, day in and day out, it’s actually very inspiring to see somebody that is so deeply committed to the subject matter. The specific choices in terms of lighting and lenses, cameras, that kind of thing, really was left to me. But the tone of the movie that they wanted to make was very clear from the beginning. And it really was borne from a love of Queen and respect to the true story and the source material. So I did a lot of research about the band. I read every book there was to read. I watched all of the footage of performances from the early days in the ’70s into their explosion around the time of Bohemian Rhapsody and A Day At the Races and all the way up to the moment of Live Aid. So I watched hours and hours of performance material and interviews and source material. And my image for the film really grew out of that very organically. I started to see it clearer and clearer how it sort of expressed who they were, what they were about in the movie.
Rock movies or music biopics are a genre unto themselves, and there have been many over the years. Was there anything you consciously wanted to either avoid or pull from to make Bohemian Rhapsody distinct?
SIGEL: Yeah, I think that one of the great things about Queen is a certain mystery or alchemy of them as a band in the sense of this group of four profoundly different people that wound up finding an equilibrium. And out of that equilibrium is this source of great music. So what that meant was that the film, although it’s driven by and revolves around Freddie Mercury, to a certain degree it was kind of like a portrait of this four-headed creature, so to speak. So I think that spoke to the storytelling somewhat in how you approached it, how you entered scenes, and choices in terms of a shooting style and coverage and all that. The movie is bookended by their iconic performance at Live Aid in 1985. but it really takes place between 1970 and 1985. It shows them coming together as a band and then their explosion as a force in the rock world. And so I wanted to create an evolution, and the look of the film reflected the essence of that perspective. Consequently, the movie begins with some very old vintage lenses, all hand-held and warm, very romantic and idealized. And as the movie evolves, they become more and more known on the world stage or more famous, the movie starts to take a cleaner, sharper, less idealized perspective, and for a period before the resurgence at Live Aid, even starts to take a little bit of a downturn and a little gloomier look for this extraordinary recovery or reemergence, so we say, on the stage that happened at Live Aid.
They were the biggest rock band in the world during a very turbulent period. It was very much sex, drugs and rock and roll. Did you guys film any alternate versions of scenes because you weren’t sure if it would be PG-13 or R-rated? Or was it with the understanding that this was going to be a PG-13 version of the story?
SIGEL: I think there was always a hope that it could be PG-13 only insofar as it would allow the music to reach the greatest audience. At the same time, there was never any discussion or fear of really trying to show that lifestyle and the hedonism of the rock world during that period. So really the choices were more just story-driven in terms of how do we want to best tell the story of this band coming together and finding success? There really wasn’t much discussion about how to make it one rating or another. And no, we didn’t do any alternative stuff. We pretty much decided on how we wanted to make it and shot it.
When you mentioned Live Aid, that’s such an iconic performance. What is it like for you, as a cinematographer, recreating something like that?
SIGEL: Well, it was a real challenge it a lot of ways because one of the things about Live Aid is that it was very much put together at the last minute. And the stage itself had been left over from a Bruce Springsteen concert. The backdrop was very drab. They were trying to raise money. They didn’t want to be spending it on the staging. It was held during the daytime. So for a big climatic scene, it really had a lot of elements that actually, if anything, would undercut the drama. For me, part of that challenge was that and, also, that I had to be faithful to our production designer, Aaron Haye. We wanted to be very faithful to what was done on the day and the way that the concert was staged in 1985. And we said that we also didn’t want to simply reproduce what you can see on YouTube already.
So the stage itself, the costumes, the lighting rig, all of that we tried to replicate what was actually there. Where we went beyond the YouTube video and where we did our motion picture storytelling was by putting the audience in an intimate relationship with the band that the real audience at Live Aid didn’t necessarily have, where you’re in the middle of the band and you’re telling a story about what’s happening between them during the performance, predicated on what you’ve seen in the movie so far and the highs and lows of their years up to that point. So really the challenge was how to stay true to what existed in the real event at the same time as giving the audience perspective that they hadn’t seen before.
I assume Live Aid is one of many musical performances in the film. How do you go about ensuring that each of these musical set pieces feels dynamic and feels different from the last? What was your approach there?
SIGEL: That’s a good question because we’ve all seen a lot of concert movies. We’ve all seen live concerts. And also, as the movie goes on you don’t want to just keep cutting to the same style of coverage each time. So we tried to show a way of shooting the concerts that reflected the growing confidence and accomplished stagecraft that the band themselves had. Whereas, at the beginning, they’re playing in a small college venue, and Freddie barely knows how to handle the microphone, which leads to his iconic use of that half mic stand. The camera itself is hand-held. It’s a little more uncertain, a little more crude. And then as they evolve, the venues get bigger, their performances get more assured, and the camera itself gets more assured and more confident about how to play to the very last row of the stadium. So yeah, there you go.
I also wanted to ask about scenes in the recording studio, which we’ve seen a few snippets in the trailers. You’re working in a very confined space. How do you go about making that cinematic?