OSCARS Q&A: Wachowskis And Tykwer

Anthony D’Alessandro is Managing Editor of AwardsLine.

If there’s one memorable takeaway this awards season, it’s the day directors Andy and Lana Wachowski came to town. During the height of their success with The Matrix franchise, which propelled the entire sci-fi 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 labyrinthine 2004 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 a mere tentpole. 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 with their epics and are now lauded as geniuses, the trio was set on blowing up the big-screen canvas with Cloud Atlas. Time likewise may be on Cloud Atlas’ side, and the film has potential for crafts awards, too. But this is the first time — and probably last — that three directors have banded together to mount a breathless epic.

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.

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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 changes. 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.

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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.

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AwardsLine: Did you have to wait to secure all of your financing before you shot one frame?
Andy: Yes.
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 footsy for 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?
Andy: Yes.
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.

  1. I am a huge fan of the Wachowski’s films, but the trailer for Cloud Atlas led me think that the movie was going to be some empty headed heavy handed emotionally manipulative sermon on spirituality. Plus it had Halle Berry in it and after her superhero roles I just did not want to see a movie with her in it. Cloud Atlas was going to be the first Wachowski’s film that I was going to skip. But it had Tom Hanks in it and I just couldn’t believe that he would make a false movie about spirituality, so, my wife and I went to see it opening day in the theater. A few days later… the trailer for the movie played on the tv and I almost started crying, because hearing the music brought back memories of how I felt watching the movie. The movie stayed with me for a long time and left me emotionally vulnerable. Especially two moments in the movie. The man running up the stairs and stopping when he hears a gunshot. That broke my heart. The moment when the narrator says that only someone who hasn’t been free truly understands freedom. Having been a foster child adopted into an incredibly abusive controlling home… hearing those words out loud ripped me open. So, when I heard the music playing a few days after the movie… it was like having something trigger memories of a trauma, except it was memories of healing. And finding out about Lana while reading this article… I have so much respect for the Wachowski’s for making this film. Which, by the way, completely reset my feelings about watching Halle Berry in films. And Hugh Grant for that matter. But, anyway, I haven’t been so affected by watching a movie since Good Will Hunting, which left me shaking in the theater and after which I went home and decided to go back to college and that eventually led to being a video game director. Stories have real power.

  2. Geniuses? Nobody lauds Cimino as a genius and neither are these clowns. They are talented filmmakers but far from genius caliber. And they no longer deserve big budgets. They should be limited to the 20 to 30 million price range from now on. Anyone who gives them 100 million is insane. Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas are proof these idiots don’t know what to do with such large amounts except to waste it. They made “Bound” for a very low budget. They have to be forced to be inventive without being wasteful.

  3. I admire the filmmakers and the risks taken, but no amount of post-mortem analysis and introspection can change the fact that Cloud Atlas is a BAD MOVIE — hammy and slight and laughably bewigged, waxing philosophical with the witless awe of a seventh-grader who just smoked his first joint and then noticed the stars.

    1. Another world-weary jaded cynic who’s just so impossibly bored by everything. Sorry, but I admire the idealism of this film. I know in 2012 it’s verboten to express real joy or enthusiasm without slathering it in snark and irony, but these three are obviously incredibly passionate about this story and I give them a lot of credit for opening themselves up to ridicule for making a $100 million movie not based on a toy franchise or a comic book and that isn’t just an endless CGI pageant of robots and monsters bludgeoning the audience into a stupor.

      1. It doesn’t take a jaded cynic to think Cloud Atlas is rubbish. The Jar Jar Binx dialect spoken by Tom Hanks and Halle Berry is the funniest thing I have seen in years. Tru-tru.

  4. “Time likewise may be on Cloud Atlas’ side,”

    Not in terms of the racist depiction of Asian characters, it won’t.

    1. So black women and asian women can play white women, men can play women, women can play men, but white and black men and women can’t play Asian?
      That’s some interesting logic you’ve just displayed, D.Z. In case you couldn’t tell from the fact that Keith Richard’s character had taken on asian characteristics but was still very much black, their point was that in the far flung future, centuries of interracial breeding has changed what the average Neo Seoul citizen looks like. You’ve never even seen the movie, have you? Of course you haven’t, so you have no idea what I’m talking about.

      1. Didn’t realize til the second viewing that Halle and Doona Bae had played other roles. Spotting Jim Broadbent in Korea and on the space ship was near impossible. This is another Blade Runner or Terminator, films that found their audience on DVD.
        And at three hours long very few movies can make a profit; you’re only able to have 3 showings a day versus your typical 4 or 5. Unless your Titanic or Avatar that three hour running time is gonna cost you screenings.

  5. All the naysayers need to go back to watching TRANSFORMERS, all of the other Michael Bay crap, and TWO AND A HALF MEN.

    CLOUD ATLAS is hands down the best film of the year.

  6. i agree with Gilbrooks: best movie of the year. It doesn’t even register on the same level as other films of the year, because it’s wholly different from anything, completely unique, and endlessly fascinating. But because of that, it’s divisive. You’ll have people focus on the Asian make-up or that it wasn’t philosophically profound for them. These cynics are missing the point. It is beyond what is literally happening each second it’s on the screen. It has to be taken as a cumulative whole… about structure, storytelling, politics, genre, etc. etc. etc. The movie is a 17-kitchen sink explosion. A glorious and messy one.

  7. I went into this movie with a heavy dose of skepticism – as I hated Matrix 2 and 3 and thought the Wachowskis might be insane after Speed racer. I walked out of the theater entertained, touched, and had the movie running through my mind for days. I truly loved it. Not only was it a bold experiment in storytelling – it’s an absolute triumph in editing and music composition. I don’t know how they did it, but the this movie flows …with 6 different stories to tell… yet still feels somewhat linear builds toward a climax(es)…it’s pretty amazing. I thought it would be an incomprehensible boring mess…but I was glued to the screen the entire time. The movie is amazing and memorable…and worth revisiting. Definitely purchasing it on Blu-Ray day 1.

  8. Cloud Atlas is the perfect embodiment of why I got into movies. It will be watched far longer than whatever wins Best Picture this year.

  9. Haven’t seen CLOUD ATLAS yet and I need to hurry since I’m not in NY/LA and it won’t be around long here.

    I know enough about CLOUD ATLAS nevertheless… this is just to say that all of the above comments are excellent and each and every one makes me want to see it more.

    Thanks.

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