Two items appeared nearly simultaneously in my feed today: the trailer for the upcoming movie "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" and an outstanding New Yorker profile of Andy and Lana Wachowski by Aleksandar Hemon. It was an interesting juxtaposition: a trailer for a movie so clearly
ripped off from inspired by the Wachowskis' "Matrix" aesthetic — most obviously in the shot of star Jeremy Renner's bullet-time-esque arrow-dodge — coupled with the story of how difficult it has been for the Wachowskis to make something new instead of just rehashing what they did in their incredibly lucrative trilogy.
That something new is their massive sci-fi epic "Cloud Atlas," co-directed with Tom Tykwer. Hemon, an award-winning novelist, met the notoriously press-shy Wachowskis while they were doing research for an as-yet unproduced project called "Cobalt Neural 9;" he got along well with the Wachowskis and eventually proposed the idea of a profile around "Cloud Atlas"'s lengthy development from the best-seller by David Mitchell. They agreed, and the result was this superb article.
Reading this 7,000-word monster, I kept thinking back to the Wachowskis' silence around the release of "The Matrix." Andy tells Hemon their refusal to participate in traditional publicity interviews stems from two things: "an aversion to celebrity (I like walking into a comics shop and nobody knowing who I am) and the fact that there’s something nicely egalitarian about anonymity." The Wachowskis' reticent nature had another (if unintentional) consequence: it gave the directors, who came out of relative obscurity to dazzle the film world with "The Matrix" after just a single prior directorial credit, a mystique that complemented their open-ended, audience-challenging vision. The fact that they produced such a striking film made them cool; their willingness to let it speak for itself made them even cooler.
Now the Wachowskis are nearly household names, at least amongst fans of ambitious science-fiction films, but they're still finding it difficult to secure funding for ambitious science-fiction films. Even with "The Matrix" trilogy under their belts, the Wachowskis couldn't get anyone to back "Cloud Atlas," a fact Lana attributes to Hollywood's preference for movies that look like other movies that already exist. From Hemon's piece:
"'The problem with market-driven art-making is that movies are green-lit based on past movies,' Lana told me. 'So, as nature abhors a vacuum, the system abhors originality. Originality cannot be economically modeled.' The template for 'The Matrix,' the Wachowskis recalled, had been 'Johnny Mnemonic,' a 1995 Keanu Reeves flop."
A simple and somewhat obvious observation, but one that explains so much about the state of contemporary mainstream filmmaking: everything must be comparable to something else, and if the thing your movie is most comparable to didn't work, then your movie doesn't get financed. But ideas don't work until they do — and it's funny how often the movies that break the rules are the ones that become successes (like "The Matrix"). Funnier still how often they, in turn, produce the most imitators (like "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters").
Read more of "Beyond the Matrix."