Wally Pfister

Wally Pfister (Credit: Paramount Pictures/Claudette

Film school may teach you the basics of good filmmaking,
but nothing beats an education in the trenches. Long before he attended
AFI, cinematographer Wally Pfister was busy making movies-first
as a child with a penchant for Super8, and later working in television
news and documentaries. After toiling away for more than a decade
and under the tutelage of Roger Corman, Pfister is now the one calling
the shots. After his triumphant turn behind the camera on Memento, Pfister reunited with director Christopher Nolan in 2002 to
shoot the critically acclaimed Insomnia. This spring will
bring the release of Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon, an
homage to the “New Hollywood” films of the ’70s starring Frances
McDormand, Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale, as well as Peter
Collinson’s The Italian Job, Pfister’s first big-budget action

Jennifer Wood (MM): In what ways did your
television news training better prepare you for feature films?

Wally Pfister (WP): I worked in television
news from about 1982 to 1986. It was a great discipline for what
was to come in feature films, but I’m not so sure I knew it at the
time. I shot and edited my own stories, working with reporters and
field producers. The experience in the cutting room gave me invaluable
experience that I would later draw on in determining the best way
to cover a scene in a dramatic feature and what would or would not
cut together. I also learned to work quickly in lighting, camerawork
and general decision-making in the field. News camerawork was also
about 80 percent handheld, so I became quite adept at the handheld
camera (both Memento and Insomnia have a great deal
of handheld work in them).

MM: Do you think it also helped prepare
you for the “digital revolution,” in terms of being better versed
in video production?

WP: Having shot video for over 20 years, all
the hype about the “digital revolution” is kind of overblown to
me-a hype that I think is driven by the companies that stand to
profit greatly by pushing this technology. The so-called “revolution”
basically involves shooting video-nothing more, nothing less. The
technology is great for some things, and not developed far enough
for others.

MM: You have also worked extensively in
documentaries. What is the one thing that you think is most important
for any DP to know/learn, regardless of the medium or genre that
s/he is working in?

WP: Working in documentaries gives you a great
sense of story, of real-life drama. I’m very sensitive to the dialogue
and the credibility of the characters when I read a dramatic script.
If there is a story point that doesn’t make sense, or dialogue I
don’t believe, the writer loses me. I think this sensitivity comes
partly from the years I spent working on documentaries-in real-life
situations with real people. Those years also helped forge a lighting
style that I am most comfortable with, that is a more natural approach
that does not take on a life of its own, but serves the narrative
in a more subtle way.

The most important thing a DP needs to learn is how
to best serve the story. The technical ability-the nuances of the
lighting-all will come with experience. It all begins with breaking
down the story and, in collaboration with the director, determining
the best way to tell it with the camera.

MM: We often hear about the many moviemakers
who got their start working with Roger Corman, which is where you
began. People talk about the lessons they learned from him about
acting, writing and directing. What did Corman teach you about cinematography,
and the film industry as a whole?

WP: I spent most of 1989 working at Roger Corman’s
studio in Venice, California. We were all well aware of the previous
successful “graduates” of Roger’s film factory. Ron Howard, Jonathan
Demme, James Cameron, and Martin Scorsese had all done films there,
so we all knew that there was an opportunity to learn, experiment
and move on. Our years there were clearly marked by the budding
talent among the cinematographers. Between 1988 and 1990 a group
of us all worked together on films. The group included Janusz Kaminski
(Catch Me if You Can), Phedon Papamichael (Moonlight Mile),
Mauro Fiore (Training Day) and Chris Faloona (Spider-Man).
We all helped each other learn the craft and develop our own styles.

The first lesson we all learned at Concorde was how
to shoot fast: the films were all shot in 15 to 18 days, and there
was no going over schedule. We learned all the basics of photography
in an environment where it was difficult to fail. This was the place
to experiment and figure it all out, even though most of us were
preoccupied with just trying to shoot the eight pages a day!

The thing that amuses me most when I think back is
Roger’s quirk about dolly track. While he promoted the use of camera
movement on his films, he was convinced that it took too long to
lay down dolly track for the camera, so we had to sneak it onto
rental. Every film used the dolly track, but if Roger came to visit
the set, as he did two or three times during each production, the
warnings would come from across the stage, and the grips knew to
quickly take apart the track and hide it behind a set piece or a
wall. Following his visits, the track would be reassembled and we
would continue shooting.

MM: Though we tend to think of the film
industry as a very competitive field, it is very much rooted in
successful collaboration. Who are some of the people you must collaborate
with most closely?

WP: The director, of course, is the single
most important collaborator for a DP. He or she, in conjunction
with the script itself, should be our primary source of inspiration.
Second most important to me is the production designer. The DP and
designer can make or break each other. The communication and cooperation
is essential. Decisions involving choosing locations, set construction,
wall colors and furnishings all make a huge difference in the look
of the photography. There are many other collaborators that are
important, as well.

It’s important to respect the producer and production
manager as collaborators. If you show them that you are responsible
with the budget, and careful to not waste their money, I’ve found
you can get their support when you really need it, even for something
that may be considered elaborate or a luxury. I also have longtime
collaborators on my crew that I consider essential keys to my success.
My gaffer, Cory Geryak, has worked on eight films with me and is
not only a joy to work with, but is a great leader with a terrific
eye for light. We have a great shorthand when we work, and I can
trust him to get the lighting started on a set in exactly the way
I want it.

Another longtime collaborator is my first assistant,
Bob Hall. Bob is not only among the best and most highly regarded
focus-pullers in Hollywood, but also a great leader and fantastic
manager of the camera department. More recently I have worked with
great camera operators like Scott Sakamoto (Road to Perdition)
and Mitch Dubin (Saving Private Ryan), who both bring extraordinary
talent, vision and skill to their work.

MM: Many of the moviemakers who worked on Memento, including writer/director Christopher Nolan and
editor Dody Dorn, consider that film a turning point in their careers.
Would you agree?

WP: No question about it. Memento was
a turning point for all involved. How could it not be? It was such
a small picture that had such a huge impact on audiences. It really
proved that audiences had been craving something highly original
at a time when the studios were pumping out one sequel after another.

I had been a director of photography for 10 years
by the time Memento was released. Many years were spent struggling
to be noticed and to get beyond the lower budget films. Memento and, more importantly, Chris Nolan, changed all that. However, I
don’t know if I would have been as successful if all this had happened,
say, eight or nine years ago. Part of what helped make this a successful
turning point was the fact that my work and attitude had matured
in that time period. I was a much better filmmaker and person by
the time I met Chris than I was in the early years of my career.
I’m now in a very different world than I was just three years ago.
I recently finished a $90 million movie (The Italian Job),
I’m a member of the ASC and, for the first time in my career, I
am able to choose the projects that I want to shoot. I feel very
fortunate to be in this position, but it did not happen overnight!

MM: Light and color are a very important
part of your work. How do you use these tools to further your job
as storyteller? What are the other aspects of moviemaking that you
deem most important to complement the cinematography?

WP: Light and color are two primary ingredients.
The color of both the light and the sets can trigger emotions and
help push the audience in the direction that the director wants
to send them. Warmer colors are generally more inviting and comforting,
and the cooler (more blue) tones tend to have the opposite effect.
But it’s important to note that these are not steadfast rules-none
are in filmmaking. If you try to adhere to a specific set of rules
in your work, then you are not working hard enough to interpret
that narrative on its own merit. It’s important to always challenge
yourself; to take an original approach to the material whenever

In addition to light and color, the other key ingredients
are composition, camera placement, camera movement and focal length.
My years as a camera operator, primarily for Phedon Papamichael,
ASC, taught me invaluable lessons in these areas. The camera placement
and its relation to the actors is a key ingredient that is commonly
overlooked. It can put the audience right in there with the actors-or
remove them, whichever is desired. Chris Nolan puts a lot of emphasis
on this. It shows his care in use of the camera as a storytelling

MM: How did you become involved with Laurel

WP: After finishing Insomnia, I wanted
to be very careful about what I did next. I turned down several
large budget pictures, and vowed to not taint the success of Memento and Insomnia with material that I might consider doing just
for the money. I had seen Lisa Cholodenko’s first film, High
, and found it to be fantastic character study. I found the
same kind of charm in the script for Laurel Canyon and after
a great meeting with Lisa, signed on to do the picture.

From the outset, Lisa and I had a common language
that we wanted to use in the storytelling of this film. It was based
in part on films of the late ’60s and early ’70s, by great filmmakers
like Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. Not so much in the
look of the films, but more in the tone and spirit of the storytelling.

MM: Does having two very distinct sides
to a story-like the personalities of Frances McDormand and Christian
Bale in
Laurel Canyon-make it easier for you to approach
the photography of a film (i.e. different colors or lighting for
each character), or do you prefer to differentiate the characters
in a less obvious way? What was the biggest challenge you found
on Laurel Canyon?

WP: While you can distinguish between specific
characters with use of photography, either through colors, focal
lengths or camera movement, we chose more to distinguish between
physical environments, and to have visual elements, specifically
camera movement, change as the story progresses.

The house that Frances McDormand’s character lives
in is a warmer environment with oranges, yellows and reds, while
the hospital where Christian Bale’s character works is cooler, more
sterile, greens and blues. Clearly, the environments themselves
end up defining the characters.

MM: What are you working on now?

WP: I’ve just completed shooting The Italian
for Paramount. It’s a remake of a 1969 picture starring
Michael Caine. This is a big action movie starring Mark Wahlberg,
Charlize Theron, Edward Norton and Donald Sutherland that features
a huge boat chase in Venice, Italy and an elaborate car chase around
Los Angeles. It’s quite a departure from my previous films, but
an opportunity to do a big summer action movie, and have a little