‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel on ‘finding the cinematic language’

Newton Thomas Sigel just received a BAFTA Awards nomination for Best Cinematography for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the blockbuster biopic of Freddie Mercury and Queen. “To be recognized by my British colleagues, in the birthplace of Queen, is more than I could have hoped for,” admits Sigel. The film reaped seven BAFTAs bids in all. “I am elated for Rami and my co-conspirators on Team Bo Rhap. We gave blood, sweat and tears to tell the story of Freddie and Queen, so I am eternally grateful all these wonderful artists are getting their due.”

“Bohemian Rhapsody” has already defied expectations by breaking the bank at the box office and winning Best Drama at Sunday’s Golden Globes. Sigel readily admits, “It’s mind-blowing. I had somebody from South Korea tell me that they saw the film five times in a regular theatre and it got a standing ovation. I’ve never had that before!”

The success of the film is due in large part to his lensing of the band in performance. Sigel reveals he had to tackle one of his biggest challenges — shooting the climactic scene at the Live Aid concert — on the very first day of filming. “From a photography point of view, we’re telling a different story than the BBC were telling when they originally broadcast the show. The relationship between the band and the crowd was critical for us. It was about being with the band emotionally and looking out at the audience for a connection, so it demanded a very different type of camera choreography.”

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For Sigel, the key “was finding a cinematic and camera language that described and evolved with Queen’s journey emotionally and story-wise, bringing you to a different place at the end of the movie than the band, and therefore the audience, started.” To do this, he began with a “handheld, warm, romantic quality with a little more grain and texture” and then, as the story progressed toward its end, he switched to “a more de-saturated feel; sharper, more focused.”

He offers his deeply personal insight into Malek’s performance as Mercury. “When I first shot him, I almost dropped my camera because I was like ‘it’s Freddie Mercury.’ His performance was inspirational. It was like jazz: he was so deep into the character, yet I really felt like I could play off of what he was doing. The moment Freddie blows his mum a kiss makes me cry. Every time. It’s one of greatest of performances that I’ve had the privilege of watching through a lens.”

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Sigel believes “Bohemian Rhapsody” balances all of the elements of Mercury’s life which makes it great for the young audiences flocking to it. “They are seeing a movie where guys kiss, where a guy realises that he’s gay, is ashamed of his cultural origins and dies of AIDS. They get to see an entertaining, sophisticated, important story that they wouldn’t have been able to see had it been a darker, more adult version.”

After working on several documentaries, Sigel made his debut as a feature film cinematographer on “Latino,” a 1985 film written and directed by two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Since then he has worked steadily, lensing such acclaimed films as “Drive,” “Three Kings” and “The Usual Suspects” as well as many installments in the  “X-Men” franchise. It is surprising he has yet to be cited at the Oscars. Should he reap a bid for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he feels that “by the time somebody is nominated, you’ve already won.

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