Cherry Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel on the Film’s Ambitious Visual Style

What do you do when you’ve just made two of the most complicated, highest grossing films in history? If you’re the Russo Brothers, you tackle a small-scale addiction drama with an ambitious visual approach. That’s Cherry, the new film from directors Joe and Anthony Russo that stars Tom Holland and charts a young Iraq War veteran’s journey through addiction and crime. The film is divided into distinct chapters, each with a different tone and visual approach. One chapter is a love story, and is almost glowing with romance and passion; another chapter is set during the Iraq War and feels like a war film; and yet another follows Holland’s character into the dark desperation of addiction with the patina of a straight-up horror movie.

To capture these ambitious visuals, the Russo Brothers turned to veteran cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, whose work ranges from X-Men movies to Three Kings to Bohemian Rhapsody, and with whom the Russo Brothers worked on the Netflix actioner Extraction. That collaboration is what led to Cherry, as Sigel told me during a recent exclusive interview about his work on the Apple TV+ film.

During our interview, Sigel explained how they set about dividing Cherry into distinct visual chapters, and the original vision for the Iraq War section that they ended up changing during production. He also cheerfully described the Russo Brothers’ process, and spoke about being almost in awe of Holland’s talents as a performer. We also talked about Sigel’s work on another recent film, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, and what it was like capturing Delroy Lindo’s jaw-dropping monologue on camera. And Sigel also teased what to expect from Channing Tatum’s upcoming directorial debut Dog and revealed that he’s lensing the Russo Brothers-produced Amazon series Citadel.

Check out the full interview below. Cherry is now playing in select theaters and premieres globally on Apple TV+ on March 12th.

Cherry Newton Thomas Sigel
Image via Apple TV+

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I know you’d worked with the Russos on Extraction, is that what led to you working on Cherry?

NEWTON THOMAS SIGEL: Yeah exactly. While I was on Extraction they started talking to me about Cherry and I read the book, and they sent me a script and it was pretty powerful stuff.

When you said yes, what were some of the early conversations with them like about how they wanted to tell the story visually?

SIGEL: It’s important to remember that the book itself was written in chapters and the screenplay used that chapter structure in its storytelling. So when we talked about doing the movie, clearly we talked about what is the visual signature for a story told in chapters? And that led to conversations to pick the recipe for each one of these sections. So the conversation then, of course, evolved from what the intent and the tonality was to how you execute it. It became a thing of, “Okay. Now that this is what you want to get across, how do we specifically do that?” And so, each chapter had its conversations and its recipe. Some of it came quite quickly and easily, and probably the one that changed the most was the Iraq War sequence. That’s the only one really where our initial conversation about it – it changed as the shooting went on, and we realized we wanted to do something a little different than we initially planned. But everything else we pretty much managed to sort of develop in pre-production.

What was the initial plan for the Iraq War one that you guys had considered?

SIGEL: Well, initially we looked a lot at Son of Saul. Almost that entire movie is done behind the main actor’s head or on his face. And you never really see the peripheral. You have a very narrow field of view about what’s going on. And it’s frightening because of what you don’t see and what you imagined when you go in. And initially, we thought we were going to have very limited resources, we wouldn’t be able to really show the war that much. So, we talked about if there was a way to do that. And then as we started shooting the movie, we realized that the beginning and the end of the movie were so intimate, that Iraq was the one place where we needed to open the movie up and give it a bigger, broader scope. And in doing so, it kind of went from Son of Saul to David Lean really.

I’m curious what it was like working with the Russos. It’s not often you can say you’ve worked with the directors of not only the highest grossing film of all time, but two of the biggest, most expensive and most complicated films of all time. And I’m just curious what their workflow was like in collaborating with them.

SIGEL: It was pretty amazing really, because first of all, they had a very strong script and they had a very bold storytelling that was inherent in the script itself. The first thing from the minute they talked about the movie, it was clear that they were looking for a kind of bravura meaning and boldness in technique.

So, they were really kind of a cinematographer’s dream, which is on the one hand, very open and collaborative and encouraging, taking risks and doing newer, innovative things. And at the same time, having very clear opinions and ideas about what they wanted and didn’t want. So while I could make the craziest propositions or proposals, I knew that fairly quickly I would know if it landed or not, and if it was something that they embraced and we were going to do.

And they were very confident and very self-assured. So, I think that imbued the whole process where you never felt like you were floundering or waiting to find direction. They’ve done so much from television to massive features to indie features that they’re totally at home on the set. And they’re a brother team, which is a really interesting thing, too. So, you get that whole dynamic of the way that they work together. Sometimes they will discuss something really heatedly, you almost think they’re arguing or something. And then you realize that’s how they’re figuring out what they want, and then they’ll turn to you and go, “So, go it?” And then you go like, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Sounds great.”

Do they storyboard? Is that a part of their workflow and process with you?

SIGEL: No, we didn’t storyboard anything. I don’t think we storyboarded or pre-vised a single thing.

Cherry Russo Brothers
Image via Apple TV+

I also wanted to talk about working with Tom Holland. I think his performances is really fantastic in the film. And as you said, the film is very intimate in most places. And so, he’s your focal point in the frame. I was just curious what that experience was like working with him as a performer.

SIGEL: It’s funny because I didn’t really know who Tom Holland was until I saw the Russos’ Captain America: Civil War. And it was just a scene with him and Robert Downey Jr. in a bedroom. And I remember seeing it and being blown away like who’s this kid? It was ironic because it’s this huge big action movie, and that was my favorite scene in the whole movie. So, I remember seeing that and then, “Okay, so that’s who Tom Holland is.” And, “Oh, now he’s Spider-Man.” And then, it was pretty amazing to work with him. I’ve got to say. He’s only, what? Like 23 years old or something. His maturity and performance. And it’s not even the big things. It’s not even the crying. It’s still the littlest things he does. These little tiny twinkles in an eye or a gesture or a non-response. You think, “Well, being a cinematographer is just lenses and cameras and lights.” But when you have a film that is such a subjective movie and it’s so wrapped around one character and the performance is that strong, it’s really inspiring. It makes going to work just so much more pleasurable.

It’s a shame that the film didn’t come out earlier or that it wasn’t a normal year, because it’s as good a performance as I’ve seen. And God bless Delroy Lindo, which I think was another staggeringly good performance. So, it’s been a very blessing year for me.

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Yeah. I did want to ask about Da 5 Bloods. What is it like working with Spike Lee?

SIGEL: Oh, it’s great. Very different than the Russos. Different person. Different methodology, which is good because you do two movies in a row, I like that kind of variety. I like mixing it up. And so, yeah, it’s been a really good year.

You mentioned Delroy Lindo. My jaw was on the ground during that monologue. What was that like on set? Did you feel the electricity as you guys were capturing that?

SIGEL: Oh, my God, yeah. For sure. I didn’t think about it when I was reading the script. But every day I realized more and more that, wow this is Delroy Lindo’s movie. This guy’s taken over the movie. He was a force of nature that just inhabited that role and you could smell it, the intensity. He was great. And he’s a very great easy actor work with, very professional, and he’s been around a long time.

He owns that movie, but it kind of sneaks up on you. It happens gradually. I didn’t even know I was watching a monologue until halfway through the monologue. That’s how wrapped up you are in the performance.

SIGEL: Yeah. You think it’s a sort of an ensemble piece. And I think for Spike, he saw it pretty much as an ensemble piece, as a story about a group of people. And he encouraged shots to be not closeups, but group shots. Three shots, four shots, five shots, because it was Da 5 Bloods. It wasn’t story of Paul. But having said that, front and center in the piece was Delroy. It really became the story.

Tom Holland and Ciara Bravo in Cherry
Image via Apple TV+

Well, that was for Netflix. I know you did Extraction for Netflix. And now Cherry is Apple. I was curious for you as someone who has shot a lot of really big movies that just looked fantastic on the big screen, or kind of benefit from that communal experience like something like Bohemian Rhapsody, how you feel about these films being seen largely in living rooms and on laptops and stuff like that?

SIGEL: Well, it’s something we’ve been grappling with for a while, even before COVID. But with a pandemic where people are locked in their houses and streaming hours and hours of video, I think the whole paradigm has changed. And the snobbery that maybe one once had about ‘I do movies’ and just really wanting to do things for theatrical experience is not possible. Or it’s possible, but it’s not holding that sort of front and center place that it once was.

I think that there is nothing like the theatrical experience. And no matter how big your TV is, seeing something on a 50-foot screen with 500 people in this theater is and always will be a very different experience. Having said that, I do think that one of the things that’s interesting about where we’re going is, we all decry the idea that people are watching stuff on their computers and iPads and phones, and it is disheartening. But at the same time, the TVs that people are watching stuff on are going to… 77 inch OLEDs and things that are so far beyond what the old four by three CRT tubes. 27 inches was a big fancy TV when I was growing up. So, the pressure and the importance of feeding good, strong images is there as much as it’s ever been, but there’s no question that a bigger part of our creative energy needs to take into consideration that that’s how most people are going to watch your movie even after the pandemic.

Although I suppose we should also be thankful that pan and scan is not a thing anymore. So, it could be worse.

SIGEL: Yeah. It’s not a, “Oh my God, the good old days,” by any stretch of the imagination. And we can talk endlessly about film versus digital. But one thing I do think is pretty apparent is that digital projection is better than any film projection, unless you really, really love projector wave, and dirt and scratches. If you’re really into that, yeah, okay, that’s better in film projection. But if you want an image that’s closer to what was captured, digital projection can’t be beat.

You shot the first X-Men. You’ve been involved in so many different superhero movies, and I was curious. Have you personally seen a change in the way people want to see superhero movies, or what they want to see in them, or how they want them to look?

SIGEL: Yeah. I think my first experience was around 1998 when I did the first X-Men, and I had done two movies before that with Bryan Singer. And the project came to Bryan, and neither of us really were comic book guys. I read comics when I was a kid, but I wasn’t one of those guys that’s really into it. You know? And so, we both sort of had to educate ourselves a little bit in the lore and the dynamics of that world. But I think one of the things for Bryan was that because he didn’t come out of that world, he really approached the first X-Men as a serious drama, as well as a story about issues. And for me, the minute I read it I was, “Okay, this is the story of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.” And for Bryan, I think it was just as a gay filmmaker, I think it was a story of acceptance of different lifestyles or points of view.

So really, the comic book world as a genre had not been able to get past Batman at that point. There’d only been the Batman movies, which got increasingly campy with Joel Schumacher’s approach. So, I think that was probably the first change, was the movie became more of a sort of straight, for lack of a better word, reality-based drama, not that anything about it is real.

And then, I think the next big thing started to happen not that long ago was when the film started to get more and more sort of dark and serious and pondering. And I think the studios realized that when the films didn’t have humor, they weren’t as popular, and they just needed to have that element. And I think you saw that, bringing people like Taika Waititi into Thor or James Gunn into Guardians of the Galaxy. I think that was when sort of the realization came that even if you want to make it kind of dark and scary and philosophical or whatever, that at the end of the day you needed a certain degree of levity and humor. And then, I think Marvel has evolved its utilization of the comic book world, understanding that the financial future of these movies was going to be all about sequels and about serialization.

And it’s interesting because not that long after, right, we’re starting to see this evolution of streaming and these limited series, a whole different idea of what a TV series is. It’s no longer something that you run home to every Thursday to see at seven o’clock, but it’s something that has all these episodes that you binge watch or you watch in groups and chunks, or you watch whenever you feel like. So in a funny way, television is moving more in that direction, and film is moving more in the other direction from these spectacle movies. The line is becoming increasingly blurred between what is it a movie now?

Photo by David Lee/Netflix © 2020

You recently wrapped Dog, which I think is Channing Tatum and Reid Carolin’s directorial debut. I was just kind of curious what that experience was like.

SIGEL: Dog was amazing. It was one of the first movies that went back to work after COVID, after the pandemic shut everything down. And it was Channing Tatum, his first directorial effort along with his partner, Reid Carolin. And it was a small budget, but it was a work of love. The whole movie began when Channing’s marriage was breaking up and his dog was very ill. A dog that he loved very, very much, and it led him to make a documentary about war dogs. And that led to this drama called Dog. And so, it was a very personal thing for him. And you just felt that every day and working that you were… It was like a family-made movie really. Small crew, a very, very roll-up-your-sleeves and get to work kind of vibe. I loved it. I loved every minute of it.

I can’t wait to see that. Do you know what you’re doing next? Do you have anything else lined up?

SIGEL: Yeah. I’m sitting in London doing a show for the Russos again. They’re producing it. It’s for Amazon. It’s called Citadel. It’s a series. So, we’re getting ready to do something pretty amazing.

Cherry is now playing in select theaters and premieres globally on Apple TV+ on March 12th.

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