Wally Pfister not only adores film but also vinyl. That’s because they both embody “the breath of life,” analog beauty that’s at the heart of “Transcendence.” Indeed, the Oscar-winning cinematographer (“Inception”) and Christopher Nolan’s former right hand man couldn’t have found a more personal statement for his directorial debut than a cautionary tale about uploading human consciousness into a super computer (the same conceit, incidentally, used in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”). It’s the dark side of “Her,” and what could be a more terrifying threat to humanity?
And that Pfister has teased the least flamboyant and most restrained performance out of Johnny Depp is further proof of his powers of persuasion. Then again, they are perfectly in sync when it comes to the film’s organic embrace and back to nature rallying cry. So obviously there’s no denying where Pfister stands in the analog vs. digital debate.
“The technology discussion is very relevant,” Pfister suggests. “I have documents I can’t read now. I recently went into my pre-production folder for ‘Memento,’ which is 1999, and I found my old shot list and equipment list. And I double-clicked it and it was all gibberish. So trying to find software that is current that can translate these documents that were created on AppleWorks [is a problem]. It’s the same with film. And this is where I think technology fails us. I can still put my 1968 copy of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ on my turntable and listen to it anytime I want. However, I can’t open up that file.”
In fact, the turntable that you see in the movie belongs to Pfister, and it’s no coincidence that the record we hear is “Quah,” the acoustic solo debut of Jefferson Airplane lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Like J.J. Abrams, Pfister believes technology pushes us closer to strangers while pulling us away from loved ones.
“And also it creates this question as to whether if we do upload the soul or consciousness of a real person, what part of the emotions remain? What part of the soul remains? And if so, how does that affect the power.”
For Pfister “Transcendence” is really a love story between Depp and Rebecca Hall, two scientists with different philosophies: he wants to understand life and she wants to change it. And he’s forced to embrace her goal after an anti-tech terrorist attack on his life compels him to accelerate his experiment by uploading his soul into the super computer.
“Everything he does is for her,” Pfister maintains. “That’s what I hope people get in the end. The machine is sentient but the part of the sentience that remains is the love story.” And the true transcendence is organic. It’s back to nature in their secret garden.
Of course there was never any question about shooting on film and then processing it photo chemically. And “Transcendence” is gorgeously shot by Jess Hall (“Hot Fuzz'”). Its saturated warmth and wonderful contrast bring to mind Technicolor dye transfer.
“It was hard not to shoot it myself,” Pfister admits. “It was a little tough for me not to be involved visually, but Jess Hall was able to translate the look that I had in my mind and make this a much easier transition for me. I had other things to do. The priority for me was spending time with the actors and nudging the performances in the direction they needed to go.”
But try finding a theater that projects film anymore. That’s the great irony, but Pfister is a great proponent of hybrid technology. The reverse rain and nano tech that look very creepy were magnificently handled in CG by Nathan McGuinness and his team at Double Negative in London (Nolan’s go to VFX studio).
Speaking of projection, “it was important for me to try and find a way to do the projections of Johnny in an organic way. We wanted Rebecca and Johnny to perform together. So we did live camera on Johnny in a booth and projected it into the walls. So they were actually able to interact with each other in real time. Rebecca saw Johnny on the wall as the audience did and Johnny had a monitor where he could see Rebecca. Now there were areas with visual effects where we manipulated Johnny’s image but in most cases it’s the actual performance captured at that time. There was no comping him in post and artificially creating the interaction.”
Thanks to Nolan, though, Pfister has learned to be very efficient on set. “My philosophy is you plan everything and you have an idea in your mind everywhere you’re going to go. And you plot it all out for every potential pitfall or happy accident. And then you leave yourself open on the day to happy accidents to allow yourself an opportunity to improvise.”
And never more so than toward the end of the shoot when filming on a rooftop in New Mexico and a massive thunderstorm suddenly approached. “It poured on the set and everything was drenched. By the time everything blew through it was 4:00 in the afternoon, we only had a couple hours of daylight, and we sat with the question whether to shut down and fall a day behind in filming or just go for it and shoot the end of the movie.
“And we went for the latter and that was the most fun, exhilarating thing and I know that Morgan Freeman
really enjoyed it. I threw the camera on my shoulder and we shot the end of the movie in about an hour’s time. And we were really happy with what we got and that took me back to my roots as a news cameraman and a documentary filmmaker and getting that kind of magic in a really short period of time.”