Documentaries Shaped the Images of Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel

Kenneth Anger, Errol Morris and Haskell Wexler are among documakers who have influenced the DP's work

The Thin Blue Line Documentary
Courtesy of Miramax Films

Newton Thomas Sigel has deep roots in documentary. One of his first professional jobs was operating the camera on what became Kenneth Anger’s docu short “Lucifer Rising.” In 1982, he connected with DP and director Haskell Wexler through documentary work in Central America, including “When the Mountains Tremble,” about crimes by the Guatemalan military against the indigenous Mayan population, and “El Salvador: Another Vietnam,” which was nominated for an Academy Award for documentary feature.

Sigel also served as cinematographer on Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” (pictured above) and on Barbara Kopple’s “American Dream,” among others.

“It’s been very circular in a sense,” he says. “Although my resume has films like ‘X-Men’ and ‘Superman Returns,’ my attraction is really much more to content-driven movies with true human stories that have a resonance in what’s happening in the world around us.”

He adds, “I was fascinated with Haskell and with [his film] ‘Medium Cool’ because of the way it mixed narrative storytelling with documentary and social commentary. To watch somebody whose photography was so spectacular, yet in the service of the true-to-life stories and real people, was so inspiring.”

Wexler’s influence on Sigel was significant. “I only did one movie with Haskell, and I still think of that as my film school,” says the DP. “I was too naive to be scared. I learned to shoot quickly, because I never wanted to slow him down. I expected to soak up the magic of his lighting genius, but every time I tried to use a little bounce, he’d remind me that he hired me for the way I used available light. He had me following the actors organically, like a documentary. He gave me a foundation in staging and blocking — something that continues to influence me every day I step on a set.”