The Wachowski siblings (formerly brothers) seek the meaning of life in Cloud Atlas
The Wachowski siblings (formerly The Wachowski brothers) Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) were the creative minds behind the Matrix Trilogy (2000-2003), one of the most imaginative and influential film series in Hollywood history, yet they had to fight for every penny for 3 frustrating years in order to secure finance for their latest movie Cloud Atlas, which they have co-written and co-directed with German filmmaker, Tom Tykwer, with whom they connected when his movie Run Lola Run came out the same time as The Matrix 12 years ago.
“There was a heartbreak and a tragedy and obstacleness to the making of this movie that seemed to challenge you all the way, right up to the place where you just did not think you could possibly keep going. And then some teeny-weeny little itty bitty miracle would happen. And we’d be like ‘We must go on!’” says soft-spoken Lana, sitting between Tykwer and her brother Andy who interjects with a gruff voice, sounding like a commander in a battlefield “On your feet! On your feet!”
Lana proceeded to describe how a Warner deal, which had been hatched in the early stages of financing, collapsed just when they pulled in front of Tom Hanks’s house, where they arrived to convince the superstar to join their project for very little pay. “And I’m like shaking and asking them ‘Are you saying that the movie is dead?’ and they’re like ‘Yes the movie is dead,’” Lana sighs, leaning over her brother, who adds sternly “Cut to Tom Hanks coming down the stairs with a cup of coffee in his hand, waving and smiling: ‘Hi.’”
“Hi, welcome to our sinking ship,” Lana quips. Nonetheless, the siblings and Tykwer, mustered on and followed Hanks into his living room, where they were relieved to see a poster of Kubrick’s 2001 hanging on the wall and Moby Dick copy sitting on his coffee table. “2001 is one of the movies that made us to want to make films and Moby Dick is one of the novels that we read over and over. This is clearly a sign,” Lana enthuses.
They were right. By the end of the meeting, Hanks excitedly expressed his interest in making the movie and his eagerness to start as soon as possible.
Hanks’s enthusiastic response put the directors’ broken hearts back together. “The movie is dead but somehow it’s alive and we’re going to make it. I don’t know how, but we’re somehow going to make it,” Lana asserts humorously as her fist land on the table.
But even after recruiting Hanks and other major stars such as Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving and Jim Broadbent, the stream of money didn’t flow in. Relentless, the filmmakers invested their own money and to went begging for more from individuals in Asia, Europe, the US. “A multitude of drops made this movie,” Lana quips, quoting a line from the movie.
Eventually, Warners came back and lent their support, but that didn’t stop new problems from emerging in different pernicious forms. During the shoot, some of the investors changed their minds and demanded their money back. “We go like ‘What do you mean? We’re shooting! We have a deal.’ ‘Well, go sue us!’” Lana giggles, grabbing her brother’s arm.
Then three days into the shoot, Halle Berry broke her foot, prompting the insurance company to demand a replacement for her. But the Wachowskis were adamant about keeping her on board. “We literally had no one. We wrote the script with Halle Berry in mind,” Lana exclaims.
And Halle Berry was so keen on partaking in Cloud Atlas, that she quivered and broke down in tears when the directors visited her in her house, thinking that they were going to fire her. “There must be a way,” Lana comforted her.
“The blood went out of our heads and you know we just somehow were able to carry on,” Andy says, triumphantly.
So what is this movie that has ignited so much passion and resolve in the hearts of such big stars that they were willing to endure hardship and battle insurmountable challenges for very little pay?
Based on the celebrated best-selling novel by David Mitchell, Could Atlas is 6 stories spanning 6 locations and 500 years from 1849 to 2346 threaded together into one story by its characters, who are born and reborn in different countries, meet and reunite from one life to the next. The consequences of their actions and choices impact one another through the past, the present and the distant future.
The book is imbued with such profound secular and spiritual philosophy about the the meaning of life and metaphysical ideas about generational connectivity that The Wachowskis, who had explored similar themes in The Matrix, found it irresistible. “Our work has always been about this,” Lana asserts. “We ask the audience to engage and think about their lives and we don’t try to limit and say ‘This is the way the world is, this is the spiritual truth of the reality of the world or this is the secular atheist, epicurean truth of the world. We like art that offers an invitation to access these ideas and construct meaning in your life and find things that feel relevant.”
But inspite of the multitude of scientific and secular references in Cloud Atlas, its premise is clearly derived from religious and spiritual doctrines that advocates the idea of reincarnation, whereby we see characters re-entering life in new shapes and with different moral values.
“The most important part about it for us was always the idea of connectedness,” Lana says. “We’re all connected throughout, not only in our present life but throughout the ages because everything we do has consequences. So, in a way, we are the reincarnation of all those choices. So you can’t say that when you are dead, it’s not going to make a difference anymore. But it does. You can say it’s spiritual, but you can approach that whole idea with a secular perspective. It’s an invitation to that kind of thinking without an ideological twist to it.”
Fathered by a hardcore atheist and mothered by a Catholic turned Shamanist, the Wachowskis try to appeal to both sensibilities, “So mom and dad can feel proud,” Andy quips. Hence the blend of religious and secular ideas in their movies, as it was manifested in The Matrix trilogy, where they implanted a messiah figure as the voice of reason and shielding protector of humanity against the monstrous super intelligent machines.
“What we were trying to get at in the trilogy was that the inexplicable nature of the universe is in constant dialogue with our own consciousness and our consciousness actually affects the inexplicable nature of the universe. That’s a theme that runs throughout all of our work,” Lana explains.
This cause and effect theme that pervaded the Matrix trilogy is actually the basic tenet of Cloud Atlas, but translating it into the language of cinema was an arduous task. The filmmakers had to dissect the novel, which was narrated chronologically, and reassemble it so that the 6 stories progressed in parallel on the screen, while each actor inhabiting a different character in each epoch.
Faced by the enormous task of shooting 6 stories in different locations around the world with a relatively limited budget for such a grand-scale movie, The filmmakers contrived a dual-directing plan, cutting the shooting schedule by half. The Wachowski siblings worked on 3 segments, while Tykwer concentrated on the rest with his own German crew.
“We divided things up, but at the same time we were very often next door to each other,” Tykwer says. “We were very often on the phone or showing each other skype images.”
“This movie was made on the back of Skype,” Lana chimes in. “We would have our iPads and constantly showing what side of the line are you on? Are you over here? It was like the writing.”
Actors in the meantime had to trot between different units and be subjected to hours of make-up procedures that rendered them completely unrecognisable, even to themselves. Yet, in spite of hardship, Tom Hanks, who played 6 characters, described his experience on Cloud Atlas as “the joy of being an actor.”
It took the Wachowski siblings and Tykwer four years to bring this project to fruition, which resulted in a 3 hour epic that crosses different genres from drama to science fiction. But in spite of the travails of marching down such a thorny path to reach this goal, the filmmakers say that it was the best fun they have ever had.
Upon completing the project, the Wachowski siblings, who had refrained from appearing publicly during their career, avoiding premieres and screenings of their movies, were dreaded by the spectre of facing the world to promote their new masterpiece.
“Anonymity is a very precious and beautiful commodity in your life because it allows you to access a way of being in the world, a way of being with other people that you can’t access, that’s denied to you if you are not anonymous,” says 47-year-old Lana.
There are more profound reasons for the siblings’ reluctance to show up in public. “I resent the fact that not only do I have to write the movie and make it and cut it, I’ve got to explain it?” 44-year-old Andy complains, as he bangs the table laughing. “Film is a social art form. It’s a statement to us to not take a ‘film by’ credit because we feel it discredits everybody who works on the movie.”
Nonetheless, inspired by their new partner Tykwer and the novelist Mitchell, who relish speaking in public, the siblings eventually came to terms with the need to engage with people, who are trying to understand their art.
Lana, who only recently has completed her transformation from a man, Larry, to a woman, was also asked by the GBLT to go public to alleviate the fear and suspicion that society holds against transgenders, which she thought was a worthy cause. “I did feel responsibility to be more public and maybe try to dispel some of the fears that people have around people like me,” says Lana, who looks and sounds convincingly a woman, with dyed pink hair styled in small dreadlocks and a feminine soft voice.
Feeling like a girl trapped in a boy’s body from a young age, Lana embarked on changing her sex in 2002 after falling in love with dominatrix Ilsa Strix. In 2003, she divorced her college sweetheart Thea Bloom, and later married Strix.
Speaking to the Wachowski siblings is a fascinating experience. The profoundity and depth of their thinking, the felicity of their expression and the gregariousness of their personalities is a true reflection of the thematic complexity and magical nature of their movies. It’s evident that Lana, who has successfully shed all manly manners, is the intellectual mind in the duo and Andy, who occasionally bursts with terse statement coloured with dry humour, seems to agree with everything she says.