Director's Chair: Wally Pfister - 'Transcendence'
Issue: May 1, 2014

Director's Chair: Wally Pfister - 'Transcendence'

HOLLYWOOD — Since he became director Christopher Nolan’s go-to cinematographer after shooting Memento a decade and a half ago, Wally Pfister has established himself as one of the top DPs in the business. In addition to shooting Nolan’s acclaimed Batman trilogy, which earned Pfister two Oscar nominations, he also shot Nolan’s The Prestige (receiving another Oscar nomination) and Inception (which won him the Oscar), as well as such diverse films as Moneyball, Insomnia, The Italian Job and Laurel Canyon.

Now Pfister has moved away from the camera to the director’s chair, and makes his directorial debut with an ambitious sci-fi thriller titled Transcendence, which was recently released by Warner Bros. Starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman, the feature tells the story of a brilliant scientist (Depp) who’s terminally ill with radioactive poisoning. But with the help of his fellow/researcher wife (Hall), he’s able to download his mind onto a computer. Predictably, the unholy blend of man and machine does not turn out well. 

Here, in an exclusive interview, Pfister talks about making the film, his love of post production, and why he thinks film is still superior to digital.

POST: You picked a very ambitious project for your debut. What sort of film did you set out to make? 
WALLY PFISTER: “A very small one. A simple narrative I could make for $10 million — so I failed miserably (laughs). Instead, I ended up with this monster. I did want to start off directing with something easier, but when this opportunity arrived, I decided I couldn’t be intimidated by the scale and complexity. It kept me awake at night, but no regrets.”

POST: You’ve worked with so many top directors, including Chris Nolan, who produced this. What’s the most important thing you learned from them as a rookie director?
PFISTER: “You learn a bit of everything from every director, whether it was as a camera operator for Robert Altman in 1988, to the seven films with Chris, which was really my master class in directing. And also all the commercial directors I’ve worked with. So you learn valuable lessons about what to do — and what not to do. Pretty much everything in the Nolan model is an incredible way to go — and he’s also a great producer, so I learned a lot about the discipline of filmmaking from him.”

POST: Did you ask for advice before taking this on? 
PFISTER: “Yes and no. I went on my own course and decided to walk away from a very lucrative, busy career as a DP, and just leap off the cliff by myself. I just felt it was time. I got a lot of great advice and input, but one thing you do learn very quickly as a director is that, although you’re surrounded by all these wonderful collaborators and great talents, at the end of the day, you’re alone. You have to make the final decision.”

POST: Jess Hall, the British DP who shot Hot Fuzz, was your DP. How tough was it working with another DP? 
PFISTER: (Laughs) “I went in hoping to keep my hands off completely, but you can’t spend 25 years as a DP and not have an opinion. But Jess was great when I chimed in, and I really trusted his eye. I hired him because of his great work and naturalistic lighting on films like Brideshead Revisited and Creation, which was akin to my own taste and the look I wanted here.”

POST: What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together and how tough was the shoot?
PFISTER: “We had a good four months of prep, and then a 62-day shoot, which wasn’t that tough, as we were very prepared. But all the builds and sets were a huge challenge for production designer Chris Seagers, and then shooting in the New Mexico desert in 110 degrees was hard. After doing all the big movies with Chris Nolan, the physical shoot was pretty much what I anticipated. I was more concerned about getting great performances.”

POST: Did you shoot film or digital?
PFISTER: “We shot old-school on 35mm anamorphic. To me, it’s still the highest-quality capture.”

POST: All the visual effects were obviously crucial. How early on did you integrate post and VFX with the production?
PFISTER: “Very early. The VFX were so important to me, and I hired a great VFX producer, Mike Chambers, very early on, even before my VFX supervisor. I’d worked with Mike on Batman and Inception, and he helped me decide on using Double Negative in London to do all the effects. Then I met Nathan McGuinness at D Neg, and I immediately knew he was my VFX supervisor. He’d been at Asylum before, and he’s extremely experienced, creative and has a great energy level.”

POST: Did you do a lot of previs?
PFISTER: “Strangely enough we did hardly any. I’d done a lot with Chris, but we just ran out of time, and focused on storyboards instead. D Neg did their own and a lot of tests, so they were constantly showing us ideas.”

POST: Do you like post?
PFISTER: “I love it. We spent about six months, and it’s so true what everyone told me, that you make the film three times, and that post is where you make the final version. And after the craziness of the shoot, it’s this very calm period where you can finally sit down, really see what you have, and then begin to carve out the film.”

POST: Where did you do the post? 
PFISTER: “We set up all our post offices on The Lot in Hollywood, and did all the editing there. And D Neg would shoot over files and we’d give notes. Every day we’d have a CineSync session with them and then a Skype session where we could go over shots and what they were doing, so it was a great set up.”

POST: The film was edited by David Rosenbloom, who also cut Immortals and Friday Night Lights. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked?
PFISTER: “I loved his work, especially on The Insider, and he has a terrific sense of performance, which was very important to me as a newbie. And he’s a great collaborator in terms of the visual imagery I wanted in the film. He wasn’t on the set but we did old-school dailies every night. David, myself, and the DP and his crew all sat in a trailer and watched film dailies, just like I did with Chris Nolan for years. It’s the best way to do it, as I could lean over to him and tell him what takes I liked and so on.”

POST: How many visual effects shots are there in the film?
PFISTER: “There’s over 500 total, with some pretty complicated ones.”

POST: What was the most technically difficult shot to pull off?
PFISTER: “I’d guess that all the shots featuring the nano-technology were very difficult to pull off. I was obsessed with finding something really original that had never been seen before, and the nano-technology became a bit of a character in the story, so it had to look really impressive. It took a long time to get it right, and poor Nathan would keep trying stuff until finally we were like, ‘That’s it!’ But I absolutely loved working with all the VFX and all the team at D Neg. I flew over to London for a week to meet them all and I’d work with all of them again in a heartbeat. That whole part of post was really one of my favorite parts of making the film.”

POST: Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker? Where did you do the mix?
PFISTER: “We did the mix at Technicolor on the Paramount lot, which was just amazing for me. I had a really great team of sound editors and mixers, and it’s hard to overestimate the importance of music and sound to your film. Composer Mychael Danna, who won the Oscar for Life of Pi, wrote a wonderful score, and I can’t really imagine the film without it — that’s how important it is. Same with all the sound effects and so on.”

POST: The DI must have been vital. How did that process help? 
PFISTER: “Enormously. I had a great timer, Mato at Fotokem, who also did the dailies. We actually did a film finish first and struck a complete answer print with Mato, who I’ve worked with for 25 years now. He color-timed my very first film, with Roger Corman — and then I created a DI with another timer, Sparkle, at Technicolor, who I’ve also worked a lot with over the years. He does all my commercial work, and he also did all the color work on the dailies, so he knew the film better than anyone, and I was right in my comfort zone. I had all these great people I’ve worked with on tons of projects, who all really stepped up to help me do my first film.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you hoped? 
PFISTER: “It did, but I learned that any film is this sort of organic beast that takes on a life of its own, especially in post. When I look back on the process now and what I was expecting, it did change as I went along.”

POST: What’s next? Do you want to direct again?
PFISTER: “As soon as I can. I loved the whole experience. Have I given up being a DP forever? I don’t know, but the bottom line is I have no plans on doing any shooting. In fact — and this is a scoop — I just joined David Fincher’s new company, Reset, to direct commercials, which is very exciting for me. I can’t wait to direct again.”

POST: Is film dead?
PFISTER: “Absolutely not. There are still enough filmmakers — including Chris Nolan, Spielberg, JJ Abrams, Paul Thomas Anderson, and also a lot of indie guys, who love film and only shoot film. Chris is very angry that film projection has virtually gone, and I agree with him. As a DP, there’s no question that our 35mm print is still the best version you can see of this film. It still has the best contrast, color saturation, deep blacks and so on. And in terms of capture, they brag about 4K digital cameras, but there’s no question that 35mm anamorphic film is between 8K and 10K. And when you blow it up side by side you can see there’s still no comparison. Do audiences notice or care? I don’t know, but I honestly don’t think film is dead, whatever they keep saying. Why would we trade our oil paints for a set of crayons?”