Wachowskis, Tom Tykwer on 'Cloud Atlas,' 'Matrix' Sequels, and Out-of-Line Journalists (Q&A)
In a 40-minute interview with THR, the reclusive siblings and their co-director talk about their lives, careers, and making "the most expensive indie of all time."
Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Hollywood's biggest recluses this side of Greta Garbo and Deanna Durbin, the notoriously reclusive Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski. Indeed, for about 40 minutes in a hotel room in New York City, I was flanked by the Wachowskis -- who were widely known as the "Wachowski brothers" prior to Lana's recent sex-change, before which she went by Larry, and who recently joke that they want to be known as "Wachowski Starship" henceforth -- along with Tom Tykwer, their co-director on the soon-to-be-released film Cloud Atlas. And it was no less exciting, interesting, or out-there than I imagined it would be.
Cloud Atlas, an epic sci-fi drama, is every bit as much of a head-trip as the film that made the Wachowskis famous 13 years ago, The Matrix. It is an adaptation of David Mitchell's acclaimed 500-page tome of the same title -- a meditation on karma, past lives, and freedom that jumps across the centuries (past, present and Twilight Zone-ish future) and genres (drama, comedy, sci-fi and everything in between) -- that even Mitchell himself thought was unadaptable. Indeed, it was only after years of relentless efforts that the filmmakers were able to figure out a way of effectively transferring the stories onto the big screen -- namely, having the same actors portray multiple characters, in different eras -- and to raise the funds necessary to make the film that they wanted to make.
In the end, Cloud Atlas was made on a budget of more than $100 million, a portion of which was furnished by Warner Bros., but most of which was raised independently, which has led some to call it "the most expensive indie film of all time." The film premiered at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where it received a lengthy standing ovation , but questions remain about whether typical moviegoers, who are now more than ever accustomed to dumbed-down shlock and sequels and remakes thereof, will get in line to see a complex, rather mystical film about the meaning of life when the film hits theaters nationwide on Oct. 26.
Now, as its release date nears, the filmmakers clearly feel immense pressure to do everything in their power to generate attention for and interest in their project so that their investors will make back their money and people will see the project into which they invested more passion than any other. Consequently, despite their career-long dread of journalists -- they actually had it written into their contract to make The Matrix films that they wouldn't have to grant any interviews to promote it -- they are now finally meeting the press -- or at least some of it. "We’re only talking to a handful of people," Andy told me. Lana added, "Congratulations, you got in!"
Over the course of our conversation -- the audio of which you can hear at the top of this post (Tom has the German accent, Andy is the baritone, and Lana speaks a bit squeakily) and the transcript of which you can read below -- I felt like I got a real sense of the close relationship that exists between not only these siblings (who finish each other's sentences and are fiercely protective of one another), but between the entire trio ("We kind of had a love at first sight experience with each other," Tykwer says), which they see as preordained: Tykwer and Lana Wachowski were born less than a month apart, and Tykwer and the Wachowskis' breakout films, Run Lola Run and The Matrix, were released in the U.S. within just weeks of each other. As Lana puts it, it's all "very Cloud Atlas-y."
Much of our discussion was devoted to the filmmakers' passion for Mitchell's book, their tremendous desire to do right by him, and the standards by which they will measure the success of their joint-venture. But no subject was off limits, and all three subjects were unexpectedly forthcoming. Lana volunteers that she was beaten up every day when coming home from school; Lana and Andy reveal that their youthful aspiration was to make a Roger Corman movie, discuss why they would have felt heartbroken if they had not been able to make the sequels to The Matrix, and explain the roots of their aversion to doing press (and why they are now doing some anyway); and, of other journalists' questions about Lana's recent sex-change, Andy bluntly acknowledges, "I’m ready to break a bottle over somebody’s head if they ask the wrong question."
Read on for more.
The Hollywood Reporter: Thank you again for fitting me in.
Andy Wachowski: Thanks for being here.
THR: My pleasure. I saw Cloud Atlas at the Toronto premiere, where all you guys were, so it was great.
Tom Tykwer: Oh really? That was nice.
Lana Wachowski: It was beautiful, yeah.
THR: Yeah, totally. But, before we delve into that, I just wanted to begin by asking if you guys went to the movies as kids, and if you did, if there were any films or filmmakers that were particular favorites or influences for each of you?
Tykwer: Well, when we met, the first time we met—well, we kind of had a love at first sight experience with each other. [laughs] It was probably because we had, we felt, I mean, we’re really kind of the same age—like, I mean, we’re like, just four weeks apart—so really we feel like one generation, in terms of culture and influences. And yet, interestingly enough, I’m European, they’re Americans. And, it was quite overwhelming how close it all felt, in terms of what made us become who we are, and why we do what we do, and, in particular, of course, influences, in terms of the films that we loved. You know, it’s probably in that first meeting the root of what we’ve ultimately done, because we were so excited about that agreement, about what cinema can be, and about something we want to preserve for people who love cinema in a way that cinema should not resemble television too much in terms of visuals—and, at the same time, in the last years television has grown so well into being so brilliantly written and deserving so much attention because it’s really become amazing. And yet, of course, we all became filmmakers because of big, wide— What’s the word that we use?
A. Wachowski: Epic.
Tykwer: Epic, large-canvas, spectacular movies that you could not bring to any television no matter how big it is because it would always have a deficiency. We love the fact that films could do that, and, at the same time, be inspiring, and complex, and actually artistic, reaching artistically far. So, when you bring it down to these films, the list is not that huge, you know? There’s some names that stand out, obviously.
L. Wachowski: When we first had our first dinner we were like, “Oh, God, you know?” You go on a date, and you just fall in love, and you can talk all night, and the restaurant was closing up, and the waiters were all there. But the range of love for—I mean, the breadth of the love for—cinema was very near. It’s like, we could watch Conan the Barbarian and love it, and then the next week we could go watch Jules and Jim and I would be, like, sobbing.
Tykwer: On the same day!
L. Wachowski: We went to see this triple-feature once of—
A. Wachowski: When we were—this is when we were very young. Our mom and dad would— They’d take us to movies all the time, and you instantly knew that you were seeing movies that none of your other friends were watching because they just gave us this language. The triple-feature was—
L. Wachowski: Where’s Papa?—
A. Wachowski: The King of Hearts and Harold and Maude.
THR: [laughs] That’s great…
L. Wachowski: And you’d go watch the movie, and you’d be like— You know, you’re a kid, and your mind is like, “Oh, my.” And then we’d go to this amazing breakfast place with incredible skillet eggs and then our dad would go, “Okay, what did you think?” And then you’d have to talk about the movie. And then you’d go to the next movie, and then you would get lunch and you’d talk about that movie. And then you’d go to dinner, and you’d talk about the last one.
THR: As someone who also has siblings, I know I didn’t always get along with mine. I’m curious, did you two always get along, or was it only later in life that you sort of meshed?
A. Wachowski: No, we always got along. I think it was just that our familial unit was very strong; it came from our mom and dad’s. And we also had this bonding because of the neighborhood in Chicago where we lived. We lived in a white Southside Irish neighborhood that was sort of, you know, upper middle class, or middle- to upper-middle class. And, they didn’t like us because we were Polish, and we went to the public schools and—
L. Wachowski: We were in the lower-income bracket.
A. Wachowski: We were in the lower-income bracket as well. [laughs] And so our family sort of came together a little bit more, and it sort of bonded us, and we had to stick up for each other.
L. Wachowski: I’d get beat up every day coming home from school.
A. Wachowski: Yeah.
L. Wachowski: Yeah.
A. Wachowski: And so, we played together.
THR: Did each of your decisions to pursue filmmaking come out of a desire to control the outcome of things, or for escapism, or something else? What was at the root of each of your decisions? And did you two [Andy and Lana] make that decision together, or arrive at it separately?
A. Wachowski: Of course, there’s always a big genesis to that development. You know, you can’t really say the reason I wanted to become a filmmaker was much more— It was not very reflexive. It was more like an instinctive urge towards a certain—to this idea of this immersive way or narration and storytelling; of course, I mean, it’s attractive to every child or young person. And then, discovering there’s jobs behind there? That’s always kind of fascinating because, of course, for quite a long time, you know, you don’t really differentiate between that world and this box. It seems to be, like, there, and so my big discovering movie was the original King Kong, when I was probably 12 or 11. I think I was maximum 11. You realize something’s manufactured here, even though it was so overwhelming, that movie. It was really— It was, like, one of the big, big movie experiences for me. I knew it was manufactured and I do remember that it stayed with me. And an important aspect: I do remember that the fact that I could see that it was manufactured was not distracting, and it was actually adding to the pleasure—it was adding to the pleasure to always be part of the narrative and somehow simultaneously reflecting about the way how it was made. So, I mean, that was my first structural reference point, probably, which has stayed with me forever as an idea about art that I enjoy. I love art—and particularly cinema art—that gives me both those balls to juggle, meaning I enjoy very much that movies invite me on aesthetic journeys that I’m experiencing and learning about a way of telling a story; and then I still don’t want to lose the idea of getting lost in a story and being really taken by it and making an emotional experience, which is impossible without immersion.
L. Wachowski: There’s something interesting about the ability to conceive of the mechanical, or the making of something underneath it that you— What he was describing— Every artist, I think, goes through this moment of relating to the process in some ways. Kubrick has a funny line: when he was developing and thinking about becoming a filmmaker, he went to see—it was a pretty bad movie; I’m just drawing a blank—and he was like, “I could do better than that.” Right? Because it would require the kind of ego to insert yourself into the mechanical process. I remember very strongly watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the moment comes where he sticks the staff into the pinhole, and the camera pans from the medallion down—
A. Wachowski: From the medallion on top of the staff. And there’s Harrison Ford looking grizzled—
L. Wachowski: And there is Harrison Ford. And the moment that he does this tilt down, I’m suddenly freaking out because, in my head, I remembered that the translation of whatever the—
A. Wachowski: The bad guy, the Nazi guy, had—
L. Wachowski: When it goes to the old man, the old man says, [assumes German accent] “It is essentially 177 kadans,” [reassumes normal accent] or whatever the thing is. And the other guy goes, “Approximately six feet.” And he says, [assumes German accent] “But, you take back some—”
A. Wachowski: Because the Nazi only had one side of it, and he flips over the medallion, and he says, [assumes German accent] “Oh, but you take away seven kadans!”
L. Wachowski: [assumes German accent] “Ten kadans” or whatever it is. [reassumes normal accent] And you realize, “Ah, that means that the staff is less than six feet, which means that, with this tilt down, Harrison Ford is about a foot-and-a-half shorter than the top of the staff, which means that Harrison Ford is actually three-and-a-half feet tall!” [laughs]