/Film Interview: ‘Cloud Atlas’ Co-Directors and Writers Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowksi and Tom Tykwer
Posted on Wednesday, October 31st, 2012 by Germain Lussier
Here’s my full interview with the writers and directors of Cloud Atlas: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowksi and Tom Tykwer.
Last week, we broke up this long interview into four parts to make it both more digestible and to keep in spirit with the film, which comprises six radically different, but related, stories. The film jumps from story to story to story, with the last scene informing and enlightening the first, even though they’re set in totally different time periods and genres. Actors portray upwards of six roles each giving the viewer an hint of how these beings relate to each other, only to effect the others – and human history – in radical and exciting ways.
While the Wachowskis have done little to no press since the release of The Matrix, it was my honor (and horror) to be able to sit down with them, and Tykwer, for thirty minutes to discuss the movie. I was frightened, nervous, intimidated but in the end all three filmmakers not only enhanced my (immense) enjoyment of the movie, but were themselves fascinating and brilliant subjects. I wish I could have talked for an hour more.
I can’t recommend Cloud Atlas highly enough. You may not emotionally connect to it as much as I did, but it’s such a different, expertly crafted experience, you’d be doing a disservice to yourself, and big budget, risky films in the future, by not seeing it.
After the jump, read a full transcript of my interview with Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowki and Lana Wachowski, the writers and directors of Cloud Atlas.
/Film: I’ve got to say I felt a little bad, because I saw four movies this week and I can’t think of any of them, because I’m still thinking about CLOUD ATLAS. [Everyone Laughs] I feel bad, WRECK IT RALPH is a fun movie, but it’s just not the same. The first thing that stood out to me, among many things, but the thing I wanted to talk about first is the editing. The movie, once you get into it, it just starts jumping and influencing and is moving so fast. I got such a rush watching it, because of that. Is that something… I mean it’s obvious for me to watch it and have that feeling. Do you get that feeling in the editing room when you guys are sitting there with your editor and you’re finally seeing all of these parts come together in the ways that you planned for so long? Do you get that rush that the audience would get?
Lana Wachowski: We got it first in the writing and actually first in the creation of the structure where we started thinking that it could work and just putting the cards suddenly next to each other and going “Wouldn’t that be an amazing cut?!?!” I mean there were cuts that we had from the very beginning when we first sat down and made all of the cards and put them next to each other and then there was a process of excitement when we started designing the film and thinking about it. He came in with this idea of this beautiful dissolve from Frobisher to Sixsmith reading the letters and those sorts of transitions and cuts and connections happened in the planning of it and then the third form of pleasure… and this is great, because when David Mitchell saw the movie, he was like “You take something that is a ubiquitous element of structure like a sentence,” an edit is like a sentence and he said “You turn it into this secret pleasure, that is like a gift and if you think about each one and you see them all it’s like you’re constantly getting these presences through the whole movie that’s just in the nature of the juxtaposition and the connection.”
Absolutely. That’s exactly how I felt about it.
Tom Tykwer: If you’re talking about the editing, it’s also you have to point out that Alex [Berner], who did it, did an enormous job. It was enormous. He had to collect material from two main units shooting, constantly burying him with material every day, like tons of hours and he kept up with it. We were in it in this particular way, but having someone who always knew while we were actually discussing it in the editing room and thinking about ideas who always was on top of it. “Oh, I know where that is” and picking the pieces together from this huge tree of material and always knowing where to root it. It was a real luck. It was a real true find that we got him in this space. It was like the three became the four of us, which is like what the whole process was. Even with the DPs or the production designers, it was always like “Can you join our circle of creative love and share in the joy of sharing?” He was amazing. I mean always consider the amount of stuff that had to work on his mind and three minds separately were coming at him with “I have this idea. Let’s try this…” and then we could always take a break, at least a thinking break, but he was all constantly thrown at with ideas.
So speaking of that a little bit, [Tom is] shooting half the movie and [The Wachowskis] are shooting the other half of the movie, what were some of the things you had to keep in mind to keep it cohesive? Obviously you want them to live separately they are separate genres, but were there some certain principles that you had to tell people or keep in mind as you were filming to make sure at that point it all gelled?
Andy Wachowski: We were in constant communication. We had prepped the movie and we had planned the movie together and we knew where we were making specific transitions from story to story, but, you know, we were there with our Skype pads doing camera moves and always reviewing each other’s dailies and saying “That’s a good idea, I’m going to use that for this.”
Tykwer: For us, it was really important to… Filmmaking in the entirety of its process… We’d been working four years constantly on this. I mean we started reading the novel six years ago and we starting writing the script basically four years ago, which means this is the period of time we spent with this. Of this, it’s a bit more than three and a half months of filming, which is comparatively very little and of course the way we work, because we are very much prep driven directors, we like a lot of prep, we enjoy very much the designing part of it, we love getting all of these people involved that bring in their ideas. We cast the movie close together with Laura Kennedy and really met every actor, the three of us. It was always this situation where there’s this one guy and three directors. Every situation was like that. Every rehearsal was done like that. Then you go and you feel like the shooting, even though of course there’s still stuff that you can make decisions on with each other, the shooting mostly belongs to the actors. I mean the most important element that then happens is what they come up with and what they discover throughout the filming process itself and so we feel like because we had done our homework, which we felt we did, it was really a great ground for them to then step on and fill it with their life and their particularness. And then you go, and even though we didn’t always see each other every day, but sometimes we were on the same stages next door to each other, that of course was very nice, the most beautiful days. If we had been able to maybe afford it, we would have ended up having shot everything with the three of us, but it was technically and economically… It would have been insane and would have expanded the shooting period to a hundred and twenty-five days, on which you wouldn’t have gotten all of these big name actors for the little money they got.
One of the other things I love about the movie is how the stories connect in all these ways, but they also are connected through media, film, books, letters, art over all. Is it fair to say that CLOUD ATLAS, especially your version, is a love letter to the arts?
Tykwer: Nice. That’s the first time that somebody asked that.
Lana Wachowski: Yeah, very fine.
Nice, I’m proud!
Andy Wachowski: “Notch in the belt.”
Lana Wachowski: Yeah, the importance of art to our humanity, to the storytelling that we love, that the movie is bookended with storytelling and this in a way, if you’re talking about a love letter, you would start a love letter talking about “Why do we make art?” There was just great… God, I could digress so bad on this. Did you see Werner Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS?
Lana Wachowski: There’s a beautiful moment in there where he’s discussing the two tribes, the homosapiens who is in there in the painting of those smaller groups of people and then the Neanderthals, which were the more dominant species at the time and they are all living at the same time, but they are able to differentiate the Neanderthal camps from the homosapien camps, because in the homosapien camp you will always find the presence of art, they paint, they make jewelry, they make sculptures, and then the Neanderthal camps there are only tools and weapons. That species then ends up being our most significant ancestor in terms of the development of humans. I think that’s not insignificant. Story telling is art. Making is a way that we understand our humanity. It’s a way that I think we transcend our differences and are able to imagine… it’s transcendence of boundaries and borders and differences and we imagine better worlds. The imagination is crucial to our humanity and art is one of the ways we give that imagination voice.
One of my other questions, and you almost answered it, is the movie starts or it doesn’t start, but takes place in the eighteen hundreds, but these characters are eternal, so I was wondering after I walked out “I wonder what happened to these characters before.” Maybe art wasn’t as prevalent and that’s why David chose to start it there, as opposed to going from the beginning of time to the end of time.
Lana Wachowski: Originally David had nine stories. It was actually longer and we were like “We want that version! Start writing it now! You can sell it to your producer in a second!”
Is that as far as that conversation went? Did you ever talk about maybe giving the actors more… maybe where these characters had been? It was complicated enough as it was, obviously.
Lana Wachowski: It was big, but the suggestion in the book, I’ll just say quickly, the suggestion in the book is that there is an ocean that is beneath our humanity that transcends all of these ideas of that time period, that potential future, that person, that tribe. There’s a humanity that is constantly dissolving those barriers and borders and boundaries and the book suggests a breath that I think expands the whole width of our humanity. Sasha Jamon says “Look, the main character in this movie is humanity.”
Tykwer: Yeah, it was very nice for actors and Halle expressed it very concretely and profoundly, that usually… and she’s a particular one where it’s quite important for her to work on her backstory to fill her characters with life from imagined paths and possible futures. “What are they striving for? What are they looking for? What do they want to be?” So that can define how to act. She said, “This script is amazing, because my backstory and future is in the movie, so I can relate to myself or my future selves or past selves within the actual movie and I can even act them out myself.”
Lana Wachowski: Yeah, she would do a Luisa line thinking about her life as Jocasta.
Oh wow, cool.
[NOTE: SPOILER ALERT]
Tykwer: It was very visible. You could very much sense that many of the actors were trying and were loving the fact that they could do this. I mean we were always relating to one of our favorite scenes in the film and Tom Hanks as Zachry at the very end,one of those insane moments that “Today we are going to shoot the scene where Tom Hanks slits Hugh Grant’s throat.” The whole concept of it, Tom Hanks, an actor that you’ve probably never seen cutting anyone’s throat and cutting the throat of Hugh Grant. You were never really looking for the close up of Hugh Grant in the makeup being killed…
Depending on how you feel about his movies… (Laughs)
Andy Wachowski: You certainly wouldn’t see his throat being cut in any other movies.
[Laughs] That’s true.
Tykwer: And we love them both. We thought they were both… they’ve always been great actors and we felt like they were… It was so obvious when we offered them the possibilities how excited they got about this prospect of giving this kind of variety to their abilities, because they are not all the time asked to offer variety.
Lana Wachowski: Again, transcending a convention, you hired Hugh Grant to play this pithy charming guy and you hire Tom Hanks to play this affable goody goody guy and just like with Halle… Halle also said this beautiful thing about being able to play a white Jewish woman in the period peace. Tom [Tykwer] was like “Don’t you love these costumes in these types of movies?” Halle was like “Well Tom, I never get to wear these costumes in this period. If I’m going to be in a movie with this period, I have to play the slave or the servant.”
Tykwer: Or the prostitute, but never the lady who lives in the castle.
Lana Wachowski: We always thought that was an amazing revelation, because you don’t think about it. It’s not so explicitly stated, but moviemaking remains segregated as part of history, like whites can play these roles, blacks can play these roles, and the very act of having Halle play this part enabled us to transcend this convention of segregation and likewise with Tom and Hugh Grant playing these roles. They brought a humanity that you associate with their kind of film identities, like Hugh Grant is just likeable and when you see him and yet it was fun to then add a darkness to that likability and to contrast that and the same with Tom. It was fun to experiment with the charming Dr. Goose who’s a little goofy and weird and you think, “Oh, he’s a nice crazy goofy doctor” and then “Oh my god, he’s poisoning him!” That had, again, just a breaking out of a traditional approach to those.
Twyker: And we felt, just to finish that little story about that scene when he’s cutting Hugh Grant’s throat, I mean the cannibal’s throat, we think it’s so amazing, because you see Tom really struggling with it. It seems like he’s really referring to all of the former incarnations you’ve seen of him. There’s this quite evil driven Dr. Goose. He seems to dissolve between all of these characters and struggle between what he’s learned now and he’s become a better person and he’s met this woman and she really made him think about things differently and he’s let go of that evil… Now he’s come back and he wants revenge and we want him to take revenge and we want him to kind of kill the guy and not kill the guy. We don’t know what we want him to do actually and he’s doing all of this and he’s been in all of these places in the movie already and that he was able to pull that all off in one close up… You raise with him through the entire movie in a way and through all of these existences and ultimately he takes a choice and it is of course the choice that is satisfying and incredibly upsetting at the same time.
Lana Wachowski: I think that was our best interwoven and interconnected CLOUD ATLAS answer.
It was great. There it is. Mark it down, reader. I could go on and on about that… A couple more things. The movie, I mean when we first heard about it it was a question mark of “How are they going to adapt this?” Then we saw that first trailer and people were like “Holy shit.” Then a couple of festival screenings and you have an Oscar contender. That’s what it seems like. My question is…
[Lana knocks on the wooden table.]
General audiences though don’t seem to be as receptive as the film fan audience. This is a challenging film. If the movie does not connect with general audiences, are you guys going to be okay with that?
Lana Wachowski: That’s always a hard question to start with a negative.
I want it to connect, I worded that poorly…
Tykwer: What we were really thinking and what we feel is, you know whether it succeeds or not, we of course don’t know, but we know there’s a huge amount of people out there who are desperately hungry for films that do deliver large scale, smart, complex, really modern filmmaking and that are not putting themselves in this restrictive category of “I am just an action guy and I have to have these characters that are always in those actioners” or “I’m just a very romantic movie with very sweet people,” but saying the blend and the scale of films… If you feel like a movie is ready for the big screen today it seems like it more or less has to have a superhero in involved or it has to have a very limited framing of genre and we don’t think that’s what people want. We really think people get exhausted about it and I’m not even saying that some of those moves aren’t fun, you know, we watch them. It’s obvious that we are not against this, because we grew up in it. We are popular culture kids very much, but we grew up in a time where it was always there was a variety to it, there was very pop cultural iconic and sometimes simplified, but joyful experiences next to films like David Lean’s films or Stanley Kubrick’s films, which were also a large scale and also demanding and adult oriented. We feel it might become a dying species and we don’t believe it’s true that it’s dying, because people aren’t there to watch it. I think they are just not being invited enough anymore.
I just have no faith in them. I hope to. I love the movie, so I didn’t mean to be negative, but that’s just…
Lana Wachowski: We know it’s a dark horse. If it was an obvious money proposition that Warner Brothers would have financed it in a second. They are an extremely conservative company and we have made them, let us say, a significant amount of money. If all other filmmakers were as profitable as we are, they would probably be a little more risky with how they let their filmmakers go, but we knew it was risky. It was important to us. It was important enough… I mean it has no financial logic for us. We put our fees into it. We put our own money into it, because it was so important to us. At the end of the day, the fact that it’s made is in itself incredibly satisfying and a kind of gift. The making of the movie was one of the most beautiful, extraordinary, incredible… It was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done, but it was so astonishing from working with Tom to working with these actors, and every one had this spirit of love and love of art and love of cinema and trying to do something that hadn’t been done. That was like in every department. I mean even the caterer was excited by the movie. I mean really it was joyful and at the end we watched it the first time with David Mitchell, that was very important to us that David liked it and he watched it and he had tears. He said, “It’s magnificent.” At that point… Well it was really important that Tom Hanks liked it too. We were dying for him to love it, but when both of those two people were moved by it and felt the way we did about it, that was a kind of success that in some ways was more important to us than any financial success.
Tykwer: And the financial part of it, that also is kind of ironic and sort of beautiful in a way in that even though it was so hard, the movie only became possible because of a multitude of people joining forces. It wasn’t like one big investor saying “I want studio saying.” It would have been easier for us, of course, and it made it much harder, but in a way it kind of fits into the scheme of the whole making of it that there were so many countries and continents and people and individuals on the entire planet that we had to approach, convince them until they got convinced, and really took quite a substantial risk.
Lana Wachowski: It was their courage.
Tykwer: They had the courage. They had the belief that “This could be worth it.” Now they are believers. The film world is so focused on the domestic American market and we all know it’s not what the reality is anymore.
Andy Wachowski: A movie can’t be defined by what it does in the box office, whether it’s a success or not.
Lana Wachowski: Especially now not by the box office of America.
Tykwer: Yeah, that’s what I mean. I mean we don’t know, some films slide off and say they just do twenty percent of what they do in the world in America and we don’t know what this will be, because we know that… I can sense for instance…. Because Germany was a major investor in the film, I can sense now when I’m home, there’s really a lot of vibe about this movie. I cannot imagine that there won’t be at least some substantial embrace of it. I don’t know how much it will be to be commercial, but there will be a lot of presences with it and so what we want is people to just…
Lana Wachowski: It took the courage of this multitude of drops to actually make the movie and that they all care so much, just like in the same way that the people who were making it cared, the financiers were emotionally invested in the story, and at the end… You have this kind of energy that’s in the structure of the story itself, that these multitude of drops are clinging together because of an act of courage, this thing has been created. This piece of art has been created. In the same way you sit here as sort of the Archivist sits across from Sonmi and he says “What if no one believes your truths?” You sit here and you go “Well, what if no one goes to see your movie?” Well we say “Well someone already does.” So the movie had an impact on you and in some ways…
Tykwer: Well done. That’s true.
Andy Wachowski: There it is.
Lana Wachowski: In some ways, that is a part of the gift and the success of the film that’s already present.
I have millions of more questions but how can I top that answer? Thank you so much. It was really great to meet you. I’m such a huge fan.
Andy Wachowski: It’s nice to meet you, too.
Lana Wachowski: Thank you. Well, Archivist, go save our movie!
I will! (Laughs)
Cloud Atlas is now playing in theaters.