Interview: Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema

The man who shot Interstellar on working with Chris Nolan, doing Bond 24 and more.

You might not recognize the name of Dutch-born cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, but if you are an avid moviegoer you have seen his work for certain. After spending the first portion of his career shooting films, TV series and commercials in countries like Sweden, Norway, Germany and the U.K., Hoytema got behind the camera in 2008 for Tomas Alfredson’s brilliant horror film Let the Right One In. Hoytema followed that with his first Hollywood assignment, David O. Russell’s The Fighter, before reteaming with Alfredson for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and working last year with Spike Jonze on the outstanding Her.

So after shooting three or four of the best films of the last six years, Hoytema has now tackled his biggest assignment yet: working with Christopher Nolan on Interstellar. In addition to the challenges posed by the cosmic nature of the material itself, Hoytema found himself working with IMAX cameras for the first time and forging a partnership with a director who had shot seven of his previous eight films with the same director of photography (Wally Pfister). The results are visually staggering, and Interstellar is one of those films that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

Den of Geek had a chance to sit down recently with Hoytema in L.A. to discuss working with Nolan, carrying an IMAX camera on his back and heading to his next job: Bond, James Bond.

Den of Geek: This was your first time working with Christopher Nolan, who had previously collaborated with DP Wally Pfister on seven of his eight pictures. What were your thoughts going into the project?

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Hoyte Van Hoytema: I came into it with great humility I hope. I’ve been in awe of Chris’s collaboration with Wally and I think that they did some beautiful work together. But at the same time you’re thinking okay, what can I bring to the table. When I met with Chris it was just very inspiring meeting him. He is a very curious filmmaker that wanted to do new things and wanted to explore things and somehow we had a chemistry. I just felt that if he would offer this project to me I would not say no. It was too much fun and too inspiring to not consider it. So I just have to mantra for myself that, you know, I’m not Wally. I’m not expected to be Wally and I just have to be myself and Chris has never ever given me the feeling that he needed me to be anybody who he’s previously collaborated with. He just started the dialogue with me and that has been great ever since.

What surprised you the most about working with him?

One thing that was very striking from the beginning is that Chris is just — he has a mystique around him but I can bring it all very much down to his pure love for filmmaking. He is so genuine in his love for making films that he knows everything about it and has gone deeper than so many people I know about the craftsmanship about it. But he also knows the history of it and the storytelling side of it. I mean, he’s just extremely thorough in all these sections. In a way that love is also a little bit demystifying when you start working with him because you very much understand where it comes from. It literally is a very pure obsession with the medium of film itself. So that was kind of striking. And if you’re on the same page with that, he’s very accessible. It just becomes fun then. It becomes very inspiring.

Did you create a shorthand pretty quickly?

I don’t know. I mean I just know that I enjoyed talking to him and I enjoyed engineering stuff, thinking about how we’re going to solve things and present it to him. It was just very lively and always very close to very sort of old fashioned way of filmmaking, you know.

On the debate of film versus digital, are you comfortable working either way or do you prefer film?

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I have to say I love film above all. I have the most affinity with celluloid and I feel most comfortable shooting that. But the whole thing about film versus digital, I mean the biggest mistake with it is that it’s always presented as film versus digital. I don’t think that one thing rules out the other and I don’t think that one thing is better than the other. It’s just that whole discussion has been a huge killer because there is no better or there is no worse in this whole discussion. The whole thing that is worse is that it has been a discussion in the first place.

I think that people like Chris, like Tarantino, like Scorsese, like Spielberg that shoot a lot on film, whatever they feel is nice and they have provoked that discussion of whether film is now on its way out and digital is on its way up. I find that sad because you’re taking a favorite canvas away from some of the best filmmakers in the world and I want to feel that I can make that choice and can choose to shoot on film whenever I feel like it. I mean you can talk to me about resolutions or definition or this and that but it very often has nothing to do with the reason why I choose a certain medium, you know.

This was the first time you shot at least part of a movie in IMAX. what was that like for you? I read that you were carrying that huge camera on your back for most of the shoot.

I have to say I love big format. I always loved medium format photography for instance. It’s exposing a bigger negative. It’s not only that the definition and color rendering is beautiful but also, it creates this very beautiful short depth of field. So it’s the most pristine format you can have but at the same time it’s so textured because of the way the lens is rendered on a negative that big. So getting the IMAX camera was very nice.

The only thing was that IMAX was always considered being very clumsy so people would only put it on a track and then shoot vistas on it or put it on a dolly. I just had this dream: what if I can shoot on this format but actually do things that are so much more intimate and so much more flexible, like you would do with smaller film cameras? So I was just very determined to get the bloody thing on my shoulder. We re-engineered the camera a little. We took some stuff off, you know. We made it a little bit more ergonomical and then at some point we just found ways to put it on the shoulder with some support. That’s how I ended up shooting most of the IMAX stuff handheld. I think it was more about just a will to do it than anything else, you know.

Did you look at any other sci-fi movies going into this?

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This film doesn’t have one sci-fi movie as an inspiration. It is inspired by a lot of films for particular reasons, you know. Chris has talked about a lot of films that inspired him and they all have inspired him for very, very specific and different reasons. One film I brought to the table, which Chris also got a little inspired by, was a Tarkovsky movie, The Mirror. That doesn’t mean that in any way Interstellar resembles The Mirror but some parts of the approach there have seeped through somehow. And then there are a lot of sci-fi movies like 2001 or Alien or The Right Stuff, which is not sci-fi. And then also Ken Burns’ documentary, The Dust Bowl. I mean these are all films that have elements that have inspired us to do certain specific things.

You’re doing Bond 24 next with director Sam Mendes. With shooting starting in December, have you had talks with Sam about how he wants that to look?

I can’t talk about Bond yet so you have to forgive me. But I am a Bond fan and if I wasn’t excited I wouldn’t have taken the job.

Interstellar is out now in theaters everywhere.

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