College Conference interview with
TRANSCENDENCE director Wally Pfister
April 15, 2014
WALLY PFISTER (Director) is an Academy Award®-winning cinematographer who makes his directorial debut on Alcon Entertainment’s “Transcendence.” Pfister is best known for his work alongside director Christopher Nolan, which has brought him three additional Oscar® nominations, and numerous other accolades. They began their famed collaboration in 1999 on the intriguing drama “Memento.” Pfister earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his work as a cinematographer on that film.
Pfister continued to rise to prominence as one of the industry’s most respected cinematographers. He received Oscar® nominations for Best Cinematography for his work on “Batman Begins,” “The Prestige” and the worldwide blockbuster “The Dark Knight,” before winning the Academy Award® in the same category for “Inception.” His many other honors include BAFTA Award nominations and a number of critics groups’ awards.
Pfister’s work can also be seen in other films, including “Insomnia,” “The Italian Job,” “Laurel Canyon,” “Moneyball” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” Films on which Pfister has served as director of photography have earned a cumulative box office total of more than four billion dollars worldwide.
Dan O’Connor: Hi. So, how did your career as a cinematographer influenced your directorial debut?
Wally Pfister: Well, I think what – what you’ll 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 even going back to before I shot feature films when I was a news cameramen, the documentaries.
All of that – all of that experience makes easier when you get on the set as a director for the first time and one of the great – great things that I got out of all those years working on big budget features as a cinematographer was have a little intimidation in getting on the set for the first time as a director.
You know, you are a little more used to the craziness of a movie set so that’s one of the probably a thousand things that prepared me being a cinematographer.
Evonne Warren: My question was (inaudible) to artificial intelligence theme many times in the past couple of decades in films like (Gothica), artificial intelligence in Robocop. So what sets Transcendence apart from the rest?
Wally Pfister: Well, it’s an excellent question. I think partially what sets Transcendence apart is that it’s not strictly speaking in artificial intelligence. The original project that they are working on the film is in artificial intelligence, but I think I can say without any spoilers that it’s actually, you know, a human mind that gets uploaded.
So we are talking about an actual human consciousness living in this machine rather than something completely artificial. So that makes it a little slightly different and I think that also sets off the emotional journal.
Because we are talking about, you know, most of the – throughout most of the movie, the idea is to question whether in fact this machine that sent in if it contains the actual soul of this particular person. That person being (Johnny) of course.
Meredith Carey: Hi. I was wondering with the open ending of the movie, what you hope viewers kind of discuss or internalize?
Wally Pfister: There are a lot of things I would like people to be thinking about and discussing as the movie concludes. But I think – I think most of it is sort of this notion that, you know, if we are going to be relying on technology or are dependent on technology, it’s good to know whose hands it’s in.
And clearly if we are talking about a benevolent character then we would hope that good things are going to be done with the technology and this could be used for the betterment of mankind. And then also there’s the cautionary note of as to if it were in different hands.
You know, if it’s anything with this kind of power did land in, you know, the hands of somebody more malevolent than what those dangers can be. And it’s also sort of obviously a little bit of a wink at, you know, the fact that it’s not bad idea to turn off these devices every now and again, and embrace nature.
Robert Gabe: Hi. I know Jack Paglen wrote the script, but how much research did you put on to things like nanotechnology in preparation for the film?
Wally Pfister: I did an enormous amount of research. Jack wrote the original screenplay and then I continued writing drafts consequently. I went to – I went on a little trip. I went on my own little college tour in early spring of 2012.
I went to visit MIT and talk to professors in the field of nanotechnology and in neurobiologies and robotics, and even in the media lab to look at some of their projections and get ideas for what was the state of the art in terms of projections and holograms and that sort of thing.
And then I also visited Stanford and spoke to professors there and then did the same thing at Berkeley. And I landed on two professors at Berkeley, one in neurobiology and the other one in nanotechnology.
They were so helpful. They became the kind of full time consultants on the film and were involved in sort of every stage of vetting the science and the medical applications in the film. So I felt pretty confident by the time we started filming that I had a pretty clear idea as to what was really possible and where we are kind of bending it a sense.
Jennifer Calhoun: Hi. If this sentient 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?
Wally Pfister: Well, it’s a good question. That’s more my own opinion, but I think that – look, my feeling is if this were – if you were able to upload your own mind, I’m not exactly sure what you would do with the duplicate of your 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 of it and skeptical that they are going to be trying to extract information from us. That they would be asking too many personal questions and requiring too many uploads – I mean, continued upgrades of our software and that it would be more of a commercial application and would cost us a lot of money to keep going in it.
So I don’t know. It’s anybody’s guess what would happen. I don’t really have a desire to upload my brains.
Jeremy Layton: You’ve been a lifelong cinematographer, have you always have the goal of transitioning to directing or it’s kind of a new thing for you?
Wally Pfister: I think I always had the goal, you know, of wanting to direct something myself. But you know, as I started to get more successful as a cinematographer, I started thinking about it more and, you know, you want to try – try different things in life. And so I think it’s finally been knocking on my door for a few years and finally it was time to try it out.
Brendan Sample: Hi, Wally. It’s great to be talking to you today. My question is, what was the biggest challenge for you in your directorial debut?
Wally Pfister: Well, you know, you run into a lot of challenges. It’s very challenging just to get a movie made these days and particularly a larger budget movie and then a science fiction film, and then a high concept science fiction film.
So there are a lot of hurdles in trying to put it together. But you know, the challenge obviously as a cinematographer turned director, are in those areas that, you know, are brand new to you. And for me, the greatest challenge was also one of the most enlightening, wonderful, fun things, which was in directing actors and delving in the performance for the first time.
I really found it extraordinarily fun, but there were challenges because you are suddenly playing the role of psychologist for the first time. Whereas when as a cinematographer, which really just about telling stories with images. Now you need to get that in performance. So a challenge but a really, really enjoyable challenge.
Yandli Gonzalez: Hi. Obviously, sci-fi films must differ at some point from scientific reality. How far does Transcendence stray from what currently being researched of artificial intelligence?
Wally Pfister: Well, I think – you know, it’s in terms of stray stretching, you know, how and where we are going with it, it’s pretty – you know, this is fiction and it is important for everybody to remember the fi in sci-fi.
You know, this is obviously designed as entertainment and so in terms of where we push the limits. Obviously you cannot upload a human brain with the current technology now.
Where most of the sciences 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 of a human brain, which is basically logging in the synapses and the communication between neurons.
So that’s our real stretch is being able to take, you know, a human mind and upload it in the computer and successfully. So that 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 sort of speculation and what might be plausible in the future. And that’s what, you know, the two main professors that were my consultants are comfortable with saying is that most of what we deal within the films is that this time plausible.
So you know – and could potentially happen in the future. Beyond that, you know, it’s, as I said, it’s fiction.
Madie Scott: Hi. I know you mentioned earlier that – sorry, that Transcendence standout from other artificial intelligence movies, but that just made me curious. You mentioned the emotional progression that’s possible through technology and it’s just, you know, obviously reminds me of the movie “Her.” How is it similar or different to that?
Wally Pfister: Well, it’s interesting because when I saw “Her,” I’d already completed our film and you know, I felt relieved that there are two very different movies, but I was a huge fan of “Her.”
I’d really, really enjoyed it and so that explored, you know, a powerful, emotional connection. What it said to me was that this is stuff we are all thinking about right now, you know.
Madie Scott: Yes.
Wally Pfister: As we talk to Siri, as we listen to our GPSs, we – you know, communicate through social network, and we are being asked questions by machines in social network, where did you go to school, you know, who are friends? Do you want – do you want more friends?
So we are communicating with artificial intelligence on a regular basis. So I know one journalist called, you know, our film the dark side of “Her,” which I think is kind of funny. But yes, I mean, two films are very different as I said, but I think a slight touch on something pretty phenomenal and it’s also beautifully executed.
Linda Smith: Hi. So I guess, since it’s your directorial debut and there were, I mean, an astounding amount of top-billed actors, I mean, Johnny Depp, Morgan Friedman, I mean, household names basically, what was it like to have them under your helm in your very first movie?
Wally Pfister: It’s mind blowing. Really, you know, I feel incredibly fortunate to be lucky enough among outing as a director to have the likes of these incredible actors. And honestly, you know, this isn’t just bullshit. They were all a joy to work with.
Obviously I’ve known Morgan for 10 years and Cillian for 10 years. You know, we’ve all done three “Batman” pictures together and was very comfortable working with them. But Johnny is just a joy to work with and he is a really smart guy.
And so – and then, Paul Bettany is a lot of fun as is Rebecca. Bettany has a great sense of humor. So there is a really nice calm levity on the set that I think made a comfortable environment for all of us.
So as I said to have this kind of talent, you know, back in behalf first effort was pretty phenomenal. I feel very privileged.
Jacob Kennard: So my question is what do you think is the most important thing that you’ve learned from working with other great directors like Christopher Nolan as you approach your first directorial effort?
Wally Pfister: You know, you’ve learned a little bit from everybody and really, one of the great things about Chris Nolan is his discipline on the set and you know, to observe somebody who really considers every minute of your set time to be precious.
You know, if your call time is 7 o’clock and you are there are 5 of 7 you’re late. And it’s a very important lesson and discipline to learn in terms of your set experience and having spent, you know, 14 years around Chris where he doesn’t waste a second of his time and he takes everything very, very seriously.
And 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’s one of the great lessons I’ve learned working with Chris.
Mohamed Hassan: Hi, Wally. I just wanted to ask. I understand that you worked with film a lot in your other endeavors especially with Christopher Nolan and I wanted to know, you know, why you enjoy working with films so much?
Wally Pfister: Well, I’m – honestly, Mohamed, I’m waiting for digital technology to catch up. We don’t have – we only in digital – you know, technology, we only have, you know, 4K cameras, maybe there is a 5K camera coming out soon.
But anomorphic 35-millimeter film is between 8 and 10K is the rate you have to scan it out to get the resolution out of the film. So it’s obviously much higher resolution. It’s better contrast, better color saturation.
So it may seemed nitpicky to some because of the digital cameras looked pretty good on a big screen, but the film looks better and I think that, you know, a lot of the beauty of photography in the subtleties and in the nuances.
And if you want more detail in the shadow and more detail in the highlights, and an overall, you know, richer look, film is still the superior medium. So it’s that’s important to you, great. If it’s not, you know, then digital is fine.
And by the way, digital is getting there. You know, bit by bit, incrementally, we see improvements, but until it’s equal or better than film, I don’t see any reason to give up film as long as it’s available.
Jordan Smith: Hi. I’m just wondering why you chose to work on this particular film and how you got involved with this particular project of Transcendence?
Wally Pfister: Well – how I got involved was through my agent sent a screenplay over and my agent also represented Jack Paglen and she said I’ve really think to have a look at this. Just came across my desk and I think it’s pretty fascinating.
And what attracted me to it was really I thought it was very original and even though it dealt with, you know, artificial intelligence, which has somebody mentioned earlier, you know, not a completely original subject matter –
Jordan Smith: Right.
Wally Pfister: – I thought it was a very original screenplay. And I really love sort of what Jack had created with these characters and sort of emotional journey and –– it felt different to me.
Sidney Cunningham: Hi. Seen in the movie obviously is not settled because it’s the plot that – touched on it before earlier, but there is a lot of statements being made about technology, its possibilities, its dangers. What would you I suppose say is the statement that was being attempted to be made in the film, if there was one?
Wally Pfister: Well, I would say there is no statement being made by the director and that’s what sort of important to me in this, is people look for statements, people also look for good guys and bad guys and they are no defines, you know, good guys and bad guys in this film.
I suppose (Rip) could be considered the bad guys, but at the same time I think we can relate to some of their frustration. Certainly they go to, you know, 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 and I think that what we see from the character of Evelyn 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, everything that he tries to do is for her and it’s because of his love for her. And if there is any slight thing that the filmmaker is saying in the end is this notion that there are reasons to use technology, you know, to aid some of the problems that we’ve inflicted, you know, environmentally and that’s basically taking Evelyn’s line.
But as I said, I like to – I want to make film where the characters are making statements rather than the filmmakers.
Kartik Chainani: Hi, Wally. I was just wondering since this is your first time directing a movie and you are still get the opportunity to work with Christopher Nolan, I was just wondering what it was like for you to step up cinematographer role and take that director’s seat and hire somebody else to take over the job that you spent for so many years.
Wally Pfister: Yes, it was – it was a lot of fun is the answer to that. You know, stepping up to the director’s seat. I really enjoyed having, you know, a lot more tool as a storyteller. You know, obviously, the cinematographer, it’s – you are telling stories with the images alone and without, you know, composition, no lighting, camera movements, and everything related to photography.
And as a director, of course, you have many more tools to exercise and you know, most importantly the story and the character development and dealing, you know, with performance with the actors, which is the most fun.
And in addition to that, you are exploring the other elements as a cinematographer, you are less involve in production design, visual effects, even sound and sound design and editorial. What was enlightening to me is this how much you – the director is involved in sound design and the picture.
We spent, you know, months just working on the final sound and mix and music for the movie. So those are all wonderful new tools that you don’t experience as a cinematographer that I got to play with as a director.
Preston Barta: I’m great. Thank you. Since we are all here representing our university, I’m curious if you could teach a college course of your creation, what do you think you would teach?
Wally Pfister: A college course of what?
Preston Barta: Of your creation.
Wally Pfister: I see. That’s interesting. Well, honestly, I’m probably best suited to teach a course on cinematography. I think if you are going to teach, you better do what you know best. I’m still in the – you know, it’s my first outing as a director. So I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to teach directing. So the simple answer is I’ll probably teach cinematography.
Dan O’Connor: I’m just wondering what the casting process was like on this film and what do you think all the actors brought to their characters?
Wally Pfister: Well, casting process was really fantastic because as I said I was very fortunate that I was able to get these great actors. I also had a great casting director, John Papsidera and he was really helpful and brought people like (Cliff Collins) to the mix and help guide me towards (Kate Marra).
So you know, you rely on a lot of great folks around you, but in terms of getting these other actors. I was very, very fortunate to be able to get Johnny and then as I said my previous relationship with Morgan, Cillian and Rebecca came to play in terms of casting them. So it’s really a dream cast.
Kaitlyn Ferrell: Hi. So I knew you feel strongly toward the use of film. So what about the story of Transcendence and the use of technology is specifically personal for you?
Wally Pfister: I think there is probably a little bit of that in there. You know, it’s kind of hard to avoid the fact that film is the organic and the more sort of traditional technology. It’s been with us for 100 years and you know, technology represents, you know, the digital I supposed.
The reality as I said is that film is still just higher image quality so that’s the real reason I use film. But I don’t – I guess, I have, you know, a love hate relationship with technology in general and I love my computer, my cell phone and my iPad.
But at the same time, I’m not that crazy about giving out personal information on social medial 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 you know, it’s kind of – I guess, in general, I have a love hate relationship with technology. I’d like to see technology reach the level in image capture that film is and look forward to a time when digital mediums are as simple and as effective as film right now.
Conrad Foreman: Thank you. Well, 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 for so long. Why you enjoyed working with him and why he enjoyed to continue working with you?
Wally Pfister: Well, you know, Chris and I worked together for a long time and clearly for a reason we both had a great respect for each other and had a good working relationship, you know, and I think we did some fantastic work together.
So you know, it’s tricky to find people that you work with well in this business and when you do, you kind of hang on and create a partnership that you hope is going to benefit each other
Leah Hanson: We talked a lot about how, you know, your first directorial debut is a great experience. I’m just wondering if there were any moments when you experience didn’t match your expectations. If there were any disappointments?
Wally Pfister: Well, there always are. You know, you are always kind of up and down in this – in this experience. What happens is a little bit of both. There are – I can’t think of a specific thing, but there are definitely mornings where things aren’t going as you would hope and as you planned.
And it seems no matter how much you plan, something happens, you know, just to throw that plan and to alter the course of this. Sometimes this happens for the better. Sometimes, something that you think is not working out actually turns out to be a better thing later on.
So it’s hard for me to remember a specific, but it is certainly a journey of ups and downs. And the film really is a bizarre organic beast that evolves. It’s one thing when it’s on the script and then it involves into something else as you are filming it.
And then it involves 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 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. So I hope that answers your question.
Leah Hanson: It did. Yes, thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Wally Pfister: You’re welcome. Those are great questions, by the way, guys. Thank you very much.