‘Nope’ DP Hoyte Van Hoytema on His Biggest Challenge Shooting Jordan Peele’s Alien Movie

Jordan Peele wanted a vast spectacle with his latest release, “Nope.”

The UFO drama/thriller stars Daniel Kaluuya as a horse wrangler, who along with his sister Keke Palmer, start encountering UFO sightings. Along with Brandon Perra as Angel, the trio attempt to capture the sighting on film.

Peele called on Christopher Nolan’s preferred DP Hoyte Van Hoytema to shoot his spectacle. It was the Peele’s first outing shooting on film and using large format 65mm IMAX cameras. From challenging night scenes to vast mountain ranges, Hoytema explains how the two tried and tested formulas, and even built a new rig to create a fully immersive cinematic experience for audiences.

What did Jordan first tell you about his vision for the film?

He wanted something that felt remotely like a spectacle. He wanted to show that he had grown from the slightly lesser-scope films. With this, he wanted to explore space and vastness.

We started to talk very early about IMAX. He asked me what he thought I would have shot a UFO on if I had seen one for real, and that’s when I thought IMAX was the best medium to do it on.

It truly is a spectacle. But you also shot on the new IMAX 65mm cameras, how did that format serve his vision and your signature of wanting to shoot realism?

Cinema is not only a look, but it’s very much also the way things feel when you’re sitting in a cinema. Jordan was extremely committed to the big screen and how we experience the world in front of us. IMAX is the most visceral of all formats because it has the capability of registering the expansive world.

With shooting on film, it’s something that I’ve done for years, and I love it. I still live with the conviction that technically there is nothing better than film. No other medium can draw detail in a more naturalistic and organic way than film. Jordan shot his other films digitally, and I think he really wanted to dip his toes into that. He’s an information-hungry person and he loves learning and trying new things out, so he embraced this. I’ve never seen anyone really embrace it, and he just knows how to turn it to his own advantage.

How did you go from building intimate moments such as when Keke is dancing in the house to those vast landscape shots of the cloud to capturing those dark moments?

On a script level, Jordan knows where he wants fear and attention, so our discussion is very much about how we can achieve that and what we can do to convey that feeling.

We spent time talking about the night because that always looks a certain way on film, and there are seven night scenes in the movie. We were out in the middle of nowhere, in nature. So, we looked at what the eye sees and what it doesn’t. We looked at how it feels to stand in the middle of the valley and be surrounded by gigantic mountain ranges and to have that space.

It was also about creating awareness that there might be something there. We had so many discussions about how we wanted night to feel. I remember on one of our first scouts, we went out that night to the ranch, and we drove our car. There was no light except for the headlights, and then we turned those off. You can’t see anything. But as you walk further, your pupils start to dilate and you’re suddenly seeing stars, and mountain ranges and you see the moon, you’re no longer in this claustrophobic space of darkness, and it becomes big. We were determined to convey that. So, I built a camera rig, a combination of an infrared 65mm camera and a film camera that we would combine through a prism. We then mixed those images to create something that felt so similar to that feeling.

Did you feel any kinship with Michael Wincott, who plays a cinematographer in the film?

He’s wearing a big black scarf, and I’m wearing a black scarf. He wears my scarf in the film.

What was it like to have him shadow you?

We hung around Panavision, the rental house, and as I was getting my camera gear and shooting tests, Jordan suggested he spend a few days with me. He was all over the cameras and inside the cameras with his hand. He had cameras on his shoulders. He was so interested in learning and talking about the job and lighting. He wasn’t scared to get into the technical nitty gritty.

What did you think of his performance?

He makes cinematographers look good. A lot of cinematographers are scruffy bastards. He definitely gives cinematographers a lot of flair.

Can you talk about the scene with the house covered in blood?

It was a complex scene to shoot. There were expansive views of the house, and you see it from different angles. He wants to get things right. He’s not somebody wants it done quickly. There wasn’t one method of doing it. It was a big puzzle that came together with a lot of creative engineering going into it.

Jordan has said he’s such a fan of yours. Did he say, “This is my favorite film that you’ve done?”

Jordan is very generous with his feelings. Working with him was a dream come true. I have so much respect for him as a director and the chemistry was so great. I felt extremely creative with him. I can only say I’m a big fan of Jordan’s and I would work with him on the frontlines again, tomorrow.

Lastly, let’s talk about your camera movements in the film.

As you have seen, it’s very fast and we are moving around a lot because we are all over the place with the galloping horses. We worked on old-fashioned tracks. But we wanted the camera moves to be mobile and also capture elegant long takes. So, we worked with a beloved piece of equipment called The Edge, it’s a stabilized arm that can move on rough terrain. It has a gigantic head and stabilizes the camera, so we could chase those horse and riding scenes.