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"It's everything you hope to achieve when you come to this town. It's the peak of your ambitions!"
"One of the things that's important about cinematography is that we do new things that are innovative."
"He brought to my attention for the first time, high quality, narrative film making."
"He is the consummate director; he has a hand in every single element in the making of his films."
"The greatest creative challenge for me was maintaining the mood of night exterior lighting and being able to hide the lights from the frame."
"What I remember most about Heath was his enthusiasm and his spirit."
"You were chastised if you didn't come up with things, if you didn't think outside the box."
"I really do hear music and compose music in my mind while I'm executing my job as a cinematographer."
"I don't think Chris has made a decision as to whether he's going to direct a third Batman film yet."
"I've really enjoyed directing television commercials. It's allowed me the freedom and flexibility in the choices that I make."
Wally Pfister  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
February 2009

Wally Pfister has all the qualities you want in a DP. He's passionate, creative, and technically gifted. His most recent work on "The Dark Knight" is masterful - vividly depicting images of light against dark, while emitting energy on a grand scale. And it's earned him an Academy Award nomination, among other industry honors. Says, Pfister, "It's everything you hope to achieve when you come to this town. It's the peak of your ambitions!"

Early in his teenage years, Wally was making movies. "I knew I wanted to be in the film business. Not specifically a cinematographer. I'm sure I wanted to be a director. But you find your calling as the time goes on and you play different aspects of it."

From Chicago to New York, he started out as a production assistant, sound guy, and television camera man for local news stations. And eventually moved to Washington, D.C. in the early 80's, where he put together news stories for national and international news programs like "Frontline." With some documentary work behind him, he applied to the American Film Institute (AFI) before landing an assignment on the HBO series, "Tanner '88," with Robert Altman. After shooting had ended, he was accepted into the cinematography program at AFI for two years, which introduced him to Janusz Kaminski and Roger Corman, and paved the way for camera work on low budget thrillers like "Body Chemistry" and "Secret Games."

Then, in 2000 a prolific relationship began with Christopher Nolan on the set of "Memento." A break out hit, the film would lead to some of the most dynamic films of the decade, all shot by Pfister - "Insomnia," "Batman Begins," "The Prestige," and last year's blockbuster "The Dark Knight."

On the eve of Hollywood's biggest night, I got a chance to chat with Wally about the making of "The Dark Knight," the memory of Heath Ledger, the movement toward IMAX, and the possibility of Batman 3!

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

Congratulations on your Oscar and ASC nominations! Great stuff. And certainly, well deserved. What does the recognition mean to you?

Recognition means a great deal, particularly the ASC nomination among my peers. It shows that they have a great deal of respect for my work and that means so much. It's everything you hope to achieve when you come to this town. It's the peak of your ambitions! And I am very proud to be recognized by my peers. It's a very exciting time!

You're in some really great company this year. Have you had an opportunity to look at your peers' work?

I have. I've seen every film that's in competition. Of course, I'm a long time fan of Roger Deakins and Chris Menges, who are nominated for "The Reader." And I also think that the work Claudio Miranda did on "Benjamin Button" was quite stunning. But I have to say in a funny sort of way, my favorite photography is in "Slumdog Millionaire," because I think that one of the things that's important about cinematography is that we do new things that are innovative. And I think the most innovative work I've seen this year is what Anthony Dod Mantle has done in "Slumdog Millionaire." I can't vote for him though (laughs)!

A Chicago native? A family of journalists? How did you become a cinematographer?

Well, I'm actually more a native of New York. I was born in Chicago, but my family moved from Chicago to New York when I was only 3 months old.

I do come from a whole family of journalists. My grandfather was the city editor of the Sheboygan Press in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. And my father was a news producer and then an executive for all three networks: CBS, ABC, and NBC. And I began my career as a news cameraman.

Was there a particular moment when you realized you wanted to become like a moviemaker? I mean, were you making short films as a teenager growing up?

I was. I think I first put my hands on a camera when I was 12 years old and began shooting footage of the family. Of course, I was making short films with my friends. And I really think that by the time I was 12 years old, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to be in the film business. Not specifically a cinematographer. I'm sure I wanted to be a director. But you find your calling as the time goes on and you play different aspects of it.

But yeah, I made many short films as a teenager and then became a news camera man at a television station and then went to Washington D.C. to do documentaries and did that for a number of years all the while having the bargain and the drive to come to Hollywood.

Who or what really inspires you today as a filmmaker?

In terms of directors, I'm obviously very biased, but I think Chris Nolan truly is the most exciting director working today, particularly for someone his age. He's only 38 years old and has accomplished 5 landmark films. Not only were all well received critically, but every single one has made money. And I think that makes him a force in this town that's on par with the Steven Spielbergs, the Stanley Kubricks, and the Martin Scorseses. He's this generation's version of that.

I think there are other wonderfully interesting filmmakers out there. I really enjoy the work of directors like Mark Forster and Paul Haggis. They're among my recent favorites. And certainly, I think Danny Boyle is in that category as well. So, I think there are some interesting filmmakers out there and I enjoy watching movies just as I do shooting them.

You mentioned Chris Nolan, of course, and his 5 key projects. You've worked on every single one of those, correct?

I have. I've shot every single one of his films except "The Following."

Describe your relationship with him, how it began, and how it has evolved/changed from film to film?

You know, it began with "Memento," of course. And it was interesting because I had considerably more experience with feature films than Chris at that point. I had been a camera operator for many years on large budget films. I had also shot about 10 low budget feature films up to that point. And Chris had only completed one feature film. But going into "Memento," we both learned something from each other. I was able to show him the ropes on how to craft a low budget film in Hollywood and he brought to my attention for the first time, high quality, narrative film making. And took a film that was to become a complete classic and taught me how to turn a phenomenal script into a brilliant film. And that's what he did with "Memento."

Subsequently, it was just continued growth. We moved onto "Insomnia" and Chris was able to take complete command of A-List actors like Al Pacino and Robin Williams and I was there to observe it. I was there to watch, literally, Al Pacino hanging onto every word of this director, who is on set, directing a feature film for just the third time. And Al Pacino had an enormous amount of respect for him. He just commands that kind of respect. He's that kind of artist; that kind of person. And then subsequent projects came and everything got stronger and stronger.

For "Batman Begins," he completely revived a failed franchise and not only made money for the studio, he reinvented how comic book films were to be made. Now, it seems everyone is copying his style for comic book films. If you watch "Iron Man," you see right away that the template for that movie is based on "Batman Begins." And then he raised the bar again with "The Prestige," showing that he could do interesting material that didn't necessary need to be overly commercial and still could make a profit. And then, of course, "The Dark Knight" speaks for itself.

They're some of my favorite movies of all time.

Glad to hear it! Yeah, I feel the same way. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been along for the ride with this artist and to have been a part of it. The accolades I'm receiving are due to Chris's vision on these films. And frankly, the seven of us that were nominated (plus one who is deceased) for our participation in "The Dark Knight" owe him a big thanks. And I'm actually quite sad that we've been recognized for our achievement, but the man who oversaw what we did, that hired us, and approved everything we did, was not recognized for his directorial achievement by the Academy. He is nominated for a DGA award. But he is the consummate director; he has a hand in every single element in the making of his films.

For The Dark Knight, you shot in IMAX, which looked amazing! What were some of the challenges?

It's interesting because there are technical challenges and there are creative challenges in everything you do on a film. And there was a learning curve. Learning the IMAX format for me and the physical limitations of the camera itself. It weighs nearly twice as much as its 35mm counterpart!

Also, the greatest challenge for me on a creative level was doing night exterior work because of the scope and size of the image. The lenses that go on this camera are so enormous that it's very difficult to hide light. So, the greatest creative challenge for me was maintaining the mood of night exterior lighting and being able to hide the lights from the frame.

I was happy in the end because we were able to crack through that and get some very interesting shots. Notably, the images of Heath Ledger, where he was standing in the street and you can see the tops of every building and you can see all the way to his feet when he's standing there waiting for Batman to hit him with the Bat Pod.

What was your favorite scene to shoot or favorite story from the making of the movie?

I think if I had to pick a favorite moment from the film, it would be the montage in the middle. The moment when Heath Ledger sticks his head outside of the cop car as he's driving along like a dog. I don't know if you remember, but it's a whole montage. And it goes from the sound on the street to complete silence over that shot and then becomes a montage with Maggie Gyllenhaal's voice reading a letter. And it's all shot in IMAX. Every piece of the montage.

It's after Maggie's character, Rachel, has been killed and it's basically Michael Caine reading that letter after she's been killed and the montage shows Michael Caine, it shows Heath driving the cop car completely out of control, it shows Batman standing in the wreckage of the building where Maggie's been killed, and it ends with Michael finishing the letter. And also shows Harvey Dent in the hospital.

I think it's just a poignant, grim moment in the film. Between the imagery, the mood, the pacing, and where it comes into play, it just has all the weight of the film in those moments. And that's when Chris is most masterful - when he is able to put that emotion onto the screen.

What do you remember most about Heath Ledger?

What I remember most about Heath was his enthusiasm and his spirit. He was really loving every minute of what he was doing. And he knew what a great job he was doing with that character. He knew he was hitting it, whether that was from the reaction of those of us around him, or whether he felt it instinctively as an actor. I think he really knew what he was doing and how well he was doing it.

Despite what some of the press has been saying about him going to dark depths to stay in character, I felt he was only being the brilliant actor he was. I think he was actually very happy and excited about what was going on with his performance and on the screen. And I know that Chris was absolutely thrilled with the performance as it was going on. Frankly, it was an absolute pleasure and a joy to not only watch what he was doing creatively, but to be around a man with such a kind heart and a vibrant source of energy.

One of your first breakthroughs was on Tanner 88, the HBO mini series. How have you been influenced or what do you remember most about Robert Altman?

I loved Bob. He was really terrific. And I'll never forget him. To me, he was part of that era of 70's filmmakers that was so influential in my life. I had been a huge fan of the Altmans and directors like Arthur Penn and Hal Ashby and that whole era. So, to get the opportunity to work with Bob was amazing. And it was really like a family environment with him. He would invite everybody to dailies. I was the second unit cameraman and B camera operator, but I was invited to dailies every night. And there would be an open conversation and Bob would comment on specific things, both positive and negative, in the room. And everybody was free to say what they wanted to. It truly was a completely collaborative thing.

Bob encouraged you to come up with things. In fact, you were chastised if you didn't come up with things, if you didn't think outside the box, if you didn't embody that maverick spirit that was such an important part of his filmmaking! And it was perfect for me because I was coming off of many years of being a documentary cameraman and that's the spirit he wanted in the camera.

The funny part is I was actually cast in that show. I was hired to play a cameraman, but when they found out I was actually a cameraman and not a very good actor, my role shifted toward being the second unit cameraman and B camera operator rather than being an actor.

A very talented guitarist. Who are your music influences and does music impact your film work?

That's a fantastic question, Mark! Music has an impact on my work and I really do hear music and compose music in my mind while I'm executing my job as a cinematographer. In fact, it's hard for me to separate music and rhythm from the work that I do as a cinematographer. My passion for music continues, from early influences like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, a lot of great blues musicians, Delta blues musicians, and then, of course, Eric Clapton. Just a great range of influence - basically 60's and 70's. Rock n' Rollers. And later on too, there are bands in this era that are of great inspiration, like Radiohead. And I'm a big fan of Beck's as well.

Luckily, I have teenage kids that introduce me to new stuff once in awhile. And it continues to be a big part of my life. In fact, I still try to pick up the guitar at least once everyday.

With all that you've accomplished so far, what are your current aspirations?

Well, I've been spending an awful lot of time this year directing television commercials. I'm not currently planning on branching out into feature films as a director, but I've really enjoyed directing television commercials. It's allowed me the freedom and flexibility in the choices that I make and what films I shoot next. So, that's where my current focus is.

Will you be doing the third Batman?

I'm not involved in talks right now. I think that Chris has been very, very tight lipped about it. And I probably think he is still deciding whether or not he wants to do another Batman film right away. Or whether he wants to try and do another film before. So, I think it's still completely up in the air. I know there are a lot of rumors going around, but I don't think Chris has made a decision as to whether he's going to direct a third Batman film yet.

What are you working on next?

Right now, I'm working on commercials, directing and shooting them. I'm currently reviewing projects and trying to decide what film I'll jump on next and it might be a project with Chris. Or, if he doesn't go into production, it might be something with another director. But, I'm likely to jump on another feature film by late spring or early summer.



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