For more than a decade, just about the only thing anyone knew about the Wachowskis, the dynamic, inventive directors of "The Matrix Trilogy" and "Speed Racer," was that they were enigmas. They refused to do interviews, avoided cameras, and let their movies speak for themselves. They were as mysterious and hard to pin down as characters from their films.
Suddenly, that's all changed. For the first time in their careers, Andy and Lana Wachowski are everywhere, working the interview circuit in support of their new movie (co-directed with Tom Tykwer) "Cloud Atlas." And not just working it; dazzling it. They were surprise guests at the "Cloud Atlas" screening I attended at Fantastic Fest, and given their notorious aversion to the spotlight, I expected them to be shy and nervous in front of an audience. They were anything but; after the film (and a lengthy standing ovation), they delighted the crowd with answers to their questions, questions atop their answers, jokes about their career, and plenty of philosophical tidbits of the kind that characterize their best films. Afterwards, they held court at a nearby bar, interacting with adoring fans and film critics.
As Lana Wachowski tells it in the video below, the choice to face their public started with a random scheduling snafu. "Cloud Atlas" star Tom Hanks was supposed to shoot an introduction for the film's first trailer, but was suddenly unavailable. Andy, Lana, and Tom discussed it and decided to fill in. But if this new attitude about the press started as an accident, the Wachowskis' move into the spotlight could not have come at a more thematically appropriate time — because standing up and speaking out is one of "Cloud Atlas"' most important themes.
The reason for their decision — and the full extent of what it means to them and to their films — was revealed in an astonishing speech Lana Wachowski gave on October 20th at the Human Rights Campaigns gala dinner, where she received the "Visibility Award" for her decision to live a more public life. Lana, as most know, was born Larry; "the Wachowskis" (or "Wachowski Starship," as Andy sarcastically described them at Fantastic Fest) were formerly "the Wachowski Brothers." In a nearly half-hour long speech, embedded below, Lana speaks movingly about her struggle with her gender identity, a long process which ultimately resulted in Larry becoming Lana and Lana becoming ready to accept the attention that comes with being perhaps the most famous transgender artist in the world. Here is the video:
As Lana explains in her speech, accepting a more public role means "the sacrifice of [her] civic private life" — but if that sacrifice means that other transgender people feel less alone than she did as a child, then it won't be in vain. And that very specific idea — being willing to discard one's own anonymity, and all the comfort and ease that comes with it, in order to become a more visible and vocal leader in a community — recurs over and over in "Cloud Atlas," appearing onscreen just as often as Tom Hanks or Halle Berry or Hugo Weaving.
At the HRC, Lana read a quote from the dialogue of "Cloud Atlas," originally spoken in the film by Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a "fabricant" clone living in a future version of Korea. Sonmi-451 rejects the life that has been forced upon her by those who created her (to work as a slave in a fast food restaurant) and, in doing so, accepts a role in a rebellion against a dystopian government. When asked why she undertook such a dangerous and potentially life-threatening plan, Sonmi-451 says (and Lana Wachowski repeated at the HRC):
"If I had remained invisible, the truth would have remained hidden, and I couldn’t allow that.”
Sonmi-451's struggle is echoed in each of "Cloud Atlas"' five other stories. Characters are repeatedly offered a choice: to remain comfortable and safe, or to speak out and risk their lives for the greater good. In the 1930s, a young composer (Ben Whishaw) can either allow his gorgeous compositions to be stolen by his mentor or fight back. In the 1970s, a journalist (Berry) must decide whether or not to follow a tip and expose a massive corporate conspiracy. In 2012, a book publisher (Jim Broadbent) who's been placed in a nursing home must plan his escape. In all cases there is the path of least resistance — and the right path. In the case of Sonmi-451, the right path is literally the path of resistance, or "The Resistance," as she joins with a group of freedom fighters trying to save humanity.
When I wrote my review of the film for ScreenCrush several weeks ago, I interpreted this theme as a reflection on the making of the movie itself — which was financed, with no small amount of difficulty, from a patchwork of independent sources, and which very nearly fell apart numerous times. In essence, "Cloud Atlas" celebrates the artistic attitude that creates a film like "Cloud Atlas" — that speaks, loudly and defiantly, in the face of impossible odds.
Now I know there's a bit more to it than that. And thanks to "Cloud Atlas" and their very public support of it, I also know something more about the Wachowskis: that they lead not just by creating interesting works of art, but by practicing what they preach.
Read the transcript of Lana Wachowski's speech at the Human Rights Campaign gala.