Interview: ‘Dark Knight’ Cinematographer on Directing ‘Transcendence’ & Artificial Intelligence

Opening tonight is “Transcendence,” a sci-fi thriller that follows Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) and his goal of creating an omniscient, sentient machine where computers can transcend the abilities of the human brain.

Featuring an all-star cast, including Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara and Cillian Murphy, “Transcendence” is a high-concept film that will make your head spin.

Red Carpet Crash sat down with director Wally Pfister, who is best known for his camera work on Christopher Nolan’s films, to talk about his directorial debut, artificial intelligence and college courses.

You’ve worked on so many great films and with so many great directors, like Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight,” “Inception”) and Bennett Miller (“Moneyball”), and I am wondering how working with all those directors you’ve worked with over the years and how your career as a cinematographer influenced your directorial debut?

Wally Pfister: “I think what you’ll find in life is that everything you do kind of contributes to what you do later on. So everything that I did as a cinematographer – even going back to before I shot feature films, when I was a news cameramen and doing documentaries – made it easier when I stepped on the set as a director for the first time, and one of the great things that I got out of all those years working on big budget features as a cinematographer was have a little intimidation in getting on the set for the first time as a director.

But I learned a little bit from everybody and really, one of the great things about Chris Nolan is his discipline on the set and you know, to observe somebody who really considers every minute of your set time to be precious. It’s a very important lesson, and discipline to learn in terms of your set experience and having spent, you know, 14 years around Chris where he doesn’t waste a second of his time and he takes everything very, very seriously. He has a great appreciation for the fact that it’s somebody else’s money and he is responsible for it, he takes on that responsibility. That’s one of the great lessons I’ve learned working with Chris.”

I know Jack Paglen wrote the script, but how much research did you put on to things like nanotechnology in preparation for the film?

Pfister: “I did an enormous amount of research. Jack wrote the original screenplay and then I continued writing drafts consequently. I went on my own little college tour in early spring of 2012. I went to visit MIT and talk to professors in the field of nanotechnology and in neurobiologies and robotics, and even in the media lab to look at some of their projections and get ideas for what was the state of the art in terms of projections and holograms and that sort of thing. And then I also visited Stanford and spoke to professors there and then did the same thing at Berkeley. And I landed on two professors at Berkeley, one in neurobiology and the other one in nanotechnology. They were so helpful. They became the kind of full time consultants on the film and were involved in sort of every stage of vetting the science and the medical applications in the film. So I felt pretty confident by the time we started filming that I had a pretty clear idea as to what was really possible and where we are kind of bending it a sense.”

Obviously, sci-fi films must differ at some point from scientific reality. How far does “Transcendence” stray from what is currently being researched of artificial intelligence?

Pfister: “Well, I think it’s in terms of stray and stretching, you know, how and where we are going with it? It’s pretty— you know, this is fiction and it is important for everybody to remember the fiction in sci-fi. This is obviously designed as entertainment and so in terms of where we push the limits. Obviously, you cannot upload a human brain with the current technology now.

Where most of the sciences right now is in mapping the human brain, and there are several projects around the world where they are slowly and meticulously working on mapping of a human brain, which is basically logging in the synapses and the communication between neurons. So that’s our real stretch is being able to take a human mind and upload it in the computer and successfully. So that sort of what drives the science fiction in this film to begin with.

Beyond that, of course, the nanotechnology is our own creation. It is based on sort of speculation and what might be plausible in the future. And that’s what, the two main professors that were my consultants are comfortable with saying is that most of what we deal within the films is that this time plausible. So it could potentially happen in the future, but for now, it’s fiction.”

Because this film involves artificial intelligence, which we’ve seen in films before like “Gattaca,” “Terminator” and “RoboCop,” what do you think sets “Transcendence” apart from those other films?

Pfister: “Well, it’s an excellent question. I think partially what sets ‘Transcendence’ apart is that it’s not strictly speaking in artificial intelligence. The original project that they are working on the film is in artificial intelligence, but I think I can say without any spoilers that it’s actually, you know, a human mind that gets uploaded. So we are talking about an actual human consciousness living in this machine rather than something completely artificial. So that makes it a little slightly different and I think that also sets off the emotional journal.

Throughout most of the movie, the idea is to question whether in fact this machine contains the actual soul of this particular person. That person being Johnny Depp of course.”

If this sentient machine were real and an option for everyday people, do you think a lot of people would do it and what would it do to society?

Pfister: “That’s also a good question. That’s more my own opinion, but I think that— look, if you were able to upload your own mind, I’m not exactly sure what you would do with the duplicate of your mind except consider the possibilities of immortality.

If it were some sort of commercial application that you could log into, I would be very wary of it and skeptical that they are going to be trying to extract information from us. That they would be asking too many personal questions and requiring too many uploads – I mean, continued upgrades of our software and that it would be more of a commercial application and would cost us a lot of money to keep going in it.

So I don’t know. It’s anybody’s guess what would happen. I don’t really have a desire to upload my brains.”

If you could teach a college course of your creation, what would you teach?

Pfister: “That’s interesting. Well, honestly, I’m probably best suited to teach a course on cinematography. I think if you are going to teach, you better do what you know best. I’m still in the – you know, it’s my first outing as a director. So I wouldn’t be so presumptuous to teach directing. So the simple answer is I’ll probably teach cinematography.”

“Transcendence” opens in theaters everywhere tonight at 8 p.m.

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