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For over three decades, Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography has graced experimental documentaries, indie dramas, telemovies, and Hollywood blockbusters.
With his existential chase movie DRIVE out in September, he puts movieScope in the picture.
Your work ranges from relatively modest productions such as Blood and Wine and The Usual Suspects to big-budget studio extravaganzas like X-Men and Jack the Giant Killer. Which do you prefer?
My preference is to do both, because I think that there is an intimacy and a beautiful handmade quality that you get when you have a small dramatic film—and when you get on these big, colourful movies, you have a lot of technical stuff that you can learn and play with and experiment with, so they can fuel each other. Tricks that you learn in one you can apply to the other. My favourite is to be able to go back and forth, and ultimately to work with interesting artists—and in this day and age, to work with an interesting filmmaker doesn’t mean you have to necessarily be limited to small independent film.
You have done a relatively small amount of direction yourself. Is this by design, or would you like to do more directing?
I enjoy both directing and shooting. I’ve loved the opportunities I’ve had to direct, but one of the prices you pay for being popular as a cinematographer is that you’re offered interesting projects, and it’s hard to say no in order to pursue something that’s very iffy. So I have, maybe through fault, taken the easy way out, and always gone for the films that came my way and were already funded, and had actors attached, as opposed to the hard fight of getting a film made. Sure I’d love to direct more, but I’m blessed to have the best of both worlds.
Given that you have now worked extensively with both film and digital, do you prefer one to the other?
My first movie with the Genesis [digital camera] was Superman Returns, and there was [sic] a lot of things I liked about it, but I enjoyed going back and doing four or five shows on film after that. Then on Drive I actually got to use a digital camera called the Alexa [from Arri], and I think it’s a real game-changer; a digital camera that can do some things that film couldn’t do. I can’t say I have a favourite. It’s somewhat project-dependent, but the introduction of the Alexa has opened a whole extra world of possibilities for digital, and it’s no longer like the ugly stepchild of film.
In Drive, your cinematography seems almost literally to take the front seat, and become a character in itself. How did you come up with this vision?
I certainly can’t take all the credit for it. Nicolas Winding Refn has a very strong vision as a filmmaker, so our whole plan of attack was something we very definitely worked out together. I hope it didn’t take a front seat, but I do like to think of it as a character, so maybe it took a back seat, but was a character nonetheless. I took a lot of the inspiration for the photographic approach from the way Ryan [Gosling] and Carey [Mulligan] were approaching their characters: their intuitive quietness, and the way they expressed themselves more through behaviour than words. That really informed the way the film looked. We had a very limited budget, and we certainly didn’t think we would be competing with John Frankenheimer on the car chases. It’s about a guy who never feels more alive than when he’s behind the wheel of a car, so we wanted to treat the car as an extension of his personality, and the imagery in the car and what the car represented was a very subjective experience. Actually, in the first car chase, the bulk of the scene is told entirely from the point of view of the Driver.
In one sequence, Ryan Gosling’s face is illuminated only by the red and green of a traffic light outside. Do you, as a rule, like to work with real lighting conditions?
I draw a lot of inspiration from what would be considered ‘real’ lighting, but ultimately I regard lighting as a character, as expressionistic, as something which is trying to make a statement in terms of story, emotion and character, so I look for a way to do it which is expressive but has credibility—unless you’re specifically going toward a sequence that is meant to be fantasy or a dream or unreal for any particular reason. There is a moment like that in Drive…
Yes, the elevator scene! The Driver and Irene (Mulligan) share a protracted moment of intimacy before an explosion of violence, and throughout their kiss the light dips unnaturally. What motivated you and Refn to introduce this visual note of irrationality?
It’s the only moment like that—and it’s the one time that they kiss. The idea of going into this kiss as a diversion is represented in the lighting by the fact that you are going away from that reality for a moment into the internal reality of these two characters, their love, but also what could be or might be or is, before it’s completely contrasted with the ultimate act of violence that forever keeps them from being together. The minute she’s seen that, she really can’t go back.
You are currently shooting Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Killer. What are the new challenges that shooting in 3D represents for you?
First of all, the technology: you have a camera that’s physically different, the ability to get at certain places and move it around, it’s a real challenge logistically. The way that you colour-correct and grade it is completely different for 3D. You want to see more shadow detail and more of the environment—that’s part of what makes 3D immersive. I don’t think the future of cinema is all 3D, but I think 3D certainly has a future. •