Exclusive Interview with Oscar-Winner Wally Pfister on His Directorial Debut: “Transcendence”

?????????????Transcendence opened this Easter weekend to unfortunate reactions. Despite its $100 million budget, Johnny Depp’s latest “blockbuster” only managed to scrounge up $11 million on its opening weekend. It debuted in 4th place at the box office, outsold by two sequels: surprise hit Captain America: Winter Soldier and the beloved children’s animated feature Rio 2, as well as, embarrassing to the Transcendence crew, Heaven Is Real, a sentimental religious film starring Greg Kinnear.

Transcendence had a lot of hype going for it: Christopher Nolan, director of massive hits The Dark Knight and Inception, eyed it originally, before his long-time director of photography, Wally Pfister, took on the project as his directorial debut. Pfister is one of the most well-respected cinematographers currently working in the industry; the Academy nominated him for four Oscars during a span of six years, including one trophy for Inception. The film marks the latest project starring Johnny Depp, who has been spiraling downwards terribly, both critically and commercially, since his Pirates of the Caribbean days. Everyone following these two power players has been anxiously awaiting Transcendence, a high-concept story about a scientist who uploads his brain into a computer, granting him immortality and infinite intellect. The script was penned by first-time screenwriter Jack Pagland and was featured on the Hollywood Blacklist, which ranks the most popular unproduced scripts floating around the offices of studio execs.

But despite what I’d expect to be massive anticipation, Transcendence has neither drawn audiences in or impressed critics. IMDb users rate the film 6.4/10, Metacritic rates it as 44%, and Rotten Tomatoes as 20%, declaring it certifiably rotten. I find that harsh. Transcendence may not be a classic – it wobbles awkwardly on the line between action-packed Hollywood entertainment and socio-politically charged philosophical commentary wrapped in a science-fiction plot a la The Twilight Zone or the works of Ray Bradbury – but it doesn’t quite succeed on either path. Nevertheless, I think it’s well worth the experience to see.

As for the director himself, Wally Pfister couldn’t have been more pleasant talk to. One may expect a major Hollywood director to be curt and disinterested when speaking with college-level press, but he was more than polite and engaging. He’s the type you want to get a beer with, unfortunately likely a rare breed in his industry. No, his directorial debut might not be instant genius like Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs or Lynch’s Eraserhead, but plenty of brilliant directors didn’t start on their best foot (David Fincher with Alien 3). Pfister shows a lot of promise, moreso than, say, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s recent directorial debut Don Jon, and I’m excited to hear what he’ll tackle for his next project.

In the interview, Wally divulged his famous opinion of the quality of real film over digital moviemaking and how that connects to the film’s actual themes regarding advancing technology, what it was like to move from the DP’s chair, responsible solely for the camera and lights, to the director’s chair where he had to work more with the psychological aspects, character and actors; and what wisdom he gained from his former work with friend and mentor Christopher Nolan.

Without further ado, here’s what Wally had to say:


RR: 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 the society?

WP: Well, that’s a good question. That’s more my own opinion, but my feeling is, look, 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, if you could log into it, I would be very wary of it, if they were going to try to extract information from us. They would be asking too many personal questions, and requiring too many uploads. We’d continue to upgrade our software, and then it would be more of a commercial application and would cost us a lot of money to keep going. So I dunno, it’s anybody’s guess what would happen. I don’t really have any desire to upload my brain.


RR: You’ve been a lifelong cinematographer; have you ever had the goal of transferring to directing?

WP: I think I’ve always had the goal of wanting to direct something myself. As I’ve started to become more successful of a cinematographer, I’ve been thinking about it more and, you know, you wanna try different things in life, and I think it’s finally been knocking on my door for a few years. I’ve always wanted to try it out.


RR: What was the biggest challenge for you in your directorial debut?

WP: Well, you know, you run into a lot of challenges…it’s a very challenge just to get a movie made these days – particularly a larger budget movie, and then a science-fiction film, and then a high concept! There are a lot of hurdles in trying to put it together. But you know, the challenges obviously for a cinematographer-turned-director are in those areas that are brand new to you. And for me, the greatest challenge was also one of the most enlightening, wonderful, fun thing, and that’s in directing actors. It was really extraordinarily fun, but it’s a challenge playing the role of psychologist for the first time, whereas-as a cinematographer, which really is just about telling the story with images. Now you need to get that in the performance. It was a challenge, but a really, really enjoyable challenge.


RR: Obviously sci-fi films must differ at some point from scientific reality. How far does Transcendence breach from what’s currently being researched about artificial intelligence?

WP: I think in terms of its strays, stretching, you know, where we’re going with it…it’s pretty, you know, it’s fiction. And it is important for everybody to remember the “fi” in “sci-fi.” This is obviously designed as entertainment. So in terms of where we pushed the limits, obviously you cannot upload a human brain with the current technology out now. Where most of the science is right now is in mapping the human brain, and there’s several projects around the world where they’re slowly –and meticulously—working on mapping the human brain, which is basically logging in the synapses and communications between neurons. So that’s a real stretch – being able to take a human mind and upload it into a computer successfully, so that’s sort of what drives the science fiction in this film. Beyond that of course is the nanotechnology, which is our own creation. It is based on speculation on what might be plausible in the future. And 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 and could potentially happen in the future. Beyond that, as I said, it’s fiction.


RR: I know you mentioned earlier that Transcendence stands out from other artificial intelligence movies, but that just made me curious about what promotional progression that’s possible through technology, and obviously it reminds me of the movie Her. How is it different from that?

WP: It’s interesting because when I saw Her, I’d already completed our film, and I’m still relieved that they’re two very different movies. I was a huge fan of Her; I really, really enjoyed it. I thought it explored powerful, emotional connections. What I thought it said to me was that is this is all stuff we’re thinking about right now. You know? As we talk to Siri, as we listen to our GPS, as we communicate through social network. We’re being asked questions by machines and social networks: ‘Where did you go to school? Who are your friends? Do you want more friends?’ So we are communicating with artificial intelligence on a regular basis. One journalist called our film “The Dark Side of Her” which I think is kinda funny, but yeah, I mean, the two films are very different. I think Spike [Jonze, director and Oscar-winning writer of Her] touched on something phenomenal, and it’s also beautifully executed.


RR: Since this is your directorial debut and there were an astounding amount of top-billed actors: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, I mean household names, basically, what was it like to have them under your helm in your very first movie?

WP: Oh, it’s mind-blowing! Really, I feel incredibly fortunate to be lucky enough on my first outing as a director to have the likes of these incredible actors and honestly, this is just bullshit; they were all just a joy to work with. I’ve known Morgan [Freeman] for ten years, Cillian [Murphy] for ten years; we’d all done three “Batman” pictures together, and was very comfortable working with them. Johnny [Depp] is…just a joy to work with, a really smart guy. And then Paul Bettany a lot of fun. And Rebecca [Hall]—she’s got a great sense of humor. There was a really nice, calm levity on the set that I think made it a really comfortable environment for all of us. As I said, to have this kind of talent backing me up on my first film –first ever- was pretty phenomenal. I feel very privileged.


RR: What do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned from working with other great directors like Christopher Nolan as you approach your first directorial effort?

WP: You learn a little bit from everybody, and really one of the great things about Chris Nolan is his discipline on set. To observe somebody who really considers every minute of your set-time as precious – you know, your call-time is 7:00 and you’re there at 5 of 7:00, you’re late! He set a very important list and a discipline to learn from your settings. Having spent 14 years around Chris, where he doesn’t waste any second of his time and takes everything very, very seriously…he has a very great appreciation for the fact that it’s somebody else’s money and he’s responsible for it. He takes on that responsibility. That’s one of the great lessons I’ve learnt from working with Chris.


RR: I understand that you’ve worked with film a lot in your other diverse films, especially with Christopher Nolan, and I wanted to know why you enjoy working with film so much?

WP: Honestly, I’m waiting for digital technology to catch up. In digital technology, we only have 4-K cameras –we’ll have another K camera coming out soon—but anamorphic 35mm film is between 8 and 10 K is the rate you have to scan it at to get the resolution out of the film. So obviously it’s much better resolution, better contrast, better color, better saturation…so it may seem pretty nit-picky to some, because the digital cameras look pretty good on a big screen, but the film looks better, and I think that a lot of the beauty of photography is in the subtleties and the nuances, and if you want more detail in the shadow and more detail in the highlights and an overall richer look, film is still the superior medium. If that’s important to you: great! If not, then digital is fine. And by the way, digital is getting there: bit by bit, incrementally, we see improvements, but until it’s equal or better than film, I don’t think there’s any reason to give up film as long as it’s available.


RR: I’m just wondering were you trying to work on this particular film and how you got involved with this particular project of Transcendence.

WP: The seller got involved was through my agent: he sent the screenplay over—he also represents Jack Pagland [screenwriter of Transcendence]—and he said you should have a look at this; it just came across my desk and it’s pretty fascinating. What attracted me to it was really…it was original. Even though it dealt with artificial intelligence, which somebody mentioned earlier 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, their sort of emotional journey.


RR: There’s a lot of statements being made about technology, its responsibilities, its dangers…What would you say is the statement that was attempted to be made in the film if there was one?

WP: I would say there is no statement being made by the director…that’s what’s sort of important to me in this. People look for statements –people also look for good guys and bad guys—and there’s no defined good guys and bad guys in this film. I suppose RIFT (the anti-AI terrorist group led by Kate Mara’s character) could be considered the bad guys, but I think at the same time we can relate to some of their frustrations. Certainly they go to great levels that we don’t agree with. In terms of any statement…I think that it’s really the characters who make the statements. What we see from the character of Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) is that her hope is that technology will be used for the betterment of mankind. Certainly the statement from Will (Johnny Depp) is that everything that he wants to do –everything that he tries to do is for her and is because of his love for her. If there’s any slight thing that the filmmaker’s saying in the end is this notion that there are reasons to use technology in ways that don’t conflict environmentally, and that’s basically taking Evelyn’s line. Listen, I wanted to make a film more with characters making statements rather than the filmmakers.


RR: Since this is your first time directing a movie, and you still get the opportunity to work with Christopher Nolan [an Executive Producer for Transcendence], what was it like for you to step up from the cinematographer’s role and take over the director’s seat and hire somebody else to take on the job that you’ve done for so many years?

WP: It was a lot of fun is the answer to that…stepping up to the director’s chair. I really enjoyed having a lot more tools as a storyteller. I mean, obviously as a cinematographer, you’re telling stories through the images alone: composition, lighting, camera movements, and everything related to photography. And as a director, of course, you have many more tools to exercise. Most importantly, the story and the character development and dealing with the performances from the actors, which is the most fun. And in addition to that, you’re exploring the other elements that as a cinematographer, you’re less involved in: production design, visual effects, even sound design and editorial. What was enlightening to me was how much the director’s involved in sound design and picture. You spend months just working on the final sound design and mixing music. So those are all wonderful new tools that you don’t experience as a cinematographer, but I get to play with as a director.


RR: Since we’re all here representing our universities, I’m curious: if you could teach a college course of your creation, what would you teach?

WP: That’s interesting…honestly, I’m probably best-suited to teach a course in cinematography. I think if you’re gonna teach, you’d better do what you know best.   I’m still in my first outing as a director, so I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to teach directing. The simple answer to that is that I’d probably teach cinematography.


RR: What was the casting process like on the film, and what do you think all the actors brought to their characters?

WP: The casting process was really fantastic ‘cause as I said, I was really fortunate I was able to get these great actors. I had a great casting director, John Papsidera: he brought people like Clif Collins to the mix, and helped guide me towards Kate Mara. You rely a lot on the great folks around you, but in terms of getting these other actors, I was very, very fortunate to get Johnny [Depp], and then as I said, my previous relationships with Morgan [Freeman], Cillian [Murphy], and Rebecca [Hall, worked with Pfister in The Prestige] came to play in terms of casting. It’s really a dream cast.


RR: I know you feel strongly towards using film. So what about the story of Transcendence and its use of technology is a bit personal for you?

WP: I think there’s probably a little bit of that in there. It’s kind of hard to avoid the fact that the film is the organic and the more sort of traditional technology. It’s been with us for a hundred years. Technology [in the film] represents the digital, I suppose. The reality, as I said, is that film has higher image quality, and that’s the real reason I use film. I guess I have a love/hate relationship with technology in general. I love my computer, my cell phone, my iPad, but at the same time I’m 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 the 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’d like to see technology reach the level of image capture, and I look forward to a time when digital mediums are as simple and as effective as film is right now.


RR: You’ve already touched on your relationship with Christopher Nolan and what you’ve learned from him, but I was wondering throughout your professional relationship which has lasted so long, why you enjoyed working with him and why you think he enjoyed working with you.

WP: Chris and I have worked together for a long time, and clearly for a good reason – we both have a great respect for each other and have a good working relationship. I think we did fantastic work together. It’s tricky to find people you work with together –well—and when you do, you just kinda have to hang on and create a partnership that you think is gonna benefit each other.


RR: We talked about how your first directorial debut was a great experience. I’m just wondering if there were any experiences matched your expectations, or if there were any disappointments?

WP: There always are, you know? You’re always up and down in this experience and what happens is a little bit of both: I can’t think of a specific thing, but there are definitely moments where things aren’t going as you hoped or planned and it seems a matter of how much you planned, something happens to throw that plan or alter the course. Sometimes it happens for the better: sometimes something that you think is not working out actually turns out to be the better thing later on. It’s hard for me to remember specifics, but it is certainly a journey of ups and downs. Film…it evolves – it’s one thing when it’s on the script, and it evolves into something else when you’re filming it, and it evolves into something else in the editing room. At least that’s how it works for me – I’m sure some people plan every single frame, execute it that way, and it works that way; but for me, it’s something you really have to watch it grow and nurture it and guide it and take it to fruition, so I hope that answers your question.

RR: Thank you some much; I appreciate it.

WP: You’re welcome. These are great questions, by the way, guys. Thank you very much! Take care, bye!


If you saw Transcendence this weekend, what did you think?


Interview by Matthew D’Innocenzo


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