Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel was working on Sam Hargrave’s “Extraction” in Asia when Spike Lee called to ask him to work on “Da 5 Bloods.” Sigel, who is known for his work on such diverse films as “Three Kings,” “The Usual Suspects” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and had previously collaborated with Lee only on commercials, was unsure whether he’d have ample time to prep, but he wasn’t going to say no. “Spike was confident we would be able to do this together,” he says.
Now streaming on Netflix, the film examines the Black experience in Vietnam, and stars Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis as veterans who travel back to the country to recover the body of their squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) — and some buried gold.
Production designer Wynn Thomas (“Inside Man”) had sourced locations in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. “Thailand has an established film infrastructure, so it was easy to [work] there,” Sigel says. But Lee was adamant that, to be authentic to the story, he wanted to shoot in Vietnam, where the film infrastructure is still new. “We were never 100% sure if we were going to get to shoot there. We had to go through a lot of political channels,” the DP explains.
There was also the matter of how to achieve the film’s tonality, which flits between past and present. “So much of the movie is about memory,” explains Sigel. When shooting flashbacks showing the soldiers in Vietnam, he used a 1.33:1 aspect ratio (“It’s what TV news cameras used at the time”) and “old funky lenses” (Zeiss Distagon T1.3 Primes, Canon 11-165mm) to help establish the grit of the jungle. For scenes shot in the city, he relied on Angenieux Optimo lenses for a “pristine” look.
While the film travels back and forth in time, no VFX were used to de-age the actors. However, for one key scene in a helicopter — the introduction of the film’s hero, Stormin’ Norman — Sigel did have to rely on blue screen. “We couldn’t take the actors in a helicopter in the air,” explains Sigel. The scene had to be shot on a gimbal for safety purposes. “We did a combination of aerial photography and ground-to-air photography, and the close-ups were on the gimbal.”
Sigel and Lee decided to shoot the sequence digitally and reverse-engineer the shot to give it a 16mm look. “Shooting it on the gimbal also gave us greater control over the performances,” Sigel says. It’s a shot he is particularly proud of: “It was such a great introduction to our hero.”
An early reunion scene between the “four bloods” — held at an actual bar/café in Ho Chi Minh City named Apocalypse Now — uses lighting to create the feeling that the men are traveling through two different worlds. Tracking through the bar, Sigel added moving lights to the club’s existing disco lighting. “That created some frenetic energy that reflected the guys’ reunion,” he says. As the camera makes its way into the restaurant, the DP used softer illumination around the characters. “You have this darker environment and a variety of skin tones. I enjoyed finding ways to bring out all those different qualities in that scene.”
The one Spike Lee setup that Sigel had not done in their collaborations was the director’s signature double dolly shot. First seen in “Mo’ Better Blues” in 1990, the shot has the actors and camera both on dollys — hence its name — and the camera can swing, move or spin. The shot comes toward the end of the film when Peters’ Otis pays a visit to an old friend and tries to make amends.
Since they were using a practical location for the sequence, Sigel didn’t have much time to reconfigure the set or lighting. “It was this small space with this low ceiling in this apartment building,” he says. “I had to accept the locations as they were.” Nonetheless, he pulled it off.
Ultimately, despite the location challenges, Lee’s highly developed filmmaking chops and the collaborators’ familiarity with each other enabled them to complete the shoot on schedule. “Spike has a defined style, and far be it from me or anyone else to have him be anything else,” Sigel says. But the DP adds that he put “a bit of spice into the soup” too: “I’ve got a sense of what makes a Spike Lee movie a Spike Lee movie.”