The journey to make Cloud Atlas took directors Tom Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachoswki four years from conception to filming, and a horrible struggle to get financing and distribution. Now that the picture’s here, it does a great honor to that work, as everyone is giving it their all. So much so that the reclusive Wachowskis sat down with the press for the first time in forever. That’s how much they believed in the project, and it was a pleasure to sit with them.
For the past 13 years, you guys didn’t do a lot of press. Now that you’ve been talking to the press for the last month, do you regret that decision?
Lana Wachowski: Our decision had nothing to do with the process of you good people.
Andy Wachowski: We don’t like talking about ourselves — that is very uncomfortable. That part of the process is uncomfortable for me.
LW: But, we felt during the first Matrix, you feel like it was the beginning of the collapse of your way to inhabit the world. You have – essentially – anonymity, which gives you access to a way to participate in civic space that when you lose that anonymity, you can no longer participate in that mode of being, it’s denied to you. We were not willing to give that up, that was too big of a price. With Warner Bros. we sat down and they said, “You have to do press.” And we said, “OK, we won’t make movies.” Then they said, “OK, maybe you don’t have to do press.” [Laughs]. Then, in the course of things, we changed our minds.
Do you enjoy de-mystifying the storytelling, especially something as multilayered as this film?
AW: We like to make our movie and have people talk about it. For me, you gotta write the movie. You gotta make the movie. You gotta edit the movie and now I have to sit down and explain it to you [laughs]. People who go to the movies nowadays say they just want to turn off. I don’t want to turn off. I want to turn on. I want to be stimulated and participate. I think that movie audiences have gotten a little flabby in terms of their critical thinking. That’s one of the reasons we aren’t interested in talking about our films. But this one was special to us – a labor of love – and we didn’t want to let it go out there without talking about it a little bit.
Tom Tykwer: I also think there is an audience that is like us. There is an audience that is undernourished and wants to be fed. They love to soak up and think and go to a dinner and have a full dinner just so you can talk about what you’ve just seen and then take it to bed and wake up in the morning, still thinking about it. That’s how we fell in love with cinema. We cannot be alone because we meet those people all the time. Our desire to have good movies and substance and complexity connected to movies that are designed for large canvases, spectacular experience, that’s gotten less and less. It’s hard to achieve. People only give you a certain amount of money unless there’s a superhero involved. You don’t get to a certain amount of money without a story targeted towards a teenaged superhero audience.
LW: Because we love and respect that kind of audience who is so interested in the types of movies we’re interested in, you also don’t want to delineate their experience by offering this instantaneous explanation of what the work of art is. You want them to have room. You want to invite to as wide of an interpretation as is available.
How did the funds come together for this?
TT: I could tell you, but when we’re done the interview would be over because the list is so long [laughs]. It’s a big group of people
LW: It’s huge!
TT: It’s a multitude of drops. We went to all the studios and they all passed repeatedly.
LW: With the cast in place.
TT: With us and lot of design ideas too. They were just stressed by the idea of this movie. We had to go back to Warner Bros. several times until they at least stepped in for domestic and we basically went to every continent and every country and we were passed over. France! France didn’t buy this movie.
AW: They didn’t buy the movie twice. Went to Cannes with the cast and with us and the script, they said no. We went the next year with the movie! We showed the movie and they passed. The UK passed!
LW: The UK passed with Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess…
AW: Based on a David Mitchell novel!
How do you fix that?
TT: You go to find crazy people who will invest in it anyway. They do exist. We are very grateful.
LW: You can look at it as a problem, but also see it as a movie that testifies to the possibility of impossibility of this scale, by its own existence.
TT: So, there’s a huge optimistic part of this with us sitting here actually promoting this movie. It’s encouraging. Also, a country that has struggled of late in terms of cinema, Italy, they came in right away. They read the script and boom, here’s our money. We have to find these drops all over the planet. Asia was really interested in it, China, and Germany… it was crazy some people were really into it.
International box office is such a big deal now. Does that help you in terms of this?
TT: It’s helping. The market has become broader. The possibilities that it could be commercial elsewhere, is helping.
The complexity of this, how much of this was already done in your head, Hitchcock-style, planning out every edit, and how much did you leave yourself, your cast and your crew to be creative in the moment? What was the balance?
AW: A good portion of it is done in the writing. There were things we could have put in concrete, but the script was 220 pages, so it would have been too heavy to carry around. Perfect edits, like going from the wave of water rushing over the lens in the transway chase to Louisa Ray awakening – that was solid. It was constant throughout, from writing, to shooting to editing, you’re always finding new ways how to the pieces could fit together. When you got to the editing room, it was surprising how flexible the material was because you had so many different things that could resonate against each other. Like going from Bill Smoke to the composer guy and suddenly the tone of the beat shifted slightly and became more dangerous. That was a discovery that happened.
LW: You try in the prep to basically to build a stage. All three of us think that actors are an underrated art form. We love working with actors. But we had this astonishing cast that was capable of so much and we wanted to make sure that we were prepared enough to not be rushed. So, we could let them explore and play and try a range and let them do some variations, that was the most important thing to us in the prep — that when we got to the day, we would have the time to let them play.
TT: You mentioned Hitchcock, there’s this myth that the film’s already shot in my head. We are not really like that. We believe in the entire process and we believe in the social-ness of it.
How does the concept of the book resonate with your own experiences? Have you ever thought you’ve lived in some other time?
LW: Well… [laughs], we actually think it’s interesting that the movie ended up reflecting our experience of making the movie. That was more profound than to think about past or future lives. There were ideas and challenges that were in the book that would suddenly materialize and be part of our lives. The movie suggests this idea that one person can come into your life and completely and utterly change the direction of your life. We love the idea that David Mitchell, like Adam Ewing on his boat off windswept island, somewhere scribbling this novel. And this novel goes out into the world and Natalie Portman is reading it and then I see it and grab it, then I give it to him (points to Andy) and then he gives it to him (to Tom).
AW: Like in the book Adam Ewing goes to Robert Frobisher and Frobisher writes these letters and those go to Louisa Ray – the book landed in our laps in similar fashion.
LW: It’s kind of like how we met Tom. It was almost like Louisa Ray and Tom Hanks opens the door and it’s “What are you doing here?” There was this instant, profound connection. We knew that this meeting was going to alter the course of our lives. Him coming through that door to this moment with us sitting here talking to you… is dramatically different from where you’d imagine we’d be if he hadn’t walked through the door. The book represents this multitude of drops and the transformational power of that everyone had to at the root of their motivation was love. Everyone loved the project and the only reason it existed was because of that love.
Was there any scenes that you worked on the most?
LW: We knew we had the final draft of the script when every single scene in it was all three of our favorite scenes.
TT: Because, if you know the book… there’s more. So we had to take a lot of choices in terms in what is needed with the narrative. And can we make it work that everything’s that needed is actually created out of our favorite moments [laughs]. It was a nice luxury, which is how it should be with every script you direct.
How long was it that you wanted to make the movie?
AW: Four years. We started the last Obama inauguration.
Was there ever consideration to presenting non-human life on earth and how this plays into the broader picture?
AW: A fly did land on the pillow in the Adam Ewing scene.
LW: In the way that Sonmi expresses that nature of our moral lives is in the consequences of our words and deeds. We wanted to underline that sub-textually by demonstrating the rising tides of the coast of Seoul. Old Seoul is completely submerged under water. That everything is bound. Our lives is not our own, it’s not just other lives that we’re bound to, it’s our environment, our world, other animals – beings and other life forms that inhabit in this planet. Our consequences ripple out and effect the ecological whole.
AW: Our makeup people were good, but not maybe that good.
Cloud Atlas opens October 26. Check it out.