Part one of a major interview with the Wachowskis – ‘Jupiter Ascending’ secrets

When you're at a film festival, it saps you, no matter how you arrange your schedule. There's just something about the pace and the sleep and, in the case of Sundance, the altitude, and it takes a toll.

There are very few people I would get out of bed early for on the morning after returning from Sundance, but when I got an e-mail from the good folks at Warner Bros asking if I would sit down with Lana and Andy Wachowski on the Friday morning that I got back, I told them without hesitation that I would happily be there.

We talked for a few minutes just to catch up personally before I started the formal part of the interview. I think the Wachowskis are genuinely charming people, something I learned during their publicity run for “Cloud Atlas.” I was able to spend some time chatting with them, and I thought they were as down to earth and open to conversation as any filmmakers I've met during the 19 years I've been doing this. The moment we started talking this time, it felt like just picking up the same conversation, which is the mark of a true film nerd in my experience. It's that kindred spirit thing that makes it such a powerful connector.

I started by sharing some thoughts on the film. My review went up last night, and I said much of that directly to them. I mentioned how it felt like they had found a YA novel, stripped it down to the bones, and then built their own thing on top of it. I talked about how Mila's character fits the archetype that is so popular right now, the girl who discovers her role in the larger world (or, in this case, universe), and how it still very much feels like them doing their thing.

I also mentioned the sequence in the film where Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is forced to file paperwork to establish her claim as the reincarnated personification of a dead queen, and it feels like the sort of wry comic bureaucratic nightmare that made “Brazil” so potent. As soon as I said that title, both of the Wachowskis started to smile like kids who just put a whoopee cushion on a chair. There's a mention of a “27-b-stroke-6,” a specific “Brazil” joke, and just as I started to laugh at that, Terry Gilliam turns around in a cameo, and I almost jumped out of my chair to start the wave.

Lana laughed at my reaction. “We loved what Terry did in 'Brazil.' The genius of that movie is understand that the bigger and more insane society is, the bigger the bureaucracy is.”

I laughed that they've made a giant scale space opera where there's an entire sequence dedicated to paperwork.

“Terry was absolutely lovely, too. He was so hilarious,” Andy said.

“We were just dying during everything he said,” Lana agreed.

“It was one of the best days on the film.”

The tone of that scene borders on the ridiculous, and I said to them that I love the way they skate right up to the edge with things, the way they flirt with the entire thing tipping over into the absurd, whether it's the look of Channing Tatum's make-up or the gravity boots he wears or the way the entire film boils down to an argument over the inheritance of land rights. I asked them how they collaborate, and whether they play checks and balances with one another or if they egg each other on to see how big things can get.

Andy was nodding before I even finished the question. “There are definitely tricky waters to navigate. We could very easily have ended up with John Candy from 'Spaceballs' or 'Teen Wolf.'”

“We love design, design, design. I mean, we have a lot of ideas for other stories, and we are always designing things to incorporate into them, and there's something about the way a story begins to intersect with the design that then is usually the motor that we use to get the whole thing going. They have to work together, and from the beginning on this, it was really interesting to see how we could do something totally different than 'The Matrix.' There's a funny joke in the third 'Matrix' that is very much about us where Neo comes out of limbo, and he's still dazed and everyone is like 'Oh, what do we do? What do we do? What do we do?'”

Andy continued, “And he's like, 'Give me a minute.'”

“That was every day of our lives on the trilogy. Every day was like, 'Oh, my god, what are we gonna do? What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?' And we were like, 'Neo should just tell everyone he needs some time.'”

“He didn't even have a line in the script. It was like we just came up with it and he was like, 'Guys, I think I should say something.' And we were like, 'You need time. Believe us. You need time.'”

Lana will pick up an idea from Andy and run with it in conversation. It's something you notice if you have time to really engage them. It's apparent how much they play off of each other, how they inspire a sort of acceleration of an idea when they both attack it. It's a shorthand that comes from a lifetime of sharing things that they read, watch, and otherwise ingest before creating their own work. “We talked about time being this resource, this commodity, and so that was the seed of the idea for us. We knew we wanted to tell a story about time. And then after “Cloud Atlas,” I was really thinking about it, loving the idea, and I noticed that when I came home from that experience, I had changed. Right after that, it was Thanksgiving, and we were watching 'The Wizard Of Oz,' which is obviously a major film that is sort of all through all of our work.  And I was suddenly struck by how unsatisfying it was that Dorothy really doesn't change as a result of her trip. And I saw “Jupiter,” which we were thinking about, as this chance to start Jupiter in a miserable place, and then to really see the journey change the way she sees that life she's living.”

“It changes her relationship to her own life,” Andy said.

“That was sort of where the story started evolving, and then simultaneously, we had seen a couple of science fiction movies… I won't name any of them, but we were dismayed at how boring the spaceships were. Why are spaceships always so ugly? In the history of human transportation, there have been so many instances of exquisite, gorgeous design.”

“We've always gone for both function and look, and there always has to be an element of that.”

“Always,” Lana agreed. “And in science fiction, there was this strange thing where utilitarianism has taken over everything. I was like, 'Yeah, let's bring all of this stye to it, and we had this image of an Egyptian litter, ornate and sleek, and we were like 'This is how Balem should arrive, in this gorgeous flying Egyptian litter.' And the idea was to see this alien architecture against the Chicago skyline, and a lot of the buildings in the city are so exquisite. Looking at it, you're like, 'Some guy sculpted this a mile off the ground.'”

Chicago plays a pretty major role in the film, a first for the Wachowskis, and I talked to them about how much I enjoyed seeing them destroy their hometown. I asked how much of the chase scene that is one of the highlights of the film was practical.

“That scene was a big challenge,” Lana said. “I mean, when we talk about design… that scene started as a huge idea in the beginning of development. 'Okay, we're finally going to shoot in Chicago, trying to do something new with action, and we want to make it look amazing. Because we always love incorporating emotional tones in a story into an action scene. We want to tell stories through action. I don't know if you watch Bollywood movies, but I love the way they use musical numbers as metaphors for the love story. The music is the vehicle by which they tell this love story, and for us, it's the action scenes. We realized early on that this is a film about two people falling in love, and so they are literally falling through this movie, constantly in danger from that fall.”

I laughed and said that it is very noticeable that this is a movie where action plays out in a vertical way. They use the height of cities and the space inside ships to make the action feel special.

“Love has a vertiginous quality,” Lana said, laughing. “Love feels like falling, and we thought that would be this movie, this ride. Then we began to think about how to tell that story in an aesthetic way. We love Chicago at this one particular time when the sun is about to break over the horizon, right at sun-up, and the light bounces off the sky and the lake and it turns the sky and the city this gorgeous rich hue. The city has this orange glow off all the glass and the El and it is just exquisitely beautiful. So we took John Toll to the top of the Sears Tower and we showed him the city at this time, and he was looking at his watch. 'Wow. Wow.' And it gets more and more beautiful. 'Wow. Oh, my god, it's amazing. Okay, what do you want to shoot here? A romantic scene? The kiss scene? What do you want to shoot?' 'The entire chase.' 'Oh. Oh, wow. Geez.'”

The palette of the film is very lush and unlike most science-fiction, and I said that was a surprise. Andy snorted. “It's so boring, science-fiction, so much of it.”

“We wanted to reflect our own aesthetic reality,” Lana said. “If you go to England and you see these modern buildings next to the British Museum, or you go and see the sights in Chicago, and you see this juxtaposition of different aesthetics… that's one of the ways we hit on to infuse the entire film with the concept of time. You have to see old and new right smack next to each other, and then you feel time. We also did that with these elemental juxtapositions of the very old and the very new, the distant history next to the distant future, with all of these signs that these ancient cultures are signs of how these powerful beings have reached down and steered us. They've got this young crop that they're growing that they have to support and they keep the species crop sort of going along and maybe they need a miracle or two to keep it all happening. And so suddenly you have these gods and goddesses in different cutlures.”

That's one of the biggest pieces of mythology offered up by the film, this idea that we are very young and we are not the center of the universe. We are made very small by the world imagined in this film, insignificant, and our entire history is rendered a footnote in something much bigger. I brought things back around to “Oz,” and the way I've always felt that the film makes one thematic error. At end of the film, Kansas should be shot in glorious color, to show that Dorothy is happy to be home, and that she no longer thinks that things are automatically better over the rainbow. The ride that Jupiter takes in this film and the place where she ends up struck me as a course correction for the “Oz” model.

Lana pointed out, “We're trying to make the two families here reflect each other, and to show the very different ways Jupiter lives. One is born with nothing, and the other has everything, has the whole universe. And they're both the same person, and there's this idea of the recurring commonality, and against that backdrop, time is the ultimate commodity. You have all this time, and you can make anything happen given enough time to do it, and so the question is how do you find happiness, whether you're rich or you're poor, and would our world be a better place if that kind of renewable life span were a reality?”

We talked about casting for the film, and what kind of a moment Channing Tatum's been having for the past few years. We also talked about Mila's real-life extended Russian family. I've met her parents at press junkets over the years, and I've seen her on location on films where she seemed totally unimpressed by the trappings of working in Hollywood. In some ways, Jupiter Jones feels like a role that was tailored to her.

“A lot of those qualities are what we responded to,” Lana said. “We wanted someone who wasn't just a girl dressed up like a guy. We were adamant that doesn't happen. We wanted to allow the woman to be the head, and we wanted her to be emotionally withholding. We wanted her to be hard boiled and tough and able to beat and kill and shoot and do everything a man can do, and yet still be inherently female. We wanted her to have certain skills…”

“Negotiating,” Andy clarified.

“And she's got a spunkiness, but she brings all of her female emotional equipment to this situation.”

Andy leaned in to make his point. “Women are getting sick of the roles where they are literally playing men. They tell us about these roles. 'This character is so one-dimensional. Oh, this is just like a man would be. To some extent, women are starved for roles and so they take them and they perform them well. I guess I'd rather see a woman performing that role as opposed to a man because that's all we get. But it's becoming more obvious that's what it is, and that it's not enough.”

When they came to Fantastic Fest with “Cloud Atlas,” we had a conversation about some of the ideas they were exploring for “Jupiter,” and Andy Wachowski told me about something that they were experimenting with that was “the new bullet time.” I asked him if that was the gravity boots chase scenes that are in this film.

“I think at that time, we were still… we had one other visual effects card up our sleeve that we couldn't afford. I mean, I guess we could have afforded it, but it would have made the film cost $270 million. But that visual effects concept was also centered around the human body and the motion of it. It was always based on live action moments performed impossibly. When that visual effects solution went away, we were like, 'Huh, okay, we are not going to be able to do that. So what can we do?' The idea remained that we still wanted to… like, we think CG artists are fantastic and there are a handful of them who can do anything. But you can't use only that handful to make your film because it would take, you know, five years to do all the shots. And CG, while it's fantastic and people are doing stuff that we've never seen before, we can still feel that there's a real lack of physics in it. And when you see a person hanging off a ledge where it's the real body, and it's the real background, and they're really doing it… if we think that it's real, there's something inside all of us that instinctually… our stomachs clench up when we see that. We know that it's real, and so we thought, 'Well, what if we flew these people hanging off of a truss from a helicopter through the city and flew them back and forth so we really feel the weight of their bodies going through these canyons of steel and glass… if we do that, it's going to be special. And so…”

“We had to build this unique rig, going back to the aesthetic decision to make this action very physical and kind of beautiful,” Lana added.

“It looked really aggressive. Like you definitely feel all the weight behind the motions you make.”

“On a number of these scenes, we dropped the both of them, and they were really falling. On one of her first days, we took Mila 85 feet up, and she was like, 'Wow, this is really high,'” Lana said, laughing. “She got on the mic and said, 'Um, hi, just want to point out this is really high.' And we designed this to be used by a helicopter, right? We had this rig that we wanted the stunt people to break apart and then be able to get back together. It was very dynamic. And it was very hard to get good at it. So we had to build this crazy unique rig, and then the F.A.A. wouldn't approve it because there's only a certain type of safety harness that they suggested. Then we had to go and…” Lana laughed again at the thought of what they did to get approved. “Talk about bureaucracy. We were trying to get this approved for a year, and they only approved it the week before we were set to start shooting. We're spending and designing and prepping and we're like, 'What does it mean if they say no? What?' Two years of planning and storyboarding and stunt rehearsals and stunt work… all of it hanging on this one bureaucratic moment…”

Based on their description of this helicopter rig, it sounded like their stuntmen were going to have to learn a whole new skill set to be able to do it well.

Lana agreed. “Nobody's ever done anything like it. The stunt people's parents were calling us to ask if they could be there to watch. And to add to the insanity of this, this period of time that we love, that we showed to John Toll, it's like the last six minutes of the sunrise in the morning, and we want to shoot the whole thing at that magic moment. So we did a shot or two a day every day for the whole summer. We got up at 3:00 in the morning…”

I realized what she was saying, realized she meant this entire chase was done two shots a day at a time, and that seemed crazy. I told them that was crazy.

“We would have to get up and get ready to shoot. We had PAs scrambling all over the streets because we can't have anyone underneath the streets that we're flying around. That was part of the deal. And this huge plan that took years to plan came down to this one bureaucratic person, like are they gonna stamp it yes or no? And once they do, we get up at three every day. We would do one or two set-ups in the helicopter with Mila and Channing, and that would be before we all went over to the main unit. Every single day.”

Tomorrow, I'll have more with the Wachowskis, talking about their new Netflix series “Sens8,” the current blockbuster culture in Hollywood, and the film that Lana Wachowski believes was the best of 2014.

See you back here then. “Jupiter Ascending” is in theaters on Friday.