From acclaimed filmmakers Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski comes the powerful and inspiring epic “Cloud Atlas,” based on the best-selling novel by David Mitchell. Drama, mystery, action and enduring love thread through a single story that unfolds in multiple timelines over the span of 500 years. Characters meet and reunite from one life to the next as they are born and reborn. As the consequences of their actions and choices impact one another through the past, the present and the distant future, one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and a single act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.
Longtime friends, the Wachowski siblings and Tywker had often thought about working together, but it was their mutual passion for David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” that finally galvanized them into action. Befitting the book’s unconventional storyline, they formed a truly unique creative alliance to share writing and directing efforts in bringing the novel that has been hailed as a modern masterpiece to the big screen. At the film’s recent press day, we sat down with the three filmmakers to talk about their ambitious movie that strikes so many powerful notes.
Q: When we had dinner before the first “Matrix,” you guys were so new and you told me you hoped you had a film career. How did it work out?
Lana Wachowski: We’ll let you know.
Andy Wachowski: The jury is still out.
Q: It’s been a long time since you’ve done interviews. Why did you decide to do press for this film?
Lana: We’ll just start off saying that we hope that no one took it personally.
Andy: It wasn’t about you guys.
Lana: It wasn’t about you. It wasn’t about the process. It was just about our love of anonymity because anonymity gives you an access to participate in civic space in a way that if you lose your anonymity, that way of being in the world is then denied to you and that way of being for us is very precious. It’s a beautiful part of our human experience to inhabit civic space in a way that everyone else is inhabiting civic space.
Q: Having invested your own money, do you feel it’s imperative that you promote this movie yourself?
Lana: No. It’s not about our money.
Andy: It’s very scary. You’re working for free. Actually I’m working in the negative. It’s like I’m paying to be a director.
Lana: Our house is up on the screen. I hope you like it.
Andy: It’s a nice house.
Lana: Everything that we did for the movie was essentially an act of love that came out of the love that we had for this incredibly beautiful human being (referring to Tom Tykwer seated next to her). And, in the way the movie suggests, a single person can come into your life at any moment and change the direction of your life. He walked into our door 11 years ago and there was this sense that our lives weren’t going to be the same, and we like the way that the movie reflects this. There’s David Mitchell in his little cubicle writing this novel like Adam Ewing writing the journal, and the journal then becomes the book that Frobisher reads and that has all of these references, and so he writes the novel, and Natalie Portman reads the novel on the set of “V for Vendetta.” I see it, I read it, I give it to Andy, he reads it, we give it to Tom (Tywker), he reads it and now we’re here. Again, that has everything to do with what Tom Hanks says in the movie “Belief is a phenomenon that comes in the course of our lives.” We’re here because of the things we believe. We believe that cinema can offer people something more maybe than they’re getting right now.
Q: A lot of people have a dream but they’re unable to make it happen. You were just regular guys from Chicago, how did you believe you could do what you’ve done?
Lana: We should be in the loony bin.
Tom Tywker: I’m from Wuppertal. Isn’t that even stranger? I’m working with young filmmakers in East Africa right now, and we’re producing stuff with them and helping them do their first films. It’s so insane the way you encounter them. Of course, they look at you like “It’s impossible to ever be like you,” and then they get to know you a bit better, and when you work with them, they understand that “Oh, he’s just a [regular] guy.” First of all, ultimately, it’s persistence. And then, finally, after two weeks of workshop with those young African guys, they felt like it was just Tom, and then one evening you show them a movie that you’ve made and they realize “He did that.” It was so obvious to see in their faces that they feel like “I can do it if he can do it.” You know what I mean? We’re not like aliens. We’re just people who follow a certain vision, and we have a dream, and we continue. We just don’t let go. Of course, you’ve got to be lucky, too.
Andy: Well, I don’t know. How do you think we learned how to do construction? You earn while you learn, baby. That’s what we did. We didn’t know how to do it. We didn’t know how to build an elevator, but we were like “Yeah, we can do this,” and we did it.
Lana: There are miraculous artists though everywhere. You watch somebody build. There are carpenters you watch work and you’re like how in the hell did they do that. I mean, there are forms of being that transcend what we are capable of everywhere. Like I couldn’t do what you guys do.
Q: What? Type?
Lana: Yes, actually I can’t type. I tried to learn. I took a good online class even but…
Q: Do you write your scripts by dictating or does Andy do it for you?
Andy: [pretends to type with two fingers using the hunt-and-peck method to show how Lana works on a script]
Q: Was this aspect of your life – producing great films and being attached to great work — more of a gift or more something you pursued?
Andy: It’s an evolutionary process. We felt like we loved comic books, and so we thought construction you get asbestos and insulation all over you and you’re constantly scratching and your hands are always beat up. I want to have soft hands, and well maybe I can write comic books, so we sent stories in constantly. We got our foot in the door, and then we were able to pick up a series, and then you get inspired by things, like the idea of David Mitchell’s book landing in our lap. Roger Corman wrote this book “How I Made a Hundred Movies and Never Lost a Dime.” You read those stories and you read who was in the Corman school and what magnificent talent came out of there and you’re like “Wow, you know what? I can make a movie like this.” And so, you write a script and then that turns into something else and slowly you get a little… There is some luck involved, most definitely, but it’s also just doing, I guess.
Lana: In the novel and in the movie, what the book suggests is that every life is confronted with challenges and is confronted with systems of power that attempt to control their lives and conventions that try to define their lives, and the comets represent this idea of an opportunity to change that situation in the same way that our lives are filled with challenges. Even the making of this movie was filled with challenges and conventions that had to be transcended, even the convention of the film itself. Everybody said “Oh, is this an art house film or is it a mainstream film?” It’s a market-driven convention that the movie is attempting to transcend. We were given the book and it was this gift. It was an opportunity. It was like the comet came into our lives.
Q: What was the moment when you realized that the book that everyone had called unfilmable could be made into a movie?
Lana: A convention again. You want to define things as “This can be made. This cannot be made.” It’s like some sort of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” “This is unfilmable. You’ll burn in hell if you try to film this.” I mean, we’re like why would you want to limit an artist’s interpretation of another work. Art is about possibility. Art is a form of transcendence. It transcends convention. It seeks always to transcend convention.
Q: How did you decide which actors to cast in all those multiple roles?
Tywker: It was one of the really beautiful processes actually in the development of the film. I have many memories about Andy who was our super scout in finding even more insanely beautiful connections between arcs.
Andy: I was good at that game where you put the round peg in the round hole and the square peg in the square hole.
Lana: I was terrible at that game. I could never figure it out.
Tywker: There was this wall full of the characters, and we had already some actors, and then not all the actors yet attached to it, and it was all the characters in the movie. We made a wall with all of them, like the tiniest, smallest appearance. Andy would sit in front of it very often and go “Hmmmm…what about this?” And sometimes, throughout the earliest stages of this process, we found connections and interconnections between characters that created an interesting part for an actor. Of course, the first six or seven big ones we had established rather early on. To interconnect people like Mr. Meeks, the old guy, who has an appearance earlier on the ship as one of the guys (shipmates). He’s this old salty dog working for sort of an exploitation system the way that the ship is run.
Andy: He’s working on the ship for Jim Broadbent who plays Captain Molyneux.
Tywker: Yeah. And then later, he has to be saved by that same actor when he’s in the Aurora House. Again, Jim Broadbent and he have this different relationship ending together on the Prescient ship. They’re some of the white guys standing there in that group. There’s Jim and there’s even the guy, Robert Fyfe, who plays Mr. Meeks. I mean, these kinds of interconnections where it’s like our souls are traveling all kinds of courses. It was a wonderful experience. And then, going to the actors and basically telling them “You’re not really playing a character. You’re playing a genetic string.” And, that genetic string comes to life every once and a while in a different shape, but it evolves or devolves or sometimes just stagnates throughout the ages.
Q: When was that moment when you said this is what I want to do for life?
Tywker: Well I have a quite accurate moment that I recall and I don’t think it’s become this anecdote and now it’s true. I think it’s true because I do remember exactly when I realized. We all grew up with films as kids where they are in this separate world and they’re real. They are just what they are, which we stay addicted to until we die. There is this immersive quality about cinema where you can really get lost and you think this is happening. That’s the addictive part about cinema. You can get completely immersed in a world and in emotions that are yours and not yours. I remember I saw a movie when I was 10 or 11 that was called “King Kong” where for the first time I was so overwhelmed by the movie. But, at the same time, I realized that there was a mechanic to it and there was something manufactured, so I was like “Wait a minute. This has been made, so there must be jobs.” I mean, people work to make it work. It was the first time I realized there are people doing this and I wanted to be one of those people doing this. For me, the essence of the beauty of the experience of film and of the way most of us really watch it today is that there was this double effect of being in and out of the movie. While you watch it, you’re immersed and emotionally participating, and at the same time, you’re admiring how it’s made, and it’s not distracting you from being in there. It’s actually enhancing the pleasure, that there’s an aesthetic immersement and a narrative immersement working on you at the same time, which I think we do more and more because all of us, the entire world, is professional at analyzing movies in a way or judging them or going “Oh, that’s an interesting angle.” My fear is Oksana is starting to talk about it like that so you can imagine. This is also an evolution, of course, in how we perceive films. For me and for all of us, I think making a movie like “Cloud Atlas” is fulfilling this dream of a film that actually confronts you with something so structurally challenging that you need the film to present itself as an invitation to join us. “Don’t worry. It’s actually going to be fun.” It’s about the joy to really enter the bold that the film is offering you a seat in, and then realizing how it can immerse you too, even though it is so challenging in structural terms. It’s something like closing a circle for me from the “King Kong” experience until today.
Andy: We’re also lovers of cinema and so, as such, I’m not sure that I personally can pinpoint a seminal movie for myself. It’s like our mom and dad took us to the movies constantly, and we would see double features, triple features every weekend.
Lana: They’d take us out of school.
Andy: I remember one triple feature that they’d taken us to see that was “The King of Hearts,” “The In-Laws,” and “Harold and Maude.” We were young.
Lana: The important part of that is after every film we would go somewhere to a café or to a restaurant, and we would have breakfast at this great skillet eggs place, and we would talk about the film with them, and they would ask us questions, and that was as important to us as the actual process of seeing the movie.
Andy: Yeah. We would actually bring that back to the playground, and you’d start talking to the kids around you, and you’d have this sense that you were talking in a much more advanced language.
Lana: “Did you see ‘The King of Hearts’”?
Andy: “What the hell’s that?”