Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema on capturing Spike Jonze's 'Her' through a non-dystopian lens
Hoyte Van Hoytema hit most cinephiles' radar in 2008 with the Swedish horror film "Let the Right One In." It was a dazzling display, a crystalline vision from director Tomas Alfredson aided by rich visuals that found Van Hoytema's work prominently recognized in an annual In Contention feature celebrating the greatest images in cinematography (and again a few years later.)
From there, the director of photography made his move into domestic features as David O. Russell — who has an eye for top cinematography talent, from Newton Thomas Sigel to Peter Deming to Masanobu Takayanagi — tapped him for the award-winning "The Fighter" in 2010. He kept the Alfredson partnership going with the director's 2011 English-language debut "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and in 2013 found himself collaborating with Spike Jonze on the critically acclaimed "Her."
"I think every director you've been mentioning, for me, they're all great auteurs," Van Hoytema says. "Every one of them has a totally different approach to sort of manifest themselves or how to mediate their feelings and mediate their ideas, but they all have strong ideas, yet unique methods to achieve them. I think every one of them is a very important and powerful auteur. I'm totally lucky."
For "Her," however, Van Hoytema was stepping into someone else's shoes. Up until this point Jonze has collaborated with DP Lance Acord on films like "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Where the Wild Things Are." But with Acord moving further into directing with his Park Pictures production company, Jonze found himself interviewing a number of indivudals, looking for someone who could share in his futuristic vision of Los Angeles. With Van Hoytema, it all started with a Skype call — a long Skype call.
"We started Skyping and then two hours later we were still Skyping," Van Hoytema says. "We just had a very nice connection and the first thing Spike wrote me in the morning was, 'That was crazy. We Skyped for two hours and time flew by!' That was, of course, for us, a very good sign that we should try to work together."
In that initial call, they talked a lot about the movie, but Van Hoytema says what you discuss much more in such an instance is what you think movies should be, how they should feel, your approach to your work in seeing that vision through. "You're feeling each other out on a much more personal level," he says. "Of course, when we started working, things became more concrete. Spike was telling me what his ideas and visions were for this film. But that was not something that was the base for the collaboration. It was much more of an intuition or chemistry-level thing."
Jonze talked a lot at the beginning of pre-production about how he didn't want the future they were capturing to be a dystopia. He wanted it to be a very comfortable future, and indeed, the film conveys a world of disconnected longing in warm and soothing hues. "We started talking about references, looking at photo books, and it's kind of a hybrid between being a little bit conceptual and being very theoretical," Van Hoytema says of the developing visual identity of the film. "But at least half of it is being sort of intuitive and going with your own taste."
The DP was particularly inspired by the work of Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi, whose 6x6 square photographic studies of very trivial things in life had a compelling texture and a nice sort of palette. "She had a lot of influence, but of course it's always a collection where you're sort of trying to define some sort of a taste," he says. "You're always trying to explain to somebody else what your taste is, and it's never like, 'This photographer tells it exactly.' It's always a collection of sources that define it.
"In every project, I sort of find 30 or 40 stills that, in a way, capture one part of this thing that you're maybe after. And if you're collaborating with somebody, the other person understands that and those certain elements that are represented there. But you never really know it until you start working and start putting everything together and making concrete images. And then the pictures you create yourself become the reference, and you start learning from them and putting things together from those. It's a very hybrid, liquid, abstract process for me."
When it came to the color scheme of the film, Van Hoytema says he was very meticulous about eliminating the color blue. It's not that he has anything against blue, of course, but he felt that if they restricted a primary color like that, it would elevate the richness of the film's look and give it a unity. "It's very easy to say we want everything to be warm, but what is warm," he asks rhetorically. "It was not only that we wanted to colors to be warm but we wanted colors to have a specific identity."
Blue is also a color very strongly represented in science-fiction, he says, something that is always identified with technology or modernity. And in a way, the goal was to counteract that, because while "Her" is very much a work of science-fiction, it is not a genre piece full of genre tropes.
"It's like K.K. Barrett and the production design," he explains. "Modern is often very sleek and very stark, but we didn't really want that. Part of that vision of the future was that modern should be very soulful and warm and tactile. And I guess that's part of the reason we eliminated blue, but I don't want to make it sound like it was an intellectual reason. There was very much an intuitive drive behind it."
The result is one of the most exquisitely photographed films of the year, a full-bodied extension of Spike Jonze's vision as a director through the lens of one of the most gifted cinematographers working today.
And what can we expect of "Interstellar?" Of course, Van Hoytema is mostly mum on the subject. Nolan is a director adamant about keeping a lid on his work until he's ready to release it into the world, but it's an interesting transition from "Her" to that film, given the sci-fi link — however tenuous — that the two share.
"In sort of the big picture I can tell you every movie for me gets the same attention and it triggers some curiosity in me," Van Hoytema says. "In many ways I approached them the same way. I can't do it different. One movie happens to be very big and one happens to be very small, but I always have to sort of rely on myself and my own taste and my own social confidence to do them. And I think, also, every movie brings its own set of challenges, technically or socially or philosophically. I always pick movies that are challenging in different ways. For me I cannot compare those two movies right now. It's, like, impossible. But I think it's going to be great. I loved every minute of it, deeply. It was a fantastic experience."
"Her" moved into wider release on Jan. 10. "Interstellar," meanwhile, hits theaters on Nov. 7.