TURNING FOCUS TO DIRECTION
Wally Pfister’s latest film shows why he is one of the few cinematographers to navigate the transition to directing, writes Don Steinberg
BY the time he won an Academy Award in 2011 for his eye-popping photography in the Christopher Nolan film Inception, Wally Pfister already was one of Hollywood’s preeminent cinematographers — and he was already preparing to give up the job forever.
After 20 years of focusing camera lenses, framing shots and lighting scenery for other directors, he wanted to see if he could direct a movie of his own. Pfister recently had finished filming Moneyball for director Bennett Miller, and he still needed to shoot The Dark Knight Rises for Nolan, their third Batman film and seventh collaboration since they first got together to make the daring Memento in 2000. But he was ready for a change. Pfister hired a new agent to help him secure directing gigs, and he was reading potential scripts.
“I was really looking for something that I thought was worth quitting the day job for,” says Pfister, now 52. “There were only two scripts that I really, really loved. One was The Fighter and one was Captain Phillips, neither of which were within my reach as a first-time director. And then this script came along.”
The script he chose, to transform himself from director of photography to simply director, was called, maybe fittingly, Transcendence. The film, which opened last week, is a science-fiction thriller starring Johnny Depp as a super-genius artificial-intelligence programmer. The story is inspired by futurist Ray Kurzweil’s forecasts of a coming moment called “the singularity,” when human intelligence will transcend the primitive biological limits of the brain by merging with computer power and data.
“It was a bigger-size picture than I thought I wanted to do,” Pfister says. “But I really was taken by the material and felt it was timely and I could handle it.”
Directors come to the top job from various directions. Many direct right out of film school. Plenty of actors and screenwriters have moved into the director’s chair. Surprisingly few cinematographers have. Filmmakers are hardpressed to name more than a few, like Nicolas Roeg and Barry Sonnenfeld. The feeling is that cinematographers might be so focused on capturing imagery that they might not see the bigger picture of a movie’s narrative and pacing.
“We’re less editorial,” says Matthew Libatique, cinematographer for films including Noah and Black Swan (he’s not involved with Transcendence). “A cinematographer approaches a film in a way that is image-oriented, so we would naturally tell a story with less shots, letting the shot in the frame tell more of the story. Directors have an editorial mind. They may tell the story by cutting. If they don’t get quite what they want in performance, they’ll cut that performance together.”
Pfister’s father was a TV news producer, and after high school, Wally got a job as TV news production assistant, then cameraman. He was on the job in Washington, DC, in 1988 when di- rector Robert Altman came to make the political mockumentary series Tanner ‘88, and Pfister did some camera work for the show.
“I got the bug for dramatic stuff,” Pfister says. Still, he was trained in using the camera to explain what’s happening: “Even as a news cameraman, we’d say, how can we best tell the story? Oh, there’s a train wreck, and the police have responded. But how big is this train wreck? So you step back and get a wide shot to show it’s 16 cars long. It’s storytelling in images.”
Pfister went to Los Angeles, then worked for producer Roger Corman, whose low-budget films have served as basic-training camp for so many filmmakers.
“They were cranking out so much product. You did a little bit of everything. I worked as a grip, as an electrician, and then finally got my chance to shoot,” Pfister says.
His first job as director of photography, aka cinematographer, was on The Unborn (1991), a B-movie about a murderous foetus.
He stepped down to work as a camera operator, then won a cinematographer job on an independent film which wound up at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999. That’s how he met Christopher Nolan, whose noirish first film, Following, was playing nearby at Slamdance. Not long after, Nolan hired Pfister to shoot Memento.
“I think he probably liked the fact that I felt strongly that cinematography had to serve the story and shouldn’t grandstand,” Pfister says. They also shared a passion for shooting movies on real 35mm film (they’re among the last holdouts who shun digital cameras) and for “naturalistic” film photography, avoiding the look of artificial lighting and stylised light effects. This often means natural sunshine but also can get very dark, using table lamps or overhead lights that would exist in a real place to light actors. Pfister adores the frequently dark work of Gordon Willis, who filmed many 1970s classics.
“The story goes that Willis was shooting The Godfather for Francis Coppola, and Paramount wanted to fire him when they saw dailies, because they couldn’t believe that this cinematographer was not lighting Marlon Brando’s eyes,” Pfister says, calling it “painting with light, our 20th century version of a Rembrandt or a Vermeer.” He loves that All The President’s Men partly tells its story with lighting: “The bright, endless florescent environment in the newsroom, juxtaposed with the dark, shadowy space of the car park where he’s meeting Deep Throat,” he says.
Memento, like Inception, is a mind-bending story and Pfister’s camera work is called upon to help. Memento is about a man (Guy Pearce) who can’t form new memories and is forced to rely on notes, photos and daily routines to solve a murder. Many scenes are presented in reverse order. Every shot requires the viewer to observe details and sequences of events along with Pearce: a motel key with a room number, a Polaroid of a motel sign, a car parking in the motel lot.
When Pfister saw the script for Transcendence, it reminded him of thought-provoking science fiction movies of the 70s like Westworld, Solyent Green, The Andromeda Strain and others. “They would scare you and shock you, and you’d walk out of the theatre wondering if this could really happen.”
One of Pfister’s most careful decisions was bringing in a cinematographer to work for him.
“He didn’t want to be the cinematographer, but he wanted an organic extension of himself,” says Kate Cohen, one of the film’s producers. Pfister saw the cinematography of Jess Hall while watching the Charles Darwin story Creation in checking out actor Paul Bettany, and decided he’d found the right guy, another filmmaker devoted to storytelling and naturalism.
Hall admits: “When I first heard about the possibility of meeting him on this, I was a little bit apprehensive, because we’ve all heard the stories about DPs who become directors who sort of torture their cinematographers.” Pfister did his best to not meddle. “There were times I noticed that he had to tweak the lights, because he couldn’t help himself,” recalls Morgan Freeman, who worked on three Batman films with Pfister as cinematographer and now on Transcendence. “I probably did throw in a few suggestions here and there,” Pfister admits. “And occasionally picked up the camera and put it on my shoulder for shots.”
Hall says it didn’t bother him too much. “There was input. If you’ve had a 20-year career as a cinematographer, your brain is programmed to react to things,” he says. “But we had an amazing shorthand. I could say, I’m thinking of exposing this scene like this, and he’d say that’s perfect, or you might want to think about that, because this is a real performance moment and I need to be lighting the actor’s eyes.”
One sequence, when they are uploading the brain of Depp’s scientist character onto a computer, kept Pfister awake at night. The emotion was tricky for Bettany and Rebecca Hall, who play the scientist’s best buddy and wife, respectively. “I’m telling the audience, OK, they’ve taken this man’s brain, they’ve uploaded the data to hard drives. And now we’ve gotta make him come back as Johnny Depp? It was a very intimidating bit of storytelling,” Pfister says. “As a director in those particular scenes “I really didn’t care what the camera was doing.”
The Wall Street Journal
Transcendence is screening nationally. “Transcendence is superior to most other sci-fi films”: Read David Stratton’s review on Page 14
April 26-27, 2014
Clockwise from top: Johnny Depp in a scene from Transcendence; director Wally Pfister; Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss in scene from Memento; and Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception