Academy Award Winning Cinematographer Wally Pfister Discusses His Directorial Debut "Transcendence"

Shannon O’Connor ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Editor-In-Chief

Johnny Depp and director Wally Pfister behind the scenes of Transcendence. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Warner Bros.
Johnny Depp and director Wally Pfister behind the scenes of Transcendence. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Warner Bros.
Academy Award winning cinematographer Wally Pfister (Inception, The Dark Knight) takes the director’s chair for the first time with the science-fiction thriller Transcendence.
Emertainment Monthly got the chance to talk with Pfister on a conference call, where the first time director talked about pulling of a high budget and high concept sci-fi film, working with long time collaborator Christopher Nolan and the challenges of directing.
*How did your career as a cinematographer influence your directorial debut?
Well, I think what you will find in life is that everything you do kind of contributes to what you do later on. So, everything that I did as a cinematographer [helped], even going back to before I shot feature films when I was a news camera man and did documentaries; all of that experience makes it easier when you get on the set as a director for the first time. One of the great things that I got out of all those years working on big budget features as a cinematographer was that I had a little less intimidation (laughs) in getting on the set for the first time as a director. You are a little more used to the craziness of the movie set. That is one of a thousand things that prepared me, being a cinematographer.
Audiences have seen the Artificial Intelligence theme many times in the past couple decades in films like Gattaca, A.I. Artificial Intelligence and RoboCop, so what sets Transcendence apart from the rest?
Firstly, what sets Transcendence apart is that it is not strictly speaking in artificial intelligence. The general shtick they are working on in the film is artificial intelligence, but I think I can say, without any spoilers, that it is actually the human mind that gets upload. So, we are talking about an actual human consciousness living in this machine rather than something completely artificial. That makes it slightly different, and I think that also sets off the emotional journey, because we are talking about [is that] throughout most of the movie the idea is to question whether in fact this machine contains the actual soul of this particular person, that person being Johnny [Depp] of course.
With the open ending of the movie, what do you hope viewers will discuss and internalize?
There are a lot of things that I would like people to be thinking about and discussing as the movie concludes. I think most of it is this notion that if we are going to be relying on technology or dependent on technology, it is good to know who’s hands it’s in (laughs). Clearly, if we are talking about a benevolent character, then we would hope good things are going to be done with the technology that should be to the betterment of mankind. Also, there is the cautionary note as to if it were in different hands, if anything with this kind of power landed in the hands of somebody more malevolent what those dangers could be. It’s also, obviously, a little bit of a wink at the fact that it is not a bad idea to turn off devices every now and again and embrace nature.
I know Jack Paglen wrote the script, but how much research did you put into things like nanotechnology in preparation for the film?
I did an enormous amount of research. Jack wrote the original screenplay and then I continued writing drafts, consequently. I went on my own little college tour in early Spring of 2012 and I went to visit MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and talked to professors in the field of nanotechnology, neurobiology, botic and even in the media labs to look at some of the projections and get ideas for what was state of the art in terms of projections and holograms. I also visited Stanford (University) and spoke to professors there, and did the same thing at Berkeley. I landed on two professors at Berkeley, one in neurobiology and one in nanotechnology, which were so helpful they became the full-time consultants on the set and were involved in every stage of the science and medical applications. I felt pretty confident by the time we started filming that I had a pretty clear idea of what was really possible and where we were kind of bending it a bit.
If this machine were real and an option for everyday people, do you think a lot of people would do it and what would it do to society?
Well, that is more of my own opinion, but my feeling is if you were able to upload your own mind, I’m not exactly sure what you would do with a duplicate of your own mind except consider the possibilities of immortality. If it were some sort of commercial application that you could log into, I would be very wary and skeptical of it that [people] would try to extract information from us, ask too many personal questions and require too many upgrades to software. It would be more of a commercial application and it would cost us a lot of money to keep going. So, I don’t know, it is anybody’s guess what would happen, [but] I don’t really have the desire to upload my brain.
Director Wally Pfister behind the scenes of Transcendence. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Warner Bros.
Director Wally Pfister behind the scenes of Transcendence. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Warner Bros.
You have done a lot of films as a cinematographer, have you always had the goal of transitioning to directing?
I think I have always had the goal of wanting to direct something myself. As I started to get more successful, I started thinking about it more and, you know, you want to try different things in life. It had been knocking on my door for a few years and finally I felt it was time to try it out.
What was the biggest challenge for you in your directorial debut?
Well, you run into a lot of challenges (laughs). It’s very challenging just to get a movie made these days, particularly a larger budget movie and then science fiction film and then a high-concept science fiction film, so there are a lot of hurdles in trying to put it together. The challenges as a cinematographer-turned-director are in those areas that are brand new to you. For me, the greatest challenge was also one of the most enlightening, wonderful, fun things which was directing actors and delving into performance for the first time. It was extraordinarily fun, but there were challenges, because you are suddenly playing the role of psychologist for the first time (laughs), whereas as a cinematographer it was really just about telling stories. Now you need to get that in performance. [It was] a challenge, but a really, really enjoyable challenge.
Obviously, sci-fi films must differ at some point from scientific reality. How far does Transcendence stray from what is currently being researched about artificial intelligence?
It is fiction and it is important for everybody to remember the “fi” in sci-fi, this was obviously designed as entertainment. So, in terms of where we pushed the limits; obviously you cannot upload a human brain with the current technology. Where most of the science is right now is in mapping the human brain and there are several projects around the world where they are slowly and meticulously working on mapping the human brain, which is basic logging in the synapses and its communication between neurons. So, that is our real stretch; being able to take a human mind and upload it into a computer successfully. That’s sort of what drives the science-fiction in this film to begin with; beyond that of course the nanotechnology is our own creation. It is based on speculation and what might be plausible for the future, but that’s what the two main professors that were my consultants are comfortable with saying is most of what we deal with in the film is at this time plausible (laughs) and could potentially happen in the future. Beyond that, as I said, it’s fiction.
I know that you mentioned earlier that Transcendence stands out from other artificial intelligence movies, but that just made me curious (about) the emotional progression that is possible through technology. It obviously reminds me of Her, how is it similar or different to that?
It’s interesting, because when I saw Her I had already completed our film. I was so relieved they are two very different movies, but I was a huge fan of Her. I really, really enjoyed it and thought that it explored the powerful emotional connection. What it said to me was that this is what we are all thinking about right now as we talk to Siri, as we listen to our GPS, as we communicate through social network[ing] and we are being asked questions by machines and social network[s] [like] where did you go to school, who are your friends, do you want more friends. We are communicating with artificial intelligence on a daily basis. We had one journalist call our film “the dark side of Her” (laughs) which I think is kind of funny, but the two films are very different. I think Spike [Jonze] touched on something pretty phenomenal and it’s also beautifully executed, I thought.
Johnny Depp in Transcendence. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Warner Bros. Pictures.
Johnny Depp in Transcendence. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Warner Bros. Pictures.
Since it is your directorial debut and there were an astounding amount of top-billed actors: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, house-hold names basically. What was it like to have them under your helm on your very first movie?
Oh, it’s mind-blowing (laughs). I feel incredibly fortunate to be lucky enough on my first outing as a director to have these incredible actors. Honestly, this isn’t just bulls—t, they were all enjoyable to work with. Obviously I have known Morgan for 10 years and Cillian [Murphy] for ten years, we’d all done three Batman pictures together and was very comfortable working [with them]. Johnny is just a joy to work with and he is a really smart guy. And then Paul Bettany is a lot of fun and Rebecca [Hall], Bettany has a great sense of humor. There was a really nice calm remedy on the set that I think made it a comfortable environment for all of us. As I said, to have this kind of talent backing me up on my first film was pretty phenomenal. I am very privileged.
What do you think is the most important thing you have learned from working with other great directors like Christopher Nolan as you approach your first directorial effort?
You know, you learn a little bit from everybody and one of the great things about Nolan is his discipline on set. To observe somebody who really considers every minute of your set-time to be precious – if your call time is at 7 o’clock and you are there at five of 7 [o’clock] you’re late. He set a very important lesson in discipline to learn in terms of your set experience. Having spent 14 years around Chris, where he doesn’t waste a second of his time and he takes everything very, very seriously – he has a great appreciation for the fact that it’s somebody else’s money and he is responsible for it. He takes on that responsibility. That is one of the great lessons I have learned from working with Chris.
I understand you have worked with film a lot in your other endeavors, especially with Christopher Nolan, and I wanted to know why you enjoy working with film so much?
Well, honestly I am waiting for digital technology to catch up. In digital technology we only have 4K cameras and maybe there is a 5K camera coming out soon, but anamorphic 35mm film is between 8 and 10K is the rate you have to scan it at to get the resolution out of the film. It is obviously much higher resolution, its better contrast, better color and saturation. So, it may seem nitpicky to some, because the digital cameras look pretty on a big screen but the film looks better. I think a lot of the beauty of photography is in the subtleties and in the nuances, and if you want more detail in the shadow and more detail in the highlight and an overall richer look, film is still the superior medium. If that is important to you, great; if it’s not, digital is fine. And by the way, digital is getting there – bit by bit, incrementally, we see improvement; but, until it is equal or better than film, I don’t see any reason to give up film as long as it is available.
Why did you choose to work on this particular film and how you got involved with this particular project?
Well, the “how” was through my agent who sent a screenplay over, my agent also represents Jack Paglen (screenwriter of Transcendence) – and he said “I think you should take a look at this, it came across my desk and I think it is pretty fascinating.” What attracted me to it was [that] I thought it was very original. Even though it dealt with artificial intelligence, I believe I mentioned earlier [and] is not a completely original subject matter – I thought it was a very original screenplay. I really loved what Jack had created with these characters and their emotional journey.
Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall and director Wally Pfister behind the scenes of Transcendence. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Warner Bros.
Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall and director Wally Pfister behind the scenes of Transcendence. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Warner Bros.
There are a lot of statements being made about technology; its possibilities, its dangers… What would you say is the statement attempted to be made in the film, if there was one?
I would say there is not statement being made by the director and that is what is important to me in this. People look for statements and people also look for good guys and bad guys and there are no defined bad guys in this film. I suppose R.I.F.T.  (Revolutionary Independence From Technology, the rebel organization in the film) could be considered the bad guys, but at the same time I think you can relate to some of their frustrations, certainly they go to great levels we don’t agree with. In terms of any statement, I think that it is really the characters who make the statements. I think that what we see from the character, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) is that her hope is that technology will be used for the betterment of mankind, and certainly the statement from Will is that everything that he wants to do and everything that he tries to do is for her and it is because of his love. If there slight thing that the filmmaker is saying in the end is this notion that there are reasons to use technology to aid some of the problems we have inflicted, environmentally, and that is basically taking Evelyn’s line. Like I said, I wanted to make a film where characters make the statements rather than the filmmakers.
Since this is your first time directing a movie, and you still got the opportunity to work with Christopher Nolan, I was wondering what it was like for you to step out of the cinematographer role and take that director’s seat and hire somebody else to take over the job that you’ve done for so many years?
It was a lot a fun, is the answer to stepping up to the director’s seat. I really enjoyed having a lot more tools as a storyteller. Obviously, as a cinematographer you are telling stories through the images alone [with] composition, lighting, camera movements and everything related to photography. As a director, of course, you have many more tools to exercise. Most importantly, the stories and character development and dealing with performance with the actors, which is the most fun. In addition to that, you are exploring the other elements that as a cinematographer you are less involved in [including] production design, visual effects, even sound and sound design. What was enlightening to me was how much the director is involved in sound design and production. You spend months just working on the final sound and picture for the movie. Those are all wonderful new tools that you don’t experience as a cinematographer that I got to play with as a director.
Since we are all here representing our universities, I am curious if you could teach a college course of your creation, what do you think you would teach?
Well, that is interesting. Honestly, I am probably best suited to teach a course on cinematography. I think if you are going to teach, you better do what you know best. It is my first outing as a director, so I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to teach directing. A simple answer to that is that I would probably teach cinematography.
Kate Mara in Transcendence. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Warner Bros. Pictures.
Kate Mara in Transcendence. Photo Credit: Peter Mountain/Warner Bros. Pictures.
*What was the casting process on the film and what do you think all actors brought to their characters?
Well, the casting process was really fantastic. As I said, I was very fortunate that I was able to get these great actors. I had a great casting director, John Papsidera, he was really helpful and brought people like Clifton Collins Jr. to the mix and helped guide me toward Kate Mara. You rely on a lot of great folks around you, but in terms of getting these other actors I was very, very fortunate to get Johnny and then, as I said, my previous relationship with Morgan, Cillian and Rebecca came in play in terms of casting them. It’s really a dream cast.
I know you feel strongly about the use of film. So what about the story of Transcendence and its use of technology that is personal for you?
I think there is a little bit of that in there. It is kind of hard to avoid the fact that the film is the organic and the more traditional technology, it has been with us for a hundred year, and technology represents the digital life, I suppose. The reality is that I said is that film has a higher image quality, and is the real reason I use film, but I guess I have a love/hate relationship with technology in general. I love my computer, my cell phone and my iPad, but at the same time I am not that crazy about giving out personal information on social media sites and I also get a little annoyed when my phone makes me upgrade to new software quite frequently, rather than just letting me use it as a telephone. So, I guess in general I have a love/hate relationship with technology. I would like to see technology reach the level in image capture as film is and I look forward to a time when digital is as simple and as effective as film is right now.
Well, you have already touched on your relationship with Christopher Nolan and what you have learned from him, but I was wondering throughout your professional relationship which has lasted so long, why you enjoy working with him and why you think he enjoyed to continue working with you?
Well, Chris and I worked together for a long time and clearly for a reason, we both have a great respect for each other and a good working relationship. I think we did fantastic work together. It is tricky to find people that you work with well and when you do you kind of hang on and create a partnership you hope is going to benefit each other.
We talked about how your directorial debut was a great experience. I am just wondering if there were any moments when the experience didn’t match your expectations and if there were any disappointments?
There always are, you know? You are always kind of up and down in this experience. What happens is a little bit of both, I cannot think of a specific thing, but there are definitely mornings where things are not going as you would of hoped and planned. It seems it doesn’t matter how much you plan, something happens to throw that plan and alter the course of it. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes something that you think is not working out actually turns out to be the better thing later on. It is hard for me to remember a specific [moment], but it is certainly a journey of ups and downs. A film really is a bizarre organic beast that evolves, it is one thing when it is on the script and then it evolves into something else as you are filming it and then it evolves into something else in the editing room. At least that is how it works for me, I am sure some people plan every single frame and execute it that way and it works for them; but for me it really is something that you have to watch it grow and nurture it and guide it and take it to fruition.
Transcendence is in theaters now.
* Denotes a question asked by Emertainment Monthly

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