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Cinematographer Wally Pfister's first foray into directing has given him a new perspective

Cinematographer Wally Pfister's first foray as director has given him a new perspective, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 1:55pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 1:55pm

There seems to be an unspoken rule in Hollywood: everybody knows their place. While actors, and occasionally screenwriters, have made the crossover to directing, it seems far harder for others in the industry to do the same.

Costume designers or art directors stay as such; the same goes for cinematographers. So credit Wally Pfister for making the leap with his directorial debut Transcendence - particularly when you consider the intimidating shadow he's emerged from.

Every drop helps fill the reservoir," he says. "You absorb and no lesson is a waste of time. As long as you don't die before you get to do it!
Wally Pfister, on working with veteran filmmatkers 

For 14 years, the American was the cinematographer for British-American director Christopher Nolan. Spanning six films - including Nolan's Batman trilogy - it's seen Pfister nominated for four Academy Awards, succeeding at his most recent attempt - "an incredible validation of my work" - for the brain-bending Inception. It seems foolhardy to break up this fruitful partnership. But having wanted to direct since he was young, the Oscar brought perspective.

"It was the point," the 52-year-old Pfister says, "where I felt, 'Okay, I've done it now. I've accomplished everything I want to accomplish in cinematography. Now it's time to try something else. I think I need to pursue some of my lifelong ambitions'."

Even so, you'd think he might start with something smaller than Transcendence, with its US$100 million budget, starring Johnny Depp and a cast including Nolan alumni Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall and Cillian Murphy, along with a complex array of visual effects.

Written by debut screenwriter Jack Paglen, it made the 2012 Black List - the crème-de-la-crème of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Transcendence sees Depp playing Dr Will Caster, a researcher in artificial intelligence whose controversial experiments have drawn fire from anti-technology extremists. When an assassination attempt leaves him fatally wounded, his wife, Evelyn (Hall), decides to take his work to its logical extreme: uploading his consciousness into a super-computer, creating an all-seeing, all-feeling machine that becomes increasingly powerful.

"It's very much in the zeitgeist," Pfister says. "Technological singularity, man versus machine, and our dependence on technology. With the internet having exploded and technology reaching its peak, and these projects going on - like the Blue Brain Project, where they're mapping the human brain - we're reaching this point where we have a greater understanding of the human brain, the function of it."

Ironically, Pfister is having his own technological problems when we meet in the bowels of a London hotel: he can't get a signal on his rather old-fashioned mobile phone and is forced to stall our interview while he disappears upstairs to send a text. It makes you wonder if Depp's character has been at work (an early scene sees him erect copper mesh over his garden pagoda, to create a "dead space" and ward off any prying electro-magnetic signals, including cell reception).

The silver-haired Pfister doesn't look tech-savvy either: padding around the room in a T-shirt, grey casual trousers and black flip-flops, he looks more equipped to pen a handwritten note than operate a PC. "I'm proficient with computers but I find them very frustrating," he says, citing everything from their lack of reliability to our over-dependence on them. "So I get great solace from putting away my computer, shutting off the telephones and going to my farm."

He and his wife, Anna Julien - married since 1992, with three children - have a place outside Los Angeles where they keep chickens and ducks, and grow organic fruit. "To me that's essential. To throw all that manipulative technology aside and clear your head - and not have machines do it all for you." Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Pfister is still a fan of vinyl records, as well as 35mm film - rather than shooting on digital (something both he and Nolan agree on).

Indeed, with Nolan and his wife, Emma Thomas, on board as executive producers, and with Nathan McGuinness and his team at Double Negative - Nolan's visual effects studio - you might think The Dark Knight director held great sway over the project. But Pfister says he did seven drafts of Paglen's screenplay over 12 months to make it his own. "I observed Chris for 15 years, but really this was my thing, my baby, and I had to learn my own way of doing things."

Asked what it was like to hire his cinematographer - the British-born Jess Hall, who shot Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz - and whether he ever felt he might shoot things differently, his answer is bullish: "I don't think I ever sat back and said, 'I would do that differently.' I think I said, 'Do that differently!' In all fairness, it's hard to not exercise your opinion as a director. Certainly I had a visual aesthetic in mind for the picture and I hired Jess because I felt he could execute that - and he did."

Pfister's background is journalistic rather than cinematic: his grandfather was a city editor on a small Wisconsin newspaper while his father was a TV news producer who began his career with CBS-TV. The Chicago-born Pfister would later find a job for a Washington, DC news service, covering the US Congress, the White House and breaking news in the early 1980s.

Yet he'd always been interested in film. When he was 11, a Burt Reynolds movie, Shamus, was shot in his neighbourhood. Fascinated by what he saw, he began making 8mm home movies. Before he made the leap to news cameraman, he was working as a production assistant on a television station in Maryland and borrowed more sophisticated equipment to shoot mini-films on the weekend, including a visual essay on an old Victorian house.

After scoring a gig operating the camera on Robert Altman's 1988 TV miniseries Tanner'88, Pfister went to film school and then got his big break as a cinematographer in 1991, shooting The Unborn, a no-budget horror film for B-movie producer Roger Corman. "I cut my teeth on that stuff. That was my training ground. It taught me to work fast."

He also shot a decade of music videos and the odd softcore movie ( Secret Games; Inside Out III) before he lucked out and worked with Nolan on cult backwards-moving memory thriller Memento (2000).

He has fitted the odd film (the remake of The Italian Job; baseball drama Moneyball; documentary Marley) around Nolan's increasingly gargantuan blockbusters. Yet he says he has learned from every director he has worked with, all the way back to Altman and Corman. "Every drop helps fill the reservoir," he says. "You absorb and no lesson is a waste of time. As long as you don't die before you get to do it!"

One thing he probably hasn't learned to deal with is critical apathy, given his mentor Nolan is so used to universal acclaim. Early reviews have been mixed for Transcendence, with so-so opening weekend's box office takings of US$10.9 million in his home country. Perhaps the critics and audiences were reacting against a cinematographer breaking that unspoken rule.

But this new director doesn't care. "I'm going to shift my focus towards directing," he says, determined his own transcendence won't stop.

thereview@scmp.com

Transcendence opens on Thursday

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