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'Inception' at 10: Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister looks back

The veteran cinematographer discusses collaborating with Christopher Nolan, shooting intricate action scenes and imagining a future for movie theaters.
Image: Inception 10th Anniversary
Adrian Lam / NBC News

In the summer of 2010, as sequels and prequels and reboots tightened their grip on the film industry, the release of Christopher Nolan's "Inception" felt like a rare event: a blockbuster based on — gasp! — an original concept.

"Inception," a big-budget mind-twister about globe-trotting thieves who sneak into your subconscious mind and mess with your dreams, has since taken on the sheen of a modern classic, although not without debate.

The true believers hail it as a visionary masterpiece: M.C. Escher by way of Michael Mann, with a dash of "Blade Runner." The skeptics scoff at the expository dialogue — all that metaphysical mumbo-jumbo about projections, extractions, limbo and totems.

No matter where you fall in the "Inception" divide, the film's sheer ambition — visual ingenuity, labyrinthine plotting, undergraduate philosophy and emotional stakes packed into a July thrill ride — is hard to deny.

Few are more acquainted with the scale of that high-wire ambition than Wally Pfister, the veteran cinematographer who won an Academy Award for his work on the film and shot seven Nolan projects, including "Memento" and all three installments of the director's Batman trilogy.

In a phone interview this week, Pfister reflected on the production of "Inception" and weighed in on other film-world topics, from the state of cinematography in the digital age to the future of movie theaters. Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

"Inception" feels especially resonant in the year of the coronavirus, partly because so many people I know feel like they're stuck in a collective dream. Have you found yourself musing over the movie in quarantine?

I've been feeling a little closer to "Groundhog Day" than anything else. [Laughs.]

I think in these bizarre, surreal, unimaginable times, suddenly things you didn't think were possible are the norm. That's where there is a parallel with "Inception." Who could imagine you would be able to infiltrate a dream? Who would've ever imagined that people would be getting in fights in the street over wearing a face mask?

We're living in science fiction right now, and I think we've been prepared by sci-fi films for so many things going on in our world.

It took me a couple viewings before I felt like I understood the logic and mechanics of "Inception." What was your initial reaction when you first read the script?

I think with "Inception" I read it three times before production started — but I loved every minute of reading it, man, because reading Chris' scripts is like reading a novel, where you really are excited with every page you turn. They're densely layered, and that makes for great intellectual entertainment.

The movie contains several complex set pieces, including action scenes playing out on different dream levels. What was the most challenging sequence to execute?

There were different levels of challenge. There was the challenge of telling the story right, and there was also the challenge of physically filming the movie, like shooting in Calgary in the winter for the snow sequence. It's really tough to run around with a handheld camera in the snow when you're completely bundled up.

But with something like the rotating hallway in the hotel, you have logistical challenges. The very first question I had for Chris was whether he wanted to have the camera not just fixed to the floor of the hotel hallway but also independent of the set, so you could see the rotation. Ultimately, locking the camera to the hallway itself helped us get that unusual zero-gravity, Fred Astaire-meets-"2001: A Space Odyssey" effect.

Christopher Nolan has cited "The Matrix" and "Dark City" as influences on "Inception." What were your references — films, paintings, architecture — as you worked on the movie's visual palette?

I think "The Matrix" is a good example. But from a visual level, I don't think I looked for any particular films to model. I did that for other [Nolan] films, though. When we did "The Prestige," I went for very painterly references: Vermeer, Caravaggio.

When we made "Inception," I really think the look of the film evolved on its own. I'll say this: It's the film I'm happiest with, for a number of reasons.

You've been a professional cinematographer for nearly three decades. Are there particular movies or shows released in the last few years that you found especially visually innovative?

When the industry shifted over from film to digital photography — which, of course, Chris hasn't — I think a little bit of the appreciation for the magic of what we were accomplishing as cinematographers disappeared.

But there's still a lot of interesting and beautiful cinematography that I see now, and some great masters and mentors are still working, like Roger Deakins.

When I watched "1917" [a war drama with cinematography by Deakins], I knew the concept was that the film was playing as one continuous shot. But I was pleasantly surprised by how spectacular and innovative the lighting was in the film. Deakins has been leading the charge in cinematography for 35 years or so.

I watch a lot of television now, as everybody does. [HBO's remake of] "Perry Mason" has an interesting look and vibe. The "Breaking Bad" movie, "El Camino," is really beautifully shot and seemed to slip under the radar.

The pandemic has intensified questions about the future of the theatrical distribution model. It's possible far fewer films will be released in cinemas in the years ahead. How do you feel about these structural changes?

I think it's tragic that we may be seeing the demise of the big screen. I hope there's something that can revive it. In the past we've relied on larger screens with IMAX, new breakthroughs in surround sound and other technologies, going back to Technicolor and CinemaScope, to draw people back to the theater.

All we can really hope for is that there's enough care for what's magical about the big screen to have people demand it. I think [the cost of a ticket] is still a damn good bargain, when people spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars to go to a concert. [Laughs.]

I think the theatrical experience is essential, not only to see the film displayed on a screen of that size, with the immersive feeling you get from something filling your peripheral vision, but also having other people around you.

I know that's contrary to the health conditions we're living in now, but let's hope we can get back to a safer world where we can be around people again. I really hope that comes back, because it would be tragic if this became our new normal.

I have to ask the obligatory question: What's your interpretation of the ending of "Inception"?

I'll probably just make a fool of myself. I don't even go there anymore. [Laughs.]