In the directorial debut of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister, Transcendence tells the story of Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), the most prominent researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence, whose controversial work has made him the prime target of anti-technology extremists. When tragedy strikes, Will’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), takes drastic measures that have unimaginable consequences.
During a conference at the film’s press day, actor Johnny Depp, director Wally Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen talked about Artificial Intelligence and technology, the presence of the Frankenstein archetype, making this film with a first-time director with a script from a first-time screenwriter, whether Will Caster is a bad guy, whether there’s a line you shouldn’t cross, even if it’s for love, and the poetic imagery of the film. Depp also talked about why he wanted to take on James “Whitey” Bulger for the upcoming feature film Black Mass. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Question: Johnny, what are your thoughts on Artificial Intelligence?
JOHNNY DEPP: Well, having no intelligence, I’m looking forward to gaining some, whether artificial, superficial or super-duper. I thought there was something very beautiful to Wally’s idea of the disintegration of the character, and to watch him slowly go out. It was well-researched by Wally. Essentially, once he’s inside PINN, he could become anything. Hopefully, one of the things that came across is that he became a little bit brighter and more of a younger version of Will. He became the version of Will that Evelyn wants to see, as opposed to the version that can’t button his shirt correctly.
How do you feel about technology?
DEPP: Things go wrong for me, all the time, with technology. I’m not familiar enough with it, and I’m too old school a brain to be able to figure it out. I’m dumb. Anything that I have to attack with my thumbs, for any period of time, makes me feel stupid. So, I try to avoid it, as much as possible, to protect my thumbs.
Since Will Caster is both Dr. Frankenstein and the monster, did you take any inspiration from Frankenstein for this?
DEPP: I didn’t. I wish I had because it would really have been a brilliant thing to say, but I didn’t give it any thought, at all. But in about an hour and a half, it will have been the whole basis, so thanks for that.
JACK PAGLEN: Frankenstein, as an archetype, was absolutely there. We were very aware of that, and stories like that. There are many stories and myths like that, and I looked at and reread all of them.
Jack, how does it feel to have this as your first produced screenplay?
PAGLEN: Unbelievably cool.
Wally, what about for you, as a first-time director?
PFISTER: Unbelievably cool. It’s thrilling.
Johnny, what was it like to work with Wally Pfister, as a first-time director?
DEPP: I met Wally on a video clip for Paul McCartney that Paul had asked me to take part in. Wally was shooting it for Paul, and I was certainly aware of Wally’s work as director of photography because it’s legendary. He’s a legend. So, on the McCartney thing, Paul was directing and Wally would set up a shot, and then we’d go and play guitar. He and I would sit there and play guitar, and then Paul would come over and we’d play guitar, and we’d subtlely make him teach us Beatles songs. We just instantly got along. So, when the idea of doing this arrived, I was beyond thrilled because he had the drive and the passion, but he also had the answers. And even if he didn’t have all the answers, he would be damned if he didn’t get where he needed to go. He worked non-stop. You step into the ring with the guy, and it’s just there. He’s had many, many years on set to sponge up the good bedside manner of a filmmaker and the bad bedside manner. He was there with his crew, that he’s been with for years, supporting him. It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had with a filmmaker, bar none.
What about working with a script from first-time feature writer Jack Paglen?
DEPP: In terms of it being a first screenplay, literally, my hat is off to him. I didn’t see any virgin blather in screen direction, or anything like that. It was just a wonderfully executed piece, and a complicated one. The mathematics involved in putting this film together, between Jack and Wally, and the great support of Alcon, it was not a easy little operetta.
Johnny, did you see Will Caster as a bad guy?
DEPP: When we did the film, we very closely mapped it out, just to make sure everything came together in the right order, especially for Will. It should be a little vague, as to whether he’s losing it. Is it like any of us? You could make an analogy to a security guard who, three weeks prior, was mowing lawns for a living. The second he puts a uniform on and that badge, he’s a man. I imagine the majority of us have felt the wrath of the over-zealous security guard guy. Is there something lying dormant in the man, that’s waiting to be pumped up with that kind of power? I don’t know. Does it reveal him? I don’t know. Does it change him? I don’t know. When Will is in the computer, as he’s growing along with the computer, at this rapid pace, and growing up through PINN, does any bad person think they’re doing bad things? Historically, they all thought they had a pretty decent cause. A few were off by quite a lot, and they were dumb. But, I think Will is dedicated to the cause. Essentially, he’s God. There ain’t nothing on Earth more powerful than him. He can do anything he wants. He can transfer every cent from the Bank of England into an account in Syria. He can do anything he wants. I think Will was just so focused on the cause that he gets too far into it.
What made you want to take on playing James “Whitey” Bulger, who is a real bad guy?
DEPP: I’m finding it difficult to call him Whitey. I’m doing a film called Black Mass where I play James Bulger. The reason to play him is obvious to me. He’s a fascinating character. It’s not like anything I’ve done before, on that level. I’m very excited to slide into that skin for a little bit.
When it comes to love and how far you should go, do you agree that you should go as far as possible, or is there a line you shouldn’t cross?
DEPP: Knowing that a great bit of the technology is active and actually happening, and that the technology that we’re talking about, in terms of uploading a human consciousness, is probably not all that far away, to be honest. Indeed, it will happen. It’s pretty close.
PFISTER: One of the questions that I asked the professors, in speaking to them at the different universities, is, “If we were able to do this and take a human consciousness and upload it to a super-computer, would it contain emotions, soul and sentients?,” and overwhelmingly, they said, “Yes.” If you’re taking every neuron and every synapse from those neurons, and you’re transferring it from this hard drive to this hard drive, over here, in theory, it should contain those. One of the things that I found most fascinating was that at least one of them also said, “But, there is interpretation.” Whoever is doing the actual program and doing the upload, is going to have some affect, as to how that information goes from one machine to another. That gives us some of the grey area in this film to play with. It opens up a lot of fascinating questions. What we hope to do with this movie is create ambiguity, as to whether, if you’re able to do this, is this machine malevolent or benevolent.
DEPP: Obviously, technology is moving and reshaping itself, radically, every day. We’re all capable of answering that question within ourselves. Would you do it for the person that you love? Would you be married to a hard drive, essentially? And because technology is moving so rapidly, things become obsolete very, very quickly. In 15 years time, Will Caster is probably going to be in some weird room in Vegas where people are plugging quarters into him. Who has a mini-disc of a laser disc player? It’s over!
PFISTER: That leads to desperation, and in each character, there’s a point of desperation. In Evelyn, there’s desperation to have some part of her husband, who’s dying, remain. That’s the desperation that drives her, along with the science and medical applications, to do what she does. And then, there’s a point where there’s desperation with Will and the machine, where he’s trying to do anything he can to connect to her. We don’t know whether this machine is sentient or not, but he measures her hormones, which he thinks is making some kind of connection. But to us, as an audience ,and certainly to Evelyn, that’s quite a desperate level to reach, and that’s what changes the course of her character’s direction. There are a lot of things to think about, as to whether this machine is sentient or not.
Johnny, the trademark of a lot of your performances is the look and physicality for your character. Was this a harder role to take on because you couldn’t take adopt a persona for it?
DEPP: For me, it’s always more difficult and slightly exposing to play something that’s close to yourself. I always like to try to hide, just because I can’t stand the way I look. But, I think it’s important to change every time and come up with something that’s as interesting as it can be, for your characters. It really depends on what the screenplay is asking of you, and what your responsibility is to that character. You have the author’s intent to deal with, you have the filmmaker’s vision, and then you have your own wants, desires and needs for the character. It’s collaborative. But I knew, right off the bat, that there was no way to go into some sort of pink-haired, clown-nosed character with Ronald McDonald shoes.
PFISTER: That came a bit later on. What started to become important to me was this contrast and this juxtaposition between organic and synthetic, between digital and analog, and between nature and man made. So, the water became an important element, not only as a symbol, but also when the reverse rain carries the nano-technology, later on, it ends up ceding the clouds, which is how this is spread around the globe, and that’s a concept that Jack originated. Thematically, it started to work, and then it became a symbol, to a degree, of how these two survive, at the end of the film, and what’s able to carry them on. So, the theme of nature is very important.
PAGLEN: Wally did a terrific job because, ultimately, Will interlaces himself with the world through ice, water and its evaporation. That’s how he puts the nano-technology out there, and that’s really what the humans start interpreting as the real threat. Will was using this natural system for potential ill and for potentially terrible, evil things. With his water imagery, Wally brought it back home, which was really lovely.
Transcendence opens in theaters on April 18th.