On Movies: Wally Pfister's big career shift hangs on box office news

Wally Pfister (right) directs Johnny Depp in "Transcendence."
Wally Pfister (right) directs Johnny Depp in "Transcendence." (PETER MOUNTAIN)
Posted: April 21, 2014

Cinematographer Wally Pfister has a resumé rife with hits - Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises. He won an Oscar in 2011, for his sixth collaboration with Christopher Nolan, the mind-bending, gravity-defying Inception. Pfister shot Lisa Cholodenko's smart, smart-looking Laurel Canyon. He shot Moneyball.

Transcendence, he did not shoot.

Instead, for the $100 million sci-fi thriller opening this weekend and starring Johnny Depp as a cyberscience superstar pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence, Pfister makes his directing debut. That's a big move, and one that the 52-year-old Hollywood veteran realizes is fraught with risk. If the movie - with Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall, and Kate Mara - doesn't perform at the box office, Pfister's move from director of photography to director may be short-lived.

"This is a very difficult period right now, being in limbo," Pfister told Andrew Romano at the Daily Beast. "Not knowing whether the movie is going to lose money or make money. It affects the future: whether I'll be able to direct other films. What scripts I can get. The power I'll have - or not. There's no going back. There's no changing the movie. And it is a business. The success and failure in this town is just nerve-wracking."

Transcendence - in which the mind of Depp's character is uploaded into an information system, evolving into a super-consciousness capable of reshaping the very molecules we are made of - has all the bells and whistles of a Hollywood blockbuster: cool visual effects, startling action, a movie star.

But it also has a tricky, multi-tiered plot, where the good guys and bad guys aren't always who you think they are, where nanotechnology matters, where people get excited about quantum processors, where the question "Can you prove you are self-aware?" is key.

The track record for cinematographers-turned-directors isn't great. Barry Sonnenfeld went from being the Coen Brothers' first go-to shooter ( Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing) to enjoying early, and big, successes directing The Addams Family and its sequel, Men in Black, and Get Shorty. But for every Sonnenfeld, there are a three or four top cinematographers who tried parlaying their visual artistry to the more far-reaching role of director, and things didn't go so well. Christopher Doyle . . .. Janusz Kaminski . . .. Gordon Willis.

Pfister reportedly has other films he'd like to direct. Transcendence's opening weekend ticket sales will likely determine whether he gets another chance.

Short cuts. It's been 21 years since that Scottish nanny with the suspiciously manly mannerisms - Robin Williams in the cross-dressing comedy Mrs. Doubtfire - raked in $441 million in worldwide box office. That was a lot of money back then, and it's a lot of money now.

Williams is said to be ready to become the dotty Euphegenia Doubtfire again, and original director Chris Columbus is likewise reported onboard. Elf writer David Berenbaum is doing the sequelizing.

Tupac, a biopic of rap star Tupac Shakur, directed by John Singleton, should be in theaters this fall.

The film traces Shakur's life from his East Harlem childhood (the son of Black Panther Party members) to his hip-hop superstardom to his death - shot down while leaving a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas, in 1996. Shakur was 25.

No joke: In The End of the Tour, Jason Segel plays the late, revered author David Foster Wallace opposite Jesse Eisenberg as David Lipsky. Lipsky is the journalist who interviewed Wallace during the final days of his 1996 tour promoting his landmark novel Infinite Jest.

The road movie has been described as "an extended dramatic and comedic conversation between the two men exploring women, depression, writing, success, and jealousy." James Ponsoldt, who wrote and directed Smashed, is doing the same here.

Mark your calendars. Do we still remember who won the 2014 Oscars? Best picture: 12 Years a Slave, right? Matthew McConaughey best actor? Cate Blanchett, actress? Phew!

Well, let's start thinking about 2015. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced their key days this week. The key-est: nominations for the 87th Academy Awards will be announced on Jan. 15.

The ceremonies for the 87th Academy Awards, with host still to be named, are set for Feb. 22.


srea@phillynews.com

215-854-5629

@Steven_Rea

www.inquirer.com/onmovies

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