Newton Thomas Sigel
From The Usual Suspects to Bohemian Rhapsody: Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel
Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel has no style. No singular aesthetic, mood, or technique. Rather, his focus is on storytelling. From being the first to capture the Contras on film in Nicaragua to photographing the X-Men series and Superman Returns (2006), Sigel has worn many hats (and no, we’re not talking about his fedoras and baseball caps, although there are those, too). But his desire to pursue these projects of various genres and styles all stem from the same goal: to delve into what makes humans human.
Born and raised during a time of tense racial relations in Detroit, Sigel learned to look at the world through a political lens early in his youth, which later led to his pursuing social-minded documentaries. When his family moved from Detroit to Buffalo, Sigel got involved in a developing media-study program there, his first foray into the field. Since then, he has worked on dozens of films. He is perhaps best-known for his work on Drive (2011) and Three Kings (1999), and, of course, for his first collaboration with director Bryan Singer, on The Usual Suspects (1995). Sigel most recently worked with Singer in 2018—their tenth film together—on a celebratory biopic of Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, which was nominated for a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award for best cinematography.
On this episode of Time Sensitive—recorded shortly after his arrival back in the U.S. from Vietnam, where he was the director of photography on Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (to be released in 2020)—Sigel shares with Andrew Zuckerman his early years in SoHo’s vibrant art community, his earning a metaphorical film degree by working for the legendary Haskell Wexler, and how he convinced Warner Brothers to create a movie using cross-processed film.
Sigel reconts two movie projects that he recently shot in Southeast Asia—one of them Spike Lee’s upcoming Da 5 Bloods—and discusses the surreal, almost fictional quality that comes with a career spent on set.
Sigel talks about his upbringing in Detroit and, later, Buffalo; his nontraditional path to studying film-making; and his early life as an artist in downtown New York in the ’70s.
Sigel shares how, in the early 1980s, he found himself shadowing both the Contras and the Sandinistas during the Nicaraguan Revolution for a documentary film that helped put him on the map as a cinematographer.
Sigel gets into his many projects over the past three decades, including working under Robert Richardson on films like Platoon (1986) and The Doors (1991), as well as DPing others, such as The Usual Suspects (1995), Valkyrie (2008), and Drive (2011).
ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Today on Time Sensitive we have Tom Sigel in the studio. Tom is a legendary cinematographer. His work on The Usual Suspects, Three Kings, the X-Men films, Drive, and most recently Bohemian Rhapsody has helped shape cinematic history. Welcome to the studio, Tom. Thanks so much for joining us today.
NEWTON THOMAS SIGEL: Thanks for inviting me.
AZ: How lucky that we’re in the same place at the same time to talk.
NTS: How rare.
AZ: You winced a little bit when I mentioned your legendary status in cinema.
NTS: Some people are legends in their own mind, you know, so.
AZ: You are not.
NTS: Yeah, and actually, you only get to be a legend by being really old.
AZ: [Laughs] You just got back from Southeast Asia. You were working on Da 5 Bloods with Spike Lee. Tell me a little bit about that. I actually haven’t spoken to you since you started that, so this is all fresh.
NTS: I know, it’s really weird, I haven’t seen you in so long, and we have microphones—
AZ: Doing something formal.
NTS: Yeah, yeah.
AZ: But I like that.
NTS: I’ve known Spike Lee for quite a while, from doing a little commercial work with him, and speaking of legends, there aren’t too many legends in the filmmaking world bigger than Spike Lee. So I’d never done a film with him before, and it was amazing that over the holiday, he called me and asked if I wanted to do this project. I was already on another movie and really wasn’t finishing on time, so initially I had to say, “I’m so sorry, but I’ll never be able to be ready in time to properly prep this movie,” and I remember Spike saying to me, “Well, you’re a veteran, you’ll be fine.” My prep start date would be a week before I’d even finished on this show. And I was already in Southeast Asia. But he talked me into it, so I literally finished a movie [Dhaka] for the Russo brothers one night and started Spike’s movie the next day.
NTS: Which was an interesting experience. But Spike is an extraordinarily singular talent and personality, very complex, and in a funny way a slightly enigmatic figure. So it was a great ride, it really was.
AZ: And how was being in Vietnam for so many months?
NTS: Well, we were in Thailand and Vietnam. Vietnam was amazing. I mean, I grew up with Vietnam—the name “Vietnam” was almost like a cultural sign post. When I think of France, the Belgian Congo, Venezuela, any country you can put out and you know about it, but when you say Vietnam—Vietnam has a meaning that goes so far beyond a place and a nation, in my upbringing and in the history of my upbringing.
Having said that, it was fascinating to be there, and really to try and get a handle on where it’s at today and where it’s going, and the complexities of this place that is both still a controlled, centralized, political, supposedly communist structure, and yet virulently capitalistic in its desire to be the next economic juggernaut in Asia. So it’s a really interesting mix, not without its perils.
AZ: And how is it to be back in the States at this particular time?
NTS: Well, between the previous movie, which is called Dhaka, Spike’s movie, and finishing Bohemian Rhapsody, I was gone for almost a year. So it’s interesting. I do have to say, when I got back, it was a little bit like, “Wow, everybody’s speaking English.” It was definitely some culture shock.
AZ: Well, for some people, the bubble of production shields them from reality; it’s a phenomenon that all filmmakers deal with on some level.
AZ: You’re given this space to leave the world for a while and enter this other kind of reality. But then you have to reenter. How has that reentry process been in your life? Have you gotten better at it?
NTS: No. [Laughs]
AZ: What are your thoughts on it?
NTS: Filmmaking is a really interesting thing, especially feature filmmaking, in that it’s like the perfect life. You’re given a place to live; somebody comes and cleans it while you’re at work; you have room service if you’re hungry; they give you a car to drive or somebody drives you some place; they give you a piece of paper that says, “Wake up at this time” and “This is what you’re going to do.” And you have a family. They hire a family for you, whether you like it or not.
AZ: [It’s like you’re] kind of a child. [Laughs]
NTS: So not only is the thing you’re doing fiction, but the entire structure of your life, especially because most of what I do is on the road—your entire life is fiction as well, and a very easy one, in that if you’re focused on your work, the rest of it is taken care of.
But I love to travel and I love to experience the world, and I started in documentary, so for me, those opportunities are the ones that make you a better person and make you grow into a more responsible citizen. You have to kind of push yourself, and rather than just passing out and collapsing when you have a day or two off, you go out and you experience the environment and the world that you’re in. And you make relationships with the people that you’re working with, however temporary they may be. I find that process fun, fascinating, invigorating, but you’re right, when you come back, everything is different. I have young children, and I’ve been gone for a while; I come back, I’ve missed all this great time, I’m a bit of a satellite in the home, trying to remember where the silverware is kept, and things like that. It’s liberating, and yet, at the same time, it’s a lot more challenging. That time you have with your children is so precious, because it never comes back.
AZ: It helps when you have a partner like the one you have [Lisa Chang].
NTS: I’m very lucky, I’m very lucky. It’s funny, because what I do, and when you’re directing, it’s even worse—you’re being asked so many questions: “What lens do you want?” “Do you want to start this way in the morning or the other way?” So there’s a million questions you get asked, minute by minute, and I find that when I come home, “Where would you like to go for dinner?” is a vexing question, because I really don’t want to think about it, I don’t want to make any decisions.
AZ: You also have to be careful, in the reentry, of being the boss again. You kind of have to earn that back.
NTS: And you have to remember that you can’t say things like, “Okay, lose the dishes!” You actually have to get up and pick them up and carry them to the counter.
AZ: [Laughs] You can’t art direct your home.
NTS: You can’t. Well, I can’t art direct my home because my wife does.
AZ: [Laughs] So we all mark time in different ways. Do you find that, when looking back on the history of your own life, it’s marked in the films that you’ve made?
NTS: It’s a very sad thing, but since they’ve invented this IMDB thing, the main thing I use it for is to remember time. Because it’s literally a linear demarcation of my life. I mean, if you look at it, it’s just a series of titles, but for me, they represent, “Oh yeah, that’s when we were in Berlin and the kids were still in the cribs.” When I meet someone, they say, “Oh, yeah, I worked with you on …” or “I met you …” or “Do you remember when we were in …” I kind of know where that was in my life, timewise, by this relatively linear filmography. It sounds fairly pathetic.
AZ: But there hasn’t been that much space between the projects.
NTS: Well, a while ago, I decided I would begin to do commercials in between movies so that I could be a little more picky about what movies I take, so that I could spend more time with my family. My life tends to be one movie a year, and then filling the time in between with commercials.
AZ: But before you made films, commercials, raised children, you were a kid.
AZ: In Detroit.
AZ: Do you remember, as a kid, being sensitive to imagery, being drawn to imagery in any way?
NTS: I played a lot of sports when I was little, and I drew a lot. But every kid draws a lot. So when I look back on it, I think, “Oh yeah, I used to draw a lot,” but I don’t think it was one of those “since I was in nursery school, I was drawing on the back of the blackboard” or something. I think it was really somewhere around high school that I started to paint. I got my very first job when I was fourteen, in a record store, and I saved my money and bought a little Super 8 camera. I had an older brother who was a photographer at the time, and like a lot of brother relationships, I idolized him and I hated him—you know, he was older, so he beat me up. I emulated him in a way, because he was a photographer, but I’m not just going to copy my brother, so I got a Super 8 camera and started making little movies.
AZ: You one-upped him. You made moving pictures.
NTS: I one-upped him. And I started that when I was around fourteen. This was really at the blossoming of what was called either “avant-garde” cinema or experimental cinema or personal cinema or independent cinema—it had all these different names. But we’re talking about the ’60s and ’70s. Things like Anthology Film Archives were blooming, and filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage were out there doing these non-narrative—
AZ: And you were aware of Brakhage’s work?
NTS: I became aware of them at the end of high school and right after I got out of high school. Much to my parents’ chagrin—they were both academics—I didn’t apply to college. They were horrified. But at the University of Buffalo, because we moved from Detroit to Buffalo right in the middle of my high school years, there was a man named Gerry [Gerald] O’Grady, who was in the English department but was a champion of this type of filmmaking, and was trying to start a film program at the University of Buffalo. Film programs in those days existed at UCLA, USC, and NYU, and not much more—there were some just beginning little ones in a few other places. So he was trying to start one in Buffalo, and he started a [department] called “Media Study,” which was outside of the school, though tangentially related to it. It was in a storefront, and it was giving community classes; it was meant to teach people how to make movies and also to bring in these filmmakers like Hollis Frampton to show a movie and have a discussion.
So he got the storefront. He hired myself and a fellow named Jeff Slotnick. We each got fifty dollars a week, which was pretty great, and we painted the place, built a theater, built a room for camera equipment—of which I knew how to use none. Before it officially opened, I had to sit in there and read all the manuals and figure out—there was one 16mm, which was the Cadillac; you had to be really special to get to use that. This was the very beginnings of video, where we had what they called “the Portapack,” a black-and-white video camera attached by a cable to a giant recorder that created these really awful images on half-inch videotape.
So that was my first job in film, and that’s where I met Kenneth Anger, who came and was one of the guest lecturers and showed his films. He was starting a movie called Lucifer Rising, and he asked me if I would shoot some stuff for him, so I went to Niagara Falls, and that was my first job. I don’t think I got paid, but there was a director! It wasn’t like I said, “I want to be a cinematographer.” It was never even like I said I wanted to be a director. I just liked making these little movies. I think I had been inculcated so deeply from Gerry O’Grady and this program into the purity and sanctity of this avant-garde filmmaking that something like Last Tango in Paris, to me, was Hollywood commercial crap.
AZ: Marlon Brando.
NTS: I’ve come to revisit those ideas as an adult, but at the time, it was like, “Narrative filmmaking—that’s bourgeois.”
AZ: Before, you mentioned that your parents were upset that you weren’t going to school. Your father [Irving] was a really interesting psychologist who studied cognitive development, specifically in symbols, and I was thinking about that. You’ve mentioned your dad a couple times over the years when we’ve spoken, but I had read his obituary, actually, before this interview, and it talked about the work he’d done in children’s capacity for symbolic and representational thought, and I thought, that’s so interesting that we’d never talked about that. Was he sort of champion of the creative arts? Did you grow up in a household that his work spilled into? Was he interested in symbols with you?
NTS: No. He was a child psychologist, and one of the reasons we moved to Buffalo was because, in Detroit, at that time, our neighborhood was in flames. I lived in the city, not in the suburbs, and we lived through, whether you call it “riots” or “uprising,” depending on your point of view, of ‘67. Then he was given this opportunity to do his research, because he was a teacher but more of a research psychologist. He started a Head Start program in Buffalo, where he studied how kids learn.
So there was certainly an appreciation of the arts—my father played the recorder, he loved classical music; my mother [Roberta] was a political scientist—but it was not an artsy household by any stretch of the imagination. It was not antagonistic towards the arts, but I think my parents were clearly strong believers in “You go to school, you go to college, you pick a profession, you keep going.”
AZ: And somehow, you just weren’t in agreement at the time.
NTS: No, it was the sixties and seventies, typical counterculture hippie movement. I was rebellious, so anything that to them was revered in that way was bourgeois and to be rebelled against. I hated school, which is a shame, really.
AZ: And somehow you make it downstate from Buffalo to Manhattan.
NTS: Yeah, I was at Media Study in Buffalo. I hated Buffalo. I didn’t want to be in Buffalo, but that kept me there the first year after high school because I hadn’t applied to any colleges. I was already living on my own for that whole year, but [my parents] really wanted me to apply to college, and I wanted to get out of Buffalo. So I applied to a bunch of college, and—it tells you how things have changed—I got into all of them, I don’t even know why. But instead of going to RISD or … I went to a very new, experimental college called Hampshire College. I think I really went there because they didn’t make you take classes; they had really nice film equipment, and it was a sort of create your own program. I figured I’d just go there and make movies. Because of my parents being academics, I was given a partial scholarship, and I could go there very cheap. So it was very easy for me to be able to afford it and do it. I didn’t last long, but I wound up at the Whitney Museum in New York, as part of their independent study program where you get to come to New York. I had a studio in the basement of an old Emigrant Bank building on Reade Street.
AZ: Which is now a rug store.
NTS: Yeah. I went there yesterday looking for it, and I’m not sure I found the right place. I think I did. There’s also a Starbucks there?
AZ: I don’t know if there’s a Starbucks, but it’s a rug shop, and they use the vault downstairs.
NTS: Oh God, I wish I’d gone there with you. You don’t remember the number, do you? I want to say fifty-four, but I think I’m wrong.
AZ: No, but I know the rug store.
NTS: We’re going to have to go there.
AZ: Yeah. And you were in this program with …?
NTS: Well, the filmmakers that were there at the time … Coleen Fitzgibbon, Richard Tobias. I don’t know that any of them necessarily became household names afterwards. My studio, a year, two years earlier, was Kathryn Bigelow’s. I didn’t know this until I worked on The Hurt Locker, and she asked me where my studio was and I told her, and I was like, “Oh my God.” So I wound up in New York, and this is early seventies. This was the real beginning of the sort of underground film/video/performance art.
AZ: And you were making money building people’s lofts.
NTS: Yeah. For a while, I was selling tickets at the Whitney, but they fired me.
AZ: Why’d you get fired?
NTS: I got fired, yeah, yeah. I was an artist.
AZ: For cause?
NTS: Yeah, probably.
NTS: But it was all right; it was too far uptown, anyway. But yeah, my brother and I, to make a living, we would renovate lofts. We would put in electricity and plumbing and walls and all that stuff. He got really into it, to the point where he stopped making art and went on for a long, successful career with a huge construction firm, building things like Yankee Stadium and Apple headquarters. I went along for the ride to make a living while I was trying to be an artist in New York.
AZ: And also, you were meeting a creative community.
NTS: Yeah, all of them. I had a friend who worked for Donald Judd, and I remember him telling me this story. He says, “We were walking down the street and he saw this TV in the window of the store, and he just went in and bought it! Like, he could afford to just go in and buy it!” And we were like, “Wow, that dude must be so rich,” because he bought a TV. It was … wow.
AZ: What was SoHo like at the time?
NTS: It was great. During the day, there was work and workers, and at night there was nothing but us artists, smoking pot and looking at each other’s art. One of the first places I lived was with my brother on Spring Street, and at that time, Spring Street had nothing on it but Mike and Sam’s Hero Shop, and at West Broadway there was a bodega. And that was about it. I mean, Fanelli’s has always been there. There are a few icons that have been there forever, but there was nothing at night other than a handful of bars and artists tripping on each other. It was very cool. It was gritty. It was dangerous, they tell me. But yeah, we owned the streets.
AZ: And that feeling of freedom is so necessary in the foundational years of making work.
NTS: I guess. It definitely felt like you were doing something from the grassroots up. You were building something as a community. It wasn’t like you were coming into a longstanding, institutional community.
AZ: And then in, like, ’78, you go to Nicaragua? How do you get to Nicaragua?
NTS: Well, I started going to Central America around that time. I think the first time I went was on a documentary about Todos Santos Cuchumatán, which is a little village in the northwest of Guatemala. We did a documentary about the way that the indigenous population was being transformed, and it was the middle of the guerrilla war in Guatemala and the attempt by the Guatemalan military to really eradicate the indigenous population.
Right before that, I had met a woman named Pamela Yates, and I met her when I was around nineteen, fell totally in love. She had, after high school, gone to South America, learned Spanish, worked as a photojournalist for El Excélsior, and travelled all around Latin America. She was this exotic, political, brave character that I thought was younger than me because she looked so young, and found out she was actually older than me. She really brought me into documentary filmmaking, because I think I had had this political influence from growing up in the ’60s in Detroit, but she really brought it into a level of social activism with documentary. I kind of transitioned with her into doing documentaries, and they were, of course, what you would call “social-change documentaries.”
We formed a company in New York called Skylight Pictures, which still exists to this day. We had a third partner [Peter Kinoy] who was an editor. I was camera, and I actually taught [Yates] how to do sound. This was before we were boyfriend-girlfriend or anything, because I thought maybe then she’d be my girlfriend if she did sound and I did camera on people’s movies.
NTS: And again, I still wasn’t thinking of myself as a cinematographer, or even really a director. Because I came out of the art world, it was more like an artist—you create, you make things, you don’t label your job category. But clearly I was drawn more to the visual and just naturally became the cinematographer. And Peter [Kinoy] was already an editor—he was older than either of us, and sort of more grounded. And now Pam was doing sound, but really sound eventually became her stepping stone into directing, producing, creating. We spent twelve years together. She continues to be my best friend, but we’ve since found our true loves. She’s happily married and living in Brooklyn with, now, the new third partner of Skylight [Paco de Onís]—new as in the last twenty years—and I’m living in Los Angeles and happily married with kids. So we kind of moved back into the places where we came from a little more—[in my case] a more purely creative, artsy, although obviously with an affinity to content that has a social-activism aspect to it, and she’s still making documentaries.
AZ: I mean, you were the first to film the Contras.
NTS: Yes, we were. It’s funny, because I’m working with Doug Liman this week, and Doug did this really interesting movie called American Made, which was about a story of when Eugene Hasenfus was shot down ferrying illegal shipments to help the Contras in Nicaragua, and I don’t think Doug knew, and he found out, that I had made this initial foray into Nicaragua. We’d sort of exposed the story of the Contras. I mean, it was a well-kept secret, but they’d never been filmed before.
AZ: How did you get access?
NTS: It’s a long story, but I’ll start with … in Los Angeles, we had met Haskell Wexler, a legendary political filmmaker—legendary, Oscar-winning cinematographer, who was known as a very liberal; in those days, he would’ve been considered radical—filmmaker. He was a cinematographer, but he had done a movie called Medium Cool. He wanted to do another feature, and he wanted to do it about Nicaragua. He had a script, and he had seen documentaries that Pam and I had made. He found us, and he said, “I’m doing this movie about Nicaragua,” and he showed us the script. It was about the time during [Anastasio] Somoza [García]. We thought, Hollywood always does movies about political situations in the past. Why don’t you do one about what’s going on now? What’s going on now is there’s a secret war to overthrow the Sandinistas. So Haskell started rethinking his movie and, at that time, the Honduran and U.S. military were going to be doing one of their first-ever joint military exercises on the Honduran-Nicaraguan border. And the only reason they were doing it was to scare the Sandinistas.
Haskell said to Pam and I, “I can get ten thousand dollars. You should go down and film this military exercise. We can use all of the stuff you film of the helicopters and tanks and parachutists as second-unit material, because we’ll never be able to afford to get that on our movie.” We were like, “Great!” So we used old, outdated CBS credentials we had had from a previous shoot; we got ourselves in there; we filmed the military exercise; and when it was over, we said, “We can’t just go back. We’ve got to find these Contras.” Because they were hidden. They were all along the border in Honduras, but deeply hidden.
So we drove up and down the border trying to get in, and we’d get as far as, like, a guy on a dirt road leaning against a pickup truck [saying], “No hay Contras aquí.” They’d say, “There’s no Contras here, there’s nothing here.” And we’d kind of go, “Why do you have those AK-47s in the back of the pickup truck?” And they say, “No, no, we’re just farmers, refugees… But you can’t go back there.” It went on like this. Finally, we made contact with a guy, Édgar Chamorro. He agreed to meet us in Florida.
So we went to Florida and had dinner with Édgar Chamorro. Pam was very young and very pretty, and he was a huge flirt. I don’t even know if he noticed I was there. That’s fine, because he was so enamored of her that he gave us not only permission to film with them, but he hooked us up with the necessary channels. We went back to Honduras and walked over the border from Honduras into Nicaragua with the Contra patrol, and we filmed them in their camps and in their bases in Nicaragua. There was a good chance that it was not only our brilliance, but that they had decided, for whatever reason, they wanted to go public. To this day, I’m not sure how much of which it was, but for whatever reason, we were in the right place at the right time. We came back and made a couple little short news pieces that went out to CBS. It was a big exposé of the first time the Contras had ever been filmed.
AZ: And then this somehow led to you DPing your first film properly.
NTS: Well, yeah. Then what happened was, Pam and I went to—after we filmed with the Contras, spent a couple months doing that—went back to Managua, and we said to the Sandinistas, “We’d like to film with you guys.” We filmed with the Sandinistas, and we went to the same places we had been with the Contras, but with Sandinista military patrols. We announced literally seeing a war from both sides, which is really, really rare, to this day. It’s very hard to go with the Free Syrian Army and then go with German military.
NTS: Very, very hard.
AZ: This is context.
NTS: From a first-person perspective.
AZ: Yeah, and context is everything if you want to get to the truth, and that’s what we’re lacking today. You presented an idea of context in that project.
NTS: Well, yeah, we really tried. As much as we certainly had our political persuasion, we really tried to see a reality from both sides of a dividing line. That documentary and our experiences there is what led Haskell to rewrite his script and offer me the job to shoot my first feature, which I was totally unqualified for. But that was my real film school. I didn’t get to go to AFI or USC.
AZ: Yeah, but you DP’d a film for one of the most iconic DP’s in film history.
NTS: Yeah, it was terrifying.
AZ: And also, an intimidating character, from many accounts. So what was that like, to not have the prep—
NTS: I think I was so young and naïve and arrogant that it could have been worse. It was actually amazing. It literally was my film school. I was there close to a year. The first couple days that we were shooting were a little tough, because I think Haskell was a little afraid of having to deal with the actors, and he wound up getting very heavily involved in the camera. But I could see—and I don’t know where I picked this up, because I knew nothing about acting; I had done a few little narrative things, but not much. I mean, I had some exposure, but not a lot. I had worked as a camera operator on some fiction stuff. But I could see the actors getting antsy. And I remember saying to him, “Haskell, you know, you’ve got to talk to the actors, you’ve got to deal with them.” And then he backed off from the cinematography, almost to a point where anytime I tried to do what I thought you were supposed to do, a little fancier, a little more feature filmmaking, he would always say, “Don’t fuck with Mother Nature.”
I was always afraid of slowing him down. I never wanted him to think, This would be so much easier if I just did it myself. Which it probably would have. Ironically, I didn’t really learn about lighting, stuff like that, to the extent that I should have or would have, but I learned so much about so many other things, just storytelling and camera, how to let things evolve from one character to another. I think I didn’t really realize it until my next narrative job, when all of a sudden, I found myself doing stuff, and I’m like, “Oh, I got that from Haskell.”
AZ: Which was …? You then were working a bit for Bob Richardson.
NTS: No, what happened after that: So I finished Latino, and went back to New York. I did some small, little American playhouse kind of things, still did documentary. But my experience with Bob Richardson and Oliver Stone started when I was sent this script called Platoon. All I knew about Oliver Stone was that he wrote this movie Year of the Dragon, which so many people thought was racist, and he did not express [remorse], which other people thought was terribly xenophobic. I didn’t even know exactly what I was doing. I still had my company. and was doing documentaries. Initially, I said, “No, I don’t want to do this.” It was for second unit. Oliver called me—I was in New York—and said, “There’s going to be a press screening of a movie called Salvador. Go see it, and then give me a call.”
So now I’m going to back the story up. Right after I had worked on a movie called El Salvador: Another Vietnam, I came back to New York, and literally—I think it was the next day or two days later—a man showed up at my office named Jeff Harmon, asking me if I wanted to do a documentary in El Salvador about the aesthetics of the right and the aesthetics of the left. He had a skull and crossbone hanging around his neck. He showed me pictures in Hustler magazine of a story he did about the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. We had just gotten back like the day before, and Pam was across the room kind of wagging her finger like, “No, don’t …” She was convinced everybody was in the CIA. Strange dude. So I was like, “You know what, man, I would love to do it, but we just got back, we can’t really do it.” So that’s the end of the Jeff Harmon story.
Until I open up a magazine, the American Cinematographer magazine, and I see an advertisement, and it says, “Cinematographer Robert Richardson on the front lines of El Salvador with Birns & Sawyer cameras.” And I was like, “Who is Robert Richardson?” I never heard of any guy—and I knew all the photojournalists there, because in Central America, I had done many movies there, but as a photojournalist. So I knew them, I knew the guys that you would run into at press conferences, at various events. No idea who this guy was. Well, it turns out, he was a guy that went to AFI and did this movie—that I had said no to—with Jeff Harmon in El Salvador.
Flash forward a little bit, and there’s a fellow at AFI named Juan Ruiz Anchía, who’s going to shoot Oliver Stone’s—[Stone] had done a movie called The Hand, but this was really his first feature; it’s going to be about the war in El Salvador. And Juan Ruiz is going to shoot it, but then Juan Ruiz gets offered another job for Jamie Foley called At Close Range. So he says, “Oliver, you should look at this film a classmate of mine did in El Salvador, it’s really good”—the movie that I didn’t do, for Jeff Harmon. So Oliver looks at it and hires this guy Robert Richardson to shoot Salvador, Robert Richardson’s first movie—I think it was his first movie. Now, a year or two later, I’m being asked to go see this press conference. And Latino was an amazing experience for Pam and I, but it wasn’t a good movie. In part because Haskell felt the compulsion that it had to be more commercial, and he put elements in it that I think really undercut it. And, let’s face it, he wasn’t the writer that Oliver Stone is.
So we go see this movie, Pam and I, Salvador, and I’m blown away by it. She’s next to me, of course, being the purist, like, “Oh, it’s not really like that,” but I think, This is amazing! I walked out the door, called Oliver, and I went, “All right, I’ll do this Platoon thing.” I flew to the Philippines where I met this guy named Robert Richardson, Bob, and then we started talking, and we realize we were born two days apart. His wife was a documentary filmmaker—she was actually the one, I believe, if I have the story right, that pushed both Oliver and Bob to watch my documentaries, which was essentially what got me the job. And I went to do Platoon. That was the first of several movies I did with Oliver, and [started] a lifelong relationship with Bob.
NTS: Yeah, Wall Street, The Doors. I worked a little bit on Nixon. I can’t remember them all.
AZ: With The Doors, you actually shot that amazing sequence in the desert.
NTS: No, no, that was Bob.
AZ: You were there, though, on that day in the desert?
NTS: No, I wasn’t in the desert, but the funny story on The Doors …
AZ: I’m remembering a story.
NTS: Here’s a story on The Doors that is really bizarre: So I finished a movie—sounds like the Spike Lee story—I finished a movie on a Sunday with a director named Greg Hoblit. Greg likes things very controlled, very specific, very intentional, shall we say. And I come home, I’m sound asleep, and I get a phone call from Bob Richardson in the middle of the night, and he says, “Monona’s water broke, you have to fill in for me. Today.” His second child—was it his first? I’ll have to go to IMDB to remember. But he goes, “Here’s the address; be there at like 5 a.m.” or whatever it was. In Trancas, up in Malibu.
So I get in the car, I’m still asleep, I’m driving out, I’m going to fill in for him. And I’m remembering that he was doing The Doors. I never read the script, but we talked a lot about it and even had a Doors mezcal drinking trip to Catalina beforehand. But I get to set, and I realize it’s day one of shooting. This is their first day of shooting, and I’m being asked to take over the movie. So I start shooting, and I’ve got Oliver now standing next to me, in my ear, going, “Yeah, pan left, pan left, no, go to the drummer!” The first scene I did was the one where they were writing “Light My Fire,” and it’s madness, it’s Oliver Stone madness. The cameras swishing everywhere, I got lights inside …
I hadn’t read the script. I mean, I knew the music, I loved the band, but this [was a] major motion picture, bigger than anything I’d ever worked on, with movie stars like Meg Ryan. Doing Meg Ryan’s first close-up, it’s literally like being thrown from your bed into the lion’s den. That’s how I started The Doors.
AZ: It’s a good time to talk about this. How would you define the role of DP or cinematographer? I mean, what is it, really? For people who kind of see it, and …
NTS: What a cinematographer does is really—people ask that a lot. It’s very specific and very vague. I mean, ultimately, you’re the director of photography, right? You’re controlling the image, that’s theoretically what you’re doing. You’re recording the image, you’re photographing it. Okay. But what that means can be so variable depending upon the nature of the movie and the relationship with the director. And I’ve worked for directors that wouldn’t know one end of the camera from the other, and ones that tell you, “This is the lens I want, right here.” So the textbook way is that you’re responsible for the movement of the camera, the lighting of the scene, and the composition of the frame. All of those things come under your purveyance, but how they do and in what way they do can have a radically different processes. And you’ll see that in cinematographers, where there are those who see themselves as an artist, and they have a style and a look, and when they’re given a job, they figure out how to adapt that job to their style, and there are those who are more freewheeling, shall we say, and take on a project, and their style evolves and morphs.
AZ: I can’t think of your style.
NTS: Right, I have no style. And it’s interesting because—
AZ: By design, you have no style. I mean, it’s not your interest.
NTS: I have a short attention span, and I think I see every new movie as a new opportunity to do something that I haven’t done before. Having said that, I think what you find, as you get older and have done more work, is that you do have more of a style than you realize, because you have instincts. At one point or another, no matter how much you prep and plan, you are going to follow your instincts. And your instincts will have a voice, for better or for worse.
I think I’ve enjoyed creating work that is radically different from other work that I’ve done. And then you can see other cinematographers like [Vittorio] Storaro or somebody who has a very specific kind of approach. It’s interesting because Bob Richardson did for quite a while. I think his work has evolved and changed, but he was known for a long time for these really hot, blown-out top lights, and stuff like that, so …
AZ: I feel like your interest has always been “story,” and the choices are in pushing the story along.
NTS: Yeah, and the politically correct thing you’re supposed to say is that you don’t impose your style on the film, that the story is what drives everything, that you service the story, and if you notice the camerawork, you’re not doing your job—that’s what you’re supposed to say, because that’s what gets you your next job. And there’s an element of truth to it. There are those movies that want the style to be front and center, and there are those movies that do want the style to take a backseat. Form and content have a constant dialectic in cinema. Form and content sometimes have a love affair, and sometimes one of them wins, and usually when one wins, it’s bad.
AZ: Well, your tools are incredibly powerful. I mean, the expansion and compression of time can change an emotionality. Lighting, what you’re revealing, what you’re not—these are all tools that are incredibly powerful in terms of the emotions that they express. One film I think about a lot was the film you shot, I think, in ‘95, The Usual Suspects, which [was] another moment in your life that sort of pivoted into a whole run of things. Was that your only offer at the time? Were there other things? How did you choose that film?
NTS: It probably was my only offer. I chose it really because they offered it to me. [Laughs] It had good actors in it, and it was this sort of young, brazen director [Bryan Singer] that seemed like he was going to go places … and I did it.
AZ: Did you realize at the time it’d be such an important film?
NTS: No, not at all. I realized that the actors were really good and the story was fun, but I was a little surprised at how … it was my first film with Bryan Singer. He had done, somewhere between a student film and a first film before that, [a film] that had got attention at Sundance—that’s what got him The Usual Suspects. And he was only, I think, twenty-six at the time. And Chris McQuarrie had written this amazing script. I was amazed at the confidence that he had, and yet how much the prep and the structure of shooting the film I had to do on my own because he didn’t really prep. I didn’t know that much about film, but I had done enough movies that … like, I had done a movie in Alaska with a director where we shotlisted every shot and worked it all out, and it was great! It was a German director, and my mother was German … I work both ways, but I like it when you actually know what you’re going to do.
So my first day of prep, I went over to Bryan’s house and I opened up my script, and I tried to shotlist with him, and an hour into it I realized I hadn’t gotten one shot and it was never going to happen. I kind of closed the script up and said, “I guess I’m on my own.” And then he invited me to his birthday party, which was coming up in a few days, and I said sure. He had two roommates and a house—remember, he’s in his mid-twenties, twenty-six, I think, and I come to his house, and there’s like four hundred people at his house. And I was like, “My God, this guy’s in his mid-twenties, he’s like this phenomena already. I don’t know if it’s a cinematic phenomena or what it is, but he’s something!”
AZ: Social phenomena.
NTS: Whatever it was. I mean, it was amazing! I’ll never forget that our first day of shooting the producers brought us into the trailer and afterwards—he had a trailer; never heard about that—they sort of raked us over the coals because we had shot a little over five thousand feet of film, and it was like one more roll than we were budgeted for or something. And I was just thinking, My God, this is the guy’s first movie, and the way you’re supporting him is by telling him he shot too much film?
NTS: So, at any rate, we found our, sort of, symbiosis—what his strengths were and what mine were, and they came together. That was the first of ten movies.
AZ: Superman Returns, X-Men.
NTS: Yeah, I did four X-Men movies with him.
NTS: Valkyrie, Apt Pupil, Jack the Giant Slayer. When I look back, the X-Men movies, especially the first X-Men movie, really, I think was a very important movie culturally—in terms of what it brought to the concept of a superhero movie or a comic book movie, which wasn’t really a genre in quite the same way—nothing like it is today. That also kind of clearly had a larger social message underneath it.
AZ: Which link to your early work. I found that very interesting, this sort of “What is the relationship between these true human stories from your early career and the big spectacle movies?” is that there is a humanism, there is a desire to pull out something human.
NTS: Yeah, and I think for me—today, everybody talks about it like it’s obvious, but it wasn’t maybe quite as obvious at the beginning. The minute I read the script, to me, it was a story of the cultural polemic between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. That’s what the movie was. For Bryan, as a gay director, it might have been more of an allegory for where we were beginning to go as a society in terms of acceptance of sexual preference. So, as somebody that was always oriented and gravitated more toward films that were content-driven, I think that was my way of rationalizing that I was doing something valuable or worthwhile.
AZ: Well, before that, let’s not skip over my favorite of anything you’ve been involved with, which was Three Kings. When I watched that film, I was shocked.
NTS: But that was after that …
AZ: Was it after? I thought Three Kings was before.
NTS: No, the first X-Men was…
AZ: We can consult IMDB, but the point is, you made Three Kings. Which I think to many—
NTS: I’m sure that was after. [Pauses] No, I’m not. I’m not sure. I have no idea.
AZ: You made Three Kings at the end of the nineties.
NTS: The end of the millennium. [Laughs]
AZ: Your last contribution to the twentieth century.
NTS: It was a twentieth-century film.
AZ: Exactly. And one image that you took us into that I’ll never forget is taking us inside the body with the bullet. Was that written? Was that something that you had come up with?
NTS: That was all David O. Russell. It was written in the script. How we filmed it was something that evolved, but the concept of it was right there in the script. The actual inside of the body, I filmed on a little insert stage at Panavision, but …
AZ: What’d you use?
NTS: It was a whole prosthetic build. We didn’t use a real person, although …
AZ: I thought you used pig organs or something.
NTS: I’m pretty sure it was all just silicon and goop and stuff.
AZ: But this was one of those moments that showed us something real that we couldn’t have seen without that medium.
NTS: Yes, that’s correct.
AZ: What the film’s also famous for, which brings up your sort of fearlessness as an artist, is the bleach process, the look of the film. How did that transpire, how did you get away with that?
NTS: David O. Russell was similar to Bryan in a sense that, when I went, my first day prepping with him, I went to his office, opened my script, and a few hours in, had gotten nowhere. We sort of talked more ephemerally, and the constructive thing that came out of it was that he wanted me to shoot some tests. So I did, and that was actually how I was able to communicate with him at that stage, in terms of shooting stuff, and he’d look at it and say, “Yeah, no, yeah, no.” I don’t know what it was, but I felt that I wanted to create a feeling of these guys being in this desert in this bubble of the military base, and then this kind of mindblowing perceptual experience when they leave the military base. Now four guys are, for the first time, in the real world of Iraq, amongst the people, without the shelter of a whole … So I had used cross-processing before on small pieces of other films, but I thought I wanted to almost all of this film cross-processed.
AZ: But, somehow, you convinced the studio, without knowing that the film would deteriorate …
NTS: Yeah, so I did the tests, and I decided I wanted to do a skip bleach in the negative —not in the print, but in the negative, which is much more radical—for the opening, and then as soon as they leave the base, I wanted to go to cross-process. So we had to get the studio to approve it. And at that time, Lorenzo di Bonaventura was the head of Warner Brothers. So I took my test, and David and I went to the theater at Warner Brothers. We sat down. I had never met Lorenzo. Lorenzo walks into the theater, sits down next to me, and just signals for the projectionist to start the film. He starts the film, and it’s a really balls-out look, especially in those days. I’m starting to think, What else have I been offered? Because I’m going to get fired. This test is going to end, the lights are going to come on, and I’m going to get fired. So I really got to think about what other jobs I can get, because I need a job. So the film test ends, the lights come on, and Lorenzo turns and he looks, not at David, but at me, and he says, “Well, if you think you can make this movie look like one, cogent whole—one, unified piece—go ahead.” And it just blew my mind. I was like, “Did the head of Warner Brothers just tell me to go ahead and shoot a movie cross-processed?”
Because, you have to understand, it meant that the dailies had to be—it was still film; it wasn’t even movie film. It was still reversal film; we had to have Kodak make it for us, we had to buy it ahead of time, we had to sign a waiver that said Kodak was not responsible for anything that happened. We had to send the film from where we were shooting back to Los Angeles to be developed at a little mom-and-pop boutique lab—
AZ: Bathtub processing.
NTS: We had to shoot film that was so profoundly improperly developed. If your exposure was off a half a stop, you were shit out of luck. If you’d come to the set of Three Kings, you would have thought I was shooting Hawaii Five-0 or something. It was so surreal.
AZ: But it was atmosphere and tone, which is what I’m getting at. Which you’ve used as a very powerful tool in a lot of your films.
In the last couple of minutes, I wanted to talk a bit about Drive, which was the other very atmospheric film that had huge cultural resonance at the time. Which was another moment where you chose a kind of look and feel that was somewhat radical. What were you thinking about in terms of that film, and why did you make the choices?
NTS: Well, Drive was directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, whose previous movies had been done in Denmark, one in London that he did with Tom Hardy called Bronson, and that’s the movie that really made me want to work with him. Nick is a very singular character, and a very bold character—far more bold than me. So there was a pace and a lyrical quality that I knew he wanted in the movie. At the same time, it was a movie about driving and speed that had these tense action moments—and yet whose central character was silent and nonverbal. It was a way of creating a look and a feel that both serviced the dramatic tension side, and yet let things breathe and let things take time, and gave a signature to each one of the car sequences that had its singularity, so that they are all very different from each other; they all had a different language. So the challenge was to balance these two seemingly opposing qualities into something that again, all worked in unison. It was hard because car chases have been shot to death.
AZ: Somehow you brought something new to that.
NTS: We had no second unit; it was a very low-budget movie. And it was Nick’s first movie in Hollywood, and as such, I felt this sort of compulsion that I should get him maybe a little more coverage than he might want, because I thought, I love what we’re doing, but I know the financiers are going to make him tighten this thing up. And here’s what is so amazing about Nick: In the end, when he did his cut, there were two financiers. Indeed, one of them was like, “Oh, it’s too long, it’s too slow, it’s too this,” and the other one was like, “No, we’re going to support the director.” And I was amazed at how much he was able to stay true to the pace and the rhythm that he wanted for the movie. I really admire how he stuck to his guns. Everybody loves that movie. It won the prize at Cannes, so he must’ve known something.
AZ: Well, it’s interesting, films seem to have a soul of their own. People talk about this sort of. “Film gods.” The last big piece that’s been out from you is Bohemian Rhapsody, which in the press had a lot of, kind of, mythology and things around it. Did you think, while you were making this incredibly challenging production, that it would reach audiences in the way it did? Did it sort of have success in spite of its own evolution?
NTS: I knew that Queen had a big fanbase, and the music has an even bigger fanbase than the band itself. So I knew that it would reach an audience. But more importantly, I knew that Rami Malek was doing something magical, that I was watching magic. Because of some of the difficulties of production, I was privileged to actually be even more front-and-center than a cinematographer usually is with an actor, so I knew there was magic there. Whether it would all come together like lightning in a bottle as the great movies do, you never know. But for all the troubles the movie had in production, every day of that movie, I loved going to work. I loved it. I loved shooting it, I loved watching Rami—and the rest of the guys, but he was just absolutely extraordinary.
AZ: You’ve had a lot of amazing experiences, getting to do what you do, you’ve had a very special life.
NTS: Yeah, blessed. I really am blessed.
AZ: It’s been such a treat to have you on today. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. Thank you so much for sharing with us.
NTS: It feels so formal. It’s like, “It’s my buddy.” You can’t see it, all you podcasters, but … anyway, keep listening to Andrew Zuckerman, because he only talks to interesting people, with this exception.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on July 2, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.