As much of a genius as Christopher Nolan may be, it's fair to say that he wouldn't have the success he currently enjoys without the invaluable contributions of Wally Pfister. Pfister, a cinematographer who began his career with a series of straight-to-video (forget DVD) thrillers and other forgettable films, first collaborated with Nolan on Memento, and the two have worked together ever since. Pfister has since been nominated three times for Academy Awards, and their latest work is Inception, which is quite possibly the summer's most highly-anticipated film.
Cinematical was lucky enough to sit down with Pfister for an exclusive interview at the Dallas Film Festival this spring, where he was honored with their coveted Star Award. Gregarious and charming, Pfister discussed his ongoing collaboration with Nolan, examined his efforts to create a relationship between a film and its audience, and reflected on his own artistic and personal evolution throughout his career leading up to Inception.
Cinematical: One of the things that you said in your acceptance speech at the Dallas Film Festival was the idea that each of the award recipients were being honored for their ability to evoke emotion and connect with audiences. But I'm sure that so much of your work involves a lot of really demanding technical considerations. When you are working on a set, how do you make sure that you connect those technical aspects with the emotional ones?
Wally Pfister: It's an excellent question because I've always said that really our jobs as cinematographers is 50 percent technician and 50 percent artist - and the other 50 percent politician (laughs). But, really, you get to a point in your career and your life, and your skill level [and] you're not thinking about those things anymore. Those come naturally. It's like, I also play guitar, and it is like playing music in that once your skills are honed, and once you're well practiced, and you're ready for the concert, you don't really think about where your fingers are going on the fretboard. Your fingers just go there, and you improvise - and that's where this becomes a really pure art form, and it is just improvisation. It's just getting on the set and looking at what's there and either creating the life or taking what's there and augmenting it and making something out of it based on the director's vision, and the rehearsals, the actors, and all the other elements combined.
So you analyze the script and what's going on in that scene, what the actors are doing, and you say, "Okay, what is the best way to bring forth this emotion in what I'm doing?" You know, is it with lighting? Is it with camera movement? And then it becomes discussions with the director, and Chris and I have fantastic conversations about 'what does it mean to be moving in? What does it mean to be moving left or right? What does it mean to be completely static with the camera? Should we go long lens? What does that mean?' So that's where it is my turn to get involved in the storytelling in visual terms, and that's what they pay me for, really, at this level is, to be the visual translator of the film, of the director's vision.
Cinematical: At this point, are audiences sophisticated enough to talk about the idea of what it means to push in or to move left or right? Does conventional film language still mean what it always did? Or do you feel like audiences are so sophisticated that if you were to say, break the 180-degree rule or something like that, then they're no longer thrown off.
Pfister: Interesting point. It's a little bit of both. The audiences are very sophisticated now. They do understand and see things they didn't before. They understand technology, or they think they do. They're told about technology, but they have an appetite for it, which I think is exciting. They have an appetite for the process and how we make films, so they do know a lot more. The veil's been lifted a little bit, which I think most filmmakers that I know aren't crazy about. Most filmmakers like to keep that veil down a little bit so they can just get the audience to focus on the story and make all the effects and the other things around them a more visceral experience. I know that's how Nolan feels. But I think that if you do it like Nolan does, you bombard the audience with complex storytelling, performances, characters, and then action and effects – then really the audience has no choice but to engage completely and not try to analyze and figure it out. The stories are way too complex. There's much too much going on, so then the audiences are forced to play ball, if you will. They're forced to engage and not separate themselves.
So I think [about] that in terms of what I do - whether or not they understand what I'm doing, and whether or not there's even any sense in, like you said, why would we bother pushing in? Would the audience really get that? That to me is all subconscious. That's all something that they may not see or you don't want them to see, but you know they're going to feel something. And there is no more simple, more emotional move in film language – camera language – than to push slowly into somebody's face, and that's a tool that Chris and I use quite frequently because most of what we're shooting now is hand-held. So the second that camera's on the dolly, we're doing it slow - pushing into somebody's face. We're over their shoulder from behind. It really starts to mean something, and it's emotional, and it's usually a good opportunity for Hans Zimmer to come in with a cue.
Cinematical: What is it that you and Chris Nolan sort of locked into when you were doing Memento that has resulted in this ongoing really fertile creative collaboration?
Pfister: It's a little bit of everything. I mean, our personalities work very well. A lot of people don't realize what a great sense of humor Chris has because he seems so dry, and he seems so serious, and people are intimidated by him. But I get him. Not a week goes by on the movie set where I don't get him to laugh so hard he spits his tea out of his nose. I swear to God, I can do it once a week, and we have a good time. We really do enjoy each others' company. Beyond that, I think what happened in Memento that continues and has only grown is this sort of mutual taste. We have the same taste. We like the same kind of music. When I find something that's very obscure, a bit of music or something, I send it to him, and I kind of know if he's going to like it, and that's just on the personal side. But there are the movies out there that he loves and I hate. I'm not a big Michael Bay fan. Chris loves Michael Bay's movies. And so I'm always like come on, dude! But he sees something in it, and I don't see it.
With that respect and shared taste, what happens on the set is if there's something that we're not exactly seeing eye to eye on, we just bat it back and forth and we'll argue it. And I'll say to him, "Look, I just think it's a mistake to go in there and do it this like this. I think it's going to work much better like this. No!" And then he'll come back and say, "No, and here's why." And I'll say, "Yeah, but if we do it like that..." and we bat it back and forth until we find the absolute way it should be filmed. And neither of us are afraid to admit that we're wrong, and of course he's the king; he's the director, he's the producer, he's my boss. But he has always had respect for my input and my collaboration, and he listens to me on script things because he knows I'm a good viewer, too. He knows I have taste as a viewer, so he'll ask me whether I like this actor or that actor, or whether I like this performance or that performance.
Cinematical: I'm sure that Inception was meticulously designed from the get-go, but I know that Christopher Nolan and other people have talked about the fact that much of it was sort of found in the shooting process.
Pfister: It's really fascinating because you're right – his scripts are really, really tight. His scripts are very, very tightly laid out, very meticulously put together. I know in the case of this one he had a lot of meetings with Leo [DiCaprio], and Leo had a lot of input, and Chris really was generous about sort of including that. He claims it's made it a better movie. [But] once we get on the set, it's absolute 'anything goes.' I mean, all I basically try to do is get a heads up from him about [stuff like,] if we're going to shoot on the train today, where do you think you want to start? That's all I need, is a starting point. And Chris and I move so fast that it really is complete riffing. I light on the fly; I light really, really fast. He loves to shoot fast, so if a lighting setup is taking more than 20 minutes, I get [Chris looking at his watch and saying] "How do you think it's going?" I mean he can have the biggest set in the world, so my game is always to try to jump ahead and have the set sort of pre-lit and ready to go. I know what's in his head. I know where he's going with the camera, so I can second guess what the shot's going to be and how we're going to light it. So that allows us to really operate in free-form fashion on the set.
Once again, on this movie, like The Prestige, the camera was on my shoulder in almost the whole movie. There was a hell of a lot of hand-held in this. There's a lot of other stuff, too. There's some effects stuff [such as] the rotating hallways that can't be done that way. But every time the camera can be on my shoulder, it's on my shoulder. So that creates an enormously free-form way of filming. I can pan around any direction, and Chris often tells the [crew] you better clear the set 360 degrees; we want to be able to look anywhere and shoot anywhere, and I just laugh because it just has art direction spinning.
Cinematical: Would you say that just given sort of the content of this film that it was maybe the most logistically demanding that you've worked on with him? Or would something like The Dark Knight be more challenging because that is such a juggernaut?
Pfister: That's a good question, and I always have to sit back and go hmm, because I don't know whether one was more complicated than the other. You know, logistically, yeah, it's difficult to do just because we had six countries. The only frustrating thing, and maybe this makes it harder, is that you lose so much time when you're prepping – traveling around and suffering jet lag - and then not being able to be in Calgary to visit the sets as they're being built, not being in London because you're shooting in Morocco. So that makes it a little tougher experience, but really in the end with Chris it's all such a - I'm not going to say it's a painless experience, but it's logical; everything is very logical. I know there's a logic to how we're going to do things, and we're going to do things the most efficient way. We have an efficiency machine, you know, and as I said we just move so fast, and everything has to be done the most efficient way in terms of the budget. So that's always been my job on his bigger films – to be part of that machine and part of keeping all those parts together. Each one comes in and has a different set of problems, a different set of solutions, but it's just hard for me to even say that Prestige is a smaller movie than Inception even though one was 45 million and the other was 200 million and in six countries. It's hard for me to say that because in the end, for me it's all the same experience on the set.
Cinematical: One of the things he has talked very specifically about is the fact that he does not agree with the commercial trend of 3-D. Are you sort of one mind about that being a new tool in the tool box? Or how do you feel about that?
Pfister: I feel the same way. It's interesting. I met with Brad Bird the other day. He was very like-minded, as well, on this stuff. We feel there's something missing in 3-D. I mean, besides the fact that the problems that Chris and I have that the screen's too dark and it's an annoyance to put the glasses on. There's something else that Chris and I have discussed that is really the key to my problem with 3-D, and this is something Brad Bird was saying. He was saying that he asked his teenage son what he liked better, 3-D or IMAX? I guess he has several teenage sons, but they all said IMAX. It's more real; it feels more real. And to me that's really telling because our problem with 3-D – or my problem, and really Chris shares this view – is that when you separate all those elements into different planes, into different fields, it doesn't feel that real anymore. So it's a really cool experience, and particularly if you dropped LSD because that's what it feels like. But I haven't done that in a long time. But then it's a cool experience, and it's trippy, but is that the best way to tell a story?
They were pushing Chris to do Inception in 3-D, and they went directly to him, and in the end, Chris is a brilliant politician. He doesn't want to be the guy to be wrong about it. Chris is so clever about it, he said to them, "Look, ultimately it's your decision. I don't think it's a good idea." I think Chris did not want anything distracting from the storytelling experience of Inception. Could it make another 20 or 30 million dollars in the theater going 3-D? Maybe, but with the bad press that this particular process is getting, maybe not. I know Cameron has been so vocal about how much he thinks that [post-production 3-D] process stinks. And [Warner Brothers] decided no, thank God.
Cinematical: At what point does your participation sort of end? Particularly now, you can shoot an image, and you can go into a computer and hypothetically brighten it up, or change it, or whatever. I'm sure you obviously want to get as much on camera as possible, but say on Inception, at what point were you sort of done?
Pfister: Well, it's really interesting you say that because I absolutely try to get it on the camera, and Chris, as well. And if it means even as much of a speed freak as he is, it means taking another 15 minutes on set - lighting, or whatever I'm doing there – to get it right on camera, he'll let me take that time. We'll do it that way rather than doing some kind of post fix-up job or something. What happens is if you try to change something – alter it, to bend it too far in post – then other things fall apart. The grain structure of the film falls apart. You'll pick up electronic noise. You'll pick up any number of things. The colors can't be forced to separate. You're going to be caught between green and magenta on the color spectrum. All things fall apart when you try to make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t. So we really have a mantra to try to get it on camera as much as possible.
Now, we know how what we're going to do the end process, so if it purely is a visual effect, then it's really just having the elements that go into the camera that are going to serve that visual effect in the best way. So we really want to know how it's going to work so that when they come back in and they do that work in the end, it all fits in like a puzzle piece and is organic. And that's how we do it, and that's how we make film prints. We don't do [digital intermediates] and everything up there. It takes most people four to five weeks to do a digital intermediate color correction of the film – changing density, changing color, changing contrast, changing hue, whatever. We can go in and film process, and I can time that film in three days. I can time that film in as long as it takes for the lab to turn over a print, because I sit in there in real time with my timer and I say, add a point of yellow, add a point of density, add a point of cyan, boom, boom, boom.
The next day that print comes out, and he goes, "oh, okay, makeup can handle two points of cyan." And we go back in. That's all it is. I expose the film very carefully. And that's the technical side that I have mastered. I expose it carefully, then we print it carefully. The end product is different than a lot of other people do it. The process is different, but it's more accurate, and it's faster, and it's cheaper. We've always yelled that our practice is faster and cheaper. We have no second unit; Chris and I shoot every bit of film on the movie, and that's a cheaper way to do it, than to hire a really big second-unit director, give him 30 million dollars to try to do cool action bits. We can do that, and we integrate it with our master shooting schedule.
Cinematical: When you do a film that is so distinctive and looks as great as, let's say, The Dark Knight, as much as I'm sure that will afford you different opportunities, at the same time do people ask you, "Hey, can you just do the Dark Knight thing in this movie as opposed to maybe doing something individual or different?
Pfister: Yeah, my thing is that no matter what, when I read the script, and I interpret that script, and I talk to the director – something different is going to come out, something new is going to evolve. Now, as I said, you have your tool kit, your set of ways of doing things... so that's formulaic. But in terms of the look, I do try to challenge myself to have it unique to the material and have it unique to whatever that script or the director's vision might be. So, I challenge myself to do that. Chris and I both challenge each other to do something different in movies. And it's funny because the first trailer of Inception came out, or the second one, and we were saying. "It looks just like The Dark Knight." And it's kind of funny because I think I found myself coloring it that way. Hans Zimmer did the music to it, so it kind of [seems similar,] but it's a completely different look and feel. And I like to think my main thing is that after Batman [Begins] I really wanted to broaden my color palette, and so I did that a little bit more in Dark Knight, and then this is even more so, I think.