Oscar-winning DP Wally Pfister, ASC Turns to Directing

Wally Pfister, ASC

Wally Pfister, filmmaking ally of Christopher Nolan, is deep into preproduction on his directorial debut, an as-yet-untitled major feature film. Nolan and his wife and producing partner Emma Thomas will serve as executive producers on the project. An early fall shoot is planned.

The project’s script explores the human love affair with technology. The story considers a world where machines can transcend the abilities of the human brain, and depicts the epic conflicts that result. The project is currently in the early stages of scouting, design and casting.

Nolan has made seven films with Pfister at the camera, including this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises, as well as Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, and Inception, which brought Pfister an Oscar. Nolan is known for boosting visual impact by shooting on large film formats like 65 mm and IMAX. The Dark Knight brought in upwards of a billion dollars for Warners.

Pfister brings directing experience on a number of high profile ad campaigns including the recent Salma Hayek Got Milk? spots and a series of critically lauded PSAs for The Montana Meth Project.

Pfister is well aware that cinema history is littered with failed attempts to cross over from camera to directing. On the other hand, there are significant successes like Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family, the Men in Black series of films), Jack Cardiff, ASC, BSC and American Society of Cinematographers founding member Phil Rosen, who went on direct more than 140 films in the early decades of Hollywood.

“I’m really focused like a laser beam on directing my first feature film,” says Pfister. “The task is huge. I’m going to have a lot of great people to work with. But it’s all beginning with the screenplay, and while I’ve been working on that with the writer, I really never for one minute thought about the visuals. I’m hoping my transition from cinematographer to director will be successful, of course. And if it is, I think one of the keys will be the ability to completely switch tracks. I found that the writing process was 100% about clarification of the story, and developing these characters and their arcs.

“Working as a cinematographer, I always had an eye on what I was doing visually to tell the story of the characters,” he says. “You have to be alive to ways to augment the narrative, and the goals of the director. So now, as a director, it really feels like I am taking that to the next level, and not thinking about it just in terms of visuals. Once we get the script to a certain point, I’ll start to think about how to integrate the visuals. But the first step there is not the cinematography at all, but choosing locations and designing sets. Every bit of that is about what’s right for the story. Everything has to come from a credible place. It’s all about believability, and getting the audience to be there with you, and to trust you. Once you do that, you can begin to sell some higher concepts.”

Pfister says that many of his lessons were learned by watching and working with Nolan over the course of seven pictures. “During this preproduction process, I’m always hearing Chris’ voice,” he says. “I know how he would approach things. Chris has a very frugal approach to filmmaking. He never wastes anything. So I am trying to be clever about spending money so I can maximize our budget.”

After more than three decades of shooting, Pfister can’t completely escape his cameraman’s instincts. “It’s an enormous advantage in decision-making, and that is especially true when we’re scouting,” he says. “I can walk into a room, and really know right away whether it’s going to photograph well. I try to look at the location first in terms of whether it makes sense for the story, for the characters and their personalities, their socio-economic status, and then whether the location will be expensive and time-consuming to light and photograph, and how it will look on film. That is hard to get out of your mind. But I think having that toolset is wonderful, as long as I can compartmentalize it. The one lingering consideration is when I’m scouting exteriors, I can’t help but think about where the sun is going to be. Will the light be good on that building? It’s tough to keep my mind off of that. On the initial scouts, I found myself peeking at my compass. So that’s something I’ll need to purge!”

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