‘Transcendence’ into directing for cinematographer Wally Pfister

Cinematographer Wally Pfister wasn't convinced that this script, with its big ideas and action pieces and a budget that would eventually approach $100 million, was the right fit for him.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

If you’re suffering Hollywood career doubts and need a little advice, there are worse people you could turn to than Christopher Nolan.

That’s the situation Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister found himself in several years ago when he debated making the high-concept science-fiction film “Transcendence” his directorial debut. Pfister had shot all but one of Nolan’s movies and had worked closely with the helmer on his superhero tentpoles.

But Pfister wasn’t convinced that this script, with its big ideas and action pieces and a budget that would eventually approach $100 million, was the right fit for him.

“I told Chris, ‘I think it’s a good project. My hesitation is that it’s just too big for my first adventure,’” recalled Pfister, 52. “And Chris very calmly said, ‘Absolutely not. You know how to handle this scope of filmmaking. And storytelling is the same whether you’re dealing with $100 million or $10 million.’”

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Pfister took Nolan’s counsel as well as crucial notes from the director, who came on as an executive producer and offered a guiding hand in matters ranging from story pacing to the score. The result is a sci-fi action tale — it stars Johnny Depp and hits theaters courtesy of Warner Bros. on April 18 — with the spirit if not the direct involvement of one of Hollywood’s most lauded filmmakers.

Pfister and production company Alcon Entertainment hope the movie captures some of the same lightning in a bottle as the “Inception” director’s work. Certainly it has a similar level of conceptual ambition. Focusing on technology guru Will Caster (Depp), “Transcendence,” written by the science-pedigreed Jack Paglen, tells what happens when a man who has been researching artificial intelligence dies, and his wife and partner (Rebecca Hall) decides to digitally reconstruct his psyche and persona. As violent dissenting forces try to stop the march of technology, Caster evolves into a powerful but ambiguous force.

Inspired by the idea of the Singularity — the term coined by futurist Ray Kurzweil to describe the merger of humans and sentient machines — “Transcendence” stakes out a middle ground between utopian and apocalyptic visions of the decades ahead.

“I wanted to get away from the cliched notion of a sentient machine taking over the world,” Pfister said. “There are deeper questions of what we’re using technology for. To heal or to create a barrier? Is it benevolent or malevolent? I want the audience to understand both sides of it.”

In that way, the movie has a few things in common with Spike Jonze’s “Her,” which also looks to show the more well-rounded consequences of artificial intelligence and which similarly drew from Kurzweil.

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Pfister said he read the author’s work and found himself both piqued by and skeptical of it, thinking some of his ideas overly optimistic. “The question is whether we’re going to take advantage of technology or technology is going to take advantage of us,” Pfister said.

He was less ambivalent about directing. After beginning his career working behind the camera on “Frontline” documentaries and a Robert Altman HBO miniseries, Pfister attended AFI with a cinematography concentration. He has spent much of the past 15 years serving as Nolan’s D.P. on every one of the director’s released movies dating back to “Memento.”

But after “The Dark Knight Rises,” he knew he was interested in a shift, and spent years seeking out the right film. (He initially responded to two scripts--"The Fighter” and “Captain Phillips"--so his taste, at least, was sound.)

The idea of a 52-year-old first-time director is not common, and cinematographers don’t typically make permanent transitions to the big chair. But Pfister says he has no plans to return to cinematography. (He hired someone else, up-and-comer Jess Hall, to shoot this movie.) And although both script rewrites and the politics of working with actors were new, Pfister said he was helped by all the years of watching Nolan and Nolan’s wife-producing partner, Emma Thomas, handle the many moving parts on their sets.

Still, Pfister, who won his Oscar working on “Inception.” emphasized that the pair’s divergent backgrounds will distinguish their films. “If people are expecting Nolan-lite, I think they’ll be surprised,” he said. “My training comes from Chris, but my emotional content comes from a different era. I’m steeped in a 1970s, pre-'Star Wars’ period, films like ‘Soylent Green.’ Chris comes from a different place.”

One regard in which the two are similar: “Transcendence,” like much of Nolan’s work, was cloaked in mystery for years, many of its characters and plot points unknown to anyone outside the film’s inner circle.

“It wasn’t like we had some deep, amazing secret to keep; we just didn’t want too many plot elements to leak out,” Pfister said. “But it’s interesting with blogs. Sometimes just keeping your mouth shut becomes a veil of secrecy.” He paused and laughed. “Technology strikes again.”