An epic interview with the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer: From ‘Cloud Atlas’ to ‘Jupiter Ascending’

10.10.12 4 years ago 29 Comments

Warner Bros.

I feel like a guy who has been hunting Bigfoot for a decade who finally, absolutely, completely has proven the existence of Bigfoot, and beyond that, was shocked to realize that Bigfoot is pretty much just a smart, funny couple of science-fiction nerds from Chicago.

After all, at the start of 2012, Andy and Lana Wachowski were a complete mystery to me. They are currently more high-profile and front and center than ever before as they prepare to try to open their most invigorating gamble so far, “Cloud Atlas,” which they co-directed, co-wrote, and co-edited with “Run Lola Run” director Tom Tykwer. They raised the money independently and are releasing the film through Warner Bros. on October 26th in the US following a premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in early September and a secret screening at Fantastic Fest at the end of the month.

So right now, that mystery is not nearly as much of a mystery as it used to be, and in the course of that happening, I’ve gotten a chance to talk about the new film, their previous work, and even what we can expect from “Jupiter Ascending,” their next science-fiction film. I have, in essence, come face to face with Bigfoot and gotten every answer I might have wanted and then some.

People should listen when these guys are excited about something they’ve made. I think “The Matrix” remains one of the great pure pop movies ever, a huge punch landed dead center, and I respect the way they built out the world they created in games, sequels, and animation. I’ve written about those movies and about “Speed Racer” and “V For Vendetta,” and during all of that, they managed to stay fairly low-profile. The work speaks for itself, and the Wachowskis were just names on the screen to the vast majority of their audience.

Like anyone who is familiar with their work, I knew certain things about them. Obviously, there are the films which I’ve seen, and I’ve read many of their unproduced screenplays like “Carnivore” and “Plastic Man” and “Assassins,” which was radically different on the page than it was onscreen, and even before they had one of their scripts produced, I just plain liked their writing. I read a lot of screenplays, and they’ve always been entertaining as a read, no matter what the subject. It’s a case of voice being more important than the story being told.

On the personal side, I knew that they were intensely private and notoriously press-shy, and I had to guess that at least part of that was because of Lana Wachowski’s gender transition over the last decade. Looking at how some of the press has handled any and every mention of the two of them during this process, I understood why they would make the decision to simply avoid doing press of any kind, and at the same time, furious that the actions of the worst of the press kept other people from just being able to have a conversation with the filmmakers about the work itself.

When I was at the Cannes festival this past May, I caught wind of some buyers-only screenings of “Cloud Atlas,” and I did everything I could short of fist-fighting a security guard to get in to see the movie early. While I had to leave France disappointed, my efforts were not unnoticed, and in June, I was asked to come see “Cloud Atlas,” which was pretty much locked as a cut, although not mixed at that point.

At that point, after seeing what they’d done, I redoubled my efforts and I sent a long, impassioned e-mail to the studio making my case. This is a big film, full of big ideas and big performances, and I felt like there was a real conversation to be had here if they were at all open to it. I didn’t hear anything for months, and I was starting to suspect it would be business as usual this time around.

Then at the start of the festival, just after I touched down in Toronto, I got the official word. A general time and a specific place.

Finally. Bigfoot would pose for a photo, and all I had to do was show up with my camera.

I kept all of Sunday afternoon clear from the moment it was first mentioned as a possible time frame, and I spent pretty much every hour of the Toronto Film Festival building up to Sunday ready and waiting. And when it got pinned down to a specific time, I walked from my hotel to theirs, which was only about ten minutes away, already trying to figure out how to open the conversation. I knew I had an hour, but I also knew that the hour would fly by if things went well, and that I wanted to cover a lot of ground.

I’ve got a terrible poker face. When I am excited about an interview, the people I’m interviewing are pretty aware of it. There are times listening to myself talk during an interview that I feel like I’m one slightly articulate degree away from “The Chris Farley Show” on SNL in terms of how transparent I am in my own curiosity and enthusiasm.

Finally, I headed into the room where Tom Tykwer was seated with Lana Wachowski on a couch, with chairs for both Andy Wachowski and myself. Tykwer was in black, and I’ve interviewed him a few times before. He’s very sharp, very direct, and I get the feeling sometimes he wishes he could just finish a sentence in German so he could make a point with that extra bit of finesse.

The Apple Trailers introduction to the seven minute “Cloud Atlas” trailer from earlier this year was the first real glimpse I’d ever had of Lana Wachowski, and the pink dreads are unmissable when you step into the room. She stood to introduce herself, and greeted me with, “Moriarty, I presume.” Andy Wachowski also shook my hand and welcomed me. He was dressed in a Bears jersey, his feet in sandals, his toenails painted black, an imposing figure with an easy laugh as we settled in and I set up my laptop to record our conversation.

Andy mentioned that he really liked my “Speed Racer” review back when the film was about to come out, and I told him that it is still a big movie in my house. Both of my kids are crazy for it, and the Blu-ray gets at least one or two plays a month. That’s heavy rotation for my kids. There are few films that get regular repeat viewings. For Toshi, it was the first time he really adamantly asked to go back to see something again in a theater, and he saw it five times theatrically, three of those times in IMAX. He practically levitated every time we saw it. He would stand in the row next to me, just rigid and totally focused on the screen. He still talks about that as an experience that was important to him.

I told them that I took Toshi to a recent press day for “Jeff Who Lives At Home,” and he sat in the room while I did interviews as he often does. When we walked into the room where Susan Sarandon was seated, Toshi went rigid, just like in the theater, and I asked him what he was reacting to. He tried to whisper, but he was very loud as he did so. “Dad… that’s Speed Racer’s mom!”

Sarandon smiled broadly and practically jumped out of her seat leaning forward towards Toshi as she said, “I am! I am Speed Racer’s mom!”

Again… defining moment for the little guy. He thought that was the best. And when I told the Wachowskis, they started laughing, as did Tykwer. I told them that I found it amazing that Toshi has no trouble with the visual language in “Speed Racer” while adults I know had a hard time understanding what they were looking at.

Lana started nodding even before I finished saying it. “We had that exact conversation so many times. The whole impetus for ‘Speed Racer’ came out of the fact that we are visually-thinking people. We go to art galleries and art museums all the time. We go into the Art Institute and every room there, there are paintings that look completely and utterly different from the other rooms. But in cinema, everything looks the same. And it’s a really aggressive straight-jacket, aesthetically. We started talking about cubism, for instance, and we started talking about could you make a cubist film? And we realized that if you try to make a cubist film for adults, you will end up like Picasso, running from the angry mob when he first showed Guernica. They wanted to kill him. Literally. It’s because adults… they reject change, and an aesthetic change is too aggressive a death for them. Every generation experiences aesthetic death, and when you really assault an aesthetic, people freak out. But we said that kids are okay with aesthetic change.”

I mentioned how the first time I saw “Run Lola Run,” it was with a group of friends, and one of our friends just couldn’t hang with the movie. It had nothing do with whether he liked it or didn’t like. He just couldn’t hang with it. He was exhausted by the way it played with time, which is exactly what I thought was exciting about the movie.

Tom replied, “What we are attracted to in general is building upon existing narrative structures that we feel like are an inherent part of our social knowledge and our cultural knowledge. It is aesthetically joyful to not just repeat that. It’s a big part of art, and the development of our aesthetic has to do with the turning away from linear ways of doing it. Narrative is not the future.”

Bold statement, but right now, filmmakers have to think about the future. Our business is evolving so quickly that it would be easy for a filmmaker to be totally left out if they can’t adapt. I brought up the Keanu Reeves documentary “Side By Side” and talked about how that looks at the technical side of the jump from analog to digital, and how I feel like editing in particular has evolved because of the move to the Avid and Final Cut Pro and similar non-linear systems.

Lana agreed, saying, “Editing is a really interesting topic too because it’s also aesthetic based. It is essentially the grammar of cinema, the sentence of cinema. And pretty much every movie since I was nine was, you know, from a capital letter to a period. Scenes progress through a series of cuts, and maybe you throw in a dissolve, which is more of an ellipse, you know, instead of a period. But we were sick of that, too. And if you read post-modern fiction, something like Rick Moody’s Purple America or James Joyce’s Ulysses, you see these authors trying to transcend the boundaries of conventional grammar, trying to get your brain to think about language differently.”

One thing I’ve noticed about Lana Wachowski in conversation is that when she gets rolling with an idea, she gets excited by the idea, and it’s like a feedback loop of enthusiasm. “And so we started trying to do that same thing with ‘Speed Racer.’ We said, ‘Okay, we are going to assault every single modern aesthetic with this film.’ And we said, ‘Why do you have to use cuts? We want to do sequences that are like run-on sentences, stream-of-consciousness sentences that don’t just start and end with the conventional cut, that are just montaged collages and flow the way’… you know, what Joyce was looking for was the way that his brain experiences the world. Joyce said, ‘I want to try to demonstrate the way my mind works as I’m getting all of this input and it doesn’t cut things and it doesn’t order things and it doesn’t always make sentences.’ There were moments in ‘Speed Racer,’ like the races, where we just wanted them to feel like this experiential flowing thing that was was transcending normal simple linear narrative.”

It’s exciting to see filmmakers working in the broad commercial arena who are this devoted to experimentation, and while David Mitchell’s source novel is already a pretty adventurous piece of fiction, it feels like the film is a kaleidoscopic reflection of that book, blown apart and reassembled by the three filmmakers. One of the things that they had as an advantage when making the film was that Tykwer wrote the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” a piece of music that plays a major role in the film. I asked the how it changes their process when they have the music on-set during shooting, and almost immediately, I could see how visibly ecstatic the Wachowskis were about it as Tom started to respond.

“It was crucial and elementary from the start. It’s a method that I’ve worked with since, I think, my first film. Even in my first short film, there was music that was done before the filming was done. But on this one, it was even more so. Obviously, it was technically needed because you have people playing the piano and you want to know what they’re playing, and the actors should know what they are supposedly listening to in the film. When Halle Berry is standing there in the record shop, she should know what it sounds like so she can relate to it. But also, it was for us. I always feel like the first deep atmospheric research you do on a movie is discovering its music, because it’s not yet visual. It came along sort of at the time we had done some of the visual explorations, but we hadn’t defined the film yet totally, so it was in the in-between period, and the music started to grow. For me, at least, and I think they say I’ve spoiled them forever…”

Andy laughed, nodding as he broke in. “We are not making a movie again without doing the music before.”

Lana continued, also nodding. “You’re somebody who studies film, right? And you look at the way the process works. You’ve seen it where you’ve done all this work, all of this aesthetic development, all of this design work, and then you cut the movie and then one of the most important elements of your film, the music, right? Schopenhauer called it a subtextual language, and it speaks to the audience directly. You take music from other movies and put it on your movie, and then you show it to people.” She shuddered at the thought.

I agreed that the temp track is a strange moment in the life of a film, and Lana continued, “Oh my god, it’s just the most hideous thing, and it was like slavery. It was just like, ‘This is the way you do it.'” She gestured to Tom. “And then we meet this guy and he’s like, ‘What are you, crazy? No, I do my music when I do my design at the very beginning of the movie.'”

Andy laughed at the memory. “Yeah, at first we were like, ‘Okay, Tom. Alright. Calm down.’ And then… a year ago last August, we’re doing a read-through with the actors, and we’re playing them the sextet. It was such an important part of that read-through. It was amazing.”

Lana spoke over him, excited as she recalled the reading. “it was like a revelation. I was like, why isn’t everyone doing it this way?” I mentioned that Leone sometimes had Morricone write the score ahead of time so he could play it on the set while he would shoot, but that is the only other person I’ve ever heard of who had done things this way. “Right,” Lana replied, “but why?”

Tom continued, “I did that on ‘Perfume’ as well. This time didn’t offer as many opportunities, except when the sextet is actually being played as part of the scene, because there’s so much dialogue. ‘Perfume,’ though, was basically a silent movie. I shot tons of scenes with the music playing. It’s so amazing for the actors when you can do that. For Ben [Whishaw] in that film, I would be like, ‘I know the music for this scene. Do you want to hear it?’ ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! Absolutely! Give me something!’ (laughs) And I think he was really good in that film because he could do that, he could relate to something else. It gave him some piece of atmosphere within all the technicalities of a film set to help him create his character. It’s such an amazing tool. It’s just absurd. And of course you know how many film scores sound alike. The reason is because everyone’s temping with the same music…”

Andy broke in, “And then aping the temp.”

Tom nodded. “And then aping the temp. Exactly. And it does influence your way of cutting it. You do different cuts, of course, because the music asks you for a cut sometimes. And you don’t even notice it. There’s a subconscious force in music that can guide you, which is something that… listen, we had the music, we used the music, but in the beginning, in the first pass of our cut, which we did together all the time, we had… we knew the music and the way it was, so we said, ‘Let’s do one pass without any music.’ So in the beginning, we cut and we went through, and we didn’t do any music on it, and then we went back and started putting in pieces one at a time until we had our first full attempt at getting it married. And you wouldn’t be cutting it without the knowledge of the music and the way it was already there.”

Collaboration is an inherent part of the filmmaking process, but not in the way these three filmmakers did it. I explained that I’ve been working with the same writing partner since I was sixteen years old, and that I couldn’t imagine introducing someone else into the process because writing is so personal and intimate. I asked how they even began to introduce a new voice into the mix.

Tom laughed and answered, “We went on a holiday together.”

Smiling, Lana continued. “It’s cool that you realize that. People sometimes say, ‘Well, how do you direct together?’ But writing is really the intimate process. Directing is a social art form. It’s about collaboration. Really, the trick is writing together. Andy and I have an amazing relationship when we write together, and we said, ‘I don’t know, can we have a third ego in there?’ And we weren’t sure. But we were just so longing to develop a friendship, and it kept being so hard to hang out. So we thought if we had a project together, we could do that, and we were going to do like we did for James McTiegue, where we were going to write it and he was going to direct it, and then we found this book and we though maybe we could all play together. And then it hit us. We don’t even know if we can write together. If we can write together, then surely we can direct together. So I was like let’s go away outside of our comfort areas, outside of Berlin, outside of Chicago. Let’s go somewhere else and just play.” 

Andy punctuated the thought with a simple, “Neutral territory.”

Lana continued, explaining, “We had heard of fantasy vacations where creative people went together and made something, and we were like, ‘This could be one of those.’ So we went down to Costa Rica, and we would go boogie-boarding during the day, and in the afternoon, we would get together. We started the first day by saying, ‘This is a crazy experiment and we don’t know if it’s going to work. We’ll still love each other. We want to know each other when it’s old. Maybe this will just be a funny story we tell. But let’s try.'”

She went on, describing the process. “It sort of started in this very innocent of way of saying, ‘Well, what are your favorite parts?’ And we went through and we started checking off all of our favorite parts, and it was like ‘Ka-chink. Ka-chink. Ka-chink. Match. Match. Match.’ And we started getting more excited. So then we were like, ‘Okay, let’s start laying all of our favorite parts down on cards and then start thinking about order.’ I wrote an experiment on the plane on the way to Costa Rica based on the line that Cavendish says in the book. ‘My experience as an editor has led me to a disdain for flashbacks and flash-forwards and all such tricksy gimmicks,’ and I was like, ‘That’s our opening.'”

Tom interjected, “Within a sequence that is all flashbacks and flash-forwards,” his smile suggesting how much he enjoyed the irony of that.

Lana explained, “I sort of built this thing that sort of suggested a potential introduction to a new structure that was going to somehow work as a single narrative. I was like, ‘We can’t start over an hour and a half into a movie.’ We knew we couldn’t do the structure of the book, so we’d have to create a single flowing narrative like music, a full symphony, and this was the preamble experiment. We read it together, and kind of went…

Andy arched one eyebrow, hyper-dramatically dropping his voice to a whisper. “‘Oh my god, this could work.'”

Tom nodded. “It was awesome.”

Andy pointed out, “That’s in the movie.”

Tom explained, “The opening of the movie, that montage before the stories start to unfold in detail, everything that is pre-title leading to Ben putting the gun in his mouth and then you see the title, that’s basically what Lana had written that first day. And it’s also like a blueprint for the audience. ‘Okay, this is what you’re going to get.’ And of course, it’s overwhelming. But the insanity of it seemed like it was flowing and there was a possibility that we could keep going like this. We would probably need to help the audience get themselves organized a little bit, but that we might be able to be completely fluidly constantly cutting from story to story because they are all one story.”

I told them how many times now I’ve been asked by people, “Do I need to read the book before I see the movie?”, and how I feel like the film works as its own thing, independent of the book completely at this point. It also seems to me that people who are fans of a property are often the ones who have the hardest time accepting the choices that have to made when you’re adapting something.

Tom agreed, explaining, “The reality is that usually, the more you get away from it, the more it becomes its own thing, which is much more acceptable. Adaptations that are more strictly trying to follow every letter of the book, those can be for me more difficult to watch. Why would you just film the book? You need to make it a movie first, and it’s a different medium. Make it work for your medium and use the assets that you have there. I think every person I’ve met so far who had read the book first really enjoyed the movie. ‘Perfume’ was much harder for me, and the reaction was much harder. You know how it can be, of course.”

Andy continued, “Our first friends and family screening went great. We had just close personal friends, people who had read the book and were huge fans of the book. Two of them were booksellers in Chicago. We were feeling pretty strong about this cut. It was very far down the line already, and it was the cut that we screened right before we took it to Warner Bros. But you could tell that there was something not quite right with everybody as they were getting into their seats.”

Lana laughed. “It was like a storm rolling in.”

Andy laughed as well as he went on. “They ended up watching the movie and they came out, and there was just this relief from them. They thought we were just idiots to try to adapt the book, and they thought that it was impossible to adapt.”

Lana said, “Some of them had already formulated their gentle sort of non-answers. ‘Oh, it’s really good.’ But then one of them, one of the bookshop owners, was in tears. He was like, ‘I can’t believe you did it.'”

I understand the reaction. When I saw it, there were less than ten of us in the room, and when the lights came up, there was a lot of looking down and not meeting anyone’s eyes because we were all trying to gather ourselves emotionally. It’s hard to walk out, red eyes and wet cheeks, and look cool in front of your peers. The film hit each of us for different reasons, though, and that’s part of what made it impressive. There’s room for you to have an individual response to what you see in it.

Tom said, “It’s very interesting that now we’re starting to get people who are starting to see it for the second or third time, and they are starting to say… I know this is true with all of our wives, but when they see it again, it hits them differently, and that’s because today you might be more attuned to one of the layers that, in another screening, doesn’t really matter so much. You know those images you can look at where sometimes things come out of it in 3D [editor’s note — The ‘Magic Eye’ images]? The film is like that, all based on your state of mind or your psyche.”

A film as unconventional as “Cloud Atlas” is going to create some controversy, and one of the earliest indicators of that came once the trailer was released. Almost immediately, people began to write about how the film is perpetuating the tradition of “racebending” by casting white actors in Asian roles under make-up. Many of them decided, without seeing any of the actual context for those performances, that this is an obvious case of racism on an institutional level. I disagree completely, and I asked the filmmakers to talk about their choice to use make-up like this. Obviously, when we live in an age where Andy Serkis can star as Caesar in “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes,” we are in a world where any actor can play any part, but the use of prosthetics is different because you’re still starting with the base form, the actor, and then building on top of that. There’s a moment in the film where Halle Berry, playing a white German Jew in the late ’30s, has a nude scene, and I told them I think that is one of the most amazing images in any film this year, something I can honestly say I have never seen before.

Tom laughed. “It was amazing to shoot.” 

Lana went on to explain, “There’s a really interesting subtext to it, too, which I loved. Halle Berry was trying on all the costumes she was going to wear when she played this character, and she’s like in 1930’s gowns, and Tom’s like, ‘Oh, aren’t period pieces fun? You must be so excited. Don’t you love this part of doing a period piece?’ He was just sort of innocently asking. And she goes, ‘Um, Tom…'”

Lana pointed at her own face, as Halle did to Tom, and Tom continued. “‘Think about it, Tom. What would I have been? And why would I be wearing this kind of costume? There is no character.'”

Lana picked up the story, saying, “She would only ever get to be a slave or a servant, and she said it was an interesting thing to her because as an actor, and acting is always about transcending to some degree, she’s always been segregated. History remains segregated to actors. They can’t… they’re not allowed, they’re banned, whites only for certain roles. And this movie, which is about transcending convention and transcending boundaries, allowed her just in the physical choice of giving her this part to transcend and claim a part of history through that transcendence that had always been denied to her.”

My other favorite film so far this year, “Holy Motors,” is about the way performers slip in and out of identities and how they transform themselves, and how it feels like this is a discussion worth having right now as technology allows us to redefine ourselves through online identities and avatars and we are discussing things like outliving our bodies by downloading our personalities, separating soul from form. I talked about how I was looking forward to seeing both films for a second time to see how my reactions to them changed or deepened, and Tom stopped me, realizing I hadn’t seen it since I saw the unfinished version in June. “Oh, then you haven’t seen the finished film yet. It definitely wasn’t mixed when you saw it, which is a huge part of it.”

Asked him how his own reactions changed over the course of post-production as they were editing it, and how they were sure they had arrived at the final version, Tom said, “That was the advantage of the process for me because considering how complex the film is, we weren’t that slow in post-production, and these guys have a certain fast attitude anyway. They have these fast brains, and they somehow just sit down and then edit for twelve hours and they never stand up. I don’t know how… I don’t even remember them ever having to pee while we were cutting. And of course it was all three of us, and we literally all sat together every day…”

Lana could see how surprised I was and asked, “Can you think of one case where three directors cut every single frame of a film together?”

I told her that I’d never heard of anyone doing that, and Tom agreed that it was unprecedented. “We didn’t really ever have a day where it was just two of us. It was always us three and Alex, the editor, who was quite amazing because he had to handle three guys in one room. And they may not face this because it’s the two of them, but for me in editing, sometimes you just run a little low, and you’re like ‘I don’t know, I don’t know.’ On this, we never took a break, because there was always at least one of us who felt like, ‘Okay, I know how to do this. I can elaborate on this here.'”

Andy pointed out that Alex did take smoke breaks from time to time, and Tom laughed. “He forced breaks,” Andy said.

“He needed that,” Tom replied. “He never got a break otherwise. He’d just go for twelve hours a day.”

Lana grinned as she said, “It was so joyful and playful. We had such a good time in the editing room. We never wanted to go home. We could have stayed there all day. It was so fun. The shots were… it all started fitting together…”

“That was exhilarating,” Tom explained, “because of course we had only seen our rushes, and we had shots that we had designed together, but some of it, we were still discovering as it came together, and we were wrapping our head around how each of us thought it could be constructed. And the most important thing was not sticking to any rule that you had set up before. Everything was on offer. Everything was possible. The two most important words were ‘let’s try.’ You couldn’t just be like, ‘But this is how it was conceived.'”

Lana said, “We had one big, big moment where we made a very significant shift from the script after we saw our very first cut, and what we were all blown away by was the power of tone. Because no one ever mixes tone. You don’t cut a farce in the middle of ‘The Matrix.’ It just doesn’t work. You undo both things. The farce becomes too absurd or too serious, and the philosophical action film just seems idiotic. It’s like acids and bases. This thing had lines that were specifically set up to go to another scene, and on the page, it was so perfect. You could look at it and be like, ‘Oh, this is going to be so great.'”

I get the feeling Andy is the most wry of the three, because he seemed to love punctuating Lana’s explanations of things with voices and asides. He put on an exaggerated voice to interject, “‘I am a GENIUS.'”

Tom started laughing. “Because of course we had not cut it yet.”

Lana just kept rolling, though. “And then we watched it and we were like, ‘Oh my god, it makes the tenderness of this scene seem completely false and shatters it, and the funny thing is just not funny anymore.’ And so we had to really go back and very tenderly put tone spacers in between the wide tone shifts.”

Looking at the trailer for the film, it would be easy to think that it’s all going to be very self-serious, but there’s a ton of humor in it. Jim Broadbent, in particular, finds every laugh in the material, and they make great use of that big beautiful rubber face of his. It does require you to keep up, though, as it shifts tone from story to story and scene to scene, and I can see why they worried.

Lana continued, “We thought it was a little audacious when we were writing it. But then when we started cutting it, we were like, ‘No, this is crazy.’ And there were a couple of days of very tense panic, and then we got in and we started in like, ‘Okay, let’s do this and this,’ and slowly we started to recover it.”

Serious now, Andy jumped in. “Even just rhythmically, the final product wasn’t the same as the script. After the preamble and the title, it immediately just started going. And we were all exhausted after the first screening because it was just this unrelenting rhythm that was buffeting you and battering you, and so we had to pull back from that a little bit. We had to change the structure a little bit in the beginning, and so that after the preamble, when you’re shaking the audience and saying, ‘PAY ATTENTION!’

Lana laughed and yelled, “‘IT’S DIFFERENT! IT’S DIFFERENT!'”

With a dramatic flourish, Andy added, “‘CLOUD ATLAS!'”

[This page of the interview contains several spoilers]

They all dissolved into laughter, and Andy continued the story. “So now, by the time you get to the last one, you’ve gotten each of the hooks in each of the stories, one at a time, and then we get to the end, we set that last hook, Zachary gets his premonition, and then someone mentions Sonmi, and then Sonmi’s door opens, and that’s the first time we’ve deviated from the structure. She walks over to Jim Sturgess, and Jim Sturgess says, ‘You’ve got a choice. You can either stay here, or you can come with me,’ and that’s like the only other time that we’re talking to the audience. The first time is ‘I have a disdain for tricksy gimmicks,’ and then ‘you can either stay here or you can come with us’. And then the movie kicks off.”

One of the things that will help sell the film is the presence of Tom Hanks, which I assume also helped get the film funded. He’s beautifully cast in the film, and it’s a huge performance from him, or maybe I should say performances, since he plays characters in each of the six stories. When Sam Mendes was getting ready to make “American Beauty,” one of the actors he wanted for Lester was Tom Hanks, but his agents got as far as the scene with Lester masturbating in the shower and passed on it, telling Mendes “this is not a Tom Hanks film.” When Hanks met Mendes at the Oscars and heard about that, he immediately told his agency to send him challenging scripts in the future and to let him worry about what is or isn’t a Tom Hanks film.

Lana seemed delighted by the story and said, “We owe Sam Mendes a present, then.”

There are things Tom Hanks does in the film that we’ve never seen him do, and language we’ve never heard him use, and for some audiences, it will be a shock to see certain things happen.

Lana asked, “You mean like slitting Hugh Grant’s throat?”

Andy belly-laughed as he said, “Tom Hanks cuts Hugh Grant’s throat open,” which is perhaps one of the more disturbing things you can say as you belly laugh, but I know what he means. It’s outrageous to see Hanks upend his image this completely.

Lana continued, “And to see that expression on his face of remorse and horror. I am in love with Tom Hanks. You’re right, he is so intelligent, and he knows film as well as or better than any actor we have ever met. He watched just a tiny piece of the film when we were doing ADR, and he just intuitively knew so many things. ‘Oh, I love that cut, and how you went from that to that, and that is incredible! And you’re doing this cut and that cut because of this, and that’s amazing.’ He saw the shot of the critic being thrown off the balcony, and he was laughing. He was like, ‘He fucking hits the floor! He doesn’t hit the car!’ And we were like, ‘Yes! That’s the point! He misses it! They always land on the car!'”

Hanks carries certain expectations with him when he’s cast in a role, and for some audiences, they may not be prepared for what he does in “Cloud Atlas.” I asked if part of the reason they cast him was specifically so they could play against that iconic weight he carries.

Tom answered, “The whole idea of him being the most relevant everyman actor since Jimmy Stewart invited even more this idea that the characters he’s playing are having this very particular evolution, the idea that the best of us can come from the worst of us. He’s an evil murderer, but there’s this learning process, and meeting this girl once, twice, and then finally realizing he’s going to have to change, and when he meets her in the ’70s, there’s that feeling that even though he’s working for the, you know, the evil empire, maybe he can help her. Maybe he can do something better. And then he fails and he dies, and so he comes back as the writer, and do you remember the moment when he sees Halle Berry in the bar, and you think, ‘Oh, there she is! Go! Go!’ But he doesn’t. He decides to do bad instead. He decides to do something very bad and kill the critic instead.”

Tom stopped and fixed me with a pointed stare as he realized what he’d just said. “Well, I don’t know how bad you can consider that to be.”

Both of the Wachowskis started laughing at that, all of them looking at me, and finally Tom regained some composure and continued. “So he keeps going, and ultimately he meets her again in the far future, and he gets to really, really change. He gets to change perspective. He becomes this new being who sees the moral consequences of things. And the idea of having this person who slowly, complicatedly learns to be a better person be played by this particular actor that has such an iconic dimension to him that it’s not like… him being the bad guy is so much more impressive because you don’t know it that well. And at the same time, because he can pull it off so amazingly… he sort of embraced it, and he enjoyed getting to be evil, like when he’s playing Dr. Goose, there’s this potency of… you trust him to be decent… and once you find out that he’s poisoning Ewing, it’s shocking. You think because he’s Tom Hanks, oh, he’s this quirky doctor, and he’s going to save him. How nice to have him around. He’s going to protect him, like maybe protect him from the bad captain or something, and he’s the horror. If it had been somebody we are used to seeing in ambiguous roles, you would have immediately projected it all differently.”

Lana jumped in. “But you’re right that the moment we started thinking about Tom Hanks, we got so excited by the idea of him doing these roles. Yet at the same time, we were wondering if he was the engineer behind the Tom Hanks image, you know? We were like, what if we send it to him and he’s like, ‘What? Are you insane? Why would you offer this to me? I would never do this.’ So it was experimental. We knew it was something that would transcend the ‘Tom Hanks movie’ definition…”

Andy said, “And we didn’t know him at all, so…”

Lana continued, “So we sent it with a note. ‘Are you interested?’ And he was like, ‘Let’s meet!’ And we had our most insane meeting of all time…

I told them that I read about that meeting in the recent profile done on them in The New Yorker, and it reaffirmed for me that Hanks is one of the most genuine people in the business, someone who has reached a point where he does what he wants because it intrigues or challenges him, and because he’s well aware of what he can do with his movie-star clout.

Tom agreed. “He really is like that. I know we said that before, but we went through so many meetings trying to cast this, so many meetings with actors, and it would always end with, ‘Great. Let my people talk to your people.’ And he was just like, ‘I’m in. Let’s go.’ And he meant it. There was no call a few weeks later to duck out of it.”

Lana laughed, remembering the meeting. “At first, we were freaked out. We’d never heard that before.”

Tom added, “And from Tom Hanks, of all people.”

Lana continued, “‘Did you just say you’re doing this movie?’ ‘Yeah. When do we start?’ ‘Ummm… our people will call your people?'”

Andy smiled. “‘You know what, we’ll be right back.'”

One of the things I took away from that New Yorker piece was that getting this film financed was an act of will that took all three filmmakers to make it happen, and while it frustrates me that we live in a world where “sprawling science-fiction film from the makers of ‘The Matrix'” is in any way a difficult decision for the money-men, it gives me some small solace to know that it is hard out there for everyone. I think the film industry is, as a business, worse right now than it has been since I moved here in 1990. It is a brutal, unforgiving marketplace right now.

“Before we went to the international money, every single studio passed,” Lana offered, agreeing that it is a tough time to be pushing boundaries. I told them about my infuriating experience of trying to get a film made with Michael Clarke Duncan as the star, and how I ran into the upsetting idea that black leads are almost impossible to pitch to the international financiers. “Imagine how Spike Lee feels,” Lana said. She knows there is pressure on them to make money with this film and not only for the sake of the movie, but for other filmmakers trying to push the envelope on any sort of broad canvas. “Hopefully it will inspire other people to take a few more risks. We felt that while we were making it. If this movie works, if this kind of strange international equity money from all over the world, if we somehow pull this off and it pays these people off, it will inspire other people to try the same kind of a thing, because it will prove there is an audience for this sort of risky material. And if it doesn’t, then it will end up being one of those cautionary tales which will continue to reinforce the conventional wisdom that risky material is too risky.”

The evening before we spoke, they had premiered the film to a huge reaction at the Princess Of Wales theater, a rare festival appearance for them. I told them I thought it was a step in the right direction. Lana laughed. “You mean the ten-minute standing ovation?”

Andy seemed moved by the response. “The only other experience we’ve had that was anything like that was the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in San Francisco at the Castro Theater for ‘Bound.’ We had 900 of our lesbian sisters standing and cheering. It was fantastic.”

Lana positively beamed at the memory. “Grabbing us and hugging us and saying, ‘We’ve been waiting for this movie our whole lives.’ That was like… we thought we would never top that, which is one of the reasons we don’t go to many premieres.” Her voice changed a bit as she continued, “But the publicity thing is another issue…” It was obvious that she is still ambivalent about the entire notion of opening themselves up to press scrutiny, of making themselves part of the marketing, and of doing interviews in general.

I thanked them for taking the time to sit down, telling them that it’s something I’d wanted to do for a while, and I said I hoped it wasn’t too painful an afternoon.

Lana shook her head. “Look, we started off talking for fifteen minutes about cinema aesthetics. That was a joyful experience. Nobody even says the word ‘aesthetics’ in Hollywood or at press events. That’s one of the reasons we left.”

Andy put on a “dumb guy” voice, revving up to a question with a long “‘Duuuuuhhhh, where do you get your ideas from?'”

Lana leaned forward, keen on making her point. “I love cinema. I love it as an art form. I think it’s unfortunately in this place where it’s in a downward trajectory, and you either have these intense, obscure art movies… like I think Roy Andersson is one of the most important filmmakers of our time period, and no one will talk about him. No one has hardly heard of him. And on the other end, you have these movies that everyone sees, and I can’t find much to say about them.”

It was pretty clear that the Wachowskis aren’t interesting in chasing a gig like the “Justice League” movie that many fans want them to do, and I told them that it’s true for any part of our industry. For example, there are things I want to write about, and there are things that drive internet traffic, and those two things aren’t always the same. Finding some balance between them is part of the job of writing online in 2012, and I doubt it will change any time soon.

Lana said, “Well, that’s what I wanted to say. I love that you fight to write about things that are part of that upward trajectory. We were talking about aesthetic development and ’70s cinema and ‘2001,’ and it reminds me that there was a time where I was growing up and reading Cahiers du Cinema, and I was so excited by what they were talking about. Film writing shouldn’t be about snark. It’s about trying to investigate cinema’s potential as it relates to art.” And as we stood, the interview over, Lana embraced me for a moment, then stood back.

“I read your review of ‘Prometheus,’ and I really liked it. But I noticed that at the start, you have like three or four paragraphs where you’re talking about the business, and then the rest of it, you’re talking about the art. Be aware of what a great forum you have. Less business. More art.” One more embrace, and then a handshake from Andy and another from Tom, and we were done. As I headed for the door, Lana made the point one last time. “Keep on fighting the good fight, sir.”

And if that had been my entire encounter with the Wachowskis on this film, that would have been great. I felt like we had a real conversation, a good afternoon of talking about their film and some past work and film in general. They were so much more relaxed and personable and at ease during the interview that it seemed crazy to me that they’ve been so low-profile before now. Still, that’s a choice, and I respect that some people would rather let the work speak for itself.

I got home from the Toronto Film Festival on a Thursday night, and Friday morning, I got a phone call from someone who worked for the Wachowskis, asking me if I’d be available for a phone conversation with Lana around lunchtime. I started worrying that they were going to ask me to edit my piece or that they were second-guessing themselves in terms of how open they’d been. I also found myself hoping it was just going to be some additional thoughts, additions to the piece instead of subtractions. I sent back my cell phone number, and later in the day, just before I was set to walk into a meeting, the phone rang, and Lana Wachowski greeted me as I answered.

The question she had was about Fantastic Fest, which is always the sundae at the end of my festival-going year. They had been invited to bring the film as a secret screening, and she wanted to know what I thought of the festival and the venue. I told her the same thing I tell anyone who asks about the Drafthouse, which is that Tim League is one of the great showmen of our time, a guy who passionately believes in the entire experience of attending a movie, a guy who has worked tirelessly for years now to create singular experiences for movie fans. I told her that the audience at Fantastic Fest is made up of rabid movie lovers, people who are always up for the new and the adventurous, people who want to be surprised and impressed and transported. I told her the film would be met with open arms by that crowd, and that I sincerely hoped they would attend. I told her that if it would make them more comfortable, I would happily moderate the post-screening Q&A for them as well.

A few days later, I got the official word that they’d be attending, and that they did want me to moderate the Q&A. Then I got momentarily anxious, hoping that they would indeed have an experience as good as the one I pitched to them.

And sure enough, Austin delivered in style.

Leading up to the secret screening, I had a pretty good idea that our cover had been blown, and I reached out to Judd Apatow to help me play some Twitter games to try to confuse the issue. It worked well enough that on the morning of the secret screening, someone walked by and told me, “Hey, man, you guys think you’re being sneaky, but I saw Judd Apatow in the bathroom this morning. I know you’re screening ‘This Is 40.'” I did my best to look upset that they had figured me out, even as the Drafthouse was busy sneaking the Wachowskis up an outside staircase on the far side of the building.

When I announced the title onstage, the energy in the room surged, and both sold-out theaters seemed excited to hear they’d be seeing the movie. But when I introduced Lana and Andy and they walked out onstage, the theater went crazy, almost 2/3 of the crowd rising to their feet, giving them a standing ovation simply for showing up. Andy took the microphone first, saying, “I’m Andy Wachowski, and this is my sister Lana. You may know that Lana used to be Larry, and we used to be the Wachowski Brothers. Now? We are the Wachowski Starship.” Huge response from the crowd, and then Lana took a moment to thank everyone for coming out and to introduce the movie.

Afterwards, pretty much every single seat was still occupied when we took the stage to start the Q&A. I was still emotional from seeing the finished film for the first time, and I think the full standing ovation the Wachowskis got this time, this one for the film and what they accomplished with it, made them emotional as well.

There’s a short highlights reel from the Q&A that Fantastic Fest put together, and you can check it out here:

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When everything finished and we were chased out of the theater because we were running late, the publicists for Fantastic Fest invited them to join everyone at the Highball for drinks and conversation. I seriously don’t think a single person at the festival would have been shocked or offended if they’d chosen instead to go back to their hotel or out to a private post-screening dinner. The Q&A was such a love-fest from the crowd that I think everyone would have been happy to have had that be the full encounter.

But Fantastic Fest has a mysterious pull on people. It’s such a great atmosphere, and it’s so relaxed. After the “Frankenweenie” screening on opening night, Tim Burton and his family went bowling at the Highball. All during the festival, you could find filmmakers and fans alike singing karaoke, eating onion rings, or just plain tying one on, all at the Highball. There’s something inherently social about the festival, more so than any other fest I attend.

Sure enough, Lana and Andy hung out for a few hours, and they took plenty of time to talk to fans who approached them, to enjoy a few drinks, and to happily answer pretty much every other question or observation I still had for them. I got to discuss the “Animatrix” with Andy Wachowski, talking to him about the satisfaction of being able to explore some of the stranger, smaller corners of the world they created, and I was entertained by the zeal with which Andy dismissed my claim that Austin is a great food town, telling me that there is no food town like Chicago. “The sandwiches,” he said, almost dreamily, “all the sandwiches.”

They talked a bit about their next film, “Jupiter Ascending,” which sounds like a big science-fiction action piece that will star Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis. The stories they told about casting the two stars and their reactions to the news were endearing, and it sounds like they’re neck-deep in the world-building part of the process right now. When I commented on how much I loved the water-based surfaces of the streets in the Nu Seoul sequences in “Cloud Atlas,” Andy talked about how hard it is to be fresh and cohesive when you’re designing architecture and infrastructure, and how that’s always the hardest part with a science-fiction film. Lana talked about how they have a big visual idea for “Jupiter Ascending” that is like the evolutionary jump from bullet-time, but how it’s going to be expensive and difficult, and might not be possible.

The most animated I saw Lana get all night, though, was when she told me about a trip she took to see the studios where Roy Andersson works and makes his movies. It was a pilgrimage for her, and as she talked about the excitement she felt when she got to see the rooms where he films, where he builds his environments, and she described his shooting schedules, I recognized in her the same thing that I’ve recognized in many of the people I hold closest in this world, an ability to be moved and inspired by the act of creation, by the potential of art.

In the end, I was the one that had to leave first so I could make it to a midnight screening, and as I left the Highball, the Wachowskis were still there, still happily chatting with fans, and they seemed about a million miles away from the reclusive figures they’d seemed just one month earlier. I have no idea if we’ll see more press from them, or if we’ll ever do another interview, but I felt like more than most people I interview, they dropped their guard and they presented themselves as who they are, with no filters. No matter what else they are and no matter what else they do, on some level, they are still just the two kids who grew up together, the Wachowskis, two lifelong fans of science-fiction and filmmaking, trying to entertain one another and hoping to leave some mark on these genres that have marked them so very deeply.

“Cloud Atlas” arrives in theaters October 26.

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