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Elston Gunn interviews SUPERMAN RETURNS cinematographer Thomas Sigel about his short film THE BIG EMPTY!!!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with Elson Gunn who has a special interview with cinematographer Thomas Sigel and his wife (and co-writer/director) Lisa Chang about their really awesome sounding short film about Selma Blair's vagina called THE BIG EMPTY (no shit!). I'd love to see this thing! Anyway, Sigel directs this short with Chang, but he's known for shooting all of Bryan Singer's films and he's also worked with David O. Russell, Terry Gilliam and George Clooney. This is a fascinating read that covers the short film as well as Sigel's work on SUPERMAN RETURNS! Enjoy!


J. Lisa Chang and Thomas Sigel's short film THE BIG EMPTY, a dramedy which centers on a woman and the interesting paths of discovery within her, recently won the Grand Prize at the USA Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Malibu Film Festival. Earlier this year the film was included in the debut issue of Wholphin, McSweeney's "DVD Magazine Of Unseen Things," which also boasts contributions from Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, Miranda July & Miguel Arteta and pieces featuring Patton Oswalt, John C. Reilly and David Byrne, to name a few. Sigel, a cinematographer for over twenty years including the upcoming SUPERMAN RETURNS, has directed in the past but this is his inaugural cinematic collaboration with his wife and co-writer/director, Chang, who has described the film as "a bittersweet tale of Alice, her vagina and the infinite nature of the tundra."

[EG]: THE BIG EMPTY is based on the short story "The Specialist," which you appeared in McSweeney's. What was the general process from there?

[TOM]: We both read the story in McSweeney?s and turned to each other and said, ?This is a film.? We contacted Alison Smith for the rights and wrote the script as fast as we could. After that we called every single person who owed us a favor in the entire film industry. It was time for payback.

[EG]: How were George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh involved in the process?

[TOM]: I had done a couple films with George, including his directorial debut, and we had become good friends. I was afraid that when we approached actors for THE BIG EMPTY no one would take us seriously. After all, the script opens with a POV, looking out of Alice?s vagina.

One night while I was working in Rome, I ran into George who was filming OCEAN'S TWELVE there. We were sitting on the rooftop of his hotel and a nice bottle of red wine later, I asked him, "Could we use the Section Eight name for this thing we want to do with a vagina?" Now, George has had a lot of experience with vaginas, so he read the script and said, "Sure.?

When we got back to LA, George asked one of Section Eight?s executives, Erika Armin, to give us a hand.

[LISA]: It was lucky for us because Erika was amazingly resourceful. She worked like a dog to help us realize the film. Along with Dan Dubiecki and Jason Blumenfeld, our intrepid producers, we were all naïve enough to tackle every obstacle without pause. Although everyone who has seen the film assumes we had a zillion bucks, the truth is, we didn't take a penny from Section Eight. We made THE BIG EMPTY for $50,000 - all of our personal savings. We never have been very sensible with money.

[EG]: You put together a fun cast with Elias Koteas, Richard Kind, Gabriel Mann and, of course, you can't take your eyes off Selma Blair. She should be cast as a lead more often. Did you have them in mind when you were writing the script?

[LISA]: Honestly, when we wrote the script, we weren?t sure if any actors would want to be cast. We liked the story and thought it was unique and original but that usually means that it wasn?t going to be everyone?s cup of tea.

[TOM]: The script was written in a pure gust of inspiration and impulse. Once done, we only approached a handful of actors, expected rejection and figured we would just cast my in-laws and some of the guys looking for work outside the Home Depot. Weirdly, almost all the actors jumped on board. Some we had worked with before -- like Elias Koteas -- so that was a plus. Getting Selma Blair was a dream come true. Without her, there is no BIG EMPTY.

[EG]: Did you two have more fun collaborating on the script or shooting on set together?

[TOM]: We had a blast every step of the way - writing, shooting, editing. We did have one disagreement. In the bookstore scene Lisa foolishly wanted to break for lunch. She was worried we weren?t going to make our day, but I put my foot down and got one more take. Sometimes, you just have to be tough.

[LISA]: We always have fun with each other but making the film together was like well, great sex.

[TOM]: You know, lots of complicated set-ups.

[EG]: There are a couple of cool cameos, too. It's great to see Haskell Wexler makes an appearance. Tom, how did he influence you as a cinematographer? I know you worked together on MATEWAN.

[TOM]: Haskell directed the very first feature film I shot, LATINO. I was totally unqualified. But I was also terrified that he would find me slow, so I tried to work very fast, which was great practice. He would always have me following the actors in an almost documentary style. After LATINO, I shot my next narrative and found myself coming up with this very fluid camera/actor blocking. I realized that had all come from Haskell, and I didn't even realize I was absorbing it.

[EG]: Lisa, did you have some input on camera angles or the way to shoot the film or did you leave completely leave that up to Tom?

[LISA]: I know that a lot of the people who have seen the short assume that the script must have been written by me due to the nature of the story, and the cinematography is all Tom, but everything flowed seamlessly from both of us. We didn?t have any boundaries in our collaboration. In fact, because we know each other so well we had an almost telepathic shorthand between us on the set.

[EG]: Did you storyboard the film?

[TOM]: Yes, we storyboarded the bulk of the film, and shot-listed the rest.

[LISA]: We had such limited resources we had to make sure we knew exactly what shots we wanted.

[EG]: The first shot from the vagina's perspective is wonderful. Did you keep the prosthetic?

[TOM]: We did keep the prosthetic. It is a work of art and from time to time... well, actually, that's none of your business.

[EG]: Without giving too much away let's just say the film seems to be big on metaphor. Was playing with that and bringing it to life on camera what primarily resonated with you in the story?

[TOM]: Really? What metaphor? I just took the story at face value, because it all made sense to me. At the heart of it, I found a deeper meaning. At least, I think so

[LISA]: What resonated for us wasn?t the metaphor in the story, it was the journey that the main character takes. There was something very emotional about Alice?s plight. Her arctic tundra wasn?t just a metaphor, it evoked a feeling.

[EG]: You also get to say a little bit about the cult of celebrity through the daytime talk show scenes. How did that aspect particularly interest you?

[TOM]: Our culture?s obsession with celebrity speaks not only to our dreams and aspirations, but sadly, to our weakness as human beings.

[LISA]: I can understand why people are obsessed with celebrity but I find it sad that we celebrate it for it?s own sake rather than, say, one?s contribution to society.

[EG]: And now the McSweeney's connection comes full circle as THE BIG EMPTY is one of several short films on Wholphin. How did that come together?

[LISA]: After we made the short film, I sent a copy of it to Alison Smith. I also sent a copy to McSweeney?s since I think they?re just supercool folks who are re-inventing the way contemporary literature is published and read. The DVD fell into the hands of Brent Hoff who coincidentally was putting together Wholphin and it all came together from there.

[EG]: Did you consider making THE BIG EMPTY available online?

[TOM]: Not until just now. It's difficult for people to see short films unless they travel to a lot of film festivals or catch what they can on cable. Wholphin is an excellent way for a group short films to reach a wider audience.

[EG]: Tom, you have said you learned the most about cinematography from studying art and life but you've also worked as a DP with an eclectic group of filmmakers -- Terry Gilliam, David O. Russell, George Clooney, John Frankenheimer, Mike Newell, Mike Binder, Bob Rafelson, David Koepp -- as well as a second unit DP for Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Errol Morris, John Sayles. What did working with each of these directors basically teach you that you didn't get from studying art?

[TOM]: Wow, when you look at that list of people, you can imagine how much I learned from all of them, not only about cinematography, but even more about life and storytelling. Looking at painting and sculpture and photography can speak to you in some of the obvious ways - lighting and composition. But I think more importantly, looking at art teaches you the importance of having a point-of-view.

In filmmaking, this can be even more critical, because it is a collaborative art with tons of money involved. Therefore, it is harder for a unique vision to shine through. For that reason, I strive to work with people like Terry Gilliam, George Clooney, Bryan Singer and David O'Russell.

[EG]: You've also been with Singer on every project since THE USUAL SUSPECTS. How did you meet and can you describe how your working relationship has developed?

[TOM]: I met Bryan when he asked me to shoot THE USUAL SUSPECTS. It was his first real feature film, but he had a very innate sense of storytelling. I responded to his intelligence and energy, and I guess he liked the way I shot the film, because he keeps asking me back. It?s been so long now, and we?ve done so much together, that I have become very attuned to his likes and dislikes. Generally, I try and do his ?likes?, and stay away from the ?dislikes?.

[EG]: How did you feel switching gears to SUPERMAN RETURNS instead of X3?

[TOM]: I feel no loss not doing X3. I don't really understand this whole sequel obsession (well, actually, I do ? I think it?s called money). But mostly, it was very exciting to have a crack at Superman which, while in the same genre as X3, is something entirely different.

[EG]: Were you asked to keep the look somewhat comparable to the first SUPERMAN or did you get to start from scratch?

[TOM]: Bryan has great admiration for the original SUPERMAN. There were groundbreaking moments in that film, but there are also aspects that now appear quite dated. I think our production design probably adhered more to the look of the original film than the camerawork.

There were certain aspects that Bryan wanted to treat as sacred, like The Fortress of Solitude and the Kent farm. Other design elements have a strong deco influence, unlike Richard Donner?s version. Even so, the classic quality of that period seems to be very respectful not only to the original film, but to the origins of the comicbook as well.

From a photographic point-of-view, I drew more influences from the old comics and the original artwork of Joe Shuster. There?s just something about those bold angles and soft colors that enthrall me.

[EG]: Are you shooting LOGAN'S RUN or THE MAYOR OF CASTRO STREET with Singer next?

[TOM]: I'm not sure what I'm shooting tomorrow. I think it's for a casino or something...

[EG]: Are you interested in HD or 3D cinematography? Do you think you'll personally be headed in that direction soon? Spielberg still edits on a flatbed, so I'm sure there are many cinematographers who are reticent to go down the digital road.

[TOM]: SUPERMAN RETURNS is the first motion picture shot on the Panavision Genesis HD camera. It was a fascinating experience, and I am very happy (as happy as I ever am) with the way it looks. Spielberg has made some fascinating films, so if the flatbed works for him, why not?

[EG]: Lisa, back to THE BIG EMPTY, do you have more festival dates or have you stopped taking it on the road now that it's available on Wholphin?

[LISA]: The sad thing about short films is that they only have a shelf life of about a year making the festival rounds and then it?s all over. We?re pretty much nearing the end of our year and are now focusing our attention to our next project, a ?long.?

[EG]: What has the reaction been at festivals?

[LISA]: Every festival audience has a different personality but the overall response has been very positive. We knew that not everyone would ?get? the short, but we?ve been surprised at how many people ? both men and women ? relate to the off-kilter humor and metaphorical nature of the story.

[EG]: What was your goal with THE BIG EMPTY?

[LISA]: To have fun! And to make a film that we hope people would enjoy. We just wanted to create something straight from the heart, without being beholden to a higher power ? to finally make the kind of film we like to go see. It certainly wasn?t to reap any financial gain.

[EG]: Tom, you also directed an episode of HOUSE, which has become a TV cult favorite, and HBO's POINT OF ORIGIN. Would you like to continue to direct more TV and features when given the opportunity?

[TOM]: We love making films and telling stories. Features, TV, around the campfire, whatever...

[EG]: As a directing team how are you wanting to follow THE BIG EMPTY? Another short? Full-length feature?

[LISA]: Yes, Tom and I are both eager to continue making more films. We?d like to try our hand at a ?long? next time and have a few projects bubbling in the old creative cauldron.

For more information about Wholphin visit

Elston Gunn

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