At a time when many directors and their cameramen seem to be suffering from a kind of hyperactive stylization, it’s refreshing to hear d.p. Wally Pfister refer to naturalism as his preferred aesthetic. He uses the word almost as a mantra.
When the inevitable question of influences comes up, Pfister cites Gordon Willis, he of the “Godfather” trilogy and Woody Allen classics.
“I never saw anything of his I didn’t like,” says Pfister. “Caleb Deschanel (‘The Right Stuff’) is another one. What these guys have in common is a very natural style, and that’s become my favorite approach over the years — but still trying to maintain a lot of mood and contrast.”
Pfister achieves the latter qualities in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming “Memento” with a mastery that would belie his relatively low profile in the tight-knit world of cinematographers. The film, a modern-day noir conundrum involving short-term memory loss and a willfully nonlinear plot, presented an unusual challenge for the d.p.
“It was important to Chris that this picture look really natural because there’s so much twisting going on in the storyline that he didn’t want anything that would distract viewers from it,” says Pfister. “But at the same time it is definitely a film noir piece and so I felt an obligation to give it an extremely moody look.”
Variety critic Lisa Nesselson, who reviewed the film at the Deauville fest, called it “a bravura tribute to the spirit of ‘Point Blank,'” adding that it was “lensed with precision” and “smoothly toggles back and forth between sequences in B&W and in color.”
Nolan discovered Pfister through his work on “The Hi-Line,” a gorgeously shot indie feature about the search for identity that screened in competition at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. Filmed in the dead of winter in Montana, first-time director Ronald Judkins and Pfister achieved the kind of nocturnal chiaroscuro and dramatically stark vistas that make people stand up and take notice.
Pfister has risen up the ranks in expert company, having worked as camera operator to Phedon Papamichael on a handful of films, including “Phenomenon,” “Unstrung Heroes” and the undersung “Mousehunt,” with its whiz-bang tracking shots and mouse eye’s view of the world. But perhaps Pfister’s penchant for naturalism is most rooted in his early work in news and documentaries. As a member of the Washington press corps until 1985, he routinely covered events on Capitol Hill. Later, he was on the Emmy-winning team of the PBS series “Frontline” before becoming Robert Altman’s camera operator and second unit d.p. on the HBO series “Tanner ’88.”
The verite work of those years gave Pfister a lot of first-hand experience with video, a medium he doesn’t short-change.
“But I’ve seen the best projection of high-definition and I still have a preference for the look of the projected film image,” he says. “I think it’s sort of organic vs. synthetic, and there’s something more appealing right now about the organic.”