Now playing in theaters is Wally Pfister’s directorial debut Transcendence. The film revolves around a group of scientists trying to build the first self-aware supercomputer, and when lead researcher Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) becomes the target of anti-technology extremists, he unexpectedly becomes a participant in his own transcendence. Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany play two of Will’s fellow researchers, and as we’ve seen from the trailer, they have conflicting viewpoints on turning their co-worker into a computer. The film also stars Kate Mara, Morgan Freeman, Cole Hauser, and Clifton Collins Jr. For more on Transcendence, click here to watch some clips and here’s all our previous coverage.
Last week at the Los Angeles press day, I landed an exclusive interview with Freeman. He talked about how he got involved in the project, working with Pfister, if he thinks great directors share some common traits, if directors get intimidated working with him, if he thought The LEGO movie would be such a huge hit, Luc Besson’s Lucy, how he won’t be in London Has Fallen (the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen), how he might be doing a remake of Going in Style, and a lot more. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
MORGAN FREEMAN: Good things, nice to say, that gets you off on a good foot.
You’ve worked with some amazing directors through your career, is there a common trait that all great directors have that you’ve been able to notice?
FREEMAN: No. I’ll be more explicit here. Great directors are great directors by product, not by process. You work with some great directors that drive you nuts, because they’ll shoot seventeen or twenty-five takes. There are other great directors who move through a production like shit through a goose, they just don’t stop, they keep moving and they come up with good product. They’re under budget and on time, or a little quicker than on time. Here, I speak specifically of people like Clint Eastwood. You have Chris Nolan. Chris Nolan is quick. Huge movie, but he’s going through it quickly. Three takes, he’s irritated if he has to do four. Then there are- what’s the guy’s name who did 2001?
FREEMAN: Stanley Kubrick, shoots forever. Who did Lawrence of Arabia?
FREEMAN: Shoots forever. Great directors, but not the same kind of approach to the work.
With Clint Eastwood I know that sometimes he’ll shoot the rehearsal and he’s one or two takes and he wants to move on. How is it for you? Do you prefer one or two takes? Is there ever a time when you want to do ten or twenty, or even a Fincher style fifty takes?
FREEMAN: No, and Fincher’s getting a bad reputation there. He doesn’t do it in fifty takes at all, but if he’s troubled, he’ll go as far as he needs to go to get untroubled. I know when we were doing Se7en towards the end of the movie we did something close to nine or ten takes on one scene. It was important to him to do that, but during the actual body of the movie he wasn’t doing it.
I wonder if back then he was doing a little less, because for example on Social Network, that opening scene, he did ninety-nine takes.
FREEMAN: Ninety-nine takes?
Ninety-nine, and I know from speaking to a lot of actors that have worked with him recently, he loves doing it as many times as he can. I wonder if that has changed over the course of his career.
FREEMAN: It must have changed over the course of his career. Se7en was I think his first picture.
I think it was second, he did Alien 3.
FREEMAN: He did?
But I think Se7en was his first where he had control.
FREEMAN: That’s true, Alien 3 was his first, then Se7en. Okay, well in that case it’s just a matter of how much control you have.
A hundred percent. Jumping into why I get to talk to you today, you obviously worked with Wally a number of times on the Batman movies, when did he start talking to you about this role and this project?
FREEMAN: Boy, you know, I don’t know. He didn’t start talking to me, I don’t think. Where’s my memory of how this came about?
Maybe you got it through your agent.
FREEMAN: I know I got it through my agent and then I got a call from Wally, “I’m so happy that you’re on board.” Things like that. Then I get the script and I don’t recall that there’s any more that Wally and I have to do. The next conversation would be the costume designer.
This is obviously a huge movie, his first feature with Warner Brothers. What was he like to work with? Can you talk about what he was like to work with as a DP and then as a director?
FREEMAN: Well as DP you’re not really working with him, you’re working with the director. He’s the DP, the DP is the DP. He directs over there and he has little or nothing to say to actors about anything. So the Transcendence…[laughs].
[laughs] I like that.
FREEMAN: …from being a DP and having watched one of the best directors work through at least four major pictures, you get a lot of insight about how it’s done, and I think that was Wally’s strength in that. That at some point or another he knew that he wanted to direct his own movie, and I think that comes about when you’re watching somebody good do it. You say, “Oh, I see. Mhmm, Okay, I get it. Oh, look at that. Okay, so, alright.” He’s going to dailies and he’s not only looking at the lights, he’s looking at the whole picture, what Chris Nolan got and how he got it.
A hundred percent.
FREEMAN: Yeah, so I think one of the things that Wally might change is how much time he takes. He takes a lot of time.
[Laughs] Yes, I would also imagine he might have been a little nervous on his first big movie like this.
FREEMAN: I’ll tell you for sure that he was nervous [laughs]. No, you have to care about getting it right, because this could be your last shot, your last chance to do it. If it turns out all wrong then nobody will ever know your name and you go back to being a DP.
What’s interesting about the movie and the subject matter is that it’s talking about is that it doesn’t feel that far off in the future with the way technology is going. I was just curious if you could talk about the story and how it’s very topical, it’s not so sci-fi.
FREEMAN: No, it isn’t. It isn’t. The most fictional part of it, sci-fi, is probably the use of nanotechnology like that, but the rest of it I think is really for real. I saw on, I think it was on the Science Channel, it was talking about a coronal flair, a super coronal flair- this is a pulse of electromagnetic energy off the sun, and we get them all the time, they’re coming helter skelter from the sun and wiping out everything. That’s why there’s no life on other planets, for one thing. The difference between us is our, what they call magnetosphere- that’s the magnetic sphere around the earth that deflects this energy. Now, if the really super one comes it could overwhelm that magnetosphere and just chew up everything. A super electromagnetic pulse will knock out all communication.
I’ve heard this, actually. I don’t know if I saw it on the science channel, but I have heard about this.
FREEMAN: Now just imagine what happens if the electric grid goes out. No satellite communication, electricity down; gone, no more. Fuel pumps don’t work, lights don’t work- nothing we depend on works. If you want water you have to dip it, you can’t turn on the faucet and get it, because there are no pumps.
NBC airs it every week, it’s called Revolution, it’s a TV show about where electricity is null and void.
FREEMAN: Okay, right, just that changes the whole picture of life on earth. We wouldn’t even have ships sailing, there’d be no way to pump fuel into them.
The crazy part is that it’s a possibility that this could happen.
FREEMAN: No, this isn’t far fetched at all.
Yes, this is actual real science.
You’re such a good actor, I’m definitely curious what directors are like when they’re directing you. Do you ever get the sense that directors are, not intimidated, but sort of very careful, on eggshells if you will, around you? How is it typically working with directors?
FREEMAN: Most directors, it’s fine. It’s great. Yeah, some people you have to get them off that eggshell idea. “You’re the boss.” I say that right away. “You’re the boss, you tell me what you want from me and I’m providing it.” I have worked with a few young first timers who are overwhelming. They are directing. And although I refuse to be, for the most part, negative on set, I have to tell them after the fact. “You have to change your ways.” Some actors love to be directed, that’s what they need, they need guidance. I don’t. I think that the predominance of professional actors don’t for the simple reason that that’s what you do and everything you need to know normally is in the script. If you’re hired you know what the character looks like, looks like you. The next thing is for you to decide what you want to look like. Do you want long hair? Short hair? Beard? No Beard? Clean shaven? Mustache? Earrings? No Earrings? Bling? How do you want to be dressed? And then you caucus with the costume designer, costume designer has his or her ideas, and you just work together on that. Some of them come with clothes and they say, “This is what I have pulled. Is there anything in here you like?” Shit like that. So the idea I go to work with someone who feels that I’m such a powerhouse that they can’t, you know, they have to be afraid to- you can’t work that way with anybody.
I loved The Lego Movie. When you got involved in it did you know it was going to be such a special movie?
FREEMAN: No! Piece of shit! I went to the studio and I had seen the publicity around other animated movies, and you see two or three actors in the studio interacting with each other. I come to the studio and there’s nobody there but me and these two young writers. I said, “Well, okay, fine. What?” So the first day was dry, they were feeding lines and I was reading off of the script. [Sighs] “Oh, well. Okay, fine.” Then the next time we started interplay and I got a better idea of what was going on, what they were doing, who I was and what was going on. Then the third time we got together was even better. It just got better and better. It was a lesson on me.
I saw some footage from Lucy, which is obviously one of your upcoming films, and it looks incredible. Luc Besson can make some really cool movies.
FREEMAN: Really cool movies.
What can you tease people about the film? What was it like working with Luc and Scarlett?
FREEMAN: [Laughs] Luc is one of those great directors who is quick. He’s quick in that he’ll only do two or three takes of one scene, but he’ll cover the shit out of it.
FREEMAN: No, mostly one camera.
He’s shooting from different…
FREEMAN: Yeah, so it looks like you’re doing the same thing over and over and over, but you’re not because he’s getting these different perspectives on it. He’s funny. Luc has a great sense of humor and he’s really sweet. So he’s fun to work with, I mean this is my second time dealing with Luc- he didn’t direct the first movie, he was the producer on the first movie I did.
FREEMAN: No, Unleashed. Jet Li.
There it is. Totally my bad.
FREEMAN: Oh no, it’s quite alright.
Once in a while I get my IMDB information wrong.
FREEMAN: Well, they get it wrong.
PR person asks this: Can I ask a question though? We were kind of talking about what you were talking about before you got here, if he only does a couple of takes, but covers it from every angle, how does he do that with just a couple takes with one camera?
FREEMAN: That’s not necessarily what he does, he doesn’t want to go past two or three takes. For instance, I was there only one week, which meant one week, nothing to make that week extend. He knows how much time he’s got to do it in and he’s going to do it in that time. So if you’re going to get your coverage, you’re not going to spend a lot of time, you don’t need to. Hire the right people. Get on the camera- he’d get on the camera himself.
What’s coming up for you? Because I know there could be London Has Fallen, I’ve heard some rumblings on some other projects.
FREEMAN: I won’t be involved in London Has Fallen, I’m pretty sure. But coming up for me that is a might, and I don’t like to talk about mights because mights get published as…
FREEMAN: But we’re talking about doing a remake of Going in Style, if you remember that one.
I don’t know if I actually have seen that one.
FREEMAN: Lee Strasberg, Art Carney and one other, three old guys… and George Burns, rob a bank.
I have not seen this movie.
FREEMAN: You haven’t?
No, I have seen a lot of movies, but this is one that slipped through the cracks.
FREEMAN: Alright, Going in Style, an interesting concept of these three guys, they rob a bank and they get away with it.