Spike Lee, Clarke Peters, Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors and Norm Lewis in Da 5 Bloods (Photo Courtesy David Lee / Netflix)
There is something circular about the idea of Newton Thomas Sigel firing 16mm firefights in the jungle.
This is how Sigel's career began when, as a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, he was hauling equipment into Central American combat zones in the 1980s. His first cameraman narrative, Latino, was filmed in Nicaragua during the Contra War. He had his first studio break with a 2nd unit appearance on Oliver Stone's Platoon.
Sigel's latest version, Da 5 Bloods, finds him back in the jungle with a 16mm camera in hand. Filmed over three months in Vietnam and Thailand directed by Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods follows four titles from the Animal Quintet as they return to Vietnam decades later to find the body of their fallen squad leader (played in flashbacks with 16mm Chadwick Boseman Lenses) – and while you're there, you might also be digging up a few million dollars in buried gold.
Filmmaker: You started your career as a documentary filmmaker in the early 1980s and you often worked in precarious situations. How did you get on this path when you were working in war zones in your early 20s?
Sigel: I made little films in high school and then worked for a year at a place called Media Study in Buffalo, New York teaching people in the community filmmaking skills and inviting guest artists to show their films and speak. These guest artists were really art filmmakers, experimental filmmakers. In fact, Kenneth Anger was one of the first times anyone asked me to do something for them when they went through this program.
At that time I also painted and after a year (at Media Study) I received a scholarship to the Whitney Museum. So I went to New York City and stayed there for a year. After Whitney, I went to Hampshire College, where I met Pamela Yates. She had just spent two years as a photojournalist in Mexico for (the newspaper) Excélsior. Together with Peter Kinoy we created Skylight Pictures and started to cover the wars in Central America for our own documentaries and as cameramen for the news channels and European television.
Filmmaker: Were you basically a skeleton crew where you load your own magazines and do everything yourself?
Sigel: Pam Yates was the sound recording, I was the cameraman and Peter Kinoy was the editor. When we went to Central America it was often just two of us – Pam did the sound and I did the camera. I would load all of my own magazines and all of that. Sometimes I had a camera assistant, those were luxurious days. But mostly I had to figure out how to portion the things that I had to carry. For example, if I were to go on a military offensive with soldiers, maybe I could get one of them to wear a few rolls of film and another a few more. I'm very jealous of documentary filmmakers today and how much easier it is in the digital world than it was in the days of film.
Filmmaker: One of your early narrative jobs was recording the second unit on Platoon (1986), which, like Da 5 Bloods, is set in Vietnam. What are some of your strongest memories of the job?
Sigel: Oh my god, I have so many memories from Platoon. It was just an amazing experience to see someone as passionate and engaged as Oliver Stone and watch Bob Richardson at work.
The first feature film I made was called Latino and was shot in Nicaragua and directed by Haskell Wexler, but I think I got hired for Platoon less because of that film than because of the documentaries I made. I think both Oliver and Bob were impressed with them and my experience shooting in war zones.
The second unit is a very broad label – it can be a week or two of work or it can make a huge contribution to the film, and my experience with the second unit early in my career has been very different indeed. I was able to make a huge contribution to Platoon. I remember having a situation on my first day where I turned on a few lights, caught myself, and realized, "I'm actually lighting it too hard. I'm here to work on my documentaries so as not to show that I can be a great person of light. I have to hold on to my roots. "
Filmmaker: You made two films for Netflix that were released this year – Extraction and Da 5 Bloods. It sounds like a strenuous route that is filmed one behind the other in India, Thailand and Vietnam, often under harsh conditions.
Sigel: I literally finished the extraction in one day and started preparing for Da Five Bloods the next. It was a very short preparation, a lot less than I would like. It was intense but I loved it. I live to be on the set. I love to shoot and make films. Yes, you work long hours sometimes, but it's stimulating for me.
Filmmaker: Let's talk about creating action scenes. How do you start creating a sequence since the description in the script may be minimal? For Da 5 Bloods it could simply be: "The helicopter crashes and the soldiers take fire."
Sigel: Scripts definitely differ greatly in terms of the amount of description for the action. There's the famous "Atlanta Burns" (Gone with the Wind). Even in my very first film, Latino, there was a line in the script that said something about the effect of "… and then the Contras raided the village," and that was two weeks of shooting. So it varies from script to script, and then you have the variance in Director. Sam Hargrave, director of Extraction, is someone who comes from the stunt world and is very familiar with shooting and choreography. With Spike, the story points of the action are critical, but the physical execution of the action is more likely to win. So these are two films that I made in a row with two very different directors, each with their own style.
There was so much action filmed and so much trying to improve on what was done shortly before. It becomes a real challenge to keep it new and fresh and something an audience has never seen before. I think Sam Hargrave was particularly interested in that. Sam is very good at not only building in the kinetic moments of the action, but also the quiet moments or lulls in the action. When you think about the reality of a fight scene, people get tired or hurt. He is a master choreographer and has brought a real A-list fight team and stunt team to India, Thailand and Bangladesh where we (filmed extraction).
But it always has to start from history. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it's true. You really need to think about what story you want to tell with the action, otherwise you're just throwing it in to make it more exciting in theory. You want to use actions to add complexity and nuance to a story instead of just saying, "They talked for a while. Let's start beating each other."
Filmmaker: Da 5 Bloods takes place over multiple periods of time – the contemporary story of friends returning to Vietnam and then looking back at their business trip together. Did you rotate the different periods with different tools?
Sigel: At the start of Da 5 Bloods, when the Bloods arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, they return to Vietnam to discover a really vibrant, modern and busy city. For this I used the Alexa LF with Angenieux Optimo zooms. When they got into the jungle to look for the remains of Boseman and the gold, I switched to the Alexa Mini with Arri DNA lenses. Then the flashbacks are all shot 16mm upside down and created in a 4 × 3 aspect ratio, which is inherent in the 16mm format.
Filmmaker: There are DNA sets that are optimized for the Alexa 65 and LF, but I haven't read anything about a set that was put together specifically for the Mini.
Sigel: We used the lenses that were optimized for the LF (on our Minis). The lenses had more of a feel for the lenses of the 70s and 80s. When you were Panavision, you picked up ultra speeds or the early days of the Primos. If you were to photograph Arri, it would be the Zeiss Distagon or the Cooke Speed Panchros – lenses that weren't that flat but a little funky around the edges.
Filmmaker: The DNAs are vintage optics, but when I look at the Arri Rental website it doesn't really talk about what glass is in these conversions. Do you know what the original lenses were for your set, or is each set a kind of mishmash of different glasses?
Sigel: I hate using the word mishmash, but I think to some extent that it is. It wasn't like reinterpreting a single set of lenses, but rather putting together a set of lenses from different glasses. And to be honest, you can't always get a clear idea of what glass is in which lens. You have to take your tests, look at them, and go from there. Because I had so little preparation time for Da 5 Bloods, I inherited the lenses, which came from London and were prepared by the camera assistant.
Filmmaker: What 16mm material did you use for the flashbacks?
Sigel: It's a 100 ASA stock which I believe is pretty similar to the Ektachrome Kodak used to make. I've been looking into Kodak's case with other people for the past several years to keep making reversal films because they hired him some time ago. It's just a great tool to have in your toolbox. I think all that shouting got them to make an inversion film available again, but it's such a small market that I had to push them really hard to make the 16 inversions we used for Da 5 Bloods. You could produce just enough to make these flashbacks, but barely. We barely had a movie when we got back.
Filmmaker: Were you able to use multiple cameras for flashbacks or did you have to be extremely careful with how you split the film?
Sigel: Most of the 16 were made as a single camera. But yeah, we had to be careful with the movie that I actually like. It means you are a little more careful about what and how you shoot. We couldn't call Kodak and say, "Hey, send two more rolls." We agreed to buy a certain amount and they did that for us.
Filmmaker: Most of the 16mm scenes are outdoors, but there is one scene in a crashed helicopter that doesn't have much sunlight. How was shooting 100 ASA rated at 800 after years of working with Alexas?
Sigel: Shooting slower stocks in situations where you have to turn the lights on is nothing new. In fact, it's more about the history of cinema than the other way around. But yes, these days we've gotten so used to these digital cameras that require virtually no light that you have to dust yourself off and remember your roots. If you are photographing on reversal it also means that you have no room for error (in your exposure). While in the digital world you might even work with natural light and say, "I can always slip it in the mail a little," you have to be spot on when it comes to reversing it. You need to know where your lights should be, where your shadows should be, and expose for that.
Filmmaker: Can you drive the process reversal inventory or is it falling apart?
Sigel: You can push it, but nowadays the more you do that, the more you flirt with dangers, because the labs' capabilities are dwindling. Skilled lab technicians are retiring and the reverse really needs to be handled very carefully.
Filmmaker: Did you have to bring a film loader just for the 16mm part of the shoot?
Sigel: I was very fortunate that the camera crew I worked with were very knowledgeable and experienced in filming, but it's a big deal to find crews, especially young crews who are knowledgeable about movies. There are still enough people making films that I think we are fine at the moment, but it seems that every day there are fewer people who really know how to handle films and focus on films , because that is a completely different fish kettle. Now everyone is pulling focus away from monitors with far focus. If you are making a movie and trying to pull focus off a video tap, you are in trouble. When you are dealing with a focus puller who is not used to pulling off the barrel and shooting movies, you are definitely at a disadvantage.
Matt Mulcahey works as a DIT in the Midwest. He also writes about film on his blog, Deep Fried Movies.