Why Do Cinematographers Make Such Lousy Directors?

Wally Pfister has been in it for a minute. He started out in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, first as a camera operator and then cinematographer for straight-to-VHS erotic thrillers and horror films with titles like Animal Instincts II, Secret Games 3, and Amityville: A New Generation. But in 2000, he hooked up with director Christopher Nolan for Momento, and he’s shot every Nolan film since (along with Moneyball, The Italian Job, and a few others). Now he moves into the director’s chair, orchestrating a high-caliber cast in the big-budget sci-fi thriller Transcendence (out today). But even if you view it without this thumbnail bio in the back of your head, you might guess the pedigree, because it’s a terrible movie that looks amazing.

It’s not as common a transition as you’d think; in contrast to actors or writers, there are surprisingly few cinematographers who have made the switch to directing successfully. Earlier this week, Indiewire did a roundup, and the results are sobering: well-regarded directors like Zhang Yimou, Mario Bava, and Nicolas Roeg are more the exception than the rule. The great Michael Chapman, whose cinematography credits include Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Fugitive, directed the middling Tom Cruise picture All the Right Moves and the inexplicable Clan of the Cave Bear. The brilliant Gordon Willis, who shot The Godfather movies, All the President’s Men, and all of Woody Allen’s films from Annie Hall through Purple Rose of Cairo (his best period, in other words), directed only one film, the critically drubbed and long-forgotten 1980 thriller Windows. Janusz Kaminksi, who has lensed every live-action Spielberg movie since Schindler’s List (plus The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jerry Maguire, and more), directed only two films, the flop supernatural thriller Lost Souls and the widely ignored Hania. And on and on. Even initially successful DPs-turned-directors like Jan De Bont and Barry Sonnenfeld have had difficulty sustaining careers; both men’s recent films have felt like wheel-spinning.

Pfister has proven an ideal collaborator for Nolan; together, in their Dark Knight films and the moody thrillers between them, they’ve cultivated a distinctive look that Transcendence often apes, full of crisp compositions, velvety shadows, and blown-out exteriors. (He also does enough dew-falling-into-puddles shots to make Terrence Malick jealous.) Creating a visual palette is never a problem for Pfister; telling a story is. His scenes are often flatly utilitarian, with blocking and dialogue interactions clunky at best — though he’s certainly done no favors by the script, from first-timer Jack Paglen, which is as dopey as the day is long.

Johnny Depp in Wally Pfister's "Transcendence"

It concerns Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a rock-star scientist who speaks in the kind of dumbed-down-for-the-multiplex-audience platitudes that wouldn’t get him a remedial science teacher job at a junior high, much less the cover of Wired. He and his scientist wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) are working at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, so when a radical “neo-Luddite” group dooms Will to a slow death via radioactive poison, Evelyn concocts a scheme to keep him alive by “uploading” him into their A.I. system. A colleague did it with a monkey, she informs fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany), which prompts the pricelessly overwrought response, “He’s not a monkey!”

She does all of this in a conveniently abandoned high school that somehow also has enough electricity to power such an operation. Those pesky neo-Luddites, led by Kate Mara (whose character seems primarily defined by her smoky eye makeup), kidnap Max and pinpoint the location of the system, but Evelyn manages to save Computer Will by uploading him to the Internet, where he is able to access everyone and everything, which throws the movie into a tailspin of Jaron Lanier-style technological paranoia, wrapped up in an understanding of “being online” that’s barely more sophisticated than that of The Net.

In other words, this is some mighty goofy shit — which would matter less if it didn’t take itself so very seriously. Yet it’s all very solemn and faux-prescient, even when Computer Will is using his scientific brilliance and wireless networking to create an army of indestructible self-healers (yes, seriously), but there are enough plot holes to fill the giant underground data center that Computer Will and Evelyn somehow construct in a week or two without anyone noticing.

Still image from Wally Pfister's "Transcendence"

So why did Pfister want to make the movie? It’s hard to say. Its concerns about technology and privacy aren’t unfamiliar (they echo the climax of The Dark Knight), and it is indeed refreshing to see a science fiction film with some science in it — but it’s all done at the most elementary level, the kind of bare-bones Science Talk that gets unintentional giggles from even the most lay of audiences. Sure, in fairness and even admiration, it must be noted that it is a film of ideas. It’s just that so many of them are bad ones.

No, honestly, I think Pfister just wanted to get into that data center and shoot his Kubrickian big, sterile, white spaces and shiny reflective surfaces, and blow us all away with the force-coming-out-of-the-earth visual effects that are trotted out way too many times in the molasses-paced third act.

He certainly doesn’t get much out of his cast; when I asked a director friend why so few cinematographers make the transition, he replied simply, “They don’t like talking with actors.” That seems to be the case here — Depp turns in another of his untethered performances that substitute oddity for character, with hair that seems to have been combed with a wooden spoon and errant gum-chewing in important scenes. (Later, when he becomes Computer Will, he reverts to a HAL 9000 impression.) Hall fares much better, but doesn’t seem to have received much help either; a key moment where she weakly insists “I’ve gotten everything I ever asked for” is way overplayed, the line pounded out between four different facial tics. A good director pulls that back — if they’re paying attention to content rather than composition.

I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here; back in my filmmaking days, I worked with some truly excellent cinematographers. But they chose that job because they wanted to make pretty pictures — in the service of a story, but a story whose non-visual elements they were leaving to the director and screenwriter. That is a mindset that is, I would imagine, hard to get out of. A good director has to be able to juggle everything, equally: storytelling, acting, visual elements, effects, music, the whole package. In his review of the ill-fated Windows, Roger Ebert wrote that Willis “makes this movie look very good, but fails to make it a good-looking movie about things we come to care about. The problem’s at the script level.” That goes double for Transcendence, which manages to put up one eye-catching image after another, yet never engages us for more than a moment.

Transcendence is out today in wide release.