While “Cloud Atlas” is meeting mixed response, the three-hour epic was a delirious joyride for me. Truth is, except for the flat “V for Vendetta” and the final pixel-struck “Matrix” movie, I’ve admired all of the Wachowskis’ output, even “Speed Racer.” These filmmakers have it all: strong writing chops, an instinct for entertaining audiences, and compelling visual style. They know how to create characters you care about, to fashion an engrossing narrative that carries you along, and to make your eyes pop with stunning cinematography. What they saw in David Mitchell’s novel “Cloud Atlas” was an opportunity to weave six seemingly disparate but related stories in vastly different time zones into a sumptuous cinematic feast.
Not surprisingly, the three pieces they directed are the most ambitious, with the biggest budgets–the future-set framing story, an action adventure tale with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, the stunning futuristic romance starring an Asian Jim Sturgess and Bae Doona, and the period naval odyssey are the strongest of the six–but I also liked the two Jim Broadbent pieces that their collaborator Tom Tykwer (“Run, Lola, Run”) directed with humor and emotion. Broadbent should grab an Oscar nom for his comedic tour-de-force performance as nursing home escape artist Timothy Cavendish. The weakest link was the one set in the 70s starring Berry as an investigative journalist. The trio insist in our interview below that all three mind-melded throughout the long process of designing and structuring the film, running back and forth from each other’s sets, and in the editing room. They had to wing it and throw out the sprawling shooting schedule when Berry busted her ankle during production. Twykwer took charge of the music.
Together, they do their job. Each story catches you up; you know exactly where you are as they unfold; and you root for the characters. While some critics have described this as a meandering 164-minute mess that does disservice to the novel, I was crystal clear on what was happening throughout, without having read the whole book (I gave up early on). And the way the actors don outrageous multiple roles–and ethnicities and sexes– keeps things fun. Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant relish their villains.
The way the filmmakers cut between episodes, using visual and emotional cues, is exhilarating. I can’t wait to see this again. This is a movie worth arguing about. And as expensive as it may be–the $100-million film was independently financed overseas with a $25 million infusion from Warner Bros. for North American rights–this movie could prove internationally commercial. (“Argo” may beat it this weekend.) Audiences tired of the same old same old will eagerly scarf up this embarrassment of riches. Would it have been better served as a sprawling HBO mini-series? Perhaps. Will the Wachowskis–accustomed to having as much studio money as they need to make their movies– make back the gap financing that they used from mortgaging their homes? (“Help us,” Lana Wachowski pleaded to more than one reporter at the junket.) Maybe not. But I want moviegoers to send Hollywood a loud message that they want to sample the unexpected.
If this movie bombs, the studios will only run away from taking such risks again.
As I sat down to interview Tykwer and Andy and red-wigged Lana (born Larry) Wachowski, Lana asked me if I intended to send her a message by wearing a seahorse pin. (She talks about her gender journey here.)
LW: With seahorses, the men carry babies and they actually switch genders.
AT: I had no idea, this I did not know… [Laughter] Did you consciously want to look like the heroine from Tom’s “Run Lola Run”?
LW: I was under his spell, he hypnotized me. He’s a Svengali.
AT: So is “Run Lola Run” the movie you saw that made you fall in love with that he did?
LW: It was one of those films, we’ve had a few times in our lives that we see the movie and we walk out the theater and we go buy a ticket and we go back in.
TT: And it came out in America actually in the same month as the first “Matrix,” so we were kind of encountering our work at the same time. I had seen “Bound” so I was ahead of them… We started to send each other little love notes after we had seen each other’s works, because, I mean there was a slightly inherent connection between the film. We only discovered this later, but there is obviously, you can see our sense and our interest in the mechanics of filmmaking, the whole way – the process of film, how it’s being made. Being very very popular, at the same time touching philosophical and complex issues and bringing them together in a fun, joyful moment. And bringing that to the limit – how far can you go? Can you be as experimental and exciting at the same time? I have never met anyone who felt as similar as they do about it.
AT: Well, you were always pushing the boundaries inside the studio system in a real way– sometimes you got away with it, sometimes you had extraordinary success with it, sometimes you didn’t. And so, I think it makes perfect sense that this would be your first European film.
LW: “Bound” is kind of a European film.
AT: Yes, very much so.
LW: It was financed by Dino [De Laurentiis], who was in foreign sales. He sort of invented it in a way. [Tom’s] sensibilities–when we had our first big date, we couldn’t talk fast enough, about all the things you love, just to see. You could bring out all these marbles – ‘do you love this one? do you love this one?’ When we were describing or trying to share and compare things that had affected us, it was always a huge spectrum of American mainstream cinema and art house, European stuff. We would go into double features where you could see “The King of Hearts” and “Conan the Barbarian” in the same day, and that was great. The way you throw your arms around the breadth of cinema — that was something where we were almost hugging each other.
TT: I don’t think it’s really fair to say it’s more European or American, or even Asian, because I think there is Asian philosophy and Asian elements.
AT: Maybe it’s global.
TT: You could even say the main character of the movie is humanity, rather than individuals. There is something for us represented in this friendship and love that we share. I have of course had my fair share of an influence of American pop culture, that is why I feel strangely at home in this country. And visa versa, they have been affected towards Europe, they have come to shoot two entire movies in Germany in Berlin — and “Speed Racer” in Babelsberg, Germany because of style — and also love to go back to the mecca of filmmaking in the 20s.
LW: Where they made “Metropolis,” on the floor that they used to build the set, you’re standing on the same floor, the dust that was in that place is a part of the dust that’s in our movies, that kind of Epicurean atomic theory of history and art. I love that as soon as somebody says ‘Is this art house or his this mainstream?’ ‘Is this European or is this American?’ — you are kind of broadcasting a market-driven perspective about art, you want to reduce and characterize it, and separate an art that I don’t think should be reduced and categorized.
AT: I couldn’t agree more.
AW: When you say ‘you have made some successful movies, you haven’t made some successful movies,’ that’s just in terms of success at the box office.
AW: Am I going to go back and say would I have not have made ‘”Speed Racer”? Absolutely not, I think that it was a successful movie.
AT: It was on my 10 Best list that year. But you have been working in the studio system which implies certain constraints and demands. For the budget that they give you, they don’t necessarily give you 100% freedom. I was wondering if you feel more free? In many ways you have broken free in several areas. Because I’ve never spoken to you before — nobody has ever spoken to you before!
AW: We’re shy.
AT: You’re also meeting all of us for the first time when you could have been getting to know us all along.
AW: Well this is not easy to do. People come to us and say why don’t do you do press? And it’s just ‘why would you want to do press?’
AT: We respected it. For me, I’m delighted to meet you.
LW: People interpreted it as a judgment that we had about them, which I always felt bad about, because it’s not about the process or the people or the way it worked, because it’s really about our privacy and our anonymity. Anonymity give us a way to be in the world. That is really precious and we are giving it up by doing this. Within one day of doing the introduction to the five minute trailer, every restaurant that we went to — ‘Oh my god, I love your movies.” Maybe it has something to do with the pink hair.
AW: Could be part of a larger plan, we could be returning to a less public lifestyle.
AT: It’s in service of the film, presumably?
LW: It’s also in service of a sense of responsibility to the film and to each other trying to aid in a struggle against conventional forms of oppression. I have for a long time felt a certain responsibility to the GLBT community members. They have asked me to be more public, to try to demystify this sort of existence of a gendered being just like anyone else is a gendered being. Because it’s so outside people’s normal experience, they tend to struggle with it. If I can help make it seem less foreign, not something to be afraid of, that could be a good thing.
TT: It’s so much related to so many of the subjects and substance of the movie the way we are sitting tougher. We loved so much doing this work together, in this move, that is about interconnectedness between human beings. It would have been very weird sitting here alone.
AT: Let’s talk about that how did you all divvy up the responsibilty. You two have been working together for a long time as a unit, but now adding a third person. Tom took responsibly for the music. You worked closely on the script together. What about when you were shooting?
LW: It’s been four years we have been working on the movie. If you think of the shoot, it’s only three months, so in the scale of making the film the actual shooting is a very tiny portion of the film. We are all heavily into prepping and design, that’s where we think lot of directing occurs.
TT: Which we all did together, all happening on every segment every decision making process was very shared in every level.
LW: The design of it, the design of the transitions.
AT: The casting?
LW: The casting. We did everything together. We integrated the design… like we would find a color we thought was appropriate for a charter arc and put that color throughout, or we would find a motif like bone — a lot of the predator characters have bone or teeth or things that are a part of their world. We would figure out what rooms were eternally recurring similar spaces, so we could then just re-dress them like we were putting make up on people. We sat through endless prosthetic meetings and cast and discussion, we worked with our DPS. Two DPs — that’s also very radical, but they worked together.
AT: It’s almost like it was an animated film with separate sets and locations for each strand that had to be shot separately almost like you’re in a stop motion animated studio.
LW: Kind of, in the way that is becomes this very holistic thing made out of these incredibly specific small mosaic details.
TT: It was also so important that everybody contributed. It is a connected, joined effort. We are generally, as we discovered throughout the work, the social aspect of the work is at the center of what we enjoy about it — the fact that filmmaking is such a social process, a social art form, and that expanded throughout the entire process – ‘production design, you are used to having your little empire for yourselves, but why don’t we hook up with us?’ We all became this group who really tried to make this movie, not be separate in aesthetics.
AT: Did you separate the different strands in terms of who worked on them physically during production?
AW: At times we were physically in the same room tougher, we were on the phone together, we were Skyping together. When there were parallel units going on, there was some location work during the beginning and then we returned to Babelsberg, where we could be running back and forth between stages and reconnecting, and re-imagining shots and stuff like that. We were in constant communication. In a way we don’t like to say we divided up the sections. There were two units that had to shoot in parallel because the whole thing would have imploded, because we couldn’t shoot 124 days and pay the actors what we paid them and had their schedule double.
LW: We were more in contact and in connection on this film then most directors and second unit directors on other films.
AT: That makes sense. Did you find the actors experienced a certain freedom from the roles of conventional filmmaking? I got the impression that they got a kick out of it — the makeup and gender-bending stuff. It was as if there was a sense of joy and playfulness in all of this.
LW: I’m so glad you felt that.
TT: It’s part of that, just saying the whole process, so much prepping, so much part of us in particular the moment you then start really shooting it, the driving force is the actors themselves. They now feed the movie with life. They need that space for their experimentation and we just set it up for them. And then realizing that they needed as much space and care as possible for the risk they were taking — ‘okay I’m doing six different characters here and I will have to swap from character to character.’ Sometimes in one day or a day to day basis, you go back 500 years. The next day being in completely different make up again and always feel protected, that was a big feeling we wanted to provide. It then turned out they were all quite ecstatic about that whole prospect. The crazy thing about it is the essence of acting of course.
AT: But also the ethnicity, to be able to be something – it was very moving the way Halle Berry has talked about that.
LW: I started crying, it was so beautiful. It dawned on me that Hollywood is so segregated that it remains – whites only for these roles, black people only for these roles. Again its transcendence of convention, just in the way we approached the making of the film. Hugo Weaving said this is something I experience a lot in theater, he has a muscle memory for a part in theater, but he was so happy that the experience they had day-to-day was joy that also seeped into the film. It felt like it never got ponderous or profound in its transcendence of ethnicity or gender, that it had still this playful energy. And the way the movie ends up working first with the actors themselves, the actor’s courage, and the way they connected their performances and turned their performance into one seamless performance. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen an actor do — Halle Berry is literally thinking about Jocosta’s scene while she’s doing Louisa.
TT: It’s her backstory, it’s in the same movie.
AW: Or even more simple she’s the native slave and then is Dr. Ovid in the neo-soul sequence, where she’s basically helping the underground railroad of fabricants to move along into the real world.
AT: So in organizing the six stories, obviously you were adapting a book, you shuffled your index cards. Was it in the post-editing phase that you figured out the actual structure of the movie or was it close to what you had written?
AW: it was a constant sanding down, the script — there are things in the script we cut, certain pierce of the story together they were rock solid we knew they would not change, but then as you move along as you get into the pre-production phase, you get out your next grade sandpaper, it gets a little finer and you get into the editing room and there are some problems we had with tone, you couldn’t cut from Cavandish doing something very slap-sticky to a cannibal eating baby, necessarily, even though there was a piece of dialogue in those two scenes that connected it brilliantly in the script, maybe it didn’t work so good.
AT: Some of the transitions are absolutely stunning, just exhilarating to see.
TT: And that was big process in the editing of course we did have some big discoveries in the editing — if that transition doesn’t work, is it just the tone change or can we make it work differently? We realized that we couldn’t cut from a dramatic moment once. It was the scene in the 30s where there is the composer, because it was the same actor, because you see Jim going to Jim. And you can switch tone but there is still an interconnected substance.
AW: Or Nurse Noaks and Bill Smoke.
AT: My favorite is Broadbent. Could pull out one of those six strands, was that ever discussed?
TT/AW: No, no.
AT: Because everything was too woven together?
AW: The movie was the same genetic material as the book, so if you’re breaking done the book, the genetic material of the book, and rebuilding it structrually different for a mosaic, the thematics are transferable. But if you end up taking out those chains, we think it would fall apart. I mean the they did characters, the way we apply actors in the different roles, we think it would have broken down.
LW: We even had this idea of the trans-migration of soul, we thought that it was kind of interesting we thought the transmigration of art form from one medium to another medium.
AT: Did you feel a certain freedom? Warner Bros. helped you do this, you couldn’t have done it without their $25 million.
LW: The freedom came out of the transcendence from our conventional approach by bringing Tom in. He made a movie about threesomes called “Dry’ that reinvigorated the couple. He came in and it was like another — it expanded the playground in this way Andy and I hadn’t yet experienced. That was a gift. It has been sad to have it end, as hard as this movie was, and I’ll tell you, it was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done, it was also one of the most joy-filled, mind-opening, heart-expanded experiences of my life.
AT: And you’ll carry it forward then, in a good way? What’s your plan?
AW: Just going forth with love in our hearts.
LW: Hope there are people like you out there that go to see that film… There is something what we love about the idea of what if no one goes to see this movie.
AT: My question is what was the most expensive of the six episodes — is it the period piece or the futuristic piece with all the visual effects?
TT: I don’t think we know.
AT: Some people call this movie New Age, what do you think of this?
LW: Again the categorization, the desire to define things. When we were young, the books that we read that informed the love of narrative were quite long sprawling books. Dickens had to be called Dickensian because he was so beyond everything else that was out there, you had to invent an adjective to define him because he was so undefinable. Victor Hugo – “Les Miserables” – was such an immense sprawling work that it almost helped to hold French society together because everyone could embrace the France represented by that book. I have never been very attracted to super minimalized works of art that are about very small things. There are some very elegant ones but they aren’t the ones I go to again and again to reencounter my sense of self, my identity. I’ve read “Moby Dick” pretty much my entire life and every time I read it, I find something new and extraordinary that I can’t believe I missed the least time I read it.
TT: When you say New Age, for us it was very important and it was strong in the book that you know that you can read the book and the film both from a secular and also from a spiritual persecutive and it makes sense in both ways, because it’s very much trying invite the individual that’s open minded to wrap their head around it and make their own thing of it. It’s an offer rather than a delivery.
AW: How about omni-age.
AT: I think your achievement here is actually how accessible and fun and utterly open to interpretation this is. You’re not hammering anyone on the head with anything. I did not get New Age from this at all, at all. I wasn’t even that obsessed with what the interconnections were – I got caught up in each character and their arc and story and where they were going.
LW: Yeah, we like that. That there’s room for these other, like Dickens you can connect to any facet. That’s what’s joyful about it.