On Joe and Anthony Russo’s Cherry, cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel honed in on the larger-than-life emotions of a singular character, who found himself going through one life-altering experience after another.
Based on a novel by Nico Walker, the Apple TV+ drama centers on Cherry (Tom Holland), a college student seeking purpose in his life, who enlists as a medic in the Iraq War. Upon returning home, he’s crippled by PTSD. Then developing a drug addiction, he falls into debt and turns to bank robbery to make ends meet.
When Sigel boarded the film, he knew it called for a stylized aesthetic. Like Cherry himself, his camerawork needed a distinctive voice.
The key technique, in bringing this to the film, emerged from the script, which was broken down into tonally distinct chapters. In concert with the Russos, Sigel would develop a separate visual concept for each one—making sure, at the same time, that they all gelled together, capturing the essence of Cherry’s complicated journey.
Below, the DP explains how he used every tool in his toolkit (including a couple of “obscure” ones) to get at the “inner psychology” of Cherry. In conversation with Deadline, he also touches on his first feature collaboration with director Spike Lee, on his Netflix Oscar contender, Da 5 Bloods.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with Cherry? Why was this a film you were excited to be a part of?
NEWTON THOMAS SIGEL: I worked with the Russos on Extraction, and it was a really successful relationship. I felt that they were very collaborative, yet had very strong ideas at the same time, which is sort of the best combination. So, when they came to me with Cherry, I read the book, I read the script, and it was very different material from anything they had done in quite a while.
So, it was kind of a no-brainer, really. It’s dealing with very relevant, and sadly contemporary issues, both in PTSD and opioid addiction, and the opioid crisis that’s happening in America. It was timely and poetic, at the same time, with these two really interesting filmmakers—and not only interesting filmmakers, but filmmakers that are going out of their wheelhouse to do something more risky and experimental than they had been doing in recent years. So, I thought it was a great opportunity.
DEADLINE: Was the notion of pursuing highly subjective, stylized imagery one of your first points of conversation with the Russos?
SIGEL: Well, if you go back to the book, I think probably what attracted Joe and Anthony, and then drove a lot of the style of the screenplay, was a very unique voice in Nico Walker’s writing. Certainly, there’s been a lot of movies about PTSD; there’s been a lot of movies about drug addiction. None of that is new, but what was new and fresh was the voice of this central character/narrator in the novel, and I thought that the Russos brought that out. Angela Russo[-Otstot], Joe and Anthony’s sister, was very involved in the screenplay, and I thought they really captured the singularity of that voice, and actually went beyond. With all due respect to Nico Walker, I think they really elevated that perspective quite a bit.
So, I think the fact that the film has a kind of stylization and impressionism to it, that wasn’t really something that I invented. That was in the screenplay from the beginning.
DEADLINE: Did you storyboard the film? What kind of visual testing did you engage in, during pre-production?
SIGEL: We didn’t storyboard anything, really. We talked about each chapter, we talked about the look of the film a fair amount, and we’d share images and references that we came across, both thematically and aesthetically. And I think that drove a lot of the definition of the look of the film.
As far as testing goes, probably the most extensive thing that was tested was the use of infrared in the ecstasy scene, in great part because it involved certain obscure technologies—and also because it’s a hard thing to really talk about, and a lot easier to look at. So, I utilized the chance to test some of the ways to create infrared digitally, and to light it digitally, in order to be able to show things to the brothers and get their blessing.
DEADLINE: What did the technologies you mentioned allow you to accomplish?
SIGEL: There’s a very singular moment in the story where you have the central character, who’s a young, naïve kid, and he clearly has some anxiety issues. He’s been on Xanax, and he’s offered ecstasy by some of the other kids that he meets. He takes it, and it coincides with him coming across this young girl that he’s seen in his college classes, and he’s been smitten by. So, here he is, reencountering this girl that he now has a crush on, and he’s zonked out of his mind.
We chose to express that through the use of a 3D camera rig, where we basically shot the same image twice, simultaneously—once, with normal color, and once with infrared. We also used infrared lights to enhance the effect a little bit, and then having those two elements in the scene gave us the opportunity to dial in the degree to which his whole intake of the scene was more or less distorted.
DEADLINE: Tell us a more about the film’s chapters, and the distinct visual styles each called for.
SIGEL: There’s a little tease at the beginning, but then from that point on, you take [Cherry] from college, falling in love, having a relationship issue. He thinks he’s breaking up, he joins the army, he goes through basic training, he goes to war. He comes back with PTSD, he gets addicted to drugs, he starts robbing banks, and he goes to prison.
So, each one of those stages was conceived as a chapter, and they sort of had a definition for Joe and Anthony, where the beginning was considered magical realism. The relationship and the falling in love is really expressed almost like a fairy tale, from the moment he first sees Emily, and the light is moving across her, and all the background is dark. She’s standing out like she’s lit by a spotlight, and then the light comes up and you see she’s in a classroom…
DEADLINE: It seems like you also used shallow depth of field to accentuate the point of this chapter—that Emily quickly becomes the focal point of Cherry’s entire world.
SIGEL: Yeah. We used it pretty much throughout the film. But for the part when he first meets her after class, and he’s having this first, awkward conversation with her, every time he looks at her, her whole background is not only blurry, but has this kind of swirly, atmospheric effect. That just enhances this feeling of puppy love—of, “Oh my God, the rest of the world is falling away, and all I see is you.”
DEADLINE: Every chapter in the film was shot with a different set of lenses. Tell us about the choices you made in each case, and the thinking behind them.
SIGEL: We shot the entire film on the Sony VENICE at 6K. This first part, which was called “magical realism,” was shot predominantly with Todd AO anamorphic lenses, which are a really old design of lenses. It goes really back to the ’50s, and then was revamped slightly in the ’70s. It was interspersed with some of the Hawk X anamorphic lenses, because in this early part of the film, every now and then, there’s a reference made to something outside of this romantic cocoon of him and Emily—like when he opens his mouth and inserts his foot, in describing this girlfriend that he has at another college. So, in those scenes, you would go to the Hawk X lenses, which is a more modern, cleaner, flatter-across-the-field lens.
Then, when we went to basic training, which Joe and Anthony always described as “farce,” we switched to a spherical format and used only one lens, which was the 12mm Sigma lens—a very wide lens. It has a certain degree of distortion—not horrific—but when you put it at a large format, in a big 6K sensor, what happens is, you are using the lens all the way to the edges, and you are actually enhancing the inherent distortion that’s already there.
Then, when we went to the third part of the movie, which was ostensibly in Iraq, what we were shooting was called “human drama.” That actually was done much more straightforward, in terms of lensing. I used the Leica M series still lenses, which are a slightly more modern version of a 60-year-old design, of the lenses that, for many years, were the favorite of photographers like Robert Frank, and the great documentarians.
So, the Iraq section was, for the most part, totally done with those Leica M series lenses, and when we return, we’re shooting what’s called “The Fractured POV,” this [discomfort] at coming back to civilian life. From this horrific experience that he’d had in the war, we return to the Todd AO lenses that we began the journey with Emily with—once again, interspersed with the Hawk X [lenses] for certain types of punctuation or description, outside of the basic story that we were telling with him and Emily.
That took us all the way till his capture, and when he goes to prison, we return to the Hawk X. And again, the end of the film then has this more straightforward, cleaner, anamorphic look to it.
DEADLINE: What did you most enjoy about the work you were doing on Cherry?
SIGEL: I think Joe and Anthony really encouraged me to be as bold as I could, in terms of expressing some of this subjectivity, and some of the inner workings of this trauma that this character is going through. So, we constantly looked for visual representations of what was happening in these characters’ brains.
The film was designed, at the same time that it has a very bold style, to be very intimate, and I also find that very satisfying, when you can do something that is both epic and intimate at the same time.
DEADLINE: What about your work here did you find the most challenging?
SIGEL: I think the challenge was really making it inventive, as an organic outgrowth of this character study. Because it really is a character study, and is constantly demanding a sort of uniqueness to its visual representation. At the same time, you want to avoid that trap of doing something cool, just to be cool, or calling so much attention to it that you undercut the emotional resonance of the scene and the movie. For me, the movie is emotionally devastating and incredibly powerful, and the last thing you want to do is diminish that with stylization.
DEADLINE: Recently, you also worked on a ‘Spike Lee Joint’ for the first time—that being his Vietnam drama, Da 5 Bloods. What can you tell us about that experience?
SIGEL: Well, the last couple of years for me have been amazing, in that I’ve had the real privilege of being able to work with really different directors that are equally talented. Spike Lee, one of our great American filmmakers, is about as different a filmmaker from the Russo brothers as you can get, and in each one of their individual ways, they bring a very unique voice to cinema. So, as a cinematographer, it was like, “Wow, how cool, to be able to go from someone like Spike Lee to someone like the Russo brothers within the course of a year.”
Spike has a very different approach. He has his own type of stylization, and certainly, in Da 5 Bloods, he was looking for a certain degree of expressionism, in a lot of the ways that he staged stuff, and the way that he conceived of the film—even things like putting these soldiers in their flashbacks, in their [old] age. So, Da 5 Bloods was a very different process than the Russos’.
For Spike, I think of the big things about the way he designed and shot the film was this idea of ensemble. It’s called Da 5 Bloods, and to a certain degree, of course, Delroy Lindo becomes the central character. But he really always saw it as this group. There’s far less close-ups than there are wider shots of all the Bloods together, and he really tried to create his choreography and scene design based on that.
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