‘Interstellar’ cinematographer on grounding Nolan’s movie and shooting Bond on film

Hoyte van Hoytema has shot up through the ranks since his career has shifted over to the states. He caught most people's attention with “Let the Right One In,” which hit theaters the same year as Christopher Nolan's “The Dark Knight.” Now the fruits of his own collaboration with the blockbuster filmmaker, “Interstellar,” finds itself in theaters.

It's a notable change of personnel for Nolan, who until this time has always worked with DP Wally Pfister. With Pfister transitioning to a career of directing, Nolan smartly tapped one of the most exciting talents in the business. And others continue to catch on, too. As we exclusively reported last month, Sam Mendes tapped Van Hoytema to replace Roger Deakins on his next installment of the James Bond franchise.

But what Nolan and Van Hoytema have accomplished with “Interstellar” is a very different beast than the work Nolan has done with Pfister. It's less concerned with refinement and, as you'll see in the back and forth below, was the result of a desire to ground the material. Every choice in this movie, whether you like and agree with it or not (including the sound mix), has been a willful one. So it was fascinating to get Van Hoytema on the phone and talk about that in terms of the film's look.

So dig in for more…

“Interstellar” is now playing everywhere.


HitFix: Hey Hoyte. The last time we spoke you had pretty much signed your kidneys away and couldn't say much about this movie!

Hoyte van Hoytema: Oh, yeah, exactly. [Laughs.]

It was a big step up for you so what was the experience like?

It was a big, wonderful experience for me. I loved every moment of it.

Moving into the realm of 70mm and IMAX technology, that had to be kid-in-a-candy-store-level stuff for a DP.

It was a total treat. I've always been a big lover of medium format photography and I totally understand the beauty of a big negative. As you also know from before, I also love short depth of field. So 70mm gave me, in a way, that extreme texture resolution and depth, and it's such a physical medium as well, just because it's so big. The camera is, every second, pulling 24 of those gigantic negatives through the camera. It's a very exciting thing if you love film.

There are obviously a lot of visual effects in this film. I'm curious how much input you had as a cinematographer in these massive celestial body frames and the like.

A lot of stuff is done literally after, in post-production, but of course Chris and I, we keep talking about the visual language, when and why a wide shot should come, how it should feel, etc., etc. And also on a script level, the kind of shot is there already. A lot of the shots, there is so much VFX, apart from the ship itself, which is a miniature and it's lit a certain way, or it's made very small in the image.

Oh, the ship was a miniature in those shots?

Yeah, in most of these shots, actually, while we were shooting, we had a miniature unit. So all of these elements there are kind of practical.

That makes perfect sense, I guess, because Chris obviously loves practical elements in production.

Yeah, he loves them. For me it's a treat because it's just much nicer to shoot something than not to shoot anything and just imagining it and relying on whatever post is coming afterwards. Especially if you like things to be tactile and tangible, there's nothing nicer than basing what you do on what you have in front of the camera. I've found green screen always very difficult because I'm very nerdy about the way light is refracting and the way that certain things get slightly dirty in a certain reality. Like for instance, when you see the point of view of the black hole through the window, I really did things like try to build a black hole and shoot it through the window and get the light refracting exactly the way it would refract, and suddenly you start to see dirty stains on the window. If you have to sort of invent those things and think about those things while putting up a green screen, you'll never get it as bright or as good, or they never feel as important, but if you do it practically you get so many beautiful things for free.

Yeah, definitely. You talked about the visual language. Where did that conversation start? Was there any referencing early on to kind of convey what Chris wanted the look of the film to be?

Yeah, the funny thing is that one of the strongest references in the beginning was a documentary, which was Ken Burns' “The Dust Bowl.” Chris showed us some films, and these weren't necessarily visual references. We screened, for instance, “The Right Stuff,” because it was a very all-American, hero pilot story. So definitely elements of that seeped through it. And I also showed Chris a Tarkovsky film, because I got very obsessed about the elements and about the tactility of those elements and somehow that also became an influence to the film. I collected a lot of stills that felt like what the tonality should be, a little bit, here or there. I think Chris and I agreed very early on that this film wanted to be very grounded in its language. It wanted to feel very down to earth, little-engineered in terms of look. It wanted to feel a little bit like a documentary. It wanted to feel much more sort of matter-of-fact, like you were encountering reality and trying to film it as good as you can without coloring it up with cosmetics. Very straight.

Yeah, that's enlightening, and seemingly a different approach from the grandeur of some of the work he did with Wall Pfister. And Chris certainly seems to love these darker hues of the celluloid. I noticed immediately that this film didn't feel as brightened up over all as some movies might.

But that's also the thing. You have a room and you have a light source and the light source is the window. You can light the shit out of it and put lights anywhere, but it doesn't give you as tactile an image as to just let the light from the window carry you into the room and let it fall off into darkness. It's not necessarily that you like darkness but you just like sort of the natural dynamics of light. I always like them. When I light up a set and I over-light it, I always get a bit itchy. I always end up turning off lights.

Well you're moving on to Bond, which is exciting. You know, Conrad Hall, Roger Deakins, that's some heady company to be in with Sam Mendes.

Yeah. [Laughs.]

So congratulations! When I heard he had tapped you for this I was pretty stoked. It's a great progression of talent.

Or REgression. [Laughs.] No, I'm totally humbled by that and the incredible cinematographers that Sam worked with. And I hope I can live up to the expectations. But I'm not Connie. I'm not Roger. But I hope that people will not be disappointed.

Is it true you're going onto film with that or will it be digital again?

I'm going onto film, yeah. I love film. I've shot digital as well. “Her” was digital.

Which was beautiful, too. What do you think of that on-going debate?

The debate itself is just stupid, you know? One of the worst things has been the debate, because it assumes there is a “better” and a “worse,” that there is a “winner” and a “loser.” That's not the way I look at it at all. That polarization and presentation that there is something better and something worse is just ridiculous. Anybody can give a reason why something is good or bad in a technical sense. But the reason filmmakers like Christopher Nolan are shooting on film, it has nothing to do with “better” or “worse.” It just has to do with very personal taste. Everybody wants a different kind of canvas. Some people like painting with oil paint and other people like painting with acrylic paint and other people like painting with cow shit, you know? [Laughs.] That whole discussion is useless, and the only thing that discussion has provoked is that people who don't know anything about it start lobbying for a format. One format is just slowly becoming obsolete and keeping a lot of people from that choice in the future, which is very sad, because I think that choice should be available for people like Chris or Quentin Tarantino or Scorsese or Spielberg, whoever, or Paul Thomas Anderson. Their choices in why they take film is not always a technical choice.

Well good on you for going back to film for Bond because I think that will be an interesting shift. Good luck with it as you go out into production.

Thanks so much.

And congrats on “Interstellar!” I'll talk to you again soon.

OK. Take care, man.


For a little more on the use of IMAX technology on “Interstellar” and thoughts from Van Hoytema on that, check out the video below.