Transcendence: Johnny Depp Interview

transcendence_1_depp“Transcendence,” the sci-fi thriller starring Johnny Depp, opens today, April 18, 2014.

Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant researcher, who has spent decades trying to harness the full potential of Artificial Intelligence, and years building a potentially sentient computer dubbed PINN (Physically Independent Neural Network), designed to process history’s collective knowledge and marry it with an uploaded conscious mind, including its complete range of emotions.

On the verge of a breakthrough, Will is gunned down—the latest target of Revolutionary Independence From Technology, or RIFT, an extremist organization whose motto is Evolution without Technology.

They will stop at nothing, including murder, to halt humankind’s ever-growing dependence on technology and its influence on our world, and the damage they inflict on Will’s body is fatal. But what of his heart and mind?

Their attempt to stop Will’s research backfires, providing the very opportunity for the realization of what they fear the most, and inadvertently leads to the ultimate test of Will’s hypothesis. Will’s wife, Evelyn Caster, a fellow computer scientist, will not allow death to take the love of her life. She enlists their best friend, neurobiologist Dr. Max Waters, to help “save” her husband in the only way they can: by uploading Will into PINN, thereby achieving transcendence. If they succeed, the possibilities are infinite…but so may be the dangers.

The filmmakers knew they needed a compelling actor to play a role that required him to be a largely virtual presence for much of the film. They were thrilled to have Johnny Depp create the character of Will.

“Johnny is an intelligent man, so he plays that very comfortably, and that was important,” Pfister says. “But he also brings a warmth and charisma that are undeniable on screen. He’s a great communicator and a joy to work with as well.”

The seasoned Depp found the first-time director “incredibly collaborative, very open. His approach to each shot was not only technically appealing, thanks to his background behind the camera, but there was real poetry and emotion in the way he saw each scene playing out and they way he wanted to tell the story. I think he really made a seamless transition.”

Depp: Will is a Good Guy

Turning to his character, Depp says, “Will’s a good guy who has the world’s best interests at heart in trying to achieve transcendence. But because he becomes so powerful, has access to basically all the information on the Internet and believes in his own methods, it becomes very hard to stop him. Anyone with that much control, even with what may be the best of intentions, well…there will always be those who see things differently. In Will’s case, it seems like it may be too late to stop him.”

The dilemma for both Evelyn and Max is in believing whether the voice and image emanating from PINN are actually Will’s heart and soul…or neither. Beyond that they are forced to consider his curious directives and intentions: are they truly benevolent as they seem, or are they part of a sinister master plan he is withholding?

“The relationship that Will and Evelyn have is one of mutual respect and passion,” Depp offers. “There’s nothing about one that the other isn’t totally fascinated with. He loves that she’s totally brilliant and can relate to him on every level.”

How far would you go to save a loved one, a soul mate, who is dying right before your eyes? Is it a philosophical or a moral choice, or just a gut instinct? Evelyn is too blinded by love and loss to make an objective decision. To see Will’s life’s work go to waste is one thing, but to waste the chance to hold onto him is unthinkable. And if, in the process, she can see to it that his life’s work is fulfilled and perhaps keep him alive forever…that is irresistible to her.

Actress Rebecca Hall plays Evelyn, who, she says, “had to be a very strong and dynamic force at the center of this story, and make some fairly complicated decisions. I suppose if she wasn’t in a position where her emotions were so heightened, she’d have more of an ethical dilemma about what she does. But she’s grieving for her husband, so those issues become lessened for her; she doesn’t examine them in the same way she would under different circumstances.”

Despite Evelyn’s questionable actions as a grief-stricken widow, Hall found her character’s goals as a scientist to be more than admirable. “She wants to make a better future, to heal big problems like disease and the environment and so many other concerns the planet is facing. Her vision gets fast-tracked—and possibly off-track—by these unforeseen circumstances.”

“Rebecca’s character really gets beat up emotionally in the picture,” Pfister says. “She goes to hell and back, and Rebecca did a phenomenal job.”

Hall was happy to work out the intricate nuances of her character’s journey with Pfister, whom she’d first met on the set of “The Prestige.” “I had never worked with a first-time director who has as much experience as Wally. He had all the enthusiasm and optimism of someone new, and the understanding of someone who’s been doing it for years and knows everything about it.”

Producer Kate Cohen observes, “This unrelenting love story got to me; the idea of Evelyn holding onto Will in any and every way she can—even living with him underground, in a computer screen—just so she can still feel like she’s with him. She’s let go of any possibility of moving on with her life, and he can’t let her go, either. I’m a hopeless romantic, and the tragic love between these two characters was what really drew me to the project.”

The third person in this love story is Dr. Max Waters, played by Paul Bettany. With Will’s death, Max is also left to grieve the loss of one of his closest friends. He is also the only one who can help Evelyn fulfill the destiny she sees for Will by attempting his transcendence.

Although he is a willing participant, there is a fundamental difference of opinion between them: Max believes there must be appropriate limitations to technology, and that it ought to aid human beings, not supplant the human mind. Thus when Will’s transcended consciousness—if indeed it is Will—begins to expand and absorb an infinite amount of knowledge, Max fears it will lead him to become a controlling, omniscient presence. And to what end, Max cannot fathom.

To play a neurobiologist, Bettany did his homework. “I read a book called Consciousness, which is just extraordinary, and then I went to meet the author, who’s a brain scientist. I walked into the room and he was looking at brain scans and listening to Wagner,” Bettany smiles. “I said, ‘Um, Professor Koch?’ And he held up his hand so I wouldn’t speak until, you know, the aria was finished.”

Bettany discussed his character at length with Pfister, particularly the connection between Max, Will and Evelyn. “I really liked that at the center of this story about our dependence on technology and computers and the potential benefits and repercussions of that, was this really complicated relationship between these three best friends,” he says. “Will and Evelyn are married, but I felt there was a slight sort of unrequited love for Evelyn somewhere deep down in Max, which I thought added to the heart of the film in a beautiful way.”

“Paul is an extraordinary actor,” Pfister remarks. “Max has an emotional ride in this movie from beginning to end and Paul really brought so much to his performance. I was delighted to have him in the part.”

In the film, Will, Evelyn and Max have all known each other since they studied under Professor Joseph Tagger. Still close with their mentor, the four are brought together early in the story when Tagger and his team are targeted by RIFT.

Morgan Freeman, who portrays Tagger, says, “I play an old computer expert who’s been working for years to develop artificial intelligence. He’s supportive of Will and Evelyn’s work, too, but he’s also mindful that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ You can’t put that much power in one person’s hands because, however good that one person is, however much good they want to do, they could wind up doing more harm than good.”

The busy actor was eager to work with Depp. “I would’ve read the phone book,” he jokes. “Johnny knows what he wants and how to achieve it with no histrionics. It’s a very subtle performance.”

Freeman was also happy to see Pfister in a different role, having worked with him several times as a DP. “One of Wally’s biggest assets is he listens. He listens very well, and that’s really important.”

Tagger narrowly escapes death, though others, including Will, are not so lucky. Kate Mara plays Bree, the extremist group’s leader, whose commitment to her anti-technology ideology knows no limits. 10

“Wally and I talked a lot about what might’ve brought Bree to this place in her life, what would cause someone to start out with very good intentions about keeping the environment safe to go so far as to start killing people,” Mara offers. “What we discover about her in the film is that she has seen firsthand the potential dangers of AI experimentations while working in a lab. Obviously it affected her in such a way that drove her to the other side.”

“We are evolving into this society that is so reliant on computers and texting that personal relationships are dissipating,” says producer Marisa Polvino. “We really wanted to question whether that’s good or bad, will it be our demise? RIFT felt like the kind of radical group that would arise from those fears and makes it hard to determine whether to agree or disagree with them.”

Once hallmarks of a terrorist group emerge, the FBI becomes involved. Cillian Murphy stars as Agent Buchanan, who initially leads the charge in protecting the AI scientists from further attacks by RIFT, and later has to focus his attentions on Will.

Murphy says, “Buchanan may not be exactly sure what Will’s ultimate purpose is once he’s garnered so much control, but being an agent of the government, he knows he can’t allow it to go any further, so he’ll do whatever is necessary to shut him down.”

Like Freeman, Murphy is a veteran of several film sets with Pfister. “I was thrilled when Wally called me up and said he had a part for me and would I be interested,” the actor recalls. “I always want to work with people I admire and have a prior relationship with, and he’s such a tremendously talented guy. I told him to count me in right away.”

Rounding out the cast are Cole Hauser as Colonel Stevens, who assists Buchanan on the hunt for Will; Clifton Collins, Jr., as Martin, who helps Will further his goals; and Lukas Haas as a dangerous member of RIFT.

“To be surrounded by such an incredible group of actors was amazing,” Pfister says. “And we had fun every day—there wasn’t a day on that set that we weren’t enjoying ourselves as we were hunkering down and getting to the work at hand.”