Since their first partnership on 2000’s “Memento," the work of Oscar-winning DP Wally Pfister has helped shape and define the trademark style of Christopher Nolan and his output. His influence has proved so pronounced that Nolan’s upcoming “Interstellar” will mark an unclear break in DNA, it being “The Dark Knight” director’s first outing in 14 years without his usual collaborator.
Not that bad blood had anything to do with the split, however. Instead, Pfister harnessed the years of working alongside Nolan into his first directorial effort, “Transcendence," starring Johnny Depp. An ambitious cyber-thriller in the vein of “The Lawnmower Man," the film still boasts a lineup of familiar faces to any fan of Nolan’s work, but in a recent Los Angeles press conference, members of the massive cast, along with Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen, set about discussing the unique aspects to the cautionary tale.
“Technology is probably our greatest hope in terms of solving everything that's problematic now,—our environment, disease—but equally it’s likely to throw up a whole world of problems that we have no perception or imagination to anticipate,” said actress Rebecca Hall of the high-concept conflict central to “Transcendence." In its journey of Dr. Will Caster (Depp) as he races to create a sentient machine with his wife Evelyn (Hall) before he dies from radiation poisoning, the sci-fi drama takes its cues from a number of real-life possibilities; ones that greatly surprised Paul Bettany as he researched the chance of a singularity—the union of man and self-aware machine—with a Cal Tech professor.
“I'm a blonde actor, not a science guy. I'm into making unreal things seem real,” the “Margin Call” lead said. “So I asked [the professor], ‘What is the truth? How far off is this?’ He said, ‘30 years.’ ”
“And that was all I could really remember from that visit,” Bettany added with a shocked smile.
In the film, Evelyn successfully transfers Will’s consciousness into an intuitive super computer, and Depp spoke of the link from his character’s thriving digital state to past cases of corruption. “When Will is in the computer, he's growing along with it at this extremely rapid pace,” he said. “Any person doing bad things—they all thought they had a pretty decent cause. A few were off… by quite a lot. I think Will is dedicated to the cause.”
Pfister chimed in on the film’s arc, adding, “In each character there's a point of desperation. In Evelyn's character she's desperate to have some part of her husband who's dying remain, and that drives her, along with the science in medical applications, to do what she does. It then becomes desperation with Will: we don't know if this machine's sentient or not, but he measure's her hormones, which he thinks is making some sort of connection. But I think to us as an audience—certainly to Evelyn—it is quite a desperate level to reach.”
Depp’s searching portrayal of Will also comes as a surprise, simply because it presents him in his most underplayed and unadorned state in some time. And according to the actor, there’s a reason for his constantly shifting cinematic appearances.
“It's always more difficult and slightly more exposing to play someone that's closer to yourself,” he explained. “I always like to try to hide because I can't stand the way I look, first of all, but I also think it's important to change every time, come up with something as interesting as you can for your characters. And it really depends on what the screenplay asks of you and what your responsibilities to that character are. You have the author's intent, the filmmaker's vision, and then you have your own wants, desires, and needs. I knew right off the bat with this that there was no need to go off and do some pink-haired, clown-nosed Ronald McDonald type.”
The cast, which also includes Kate Mara and Morgan Freeman, all spoke of the confidence in which Pfister approached his first film. Said Freeman of the DP-turned-director, “I've known Wally for many years and worked with him on three other projects. His mindset is one that I'm familiar with, I think that his tutoring was of the highest order, and I wanted to be there for his first outing with the idea that he'll be doing many more.”
The actor also added, “You have to ask yourself what it takes for a first-time director to get this kind of budget for a movie [$100 million]. Somebody believed in him.”
It wasn’t a concern for Depp, who first worked with Pfister on a music video directed by Paul McCartney; the actor and DP “instantly got along,” often retiring to play guitar with one another and persuading McCartney to teach them Beatles songs. Meanwhile, Rebecca Hall experienced a similar vibe during her time on Nolan’s 2006 film “The Prestige,” so the thought of boarding “Transcendence” was a no-brainer.
“I worked with Wally when he was a DP, and he was incredibly warm and kind to me in a moment when I was particularly frightened and didn't know what I was doing, so I would've done anything for him anyway,” she said. “I would argue that a DP observes an actor's work far closer than a lot of people on a set. He gets it; he knew when to stand off, when to be there for you. He knows what's he's doing.”
Certainly that assured approach is evident in the final result: being a major proponent of shooting on film, Pfister fashions with DP Jess Hall (“The Spectacular Now”, “Hot Fuzz”) a distinctly fluid 35mm look, combined with a heavy dose of practical locations and effects (the film was shot in Los Angeles and New Mexico). But he also knows when to let Paglen’s Black List script—his first produced screenplay—take the floor, an ability that Depp noticed from the early stages to the final film.
“I didn't see any virgin blather in the screen direction or anything like that. It's just a wonderfully executed piece and a complicated one,” he said. “The mathematics involved in putting this film together, between Jack and Wally—it was not an easy little operetta.”
“Transcendence” opens in theatres April 18th.