Is This the Reel Life? Shooting <I>Bohemian Rhapsody</I>
Issue: November 1, 2018

Is This the Reel Life? Shooting Bohemian Rhapsody

It was 1970 when four young Brits met and formed a rock group. That band, led by their eccentric, larger-than-life vocalist Freddie Mercury, along with guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Deacon, was supergroup Queen. With a string of top-charting hit records, including “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Somebody to Love” (which was oddly left out of the film), “Another One Bites the Dust”, “We Will Rock You,” “We Are the Champions” and many more, the band would ultimately reach legendary rock n’ roll status. 

Here, in this Twentieth Century Fox biopic about Queen from director Bryan Singer (who was fired from the film during production), Bohemian Rhapsody sets out to capture the magic of Freddie and the boys’ talent and music, outlining the band’s rise to fame, while delving into the personal struggles of its lead singer. The film, which stars Rami Malek as Mercury, Gwilym Lee as May, Ben Hardy as Taylor and Joseph Mazzello as Deacon, takes viewers through Queen’s history, and culminates in a recreation of the band’s iconic performance at the 1985 Live Aid concert at London’s Wembley Arena, which many have called one of the best rock performances of all time.

Here, DP Newton Thomas (Tom) Sigel, ASC, who has worked with Singer on a number of films including The Usual Suspects, the X-Men movies, Superman Returns and Valkyrie, speaks exclusively with Post about his contributions to the film (see our November issue for our conversation with editor John Ottman).

What were your initial thoughts about taking on this project and working on a movie about one of the music industry’s most legendary bands?

“My first thought was, fan-tastic! There are a lot of movies that get made every day and not a lot of them are particularly good. Not a lot have a subject matter that intrigues you. So when a project came along with a legacy like this one, where I really liked the subject matter, I was totally psyched. And it’s music. I love music — being able to film music. It’s so much fun, you know? You’re able to be so creative, expressive. There are so few rules to it. Plus, it’s a movie about my childhood and upbringing and coming of age. This was the music of the time. So I got to relive that which was great.”

What was director Bryan Singer trying to accomplish in terms of how the film was shot and how it would lend itself to telling this story?

“The biggest takeaway I got from my initial conversations with him was that he didn’t want to make the typical movie — rock star shoots to fame, has a downfall with alcohol and drugs, which is basically what most musician movies and biopics are about. He wanted it to be less about the hedonistic aspects of Freddie’s life and more about the music and really celebrate the music. Although Freddie’s life drives the story, it was meant less to be the Freddie Mercury story and more the Freddie Mercury and Queen story. It used Freddie’s evolution and transformation from an immigrant to a rock star as a vehicle to really give fans a two-hour celebration of the music. It doesn’t shy away from the harder parts of his story that the internal troubles the band had, difficulty Freddie had in coming to terms with his own sexuality, his eventual demise from aids-related pneumonia. It’s not a white wash by any stretch, but it was clearly meant to be more of a celebration of the music than a cautionary tale of the life of alcohol and drugs that so permeates music.”

You had scenes as intimate as the band in recording studios to them performing at large concert venues, such as Live Aid or Madison Square Garden. How did you prepare for how you were going to shoot these very different types of settings?

“I knew Queen’s music and I liked it, but I wasn’t a super fan like how I am now. The first thing I did when I got the film, to really educate myself about the band, was to read every book there was about Freddie Mercury, the band, I watched all of the concert footage that exists on them, I watched the documentaries, I looked at other rock n roll movies and biopics and I tried to imagine a more unique way of telling the story, given the sort of parameters of this celebratory nature that the movie wanted to take. So, I started to formulate it in my head. And I knew that I had to transition from 1970 to 1985, which is a very interesting period in our culture because you come in on the end of that sort of counter culture, hippie movement, you go through Glam Rock and come out the other side of Glam Rock into this kind of sort of disco, colder world of the 80s really. I wanted to create a look that also changed as the film evolved, not only as the culture around them changed but also as the band itself changed. They were a bunch of young dudes, kind of starry eyed about trying to make it as rock stars to becoming this international phenomena, so their journey was quite a remarkable transformation and I wanted the look of the film to reflect that.”

Any particular techniques you used to shoot?

“For each section of the film, I tried to develop a sort of recipe of elements that would lead to a certain emotional/psychological place. The beginning of the film is a little tease about Live Aid, but then we pick the story up in 1970 when Freddie has just emigrated with his family from Zanzibar and that first act of the film was done with the Alexa SXT and Cooke Speed Panchro lenses and a LUT that we designed for that section that is a very golden, ethereal, romantic look at being a pop star. It’s very idealistic and a wash with kind of the fantasy world and then as they become more popular and as we move through the 70s and get into the 80s, the look gets progressively less golden and more desaturated. It’s a little harder, and a little less naïve. I transitioned also from using a hand-held camera, which was how most of the first act of the film was shot, and introduced cranes and dollies and steadycams as we headed toward Live Aid. It’s less grainy, it’s a little cleaner. We also went from the SXT to the Alexa 65, with the [Hasselblad Prime] DNA and Prime 65-S lenses, so it’s quite a bit shift. To keep it from being too abrupt, there’s sort of elements of the two recipes that overlap at the end of the first act and beginning of the second act. I think that helps smooth the transition.

“We had a number of different formats where we shot, with Betacam, literally, period Betacam cameras for Top of the Pops, on tape, which was quite interesting. Then we shot the “I Want to Break Free” video on film with the actual 35 BL — the last camera that ever filmed Freddie. That same camera was also used on the “Who Wants to Live Forever” music video, which was Freddie’s very last appearance on camera. It was kind of spooky and magnificent at the same time. By the time we were in the middle of the movie, we were full on Alexa 65 and DNA in all its glory.”

Do you want to talk about the recreation of the Live Aid performance at Wembley? I understand a stage was built on the runway of Bovingdon Airfield in Hertfordshire? 

“Yes, we actually recreated the actual stage of Wembley and the backstage area. The stadium has since been torn down and rebuilt, so the actual stadium where the concert happened no longer exists, so the views out towards the crowd of the stadium had to be recreated from historical footage in the computer, and the crowd was various forms of replication from the 900 extras that we had. 

“The stage itself was a very meticulous, recreation of the actual stage down to the beer glasses and Pepsi glasses that you see on the grand piano that Freddie played. Aaron Haye was our production designer — he and the set design team did a phenomenal job of recreating the way the set looked.”

What were some of the biggest challenges in shooting this film?

“The Live Aid set was a real challenge for me, from a dramatic storytelling point of view, because you have a movie that’s leading toward this climactic event and yet the stage itself and the time of day it was photographed and the way it was lit, in 1985, is about as anticlimactic or undramatic as you can imagine. The organizers of the event certainly didn’t want to spend the money on an ostentatious stage presence because this was all being done for charity, so it was all about raising money and not showing a lot of glitz and glam. So, the backdrops were just these big white cloths with the Live Aid Africa symbols on it.

“The concert took place, during the day, and it was an open air stadium, so there was a lot of natural daylight, and the lighting rig was left over from a previous concert and I’m fairly convinced that it was somewhat improvisational the way it was lit because they had a new band every 20 minutes and none of these bands did sound checks or rehearsals. They really just showed up and started playing. So I wanted to be faithful to the way it was lit, but I wanted to also give it some kind of dramatic arc, because it’s such a cathartic moment in the movie and in Freddie’s life and for Queen as a band. Their popularity had been waning, and this performance, which had been considered one of the greatest of all time, just catapulted them back into the mainstream.

“The other concerts were tricky as well because we had very little time to shoot them and we had many, may concerts. We had Madison Square Garden, Budokan Japan, their first college gigs. For scheduling and budgeting reasons, there was a period of a couple of days where we had to shoot like four concerts. So, I worked with a concert lighting designer Tony Simpson and my gaffer Lee Walters and we created a kind of modular system where we could raise and lower banks of lights in order to recreate a totally different venue with pre-programmed hues and color changes. We were able to create a number of different concerts in a short period of time. It was a challenge, because Queen’s lighting, as they became more and more popular, became more and more elaborate to a point where in the 80s they had the biggest lighting rigs in the world. So, we were restricted to period lighting instruments but we still wanted to be able to create all these different venues in a short period of time. That was also a huge challenge. I’m pretty happy with the way it came out, though. I particular like Madison Square Garden, I think it’s great.”

How closely did you work with editor/composer John Ottman?

“You have no idea! I’ve done nine movies with John Ottman and he’s every bit as brilliant an editor as he is a composer and we worked very closely together. In production and even in post — he’s a very close collaborator. We have our creative tug of wars about which starlings to kill and which to save, but I think the proof is in the pudding. He did a really nice job on this film.”

What was the workflow on the film, from production to post?

“I worked with Company 3.  Because I was in London, I worked with Greg Fisher, who is a fantastic colorist I met way back when he was doing Hugo for Martin Scorsese. Greg and I spent quite a bit of time in preproduction setting LUTs for the show and he oversaw the dailies colorist at Company 3. We color corrected dailies that went to Avid and occasionally we would reprint and try to get them reingested in the Avid. I looked at dailies mostly in the editing room or on an iPad and would occasionally go to Company 3 and see it in their DI suite.”

Do you have a favorite scene and why?

“I have so many for different reasons. Some are more intimate scenes. I love the scene where Freddie gives Mary Austin her ring – I just think it’s so tender and beautiful and I love the way the light compliments what’s going on emotionally in the story. I also love the scene where he, spoiler alert, comes clean to her about his sexual preference. But then to be able to do scenes like Madison Square Garden were phenomenal as well.

“I have a few signature shots, I’m very happy with a shot we did that starts with an aerial and flies over London toward Wembley, swoops down over the crowd, comes up to the stage and makes 180 move around Freddie and close up just as he begins “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And we built this moment in right after he tuned the piano, which he really did in the concert, and Rami takes this pause, this moment, and it’s a suspended moment, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Is he scared? Is he nervous? Is he thinking about something. The band doesn’t know what’s going on. And then he goes into “Bohemian Rhapsody.” That’s one of my favorite shots in the film.”

Did the film turn out the way you had hoped?

“Yes, I think it did. I love the final product. For anybody that’s a Queen fan or for anybody who doesn’t know about Queen, the film is a great introduction or celebration, whichever way you want to look at it. It was really a once in a lifetime honor and privilege to be able to make a movie with Brian May and Roger Taylor right there, telling you what it was really like. How often do you get to do a movie about rock stars that you can actually meet the rock stars and have them paint a picture for you. And to work with an actor like Rami Malek...he’s a force to be reckoned with. He’s an absolutely staggering talent.”