TRANSCENDENCE Director - Wally Pfister
Wally Pfister, an ACADEMY AWARD®-winning cinematographer, recently turned his talents to directing. The result is Transcendence, a film that ponders the fraught relationship between humans and the technology they create. The film stars Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, and Johnny Depp, who plays a scientist who defies death when his consciousness is transferred to the digital realm. Prior to Transcendence, Pfister was best known for his work as a cinematographer on the films of Christopher Nolan, including the stunning, spectacular imagery in films like Memento, The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Inception. All those movies were shot on Kodak film, in some cases on large formats, like 65mm and even IMAX. Pfister and cinematographer Jess Hall, BSC chose to shoot Transcendence in 35mm anamorphic format with a photochemical finish.
During your cinematography career, did you know that someday you’d direct?
It was always in the back of my mind. I didn’t know that it would be a big Hollywood feature, but I can say that I knew I’d give it a shot one day. Even when I was working as a camera operator, the actors and their performances fascinated me, and I wanted to explore that in more depth. I’ve always been a musician, so I’ve really sunk my teeth into the music and sound aspects of directing, too. I’ve very much relished the writing process as well. The combination of the words and the way an artist like Johnny Depp brings them to life – let’s just say that I really had a lot of fun throughout the entire project.
Did you see making the leap to directing as risky?
I took a chance. I’ve always taken risks throughout my career. I was a top documentary cameraman in Washington, D.C., before I started over in Hollywood to pursue a career in features. I’ve always thought there was more to do. Any success I’ve had is directly tied to my willingness to take risks.
What were your goals with Transcendence? What did you learn along the way?
I wanted to make a film that would make people ask questions. If you could save your loved one by uploading their brain to a computer, wouldn’t you do it? I wanted to explore psychology and play with the art of performance. The material had to intrigue me. I couldn’t have done this movie if I didn’t want to see it myself. I learned that you can never spend enough time developing the screenplay. There’s no version where you’re overdoing your preparation of the story or your development of the characters. I think it just continues to evolve. And I think that what happens in so many movies is that for many different reasons, the filmmakers give up and try to rush it – and that process can’t be rushed.
To prepare, you talked to technologists at places like MIT and Berkeley. What did you pick up from them?
I asked them how far away some of the mind-blowing technologies featured in the film were. Some said as near as 30 years. Technology’s potential to solve some of our problems is thrilling. But there’s always the question of whether we’re ready to handle it. It’s a conundrum that is as old as humankind, but it has become more and more alarming as the speed of technology development accelerates.
During preproduction, you screened a 70 mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey for your key collaborators. Why?
2001 is probably the most influential film of my lifetime. I first saw it when I was 8 years old. I probably had no idea what it was about. As a kid that age – this was close to the time of the moon landing – I loved anything to do with space. But I was also drawn in by those incredible visuals, the pacing, and the sparse dialog. I truly have grown up with that film. I’ve been watching it for 40 years. I wanted to share that with the people on my team. I consider it the gold standard of science fiction, and perhaps of narrative film itself! The subject matter – artificial intelligence – was also pertinent. It was a rare opportunity to see the spectacular nature of 70 mm film projected. My friends at the Academy were kind enough to let us have a special screening of a clean, almost brand-new 70 mm print that had only been seen once or twice before that.