‘Jupiter Ascending’ directors Wachowskis on 9/11 and modern blockbuster culture

02.05.15 2 years ago

Warner Bros

In the first half of our interview with Lana and Andy Wachowski, I was amazed to learn how they shot the gravity boots chase sequence through Chicago, a few shots at a time over the course of seven full months;, working with John Toll and the FAA and Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis to create something that most audiences will never even begin to process as a technical accomplishment.

That's the point, of course. If it's done right, you shouldn't be aware of how it was done. It should just look a certain way. It should just communicate the ideas that the directors are trying to communicate. But I was blown away by the slow-motion mechanics behind this particular magic trick. After all, we are in a cultural moment where it feels like the disposable and interchangeable nature of spectacle makes it all feel somehow smaller, and people often seem to reach for the easiest version, the simplest solution. Speaking with the Wachowskis, it is apparent that they are aware of not only how blockbuster culture and technology are changing, but also how this culture is an expected and cyclical reaction to nothing less than 9/11.

One thing that has definitely evolved since they first became household names is that TV grew up in a major way. It now seems to be every bit as valid a choice of form as features, if not more so in some cases. I knew they were also deep along on their upcoming Netflix series, “Sens8,” and I wanted to get into the way they juggled the two projects as we continued our conversation.

“I”m hearing more and more filmmakers talk about how television has become empowering. The television model seems more appealing to them just in terms of storytelling.  You”re in post on a giant feature and you”re also doing this for the first time. What”s the comparison as artists being able to work in these two, television and features? Do you see a real difference?”

Andy Wachowski nodded. “Yeah. It”s totally different.  There's no comparison in terms of the speed at which you do things for television. It was a process of 'learn while you earn,' which is exciting. On a typical large budget film, you end up shooting two pages, maybe three pages a day.”

Lana jumped in. “That's a good pace. That's like a normal pace. Two pages a day, every day, and even on Sunday, we were shooting. On 'Sens8,' we were doing ten to fifteen pages a day. I think it's the most we've ever done in a day. Think of the most whatever it is that you've ever done in a day… the most writing, the most reviews, the most Sundance screenings, the most time in a screening room. Now triple that, every day, for six full months.”

“There's a funny quote about pressure. There's this closer for the Cubs, Mitch Williams… is that right?”

“Mitch Williams. Yep.”

“Mitch Willams says that he pitches like his hair is on fire. And that's what directing for 'Sens8' was like. We were directing with our hair on fire.”

I asked how they prioritized things when trying to do all of this at once.

“We've got all three backpacks on,” Lana said.

“That's right. 'Cloud Atlas' was shooting while 'Jupiter' was prepping.”

“When 'Cloud Atlas' started, we had already written 'Jupiter,' so we were designing during 'Cloud Atlas.' We started work on 'Sens8' when we got back from shooting 'Jupiter,' so we were essentially doing publicity, post and prep, and then as we focused on 'Jupiter' post, we're writing 12 episodes, and not just writing, but writing and shooting and writing and shooting. And then we finished post on 'Jupiter,' and we started prepping for the next thing even as we're fine-tuning the show.”

“Around the time we saw you at Fantastic Fest,” Andy said, “we were still noodling. We're shooting stuff trying to figure out what the gravity boots look like. So here's this one guy who did this test in one of those parachute simulators, all right? So he's on this thing and he's sort of… I mean, there are moments where it looks absolutely fantastic, but then it would just go haywire. And you'd also have that problem that all the faces would be blown out.”

Lana picked up that thought, adding, “We had so much difficulty with the gravity boot design. When you look at, like, snowboarding, it's so beautiful, you know? And part of the beauty is seeing the body respond to all of the gravity working against it. So you have to have this compression between the heel and the shoulders in order to sell the illusion.”

“Right. And there's control when you've got an athlete doing these things. It's a very body oriented athletic thing.”

“So if you have nothing under someone's feet, how do you create that feeling of compression? Because that's what the truth of it is… that's the kinetic detail that the eye wants to see. That was the challenge,” Lana said.

Andy pulled out his phone and opened a video for me. I was looking at a giant soundstage and a special stunt space they built. “From a design point of view, we got to this middle step, which was the biggest half-pipe in the world that we built in Berlin.” I watched guys try to skate this impossible giant surface, flying every which way when they wiped out. “We got these X-Game guys to come out and our stuntmen worked with them on this thing for a month, maybe. I mean, they had a routine by the time we got in there. So we finished shooting 'Atlas,' and we went into this half-pipe and started doing a bunch of camera tests with these dudes. We had around-the-clock security because Berlin is like notorious for leaks.” He pointed out one of the stuntmen who wiped out but didn't fall. “They're on wires. But it's just chaos.”

“We embraced a lot of the chaos, and that led us to… well, first we ended up with this, like, conveyer belt. Our first test with Channing was hanging Channing from wires with a sort of harness on a conveyer belt that's 45 degrees in the air. So you're sort of skating on a slope.”

I told them that there were photos from the set that showed giant rounded ramps, and I was curious how much they did physically with digital removal for elements. Andy said, “We shot every conceivable technique. We invented a lot of these stunt rigs. We'd say, 'Give me something like this,' and we”d draw something on a napkin and show how the camera”s meant to move around the guy. A lot of them were ramps. We had some, like this conveyor belt that we used, and we built a 45-degree slope on either side so that he was always either climbing or falling. Always the momentum of gravity was pushing him down, so we wanted to, like, feel that weight on him as he”s cranking, but then we”d incorporate trampolines and stuff and every possible technique you could imagine. To get the human body and the physics right, we wanted that feeling to be real.”

“We had to feel like they're on these boots, like they're really working, and yet there”s nothing under them,” Lana said.

“The very first shot we did on 'Jupiter Ascending' was one of the chase scene shots, and we ended up shooting that for the entire movie. It was the very first shot and it was the very last shot. Every day we shot a little bit of that chase.”

We talked about how much they did or didn't choose to explain in the film, and how much fun it is to try to imagine the backstories to some of the things we see onscreen that aren't over-explained. That's a big sin that can happen when studios give too many notes on something. I mentioned that I liked that there's no major explanation of the crazy dinosaur guards we see working for Eddie Redmayne, and Lana stopped me.

“There's a tiny line,” she said, smiling.

Andy nodded. “There is a tiny explanation.”

Lana added, “It's Stinger who explains it.”

I laughed and said I'd need to go back now to see the explanation.

“But isn't that the experience we love in something like 'Star Wars'?” Lana asked.

“You refer to things in passing,” Andy said.

“Where did Wookies come from? No one knows? It's okay.”

I asked if that's something they have to struggle to get right when they're working for a studio. “One of the things about us and our process is that a lot of this stuff, we know the answer to,” Andy said. “Sometimes we tell them that. 'Don't worry, we've got a cool backstory about where this came from.' But it's because we overwrite our scripts. Our scripts are always, you know, boiled down super intense versions of the original manuscript. 'Jupiter' was over 200 pages originally. So, like, a lot of that backstory is because it's there and then it's taken away. And so our performer is able to say, 'Well, what's my backstory here? What is the situation? Oh, it's like this. Got it. This comes from there.' They're able to imbue their performance with the ideas from that backstory. I think a lot of times, audiences can intuit that there's something there and that they're in good hands. That we're not just fucking making it up as we go along.”

I mentioned how much I always enjoyed the line in “Matrix Reloaded” where there's a reference to vampires and werewolves as glitches in the fabric of the Matrix, and how it's in passing, almost thrown away. I like how that lays something out that as a fan I can think about, but that isn't part of this particular story.

“It creates depth,” Andy said. “It's the difference between 'Jupiter' and some other science fiction films where it”s just like you see a whole city made out of the exact same material, the exact same architecture. I don”t think people are interested in filling in all of those details because it”s not easy. They tend to lean on this sort of shorthand, like design has become… it's all a case of quoting other things, like they do in dialogue. They aren't even short cuts. It's just repeating. Spaceships look like this. It's boring. We like all of that. I mean, if you're going to imagine an entire infrastructure, there is a torturous joy to it. How do you travel? What are the streets like? We enjoy coming up with those solutions. There's a pleasure to going from the traffic of Neo Seoul to the traffic of Chicago or the traffic inside these spaceships. There's an art to it, to coming up with something new, but something that makes sense.”

I asked them how they even began to communicate to Eddie Redmayne where they wanted him to pitch his performance, which is pitched at this huge broad gigantic intensity level. “We had a really good time with him,” Lana laughed.

Andy laughed as well. “That's safe to say.”

“We started our first day with Eddie ahead of schedule, and by the end of the day, we were a half-day behind. And when our UPM had to fill out the report, he filled in the place where it says 'Reason for falling behind schedule.' And he wrote, 'The directors have fallen in love with Eddie Redmayne.'”

“Acting is a hard job. It is hard. Really hard. Actors give so much of themselves to you. There's this thing that happens, playing back and forth with us.”

“We had auditioned Eddie for a lot of things, and this was finally the right one. This fit. And he's so good. He understood that this guy was defined by these choices he made. How many people would be willing to preserve this way of life and would be willing to murder their own mother? And Eddie does it with such poise. He understands that relationship. Eddie had so many great ideas for how to play this.”

Andy said, “Plus the age thing, he did that right. Because that is something that we had a hard time getting our heads around. What that would do, what would happen with that amount of time for a personality to develop. We are such radically different people every ten or fifteen years. Now imagine hundreds of those cycles, and what that would do to a personality.”

“Eddie had a way of playing things with these big dynamics and scaring the shit out of people. We had to do several takes on some of those moments because nobody knew when he'd do it. There's a few of those in the film, where you can see people are scared shitless.”

“There's one in the movie of his secretary, where she's next to him, and she does it, as a robot, and it's so funny,” Andy said, laughing at the thought of it.

I asked about the casting of Sean Bean, which is basically an automatic spoiler at this point because of how often he dies in movies, and whether or not they were aware of it and either playing into it or playing against it.

Andy laughed. “We like screwing with your expectations. We were aware of it each and every time Stinger comes back in the film. We were determined to put him on top of the Sears Tower at the end just to play with people.”

By the time we sat down, it was already apparent to me that there were people who really disliked the film, and other people who really liked it. I asked them if they were ever going to have to make something more down-the-middle franchise-minded for Warner, like a return to “The Matrix” or one of the DC films, if something original like “Jupiter Ascending” doesn't work with audiences.

Basically, I asked them how long they can make giant-canvass action films that aren't based on other source material without making a giant hit.

Andy started laughing again as he looked at Lana. “Okay, so here we go. Drew's giving you the question. I should have known he'd tee this up for you.”

“I have a theory about this,” Lana began. “Because there was a time when Hollywood was making the films that we love. 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' and 'Star Wars' and, yeah, even 'The Matrix' were all original properties, things that were created for the screen. And what do all of those films have in common?”

I ran through four or five guesses, and Lana kept shaking her head. Finally, I shrugged. “I don't know. What do those films all have in common?”

“They were released before 9/11,” Lana said. “And do you know how many big giant original films we have had that have worked since 9/11?”

“None?”

“One,” Lana said. “And that one is 'Avatar.'” I considered the point for a moment before admitting that I would never have come up with that explanation on my own. “There's a reason for it,” Lana continued. “Can you guess what that is?”

I considered it for even longer this time and then it hit me. “Safety. People want safety.”

“Yes,” Lana said, delighted and on a roll now. “I mean, prior to that day, it was still possible to get something like 'The Matrix' made. But now… it”s all familiarity before innovation.”

Andy grumbled, “We work in an industry of reductionists. Right now, it's all about taking our stories and reducing them to the simplest ideas.”

Lana pointed out, “When you're watching an original story, anything can happen. Neo can die. Indiana Jones can die. Luke Skywalker can die. There's a tension that comes with original storytelling.”

I told them that's a major problem right now, especially when you're watching prequels.

“I don't like Superman,” Lana said. “Superman is very simple, and he's a product, like Coca-Cola. You know, the Coca-Cola Bottling Company is never going to kill Coca-Cola. And that's the same thing with Superman. Our relationship to him as a culture is unchanging.”

“Sequels weren't cool,” Andy said. “There was a time when that was true.”

“Even Roger Ebert used to say 'I'll never love a sequel more than the original.' And now it's like we've decided we prefer everything to be a sequel or something that already exists.”

I talked about how people watch some of these adaptations like they have a checklist of things they need to see, and how much that robs these films of any sense of joy or surprise.

“I'm telling you, it's because after 9/11, people wanted the safety of the familiar.” Lana was extra-animated as she explained. “The last thing they want is to be challenged or shaken up by entertainment. In that way, we're grateful to Warner Bros. for allowing us to continue making things that come from us, and making them our way.”

“I'm nothing but optimistic,” Andy continued. “This business is fickle and it goes through changes and trends and right now, the trend is for these types of movies and for safety. But, you know, you can only watch so much porn before you get bored by it. We might not outlast this cycle, and it might not be us telling the original stories, but someone will.”

“What I find depressing is that these movies aren't about story at all now.”

“It's all about the set piece. The tissue doesn't matter at all as long as you get to the set pieces.”

“The mechanics of the story are meaningless. 'Here's a demon from outer space.' Why? Who cares? Whatever. It's all about getting from this thing to the next thing. How do we get to the big stuff? The last time pop culture was this safe and this bland was the '50s, under McCarthyism, and that's how this feels. We retreat from fear, and we crave the dull.”

We talked a little bit about how “Speed Racer” played a key role in my oldest son's development as a film lover, and how he goes back to the film at least three or four times a year. When he saw it in the theater, it was pure sensory overload, and I doubt he tracked much of the storytelling going on. But as he returns to it over and over, what he talks to me about is the way points are made, the way story is packed in, dense and visual. I think it's actually trained him to read films, and I think it's probably doing the same with any young viewers who are growing up with it.

I also mentioned how I've seen the score to “Cloud Atlas” start to become very important to people, and how powerful it seems to be as a stand-alone piece of work, independent from the film itself.

One of the things I found fascinating about “Atlas” was that they wrote the score before they started shooting, and then shot the film to the music, playing it on-set for themselves and for the actors. “We did the same thing on this one,” Lana said, which surprised me.

“Yeah, Michael Giacchino wrote it before we began,” Andy said. “Michael said it's his wildest, best score because there were no preconceived ideas put on him. We would just say, 'Give us a chase. And there should be flying dinosaurs in it.'”

“Or we would write him a paragraph about the nature of love and ask him to write something that was a response to that. And that ended up becoming one of the main themes.”

By this point, the fine folks from Warner Bros. were pacing at the edge of the room, ready to strangle for me for having spent this much time on what was supposed to be a twenty-minute slot. I started to get ready to leave, and Lana told me she was curious about my reaction to one of 2014's films, “Birdman.”

I told her that, removed from everything else, it managed to capture the feeling of working on live theater better than any film I've ever seen, and that the masterful technical control of the film was a big part of perfectly conveying that horrifying momentum that builds as you're trying to pull something off.

“No one in the media seems to be writing about how important so much of the filmmaking itself is. There's that amazing burst of sort of big-budget mayhem towards the end, and people don't really appreciate that you don't just do something, especially in a film this thoughtful, just because it looks cool. The reason you would spend money on it is what happens just after that scene. The moment you see him take flight. And then beyond that, so that you see something when you're looking at her looking at him. You see her look down. Now he's heading down. He's got to go all the way down. But then she looks up, and as the camera movies this other way, I felt like 'He's doing it. He's really going for this ending.'”

“It feels like he's sitting there right next to you in the theater. I was like, 'Don't do it to me, man.'”

“The journey he goes through at the end of that film, and each of these steps he's going through are transformative. And it's all about eventually being fully present in a moment with his daughter in a way he never has been. But that's not the last moment. Innaritu's working in a political mode here, trying to pull cinema out of just being a collection of things we've already seen. He's saying, 'Fuck you!' and trying to pull you back. And when Keaton goes into this dressing room and we see that inside the human being, there's this bird, this corporate symbol. Is that what we are inside? I think he's saying that Batman is full of shit, and we all know in our hearts that this focus on superheroes is full of shit. And the way that film builds, the way he walks out the door and goes to the window and jumps… and his girl looks down, and those 48 frames where you stay down means one thing. And when you then go up, it's another. And what does it mean? That's why I hate the way most people write about cinema. No one wants to talk about what that means. He's saying that the power is not in the symbol. He's talking about our vulnerability as human beings, and the way we deny that with characters like Batman. It's the human beings that give art its transcendent meaning. We, as humans, we make art. We make things fly. And we can't invest all of those hopes and dreams and fears into someone's corporate symbol.”

When we first spoke at Toronto, we talked about some of the artists who inspire the Wachowskis actively these days, and Lana Wachowski spoke with great passion about the films of Roy Andersson. If you don't know his work, you're not alone. He's a wonderful filmmaker, and he makes films on a very particular pace, in a very particular way. “Songs From The Second Floor” and “You, The Living” are both remarkable, and I'm excited to see his latest film “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.”

“So when I went recently on a pilgrimage to meet Roy Andersson, he seemed surprised. He told me that in his whole career, only one other filmmaker has ever come to meet him. Can you guess who that was?” Lana asked, smiling.

Little wonder Innaritu's work speaks so loudly to the Wachowskis right now. Working in the mainstream and working in a personal mode are not always things that filmmakers can juggle, and that fight to produce things that they care about that still somehow fit into the commercial landscape as it exists right now is the fight they are constantly waging.

How well do they pull it off this time around? I weighed in on the movie earlier in the week, and you'll be able to see it yourself this weekend.

“Jupiter Ascending” opens everywhere on Friday.

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