Entertainment

04.17.14

How ‘Transcendence’ Director Wally Pfister Became Christopher Nolan’s Secret Weapon

A local news cameraman turned Oscar-winning cinematographer, Wally Pfister has been Christopher Nolan’s go-to director of photography. It's time for his $100 million directorial debut.

Wally Pfister is nervous—and with good reason.

In a few hours, Pfister, 52, will slip into his best suit and head from his house in the Hollywood Hills to Westwood’s Regency Village Theater for the red-carpet premiere of his new movie, Transcendence.

For most filmmakers Pfister’s age, this would be a moment to bask in. A luxurious $100 million budget. A sterling cast led by Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, and Paul Bettany. And a thought-provoking story about a brilliant scientist named Will Caster (Depp) whose heartbroken wife Evelyn (Hall) uploads his brain into a supercomputer after he dies—transforming him into a kind of omnipresent, omnipotent, and possibly malevolent digital god.

But Pfister isn’t most filmmakers his age. Transcendence is his directorial debut. He still has a lot to prove. 

“This is a very difficult period right now—being in limbo,” he admits. “Not knowing whether the movie is going to lose money or make money. It affects the future: whether I’ll be able to direct other films. What scripts I can get. The power I’ll have—or not. There’s no going back. There’s no changing the movie. And it is a business. The success and failure in this town is just nerve-wracking.”

By almost any measure, Pfister is a remarkable success: a local news cameraman turned Oscar-winning cinematographer, he’s spent the last 14 years as Christopher Nolan’s go-to DP (director of photography). Memento? That was Pfister. So was Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises.

But Pfister was getting antsy, as usual. So he went in search of a new challenge, and that challenge ended up being Transcendence: a big commercial movie that has the courage to tackle big questions about the peril, and promise, of artificial intelligence while keeping the big explosions to a minimum.

We’re sitting in Pfister’s rec room—his man cave, of sorts. It’s a little bit after 10:00 in the morning. Black-and-white photos of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Keith Richards hang above a piano; guitar amps line the walls. The bleached Los Angeles light is pouring through double-height windows that frame Pfister’s Hockney-esque swimming pool, and his equally Hockney-esque view of the rolling hills beyond. Upstairs, Pfister’s family is gathered for the premiere: his son Nick, his two daughters, Claire and Mia, even his mother, Patricia, in town from New York. His wife, Anna, is making eggs. His golden retriever is sprawled on the floor, exhausted.

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Johnny Depp, director Wally Pfister, on set, 2014. (Peter Mountain/Everett)

Pfister looks exhausted too. Striped T-shirt. Faded jeans. Bare feet. His steel-gray hair hasn’t been combed recently—unless you count all the times he musses it up with his fingers, which he does every few seconds. Still, he’s a very gracious host: open, warm, enthusiastic. He ends most of his sentences with a smile.

Pfister offers me a glass of water. I accept. And then we get down to business: talking about how a guy who spent most of the 1980s shooting Capitol Hill committee hearings and PBS documentaries became one of the most sought-after cinematographers in Hollywood—and how he managed to transform himself into a big-budget director from there.

“Every 10 years I needed to make a radical change in what I was doing,” Pfister tells me. “I can’t really say why. But I will say that I was never afraid to take risks.”

Do you remember first reading the Memento script? What was your response?

Memento was phenomenal. I was in Birmingham, Alabama, shooting nights on a small-budget movie. I remember we were doing night lighting, and I stepped off the set and started looking at the script—just the first few pages. Like, “Wait a minute, what’s going here?” I wasn’t giving it the attention I needed to, so the next day I read it all the way through and was just blown away. I knew it was something special. And other people didn’t. I knew DPs who read it and were like, “I don’t understand this.” I was shocked that they didn’t at least understand that there was magic there.

You knew that you wanted to do it.

I knew that I wanted to do it. But I was in Alabama shooting six-day weeks, shooting nights, and I said to my agent, “Look, I’m really interested in this. This is really cool. But I don’t know how I’m going to see the director.” And my agent said, “If you don’t figure out how to get back to L.A. to meet this guy in person, you’re not going to get the job. You don’t have a chance at the job.” So I said, “When’s the next flight?” And I did it. I just burned the candle, flew out to meet him, flew back, and was on the set that day.

And Chris remembered me. He watched a film that I had done a year before and responded to the work in a positive way. That’s how I got my interview. But I was convinced that I blew it.

Why?

I hadn’t slept in 36 hours. I was a mess. I was rambling. Obviously, I was impressed by how intelligent Chris was. I was a little intimidated meeting him. So I left there going, “Oh, well, that would have been great.” I was very surprised—and pleased—that I got the call. And that changed everything. Apparently, his first four choices weren’t available. [Laughs]

Chris hired me and we had an incredible experience. We shot the movie in 25 days. And lo and behold: this smart independent film that was well-directed and well-acted was financially successful. And that really set off the magic of Chris Nolan—the magic of being able to make smart, interesting, original films that are also profitable.

It is magic, isn’t it? At least in Hollywood.

It is. I was very fortunate to be along for the ride for 13, 14 years. We made seven films together.

What did you bring to the Nolan movies that you’re most proud of?

A lot of moments in those films. Chris always had the ideas for the wonderful staging of the shots: to have Batman standing on top of the Sears Tower. But it would have been my idea to do it as a dusk shot. To be able to see the landscape and have a balance where the lights of the city are just coming on and there’s still skyline and ambiance. Another one in Dark Knight is when Batman is standing in front of the fire in Battersea Power Station. For me the notion of mixing the warm light of fire with the cool light of dusk, that created a color palette. The color palette in Batman Begins is something I brought to the party, too—that rusty, sodium-vapor color. I pitched it to Chris. It defined the look of that film.

So when did you decide that you wanted to direct—that being a cinematographer wasn’t enough for you?

By the time I started getting nominated for Oscars, I began to think, “OK, this is cool. I’m reaching my goals.” And then I got that statue in my hand for Inception and I had reached my goal. It was 2010. I finally went, “Now it’s time to try something new. To do it while I can.” I would say, “Do it while I’m young,” but I was past that. [Laughs] So really it was “Do it before I die.” [Laughs]

The color palette inBatman Begins is something I brought to the party, too—that rusty, sodium-vapor color. I pitched it to Chris. It defined the look of that film.

I just said, “Yeah. Let’s put the blindfold on and jump off the edge of the cliff.” I’ve never really played it safe. Right to this day. I was never fearful of  “Oh, gee, am I going to make it? What’s going to happen if I don’t make it?” You just take the chance. It’s always paid off in the past. Whether it continues to, who knows?

Are you feeling the pressure right now? Transcendence is a $100 million movie about a very complex subject: the perils and promise of artificial intelligence.

I definitely feel that pressure. Obviously, I chose some pretty complicated material. It probably would have been much safer to do a smaller-budget movie with a simpler theme. In hindsight, I hope I don’t wish that I had. It all depends on the success of the movie, both with audiences and critics.

But I felt like Transcendence was a movie I needed to do. And I didn’t let it go. It was tough to get this movie made. It was hard to get the money for it. It was hard to find the cast for it. But once we did, everybody rallied. We kept this thing going.

***

Let’s rewind. Your father was a journalist. Tell me about your parents.

They’re both from Wisconsin. My grandfather was the city editor of a newspaper in Wisconsin. Then my father was a news writer. He started out with CBS, then went to NBC. Wrote copy for Huntley Brinkley in the 1950s, then he was their producer. He produced for Frank Reynolds, Howard K. Smith, Peter Jennings in his first outing. Then he became a vice president of ABC News. He covered special events. Mostly space flight, also civil rights, presidential conventions. And I became a news cameraman when I was 19 years old.

Did you want to be a journalist growing up?

I think I had more of an artistic thing bouncing around and bothering me. I wasn't disciplined enough to be a journalist, so I found a visual way to get into it, which was behind the camera. I fell in love with imagery.

What was the first thing you wanted to be when you grew up?

I honestly think that deep down I wanted to get into movies, and when I was 8, 9, 10 years old, there was a series of events that happened that really got me fascinated by film. The first thing was seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey.

That’s interesting, given the subject matter of Transcendence.

There’s no question that 2001 has been the most influential film in my life. It has continued to influence me and inspire me for 40 years.

Where did you see it?

I saw it as a kid. My dad took me to a theater in New York City on its first run. So it would have been 1968 or 1969. I would have been 7 or 8 years old. As a 7- or 8-year-old kid, of course the greatest fascination for me was the space stuff, because I was into rockets. Then I got interested in science fiction and read a bit in my teens. I picked up a Super 8 camera when I was 11 or 12.

Where did the camera come from?

My dad got a Super 8 camera to film home movies, but he never touched it. It was lying around so I grabbed it. I saved up my money and got myself a slightly better Super 8 camera and started making goofy little films when I was 11, 12 years old.

Do you remember any of those films?

Yeah, I made a stop-motion movie.

Really? That’s a lot of work.

It was about a lawnmower kind of taking over. There’s a kid who’s trying to get the lawnmower started. Then he just gave up on it—and the lawnmower mowed the lawn by itself. I also made a thug chase movie with a bunch of my friends in high school. There was a bunch of action in it.

You said there was a series of events that sparked your interest. What else?

When I was 10 or 11 years old, a movie company came to town to do this Burt Reynolds movie, Shamus.

As soon as you saw Burt Reynolds, you were done for.

[Laughs] Exactly! Burt Reynolds and Dyan Cannon—in 1972, they were the shit. So me and my buddies in the neighborhood snuck up and watched them filming. We watched the arc lights and the stunts and the cameras. I was really smitten by it. The process—and what they call “the circus.” So that was always in my head. But then I kind of lumbered around. I went to work at a television station. I was a PA.

That was your first job?

That was my first job, pretty much right out of high school. I was 18 at the time. And I went directly to the camera. I learned the video camera there. I did a little short essay when I was 18—a little architectural essay about this beautiful Victorian house. I was just fascinated by the architecture of it—the visual aspect. And they moved me up to cameraman based on what I was able to show them. That short got me going.

What drove you at that point to pursue creative projects? A lot of people would get a job as a cameraman and say, “Great! I’m a cameraman now.”

It had to happen. What I realize now that I couldn’t realize then—or at least didn’t realize then—is that I needed to have some sort of creative outlet. It’s a wonderful catharsis, but it’s also just this need to create; to see what works, to see what sticks, to see what inspires you. That’s definitely what happened to me.

You moved to Washington, D.C., next.

Right. I became an editor-cameraman working with other reporters. We provided video of events in Washington, whether it was the White House, Capitol Hill, State Department, to local TV stations. That was a great, hard-core, intensive training—not for the camera, but for how to get coverage. Which ultimately is directing, at least from the mechanical side of it.

You had to visualize what all the pieces were and make sure you found them.

Absolutely. It was a bit of a storyboard. You’d have to get a wide shot of the committee room. Then you’d have to get cutaways of each of the committee members so that you could intercut. Then you’d have to get soundbites of speakers giving you the relevant material. And we had to cut our own stories together.

Did you still have aspirations to get into film at this point?

I think I’d forgotten. I was really happy being a cameraman. I was happy with the work that I was doing and where I was going. At the time I had smaller goals. The real goal was going from this stringer service to become a network cameraman. It was all about the three networks: ABC, NBC, and CBS. That was the brass ring. Then things changed. Cable expanded everything. I became less interested in pure television news and drifted into documentaries as a freelancer.

What triggered that shift?

I think I’d gotten a little bored in the news agency, doing the standard Washington stuff.  It was the same thing every day. Committee hearings were deathly boring. I wasn’t even that excited anymore doing photo ops at the White House with Ronald Reagan and whoever the visiting dignitaries were. It became dull.

How old were you at the time?

I made the transition to being a freelancer in 1984, so I was 23. At that point I’d been a cameraman for four or five years.

Was there a moment when you realized that you had to change course?

If I had never gotten bored of being a news cameraman, I never would have moved into documentaries. I did a couple of pieces for Frontline. At the time—they’re now a little safer—they were doing some really fascinating work. I worked on a series called Conversations on the Constitution with Bill Moyers. To me, that was much more interesting than what I had been doing as a news cameraman. It was a taste of storytelling. So I became top documentary cameraman by the mid to late 1980s, and it was around that time that Robert Altman came to town.

This was to make Tanner ‘88.

Yep. And that really set the transition from …

Nonfiction to fiction.

Exactly. The show itself blurred the lines. It was about a fictional presidential candidate played by Michael Murphy. The premise of the show—it was written by Garry Trudeau—was that we would follow this fictional presidential candidate and a few other actors who were playing parts—Cynthia Nixon played his daughter—as they navigated the real world of Washington politicians. Michael Dukakis was running for president at the time, so playing off of him. Playing off of another candidate, Bruce Babbitt. All these real politicians were in scenes with the actors.

So how did you get involved?

I was hired to play a cameraman. [Laughs] Word was out that they were looking for a real cameraman to play a cameraman on the show. That’s Bob’s style. So I met with them and the producer liked me a lot. Then I went in to meet Bob.

He was one of my heroes. I’d been a huge film fan throughout all these years, and I’d continued to really love the maverick directors from the ‘70s, whether it was Scorsese or Altman of Spielberg.

Did the idea of being onscreen make you uncomfortable at all? Not every cameraman would want to make that leap.

I was very uncomfortable with the prospect, but Bob loved that. He loved that I was a real cameraman. The first thing we shot was a staged protest at the South African embassy. It was during the era of apartheid—1988. Knowing that I was a news cameraman, Bob said, “Put some tape in his camera.” It was a Beta camera. “We’ll get some footage while we’re in there filming him.” So that’s what I actually ended up doing. I was awful as an actor, but Bob loved my footage. They watched my stuff in dailies and they were kind of like, “Wow. This is incredible. Who knew?” And I was like, “Well, that’s what I do for a living.” [Laughs] “I’ve been doing it for almost 10 years.” So Bob signed me up for the rest of the show. I went to every location with them for the next four or five months. And I definitely got the filmmaking bug from that.

When you were doing the Altman work, did you approach that the same way you approached documentary work—or were you starting to develop a more creative sensibility?

I think I was starting to pick it up. And Bob helped me learn.

How so?

Suddenly working for a Hollywood director, I made a false assumption that everything was to supposed be very rigid. I was very conscious of producing Hollywood material. But that’s not at all what Bob wanted. He liked a loose camera. So my first day, he kind of chastised me. He said, “That’s not what I saw in you. That’s not why I hired you. You need to be free-form. If you see something going on, grab it with the camera.” And that was fascinating to me. It defined Altman’s style. If you look at his films, the camera has a life of its own. He loosened me up.

You moved to Los Angeles soon after working with Altman.

I’m doing this dramatic material for the first time. Working with actors for the first time. And working with one of my heroes. So I applied to the cinematography program at the American Film Institute. And that was the next phase—the second 10 years. I stopped being a documentary cameraman. I move to LA. I dropped everything. And I took the big risk: film school, working for Roger Corman, doing all these cheap, crap-o movies, and then doing a bit of work on bigger budget films. And that led to Christopher Nolan.

What did you learn from Corman?

It really was about speed.  I had to move fast as a news cameraman. So having to light quickly, make quick decisions, and shoot an entire feature film in 15 days—I was well-suited to it at that point. I really believe strongly in the whole Outliers thing, too. By 1988, I had been a cameraman for nine years. I had almost gotten my 10,000 hours behind the camera. I was trained.

I vividly remember shooting a scene for a Roger Corman film—I was hired to do pickups—where it was a night exterior, but we weren’t given any lights. So we shot it with car headlights. [Laughs] That’s what we had to work with. And it worked just fine.

I guess Roger Corman had a pretty good eye for talent.

Roger was amazing. More than anything else, he took advantage of us all. Which was great! We were paid pennies. But for us it was our film school. We learned as we were going along. Then we all moved on to bigger things, one step at a time.

Did you still think of your ceiling at that point as cinematographer?

I think so. I was really cutting my teeth. Really honing my skills in lighting—and failing, I might add. There is constant success and failure in life. My first couple of movies as a cinematographer, the lighting was awful. I had to learn it. I had to practice it. I had to get there.

Tell me about one of those failures.

The first movie I shot as a cinematographer was called The Unborn. It was a horror movie. I had something I wanted to try with color and light. But it’s ghastly. At the same time, I cut myself slack, because my creative reach went beyond my skill level. That’s a really important thing to note. I had great ideas. But if you don’t have the skill level, you’re never going to master the artistry. That’s where I was early on. And I needed to put the hard work in and slowly work my way up.

A lot of people just give up when their work isn't as good as they hoped it would be. Why didn’t you?

It really is about perseverance. You will have failure. In order to have success, failure is essential. If you’re grabbing at things, at some point you’ll able to hook on and pull yourself up to the next level. You take your success in bites.

When did cinematography really click for you?

Somewhere in the Nolan machine. We found our rhythm together. We did some pretty pictures together, and he told incredible stories that had enormous commercial success. But the peak for me was The Dark Knight. By the time we did that we were really firing on all cylinders. We shot on IMAX, and nobody had ever done dramatic material on IMAX. There was an extraordinary technical achievement. And I was very happy with my lighting and the look of the picture. Everything worked.

So it took a long time for you to feel like a success.

I took it in percentages. I was pretty happy with Memento. But I wasn’t completely happy with my work in it. I always felt like my work wasn’t up to the standard of Chris’s work in that film. It’s such a landmark movie.

Why did you feel that way?

I was very tough on myself. I was being a perfectionist.

***

Let’s talk about Transcendence. How did the project show up on your radar screen?

Through my agent. I’d been reading a lot of material—then I got this screenplay. My agent also represented the writer, Jack Paglen, and she sent over something and said, “Have a look at this right away. I think it’s something you might be interested in.” At the time it was called The Singularity. And I thought it was fascinating.

Were you always thinking of doing a big-budget, big-ideas movie?

No. We were looking at everything. One of the things that I connected with and really wanted to do was The Fighter. I never had a chance, but I did get a meeting on it. [Laughs] I was really struck by that screenplay. I thought it was Cain and Abel. I didn’t care at all about boxing, but this character study was fascinating to me. So that’s the type of thing that I thought I would have been doing.

So why Transcendence?

It hit on this very timely subject matter—this larger question of technology’s role in our world and where it’s going. But also it was grounded in humanity. It had a love story—this sad tale of two biological entities who had been separated and who are both using this technology to try to get back together. That was Jack’s point in the beginning: All that Will ever wants to do is get back to Evelyn in some sort of human form. And then I started to think about these other themes that I wanted to explore.

Like what?

Like the intoxication and the power you would feel if you were suddenly an all-knowing entity. The effect of the singularity not on an AI, but on an actual human mind—a mind that has been uploaded. Then that brought up the question of sentience: Is this Will Caster? Or is it a machine? And that question is the catalyst for all the ambiguity throughout the film.

I was always very mindful that I was making a commercial product. But it was always important to me as well to be saying something, doing something, and have people thinking about this film. The ambiguity was important to me—to have viewers constantly going “Wait, who’s right, who’s wrong, which side am I on?”

Were you aware of the concept of the singularity before stumbling across Paglen’s screenplay?

Not really. I knew of it. But once I read the screenplay I started looked at all the materials: Ray Kurzweil’s book, the documentary about him.

Are you convinced by Kurzweil’s theories on the subject?

I’m not convinced, but I think it’s fascinating. What’s very endearing about Ray Kurzweil’s goals and ambitions is that he’s very optimistic about it. He takes the opposite approach that sci-fi films do—that the machine is going to be evil. He is hopeful that the machines will help us do great things. And some of the professors that we worked with on the film feel the same way. One of the professors of neuroscience and neurotechnology I worked with is very optimistic. Uploading your brain to a computer is the bigger “fi” concept in our sci-fi. But what this guy wants to do is use machines as extensions of our brains. “I’m having trouble processing this little bit here. Let’s just hook up. Now my brain capacity has gone from here to here through artificial means.”

With Ray Kurzweil, he wants to bring his father back. That is fascinating, scary, sad, endearing—all of the above. But the hope that people have about technology contrasts the notion of the evil machine. That was an important theme to me.

So with Transcendence you were reacting against the convention of the evil machine.

A little bit. But it was more that the narrative dictated this ambiguity—and a conclusion that the machine maybe wouldn’t be evil. That it could be used to do good. As a filmmaker, what I’m saying is that it’s really all in the hands of the operator. That’s the main note in this film. They uploaded Will Caster’s brain. What if they had uploaded Bernie Madoff’s brain? What would he have done? He would have ripped everybody off. [Laughs] That was what was important to me. It’s a damn good thing it was Will Caster.

Almost every sci-fi movie follows the “evil machine” script.

It will be interesting to see if people think I’m being indecisive. But I’m not. I really looked at it very carefully, and my feeling is that it has to be ambiguous. You have to constantly be going, “Oh, wait.” That reflects my relationship with technology. [Picks up iPhone.] I love this machine, but wait a minute: Is it actually trying to get more information from me than it’s giving to me? I find that very invasive and intimidating and scary—but at the same time I do everything on this machine. So it is this love-hate ambiguity. Is this thing good or is it bad? I can’t tell you. It’s a little bit of both.

It’s simple to make a black-and-white story. Maybe it’s more fulfilling for an audience. I don’t know. I hope not. Because I really had to tell the story this way. I really had to have Evelyn struggle back and forth. Because she is living as a biological entity and he’s not. There isn’t a black and white. There isn’t a good guy and a bad guy. That was always key to me.