The new science-fiction thriller Transcendence asks a lot of big questions. Is it morally right to upload a consciousness into a computer? Does something define its own sentience? Given the power of a god, would human nature reveal itself to be a positive force, or Hobbesian-esque evil? It’s a lot to take on for a filmmaker, particularly one that has never directed a feature before, but it was something that Wally Pfister put a great deal of thought into while making the new movie.
Before Transcendence arrived in theaters this past weekend, I had to great opportunity to sit down one-on-one with the director to talk all about the philosophy and filmmaking behind his directorial debut. He had a lot of fascinating things to say about the movie, so read on!
Warning: The following feature has a good number of spoilers for Transcendence, so if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want it to be ruined for you, I recommend heading back here.
Why It Had To Be Johnny DeppAt this stage in his career, Johnny Depp is well known for taking on bizarre roles, but Transcendence offers him one of his strangest yet. While he does get to play a human for the first 20 minutes of the movie, most of the film has his character, Dr. Will Caster, communicating from behind a computer monitor. The part is a strange one for an A-list actor, but Pfister had an explanation for why Depp was, in the director’s own words, the perfect choice for the role.
"He’s a very intelligent man and understood everything that was going on," Pfister told me when I asked about the casting choice. "We had wonderful conversations about what this machine was doing and tipping the hat and then not tipping the hat. So, having this sort of manipulation over where this character was going."
More than being just about subtlety, however, the filmmaker also needed an actor with the kind of charisma that could not only influence the movie’s audience to be on his side, but also characters in the story as well.
"You want that connection with this guy first, with this professor," the director explained. "You can see the connection he has to his followers - and let’s think of them as followers, right? So, if this guy becomes this massive machine and he starts playing God, he’s got people following him partially because he has that charisma. Johnny Depp the actor was perfect for this movie and Johnny Depp the person was perfect for this movie. So, you know, I couldn’t have had better luck in casting."