'Interstellar' Cinematographer Dishes on Joining Christopher Nolan, Shooting in Iceland

"It was days in a row standing in knee-deep, ice-melting water from the glacier," says Hoyte van Hoytema
Melinda Sue Gordon

Hoyte van Hoytema, the Dutch cinematographer who turned heads when he earned BAFTA and American Society of Cinematographers Awards nominations in 2012 for Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, is back in the Oscar conversation as director of photography on Christopher Nolan's Interstellar.

Getting there meant filling some big shoes; this was the first feature that Nolan helmed without his longtime collaborator Wally Pfister, the Oscar-winning cinematographer who chose to pursue directing with his 2014 debut Trancendence. "I've been a big fan of their collaboration, and they had incredible chemistry; I was in awe of that working relationship," van Hoytema tells The Hollywood Reporter. "My first impulse was to tell Chris that I could never be Wally, and I'm a very different cinematographer. … I had the feeling I could use my own personally."

Van Hoytema, of course, is no novice; his credits also include Spike Jonze's Her and David O. Russell's The Fighter. And in van Hoytema, Nolan found another like-minded cinematographer who has a passion for shooting film. "I not only embraced shooting Interstellar on film, but that was one of the things that connected us a lot. I have shot on digital but I share his love for [film]."

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"We shot as much as we could [in Imax]," he says, adding that it made up about 60-70 minutes of the finished film. The rest was shot in anamorphic 35mm. "We wanted the approach to be grounded in reality, not have an obvious aesthetic language, so we didn't want to made it too neat or slick. We wanted a rough edge to it, very spontaneous."

To do that, a lot was filmed handheld by van Hoytema himself. He adds that he also had "one of Hollywood's best operators with me, Scott Sakamoto. He did all the brilliant Steadicam."

The handheld work wasn't an easy choice with Imax cameras, which van Hoytema notes weigh about 70-80 pounds. "While we have a love for that medium, there are limitations. It's very unflexible, and we wanted to be flexible," he says, adding that he and his team worked with Imax and even Panavision to reengineer the ergonomics and other features of the camera system to make it more comfortable for handheld use.

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For inspiration for the space-set scenes, he watched Imax documentaries. "Imax has sent cameras to space and captured incredible imagery. We were very much inspired by that footage, and we used that to find color for our own film," van Hoytema says, noting that they looked at Imax footage of early Endeavour missions. "They sent those big cameras to shoot film in those incredibly small spaces. [To get that look] we wanted to shoot with wide lenses in cramped spaces ... to get the feeling of the proximity of the camera and feeling of claustrophobia."

What wasn't an inspiration was last year's hit Gravity. "Gravity came out when Chris and I were already working on the film," the cinematographer explains. "We didn't look at Gravity as we were making Interstellar. We couldn't afford to be fearful about those kinds of comparisons."

He added: "Gravity is a beautiful, beautiful film. Interstellar is a very different film — story-wise and approach-wise."

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To make Interstellar, the filmmakers aimed to do a lot of the work in camera, rather than relying on digital effects. Citing an example, the cinematographer related that the interior of the spaceship was built as a set, and they projected space outside the windows. We [also lit to show] the sun going though the windows of the ship."

The sequence during which some of the characters drive through a dust storm was also created in camera, using fans that blew dust at the vehicle while they were shooting on location in Canada. "It created a miniature dust storm. For some of the moving car shots, we rigged the camera on the car on a stabilized head."

Van Hoytema added that shooting in a lake in Iceland (which was used for one of the planet surfaces) was perhaps most physically challenging. "The (52-foot model) spaceship was in the water, and it was knee-deep water as far as you could see," he recalled, noting that he shot this sequence handheld with natural light. "There's nowhere to either sit down or put your stuff down. You are there with a minimum crew, but still with the technology. It was days in a row standing in knee-deep ice — melting water from the glacier."

Next up for van Hoytema: He's teaming up with Sam Mendes to photograph the 24th James Bond film.

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