This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.
If there’s one memorable takeaway this awards season, it’s the day when directors Andy and Lana Wachowski came to town. During the height of their success with The Matrix franchise, which propelled the entire scifi genre beyond its Star Wars standards, rumors abounded about the siblings’ private lives, in particular Lana’s. But the Chicago natives arrived in Hollywood last month, ready to hug us with their new $100-million-plus epic Cloud Atlas, tri-directed with their new BFF, German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run). And the press hugged back: Lana boldly discussed her decision to become transgendered, while bloggers delighted in unpretentious conversations with the trio.
An adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 labyrinthine novel, Cloud Atlas follows the power of karma throughout various souls and eras, from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future. While the trio assembled an all-star cast that includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Hugh Grant, the major studios and indie financiers balked at the risky project, which employed a plethora of production crews throughout Germany, San Francisco, Scotland, and Majorca. But the Wachowskis and Tykwer were vying for something more than just a tentpole. Cloud Atlas wasn’t about the boxoffice, evident in the film’s $20 million domestic tickets sales over two weeks, rather it was about defying conventions, particularly by having its cast simultaneously wear several wigs (Hugo Weaving portrays a beefy female nurse and a leprechaun-like devil in two tales) and play against racial type (James D’Arcy plays a Korean man). Much like their celluloid forefathers Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now), and Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate), who were labeled crazy at the time with their epics and are now lauded as geniuses, the trio was set on blowing up the big-screen canvas with Cloud Atlas. Time will be on Cloud Atlas’ side, and the film has potential crafts awards this season, too. But this is the first time—and probably last—that three directors have banded together to mount a breathless epic. After all, the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change cinema are the ones who do.
AWARDSLINE: After Natalie Portman referred the book to you during V for Vendetta, was there any kind of bidding war? Or were your agents like, “Oh, no don’t option that!”
ANDY WACHOWSKI: No. This was right before Speed Racer so we still had some pull with Warner Bros. Joel (Silver) swept in and bought the property for Warner Bros., and I think that somebody was trying to negotiate the price down at the time, and they came in and just paid full price, so there was no real bidding war. After we broke from Joel, it was more of our project, and he let us have it.
AWARDSLINE: How did David Mitchell’s novel affect you?
LANA WACHOWSKI: We were all enamored with the way that he managed to pay homage to these kinds of classical forms of literature, and yet he found a way to reinvent them with this post-modern, tricky gimmick of inserting the different genres and modes of literature into each other. And thus by doing that, he accomplished something new. He made something that was original in feeling while still infusing it with this love of a more traditional, classical approach to literature. So we were left with something that we tried to do in all of our work. We tried to remain connected to a traditional norm and remain connected to the things that inspired us when we were young and have an amateur’s love of these classical forms. Yet (we) don’t embrace them in a nostalgic re-creation, but inhabit them with a pure form of nostalgia. The book had done that, and we were excited instantly about a way we could potentially do that with cinema.
AWARDSLINE: You had no choice but to finance Cloud Atlas independently. Do you still believe in the studio system?
ANDY: It’s complicated. We couldn’t have made the first Matrix unless it had been under the umbrella of the studio system. And the studio system, it’s not like it’s this rigid structure that doesn’t change. The studio system’s philosophies change. The way they make films change. When we were first getting into the business, the studio system was all about (getting) stars. They didn’t even care what the movie was. You just had to say who was in it, which The Player illustrated so eloquently: “Bruce Willis! Julia Roberts!” Since then, the studio has turned more toward spectacle and CG, and that’s not to say that the independent world is much different. There were a lot of independent distributors that we took Cloud Atlas to that rejected it, for example Summit. And Summit was one of the companies that were originally in on Bound, and we had a really good relationship with them, but now they’re tending to follow the studio model, which is more about what the product is. They have the Twilight movies, and they were trying to get a disaster film, Pompeii, made. So, it’s not an easy question to answer because the system is always in flux.
LANA: We acknowledge that structures are channeled toward the commodification of our art form to the point that it is only product, and the only point of making cinema is to create product that can have some financial return. The moment that starts to happen, whoever is thinking about this only as a means of financial gain, that is where the pathology resides. Long before there were the studios, human beings were trying to tell stories and communicate to each other through words and pictures, (and) once the studio systems are long dead, independent financiers are long gone, human beings will still be communicating with each other in words and pictures. The intent to share a perspective, through words and pictures, or the chance to offer someone else the chance to leave their perspective behind and look at the world in fresh new eyes, that’s why we do what we do, and that’s what ultimately will live on. There were tons of movies that made a lot of money and were utterly and completely forgotten. Likewise, there were movies that didn’t make money that are still around and are still important and relevant.
ANDY: And the industry will reinvent itself when that happens.
AWARDSLINE: You mentioned the studios’ need to attach stars. David Chase in his latest film Not Fade Away, a completely different film on a smaller scale, wanted a fresh face main cast. But Cloud Atlas is the opposite. Was there basically the notion that you needed as many stars as you could get in order to get this film off the ground?
LANA: No, it was more about the approach to storytelling. We thought that if there were all fresh faces, that you would get lost and lose connectivity. Because the face, the fundamental upon which we built the plot, was the moral arc theme at the end of the book. Can we turn away from our predator hearts toward a more compassionate, kind direction? So we thought, OK, here’s this really dark character Dr. Henry Goose, and here’s this character Zachry (both of whom Tom Hanks plays), and could we see this sort of soul evolve over a period of time? And if you didn’t know the actor, then they were completely invisible. Audiences wouldn’t understand the connection. We really wanted the two central actors, Halle Berry and Tom Hanks, to help the audience feel secure. Our structure was so experimental that we knew we needed something that was an island of stability.
AWARDSLINE: Did you have to wait to secure all of your financing before you shot one frame?
TOM TYKWER: The first presentation at Cannes 2011 was completely disastrous. Luckily, there were some unexpected candidates, like Italy, that came in. But many of those financiers (that) we really needed to get didn’t come aboard, so our financing wasn’t complete.
ANDY: And we went to Cannes last May with the movie in hand to show to the foreign territories that we didn’t have, which included England and France among others, and they said no. So we—
LANA: —We couldn’t sell the movie.
ANDY: There was no offer.
AWARDSLINE: So Focus International is your sales agent. And Warner Bros. took North American rights for $25 million, but were they always in?
ANDY: They played footsyfor a little bit, until we basically got on our knees, begged them, and crapped our pants in front of them, you know, “Look into your heart!” [Editor’s note: John Turturro’s line from the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing]
AWARDSLINE: And by last fall you were shooting at least?
LANA: Yeah, like four days before we were supposed to start shooting and four days before the actors were supposed to get on a plane and fly over, a financier went bankrupt, and this big gap opened up. Then the bank called us, and said, “Look, we won’t post this loan unless you fill the gap.” We had lunch and we basically all decided to put our personal money, mortgage our house, fill that last bit of a gap.
ANDY: This was on top of us not taking our salary, so we were actually putting money into the movie without getting paid.
AWARDSLINE: So you’ve got your money, you’ve got Warner Bros.’ money, German money…
ANDY: Asian money, some Italian, some Russian, Korean, and also individual financiers.
AWARDSLINE: So what kept you going through this tumultuous preproduction?
ANDY: Everything. Our relationship, all those little components that would come in, the courage of the actors. We were buoyed by so many different things. One of us would always pick up the other two, sometimes it was the material itself—it was everything.
TYKWER: Sometimes, when we weren’t feeling OK, when we were beaten down so many times, we asked ourselves, Are we going to waste too much time of our life trying something that’s just impossible? Should we just take the latest job and take it easy? But, we all read the script and called each other, screaming with excitement, “We have to make this movie!” It was so obviously and so overwhelmingly Cloud Atlas.
LANA: It was this deep, profound love that we have for cinema and the experience that we had when we were little. We would go to watch large-scale movies that were about adult ideas, themes, ambiguities, and complexities. You already see a lot of this in everyday TV, and we’ve begun to move away from this experience in our culture where we make large-canvas adult movies. We loved them so much when we were younger, and we just wanted to make one last one. Maybe.