Newton Thomas Sigel and Spike Lee go way back and have worked on numerous commercials together, but “Da 5 Bloods” marks their first feature film collaboration with the former as the Oscar winner’s cinematographer. But it almost didn’t come together, Sigel shares at Gold Derby’s Meet the BTL Experts: Film Cinematography panel (watch above). He had been on a shooting break from “Extraction” when Lee called him about “Da 5 Bloods.”
“I was very excited, but when he told me the dates, I was like, ‘Spike, there’s no way, I’m still doing a movie,'” Sigel recalls. “So initially I was very hesitant, but he was very confident, and the words he used were, ‘You’re a veteran, you can do this.’ So I drank the Kool-Aid and I’m very glad I did.”
The film follows four Vietnam War vets — the self-dubbed Bloods — who return to the country in present day to find the remains of their leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and retrieve the gold they had buried there. It’s an era and atmosphere with which Sigel was familiar, having grown up during that time, and because he started his career as a documentarian in war zones; one of the films he DP’d, “El Salvador: Another Vietnam” (1981), was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar.
For the flashbacks, Sigel shot on 16mm film to be historically accurate. “We talked about how to give [the flashbacks] their own sort of voice, so to speak. It seemed to me like, why not do it the way I would’ve done it if I was doing it in 1970?” Sigel explains. “And that would’ve been on film, would’ve been on 16mm, like a video newsfilm, something like that. So I proposed it, and what I think really resonated with Spike was the verisimilitude of it. That is the way it would be done.”
Sigel was able to get Kodak to make reversal film stock for him, but the “trickiest” part was “finding a lab that could process it and being able to get it from Thailand and Vietnam back to the U.S. and turn it around in time.” Boseman was also only scheduled to shoot for two weeks. “We ended up shooting his material, sending it off and really not getting it back until he was done,” Sigel continues. “There was a long turnaround time. The lab that was doing it back in the States, Spectra, is a small, as you can imagine, boutique operation and they don’t exactly run 24/7. It was a leap of faith. But I spent my entire life shooting film, and I felt fairly confident about my end of it and it was just a question of what was going to happen as the film made its way across the globe into a small lab.”
One thing that was predictable? That trademark Spike Lee dolly shot. After all, it’s not a Spike Lee joint without one. “You have to. You know that’s coming. Sooner or later, it’s gonna happen,” Sigel says. This one is at the very end of “Da 5 Bloods,” but was not as simple as it sounds. “It was a tiny apartment, so to do that shot effectively, you need to put the actors on a dolly, you need to be able to move the dolly and the actors at the same time. If you look at this other movies, it’s usually done in the street or in a larger environment. Here we are trying to do it in an apartment that’s not much bigger than the one I’m sitting in right now. … The execution of it was fairly straightforward, but the challenge was doing it in that environment.”
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