Wally Pfis­ter’s lat­est film shows why he is one of the few cin­e­matog­ra­phers to nav­i­gate the tran­si­tion to di­rect­ing, writes Don Stein­berg

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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