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‘Transcendence’ Director Pfister Talks Perseverance: “Do not give up”

'Transcendence' Director Pfister Talks Perseverance: "Do not give up"

I learned at least six things from the “Transcendence” Panel at the National Association of Broadcasters Convention that you won’t likely learn in the mainstream press.

At NAB, it makes sense that a panel with the beloved Wally Pfister, ASC (Christopher Nolan’s go-to cinematographer except for the upcoming “Interstellar”) would be tech-heavy. Joined by his DP-du-jour Jess Hall, BSC and close to 300 eager fans, the pair discussed with ICG Magazine editor-in-chief David Geffner what it was like on set, shooting on film, and where technology – the overarching subject matter of “Transcendence” – has, can and will take us. What may interest you beyond the general BTS talk is below.

You probably didn’t know that…

Pfister began in news. 

His father was a network news producer. Pfister covered the White House and Congress back in the 1980s, and worked as a documentary photographer for Frontline. He met Robert Altman on the HBO miniseries “Tanner 88,” where he was asked to act as a news cameraman. He also shot the B-roll and claims he “was an awful actor.”

A line in the trailer is not in the movie.

During the panel, we were privy to two marketing clips of the film. In both clips, Morgan Freeman has a line: “It will be the end of mankind as we know it.” After the first clip, Pfister told the audience sternly, “that line is not in the movie,” claiming that the marketing team at Warner Bros. put it there. “I’d never write something like that.”

Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” left a lasting mark on the future filmmakers.

Both Pfister and Hall saw 2001 when they were eight years old. Hall saw it on his eighth birthday, in fact. “It was the second film I’d ever seen (the first was “Gone with the Wind,” if that’s any indication of my upbringing), and I don’t think I’ve ever recovered. The longevity of the images and the depth with which Kubrick goes into the writing, the research and the visuals, we wanted that sense of weight to [“Transcendence”] as well.” Pfister, who had been drawn to its “sparse nature of dialogue and incredible visuals,” managed to get his key team to a 70mm original print screening in pre-production. “I wanted everyone to share the gold standard.”

Pfister saved the production $300K by doing a photochemical finish.

Pfister has only ever shot on Kodak film, and we all know how strongly he and Nolan feel about 35 mm film vs. digital. He says there was no question of film capture for “Transcendence.” “To quote Mark Twain, ‘Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’ I think that’s the case with motion picture film. Everybody says that no one’s shooting on it anymore, but then you have J.J. Abrams doing “Star Wars,” Steven Spielberg and Chris Nolan are using it, Paul Thomas Anderson is shooting 65mm, and you also have independent films still using it. The difficult part now is film release prints, as laboratories are closing their doors.”

Through his own calculations, Pfister convinced the studio that they could save $300K by doing a film finish. “That’s the irony of the question of whether it’s cheaper to shoot on digital rather than on film. If you’re doing a digital finish with a DI, it’s a lot more expensive than a photochemical finish.”

Hall has shot films that Indiewire loves.

“Hot Fuzz,” “Grindhouse,” “Son of Rambow,” and “The Spectacular Now,” to be specific. Coincidentally, all were shot on 35mm and the last two on 35mm Anamorphic, like “Transcendence.”

Pfister gives great inspirational speeches.

“You have to have perseverance. If you want to be a cinematographer you pick up a camera. If you want to be a director you generate the material or find the material. It’s about not giving up. I cannot even begin to tell you how difficult it was to get this movie off the ground. Just before [Johnny] Depp read the script and we started meeting, it was shut down. It was way too expensive and there were maybe five movie stars that could support a budget this size. My producers called me and told me that the offers went out [to no avail]. I did not give up. I went in with one of my producers and started hacking it apart to try and get the budget down by 50 percent. I had to [ask for the project back from one set of producers] to go do it for a fraction of the budget with another company, and that’s when I got the call from [Depp]. We were up and running again with a production office and were in full swing, and then we got shut down again because we weren’t sure that Depp could sign on only 12 weeks out from shooting. Then eight weeks later we were back up. It’s a slow painful process and it would never have happened if I gave up for one minute. Do not give up.”

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