About The Production
"Once online, a sentient machine will quickly overcome the limits of
biology...its analytical power will be greater than the collective intelligence of
every person born in the history of the world. Imagine such an entity with the
full range of emotions, even self-awareness. I call it Transcendence."
Is Artificial Intelligence a threat to the way we live our lives today? Perhaps
not yet, but what happens if we take it to the next level, if computers are
given the capacity not only to think, but to feel?
Set in a not-too-distant future, "Transcendence" explores the very real
possibility that humans-in our attempts to create a better, more efficient, more
self-sustaining world through technology-can go too far. For emotions are not
always positive: doesn't a machine that has the capacity for kindness also have
the capacity for menace? Wally Pfister, a renowned cinematographer making his
feature directorial debut on the film, states, "I was struck by the power and
the weight of the ideas in this story, which I think are very much on people's
minds right now."
"Transcendence" proposes that we can achieve what's been called singularity.
Pfister comments, "As we define it for the film, singularity is basically the
uploading of the human brain into a super computer: the duplication of every
synapse, every neuron...every bit of activity in the brain goes into a machine,
which then becomes sentient."
The film seeks to exemplify the coercive nature of the machines we create and
how they control us as a culture. It is a path one could argue we are already
on, and the film endeavors to project where we could be in 10 or 20 years as
revolutionary, exciting...and equally troubling.
Johnny Depp stars as the scientist who not only provides the breakthroughs to
make singularity-transcendence-possible, but whose brain becomes its first test
subject. "What I really found intriguing about this story was the idea that one
man with a brilliant mind, a simple guy who adores his wife and does the
crossword puzzle every morning, is able to take
his expertise to the point where ego, power and passion could ultimately evolve
him into something of a mechanical god."
Producer Andrew A. Kosove found the subject matter equally fascinating when
he read the screenplay. "I have always been interested in how advancing
technologies impact people's lives. I thought that the writer, Jack Paglen,
posed the question beautifully as to what defines a person versus an inanimate
object, and he wrapped it up in a big, exciting action thriller."
Producer Broderick Johnson liked what he calls "the juxtaposition of an
action thriller with a very emotional, relatable core-the collision of
technology with the human experience. But the idea that a loved one could be
uploaded into a computer and you could then continue that relationship beyond
its physical form was the heart of the film for me," he says.
I love Jack's writing," producer Annie Marter relates, "and I'd wanted to
work with him for a long time. Then I read about singularity and was instantly
gripped by the idea. I thought it was both captivating and scary and,
surprisingly, not all that farfetched. Jack and I talked about it, and he
Paglen, who for some time had been toying with the basic premise, developed
the story by first speaking with his wife, a computer scientist. "She's my
secret weapon," he smiles. "We talked out the sci-fi angle." Developing the idea
with Marter, he continues, "it all really came together with the idea of a woman
trying to save her husband's life by any means possible, even if her only option
was keeping him alive in a virtual way," he continues. "That opened up a world
of possibilities for me, and the emotional storyline humanizes the actions of
these characters while also allowing the audience to question them."
Paglen pitched the concept to producers Kate Cohen and Marisa Polvino, who were
instrumental in Pfister coming on board to direct. "Wally's vision and
understanding of 'Transcendence' aligned perfectly with what we found most
compelling about the story and the deeper implications of technology in our
society," Polvino states.
Cohen agrees. "We already knew Wally as an incredible cinematographer, but
after meeting with him we knew he was the only one who could direct the film."
Pfister loved the screenplay, and sought additional information from several
experts, including University of California, Berkeley's Dr. Jose Carmena,
Professor of Electrical Engineering and Neuroscience, and Dr. Michel Maharbiz,
Professor of Electrical Engineering, who served as technical consultants on the
film. He also contacted former California Institute of Technology researcher
Christof Koch, PhD, who is now Chief Scientific Officer with the Allen Institute
for Brain Science in Seattle. Through his work with them and others, Pfister
discovered that the script's scientific premises were not quite as fantastical
as he originally thought. Progress in their various fields of
research-neurosciences, nanotechnology, cell research and robotics-is slowly
turning science fiction into fact.
Carmena notes, "I think the premise of the film is definitely inspiring and
futuristic and, at the same time, forward-looking with respect to developments
in brain-machine interfaces."
The filmmakers naturally took some dramatic license in order to serve the
plot and the "what-if" thriller aspect of the film. They also wanted to make
what is an extremely intellectual study clear and accessible to the audience,
and to provide a feeling of suspense and danger as the story progressed.
However, as Maharbiz says, "Certainly it's a sci-fi movie, but the root of a lot
of the issues discussed, especially in the first half of the film, are being
researched in real time."
"Every day, these guys are pushing the frontiers of technology," says
producer Aaron Ryder. "It's exciting just to have a conversation with them. They
were absolutely instrumental in helping us not only tell the story, but to
understand the story we were telling with respect to the advancements in AI and
"Imagine your brain suddenly being able to connect to the Internet, to have
access to every bit of information there-financial, medical, political..." Pfister
posits. "What would you do with that kind of knowledge, that kind of ultimate
power? Would you use it for the greater good, or your own gain, or something
else entirely? This film gives moviegoers a chance to see the possibilities and
wonder if it's a choice they'll ever have to face."
"What is the nature of consciousness?
Is there a soul? And, if so, where does it reside?"
Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant researcher, 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
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."
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
"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
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
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
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.
"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."
"The Internet promised to expand our horizons, to make the world a smaller
place... Maybe it was all inevitable, an unavoidable collision between mankind and
Filmed in Los Angeles and New Mexico, "Transcendence" takes place in a
variety of settings, from the urban streets of Berkeley, California, to a dying
desert town and a forested mountain hideout. Production designer Chris Seagers
worked closely with Pfister, director of photography Jess Hall, and visual
effects supervisor Nathan McGuinness to create the desired look and feel for the
"We had a fantastic crew comprised of artists who were all very interested in
the subject matter and excited to be part of it," Pfister says. "My experience
has made me appreciate streamlined sets married with interesting visual effects
and an overall naturalistic style, and they were able to create exactly what I'd
"Wally always had a very clear idea of what he wanted," Seagers says, "but
then he let us run with it and really embraced our work."
Seagers notes that, from his perspective, "it turned out to be a slightly
unusual project, in that the look itself transcends from the traditional and
familiar to an almost disturbingly sterile world that doesn't need humans, but
just runs itself. So we started with the humans that built the place, and then
began to present less and less humanity."
The set he refers to is a compound in the fictional remote desert town of
Brightwood, called the Brightwood Data Center. Built by locals hired by Evelyn
at her husband's direction, it is a primarily underground facility where the
ever-evolving Will is able to continually expand his scope of knowledge,
accessing and merging with every hard drive in the world. The set was created on
stages in Albuquerque and, according to Seagers, required long corridors to
accommodate Pfister's vision. Luckily, much of what they needed was already
there. "Wally wanted something that felt both not of this world, but not purely
science fiction either," Seagers says. "The stages off I-25 in New Mexico were
perfect because they had low ceilings and very flat concrete floors, and very,
very long corridors-one was 300 feet long-so we could shoot everything
practically, which he likes to do as much as possible."
The exterior of Brightwood was filmed in the city of Belen, where Seagers'
team constructed five buildings and a number of trailer homes. The "town" was
designed, drawn and built in just eight weeks, and the people of Belen were very
accommodating to the production, which basically took over their town for the
duration of their time there. In addition, the visual effects team, under the
supervision of McGuinness, used green screens to give the town the remote desert
In Rio Puerco, the production built a solar field where many of the film's
action sequences take place. Seagers was prepared to shoot in a real solar
field, but quickly realized that it wouldn't be safe to do the required
explosions and stunts there. "In the end," he says, "we decided to make our own,
taking what is available today and giving it a slightly more skeletal structure.
And we did everything in black-and-white to give it a very stark look."
The film opens in Berkeley, where Seagers says, "it's all very Northern
California wood tones, but urban. When we see RIFT's headquarters, which is also
in the woods, it's all natural-in fact, because they are anti-technology,
everything there is very simple, analog-based, and so we used the Luddites for
The film's color palette transitions as the story moves to the desert. "Once
we get to the BDC," he continues, "it's very neutral with a lot of glass, so
it's also reflective and translucent." The translucency plays out at its height
in Evelyn's Brightwood residence, where Will also resides in his virtual world,
and his image appears everywhere she looks. "That was a tricky set to work out,
because the whole thing was done by back projections, so it was getting
reflections on the reflections. The danger was that it could become a big mirror
box, so we had to play with texture and structure to get it to work."
"The design and effects teams and our DP, Jess Hall, came up with an
incredible way to keep Johnny present in the scenes after his character's body
dies and his mind is uploaded," Kosove says. "They had Johnny on set, acting
right there with Rebecca, but his performance was being projected into the wall.
So, instead of shooting his performance later against a green screen, we have
the authenticity of him being there in the moment. I think the result is not
only visually stunning, but emotionally truthful as well."
Hall sought inspiration for this technique from contemporary video artist
Bill Viola. "His work related to what we were doing because we were working so
intensely with camera projection, and that's something he mastered in the
gallery space," Hall says. "I went back and looked at the way he projects onto
different materials, and then we did some experimenting and finally came up with
the way we wanted to do it for the film."
Hall shot the movie on 35mm film with a photochemical finish. "It has
wonderful depth, color saturation and contrast. You can achieve an intensely
rich, yet subtle and realistic texture," he says. "You know you're working with
light and emotion, not ones and zeros, and I love the way it captures the faces
and skin tone of the actors."
In addition to providing the computerized world in which Will resides,
McGuinness's effects team enhanced and extended the sets wherever necessary,
especially on the larger builds, such as the solar fields and BDC.
"No matter how much was actually built for the set, when you're in the desert
even 400 solar panels would have felt small," McGuinness reasons. "We built 75,
shot all the action inside of those, and then created the rest to extend as far
as the eye could see."
However, McGuinness points out that the visual effect that was most specific
to "Transcendence" was much more connected to the character of Will Caster and
his evolving abilities, "in order to serve the overall concept of the film. The
technology being designed and implemented by Will was a permeating extension of
what he had become. It could be organic, metal, solid, liquid, or a combination
of all of that. For instance," he says, referencing one of the most difficult
effects, "what would reverse rain look like? We had to figure all of that out
and so much more, down to the smallest detail."
Johnson observes, "Johnny's character goes from a humble man of science in a
modest home to an omnipresent artificial intelligence that manages to overtake
the entire Internet. Whether or not he's a benevolent or malevolent being, we
needed the audience to feel his presence in every frame of the film."
The filmmakers and cast reflect that the movie poses some profound questions
within its sci-fi storyline, and raises some thought-provoking scenarios about
the effects that advancing, evolving technologies might have on our culture and
on us as individuals.
"People have been fighting wars over 'my god is better than your god' for
thousands of years," Depp says. "In the 21st century, I think it's appropriate
to look at the way human beings worship technology and what that could mean for
our future. Whether you're on the side of technology or ecology, a pacifist or
an extremist, most people have very definite opinions, and the question of how
far we should allow our dependence on computers to go is a question that needs
to be asked."
Pfister summarizes, "According to the experts, artificial intelligence of the
sort we present in 'Transcendence' is coming, like it or not. What I wanted to
do with the film is give people a peek into one direction our world could take
in the coming decades, and engage them in an emotional, moral and intellectual
debate about this very timely topic in a way that is both thought-provoking and
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