When Wally Pfister won an Oscar for Inception, his sixth film with Christopher Nolan, he went home and put the statuette on his mantel. “And then it moved to the corner, and then my office, and then the closet because you go away for a few months, and then it never comes out of the closet,” Pfister laughs. “So it’s like, ‘All right, well, I got this. And there’s other things I want to do.'”
Like direct his first film, Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, an artificial intelligence expert who stays “alive” by uploading his brain into a computer network with the power to rule the world, leaving his wife (Rebecca Hall) to convince violent hacktivists that he’s benevolent, not a handsome HAL 2.0. Transcendence opens with a flash-forward to the collapse of the internet, making it a cyber-psychological apocalyptic romance, or, as Pfister describes it, “a big, gargantuan project that I was concerned about taking on, but fuck it — go big or go home.”
Pfister had been obsessed with directing since he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Pop culture did a good job of letting you know who was responsible for this bizarre masterpiece,” says Pfister. He was 10 years old and desperate to tell people his favorite director was Stanley Kubrick, not that many people asked. “I had never seen Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, or A Clockwork Orange,” he admits, “but he was my favorite director because there was this space movie that was cool.”
Pfister figured that he would direct, too. Like so many high-energy kids of the ’70s, he grabbed an 8mm camera and got busy shooting shorts. But he flubbed high school and wound up following his father, an ABC News producer, into the family business. At 21, he was in Washington, D.C., holding a camera for a syndicated news service and later Frontline, which kept him busy during the entire Reagan era.
In 1988, he met Robert Altman, who inspired him to move to Hollywood. Then, in ’98, he met Christopher Nolan, who inspired him to create some of the most memorable images of Hollywood’s last 15 years: skyscrapers folding like origami, beautiful and brash Batmobile chases, and that luminous scene in The Prestige where Hugh Jackman wanders through a snowy field dotted with Tesla’s lightbulbs.
Nolan was still editing The Dark Knight Rises, their seventh film together, when Pfister told him he felt ready to take the reins.
“It was me kind of walking in there and kissing the ring and saying, ‘I’m going to go off and do this,'” says Pfister. “He was like, ‘Fantastic’ — he knew it was coming.” Nolan signed on to executive produce Transcendence, but he trusted Pfister to figure out the rest: the $100 million budget, tricky special effects, and top-level cast, which includes fellow Dark Knight alumni Cillian Murphy and Morgan Freeman. “I would go to bed every night and go, ‘What the fuck have I done, what am I doing? I’ve left the best job in Hollywood working with the best director, and I don’t even know if I know what I’m doing,” groans Pfister. “But day one, I arrived on the set and those guys were there helping me out.”
Pfister has a love/hate relationship with technology. He’s notorious for still shooting on film, not digital. But he’s also an early adopter who’s had a cellphone since 1990, even though, from his very first banal phone call alerting his wife he was stuck in traffic, he’s suspected their advantages are overhyped. “These devices have done a great job of getting us addicted to them,” says Pfister, miming injecting his iPhone into his veins. “We’re constantly feeding them credit card numbers and dollars, and then they’re also extracting information.
“If Will Caster had been Donald Trump, what would that machine have done?” muses Pfister. “What if it was Bernie Madoff?” He wanted to make a retro-style sci-fi chiller — he loves Soylent Green and Westworld — but the difference between 1973 and today is that the stuff of fiction seems all too real. Says Pfister, gesturing toward his smartphone, “These are 100 times more powerful than what sent Apollo 11 into space!”
Since we almost have the technology to become digitally immortal, Pfister flew to MIT and Berkeley to ask neurobiologists and nanotechnologists two questions: Can we upload a human mind, and if so, would it contain emotion? “The answer was overwhelmingly, ‘I don’t see why not,'” he says. If scientists figured it out in his lifetime — a likely bet — would he do it?
“If I had a few months off and I could turn on Wally 2.0 and fuck around with it for a little bit, cool. But I think after a while I’ll probably put that thing away,” says Pfister. “Johnny Depp said the same thing, that he’s not really interested in immortality. We’re of the same generation.” He laughs. “Maybe it’s just because we’ve lived 50 years and done a lot of cool things: He’s really rich, I have an Oscar, we’ve done it.”
Of course, at the same time, there’s a lot Pfister still wants to do in human form. He has, after all, just started the second wave of his career.
“Look, I’m a novice, I’m a newbie, I’m stretching my legs,” says Pfister. “What was really important was these ideas; they’re current and topical and go back to these devices,” he adds, speaking into his iPhone. “We can talk to Siri: ‘Hello Siri, how is Transcendence tracking?’ I’ve never done this before, but she’s checking on it.” He pauses as Siri thinks, his attention suddenly riveted on the screen. Then Pfister catches himself. He turns his phone upside-down and places it behind him, exhales, and smiles. “I actually don’t want to know.”