The Wachowskis travel to even more mind-bending realms.
By Aleksandar Hemon
September 3, 2012
On the monitor screen, Tom Hanks’s eyes, in extreme closeup, flickered through a complicated sequence of emotions: hatred, fear, anger, doubt. “Cut!” Lana Wachowski shouted. The crew on Stage 9 at Babelsberg Studio, near Berlin, erupted in a din of professional efficacy, preparing for the next shot, while Hanks returned to his chair to sip coffee from an NPR cup. Lana and her brother, Andy, who are best known for writing and directing the “Matrix” trilogy, were shooting “Cloud Atlas,” an adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 best-selling novel of the same name.
The novel has six story lines, and the Wachowskis and their close friend the German director Tom Tykwer, with whom they’d written the script, had divided them up. They were shooting at Babelsberg, using the same actors, who shuttled between soundstages, but Tykwer had an unplanned day off. Halle Berry had broken her foot while on location in Mallorca and he needed to wait for her full recovery to shoot a chase scene. And now there was another problem: the actor Ralph Riach, who played a small but crucial role in one of the story lines that Tykwer was working on, had fallen ill and been hospitalized, and his state was progressively worsening. Tykwer had been on the phone with Riach, and the prognosis was, at best, unpredictable. Tykwer, with a bad cold and a large scarf around his neck which resembled a Renaissance millstone collar, had stopped by the Wachowskis’ set to discuss the situation.
The filmmakers huddled near the monitor and in low, concerned voices debated whether to wait for Riach to recover or to hastily find a replacement and reshoot the scenes he’d already appeared in. The decision: they would wait, even if it meant prolonging the shooting schedule. “The rocket ship is falling apart,” Lana said afterward, shaking her head. “We’re sitting in this capsule, can’t get out, only one engine working—and we have to make it to the end.”
In the Wachowskis’ work, the forces of evil are often overwhelmingly powerful, inflicting misery on humans, who maintain their faith until they’re saved by an unexpected miracle. The story of the making of “Cloud Atlas” fits this narrative trajectory pretty well.
In the spring of 2005, Lana and Andy Wachowski were at Babelsberg running the second unit for the director James McTeigue’s “V for Vendetta,” which they also wrote and co-produced. Between scenes, Lana (who is transgender and, until 2002, was called Larry) noticed that Natalie Portman, the star, was engrossed in a copy of “Cloud Atlas.” Portman raved about the book, so Lana began reading it, too. She and Andy, who is two and a half years younger, have retained a childhood habit of sharing books, and soon both of them were obsessively parsing the novel and calling friends to insist that they read it.
Mitchell’s book is not a simple read, with its interlocking stories and a multitude of characters, distributed across centuries and continents. Each story line has a different central character: Adam Ewing, a young American who sails home after a visit to an island in the South Pacific, in the mid-nineteenth century; Robert Frobisher, a feckless but talented Englishman, who becomes the amanuensis to a genius composer in Flanders, in the nineteen-thirties; Luisa Rey, a gossip-rag journalist who rakes the muck of the energy industry in nineteen-seventies California; Timothy Cavendish, a vanity-press publisher who finds himself held captive in a nursing home in present-day England; Sonmi~451, a genetically modified clone who gains her humanity in a futuristic Korea, ravaged by consumerism; and Zachry, a Pacific Islander who struggles to survive in the even more distant future, after “the Fall,” which seems to have endangered the planet and eradicated much of humankind. These characters are connected by an intricate network of leitmotifs—a comet–shaped birthmark crops up frequently, for instance—and by their ability to somehow escape the fate that has been prepared for them. The book’s dizzying plot twists are infused with lush linguistic imagination. For the Zachry sections, Mitchell constructed post-apocalyptic mutations of the English language, which effectively force readers to translate as they go.
“As I was writing ‘Cloud Atlas,’ I thought, It’s a shame this is unfilmable,” Mitchell told me. But the Wachowskis found themselves instantly, and profoundly, attracted to the idea of adapting the book for the screen. They were drawn to the scale of its ideas, to its lack of cynicism, and to the dramatic possibilities inherent in the book’s recurring moments of hope. They also wanted to work on something with Tykwer, whose 1998 movie, “Run Lola Run,” they’d loved (“our long-lost brother,” Lana called him), and “Cloud Atlas” seemed like the right project to unite their cinematic sensibilities.
In 2006, at the Wachowskis’ prompting, Tykwer took the German translation of “Cloud Atlas” with him on a vacation to the South of France. “It was a mistake,” he told me, with a laugh. He sat on the beach reading for days, “stressed and inspired” by the book; when his wife finally persuaded him to go on a day trip, he made her pull the car over so that he could finish a chapter. The moment he was done with the novel, he called Lana in San Francisco, where it was the middle of the night, and breathlessly declared his commitment to the plan.
He and the Wachowskis, who were in the middle of other projects, had to wait a couple of years before turning to “Cloud Atlas.” But finally, in February, 2009, they met in Costa Rica, where they had rented a secluded house near the ocean. Before they began to work on a script, they acknowledged that it might prove impossible to make “Cloud Atlas” into a movie, and that they might not be able to work together. “Writing is the most intimate process in the artistic development,” Tykwer said, and there was no way to anticipate how things would go. Then they got started: boogie-boarding in the morning, working the rest of the day, then preparing dinner together. Andy’s “world-famous” chicken roasted on a beer can was often the main dish on the menu. “It was like a childhood camp,” Lana said.
The main challenge was the novel’s convoluted structure: the chapters are ordered chronologically until the middle of the book, at which point the sequence reverses; the book thus begins and ends in the nineteenth century. This couldn’t work in a film. “It would be impossible to introduce a new story ninety minutes in,” Lana said. The filmmakers’ initial idea was to establish a connective trajectory between Dr. Goose, a devious physician who may be poisoning Ewing, in the earliest story line, and Zachry, the tribesman on whose moral choices the future of civilization hinges, after the Fall. They had no idea what to do with all the other story lines and characters. They broke the book down into hundreds of scenes, copied them onto colored index cards, and spread the cards on the floor, with each color representing a different character or time period. The house looked like “a Zen garden of index cards,” Lana said. At the end of the day, they’d pick up the cards in an order that they hoped would work as the arc of the film. Reading from the cards, Lana would then narrate the rearranged story. The next day, they’d do it again.
It was on the day before they left Costa Rica that they had a breakthrough: they could convey the idea of eternal recurrence, which was so central to the novel, by having the same actors appear in multiple story lines—“playing souls, not characters,” in Tykwer’s words. This would allow the narrative currents of the book to merge and to be separate at the same time. On the flight home, Lana and Andy carried the stack of rubber-banded cards they would soon convert into the first draft of the screenplay, which they then sent to Tykwer. The back-and-forth between the three filmmakers continued, the viability of their collaboration still not fully confirmed.
By August, the trio had a completed draft to send to Mitchell. The Wachowskis had had a difficult experience adapting “V for Vendetta,” from a comic book whose author, Alan Moore, hated the very idea of Hollywood adaptation and berated the project publicly. “We decided in Costa Rica that—as hard and as long as it might take to write this script—if David didn’t like it, we were just going to kill the project,” Lana said.
Mitchell, who lives in the southwest of Ireland, agreed to meet the filmmakers in Cork. In “a seaside hotel right out of ‘Fawlty Towers,’ ” as Lana described it, they recounted for the author the painstaking process of disassembling the novel and reassembling it into the script he’d read. “It’s become a bit of a joke that they know my book much more intimately than I do,” Mitchell wrote to me. They explained their plan to unify the narratives by having actors play transmigrating souls. “This could be one of those movies that are better than the book!” Mitchell exclaimed at the end of the pitch. The pact was sealed with pints of Murphy’s stout at a local pub.
In June, 2011, the Wachowskis and Tykwer were in Berlin, working on preproduction for “Cloud Atlas.” In the living room of Lana’s apartment on Unter den Linden, where a copy of the Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” was being used as a doorstop, the three directors talked about their passion for the movie. Andy, who was forty-three, was wearing a washed-out T-shirt and a pair of Crocs with a South Korean flag on them, which went nicely with the middle-aged grunginess of his shaved scalp. Lana, who was about to turn forty-six, had a full head of pink dreadlocks. Tykwer, at forty-six, was wiry and energetic, with striking green eyes. The three resembled a former alternative-rock band—the Cinemaniacs—overdue for a reunion tour.
“ ‘Cloud Atlas’ is a twenty-first-century novel,” Lana said. “It represents a midpoint between the future idea that everything is fragmented and the past idea that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.” As she spoke, she was screwing and unscrewing two halves of some imaginary thing—its future and its past—in her hands. If the movie worked, she continued, it would allow the filmmakers to “reconnect to that feeling we had when we were younger, when we saw films that were complex and mysterious and ambiguous. You didn’t know everything instantly.”
Andy agreed. “ ‘Cloud Atlas’ is our getting back to the spectacle of the sixties and seventies, the touchstone movies,” he said, rubbing his bald dome like a magic lantern.
The model for their vision, they explained, was Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which the Wachowskis had first seen when Lana, then Larry, was ten and Andy seven.
The siblings grew up in a close-knit family in Beverly, a middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Their parents—Ron, a businessman, and Lynne, a nurse—were film enthusiasts. They dragged Larry and Andy and their two sisters to any movie they found interesting, ignoring the parental-advisory labels. “We would have ‘movie orgies’—double features, triple features, drive-ins,” Andy recalled. “I was so young that I didn’t know what the word ‘orgy’ meant, but I knew that, whatever it was, I liked it.”
Lana initially hated “2001,” and was perplexed by the mysterious presence of the black monolith. “That’s a symbol,” Ron explained. Lana told me, “That simple sentence went into my brain and rearranged things in such an unbelievable way that I don’t think I’ve been the same since. Something clicked inside. ‘2001’ is one of the reasons I’m a filmmaker.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, Lana’s gender consciousness started to emerge at around the same time. In third grade, Larry transferred to a Catholic school, where boys and girls wore different uniforms and stood in separate lines before class. “I have a formative memory of walking through the girls’ line and hesitating, knowing that my clothes didn’t match,” Lana told me. “But as I continued on I felt I did not belong in the other line, so I just stopped in between them. I stood for a long moment with everyone staring at me, including the nun. She told me to get in line. I was stuck—I couldn’t move. I think some unconscious part of me figured I was exactly where I belonged: betwixt.” Larry was often bullied for his betwixtness. “As a result, I hid and found tremendous solace in books, vastly preferring imagined worlds to this world,” Lana said.
It was around the time that Larry and Andy saw “2001” that they first directed together: on cassette tape, they read a play inspired by the “Shadow” comic books and radio programs. Soon, they were writing and drawing their own comics. Their creative process, Lana said, “hasn’t essentially changed since.” The brothers were inseparable. “Larry would come up with a crazy idea,” Ron Wachowski recalled, “to hang ropes from a tree and make a swing or trapeze, and Andy would be the person to grab hold of the rope, climb, and crash down.” The boys spent sleepless weekends playing Dungeons & Dragons in the attic, coming downstairs only to raid the fridge. “In D. & D., you have nothing but your imagination,” Lana said. “It asks all of the players to try to imagine the same space, the same image. This is very much the process of making a film.” The Wachowski brothers and some friends even wrote a three-hundred-page game of their own, called High Adventure. “We were often frustrated by genre differentiation, whether it was in games or in fiction,” Lana said. “In our naïve and foolish innocence, we dared to imagine a utopian world where all genres could intermix.”
In high school, Larry and Andy started a house-painting business to earn money for college. (Their only previous experience was a pantheon of superheroes that they had painted on their aunt’s garage door.) Larry took out a loan and went to Bard, but dropped out after a couple of years. “I thought the teachers had to be way smarter than me to justify the loan,” Lana told me, “but some of them hadn’t read half the books I’d read.” He moved to Portland, Oregon, to write, working on, among other things, an adaptation of William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride.” (Having finished the script, he cold-called Goldman to ask for the rights; Goldman hung up on him.) After Andy dropped out of Emerson College in his sophomore year, the brothers reunited in Chicago, where they started a construction business, learning most of the skills on the job. They once built an elevator shaft without any plans or previous experience, having projected unquestionable confidence to the people who’d hired them—not an unuseful talent in the film business.
All the while, the Wachowskis kept on writing: in the early nineties, Larry went to New York to knock on the doors of the comic-book publishers. He managed to get himself and Andy hired by Marvel Comics, to write for the series “Ectokid,” which was drawn by Steve Skroce. The brothers also worked on screenplays of their own. “Carnivore,” their first completed script—in which a soup kitchen feeds the poor by chopping up rich people and cooking them in an addictive stew—was sent out to ten addresses, selected from an agent handbook. Two agents offered to sign the brothers. In the end, they went with Lawrence Mattis, who is now their manager. These days, the mention of “Carnivore”—which never became a movie—makes the Wachowskis chuckle, but Mattis remembers “a surety to their writing that really popped.”
The blockbuster-film producer Dino De Laurentiis optioned the Wachowskis’ next screenplay, “Assassins,” while they were renovating their parents’ house. De Laurentiis entertained them with champagne and lascivious stories about beautiful actresses, and then sold the script to Warner Bros. for five times what he’d paid. According to Lana, substantial revisions by a hired writer removed “all the subtext, the visual metaphors . . . the idea that within our world there are moral pocket universes that operate differently.” When the movie was made, in 1995 (directed by Richard Donner, of “Lethal Weapon” fame, and starring Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, and Julianne Moore), the Wachowskis tried to get their names taken off the credits but failed. Still, the script earned them a deal with Warner Bros. They finished the work on their parents’ house, quit construction, and became full-time filmmakers.
By 1994, the Wachowskis had completed the first script for the “Matrix” trilogy. They’d had the idea while working on a comic-book proposal. They were thinking, Lana recalled, “about ‘real worlds’ and ‘worlds within worlds’ and the problem of virtual reality in movies, and then it hit us: What if this world was the virtual world?” The trilogy is set in a dystopian future where machines exploit human energy by keeping people perpetually comatose in pods, while placating their minds with a continuous simulated reality called the Matrix. A small group of liberated humans—Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity—fight back, through confrontations with the virtual Agent Smith, and the stark darkness of the machine-controlled world is countered by the feeble light of human solidarity. “When I first read ‘The Matrix,’ ” Mattis told me, “I called them all excited because they’d written a script about Descartes.”
According to Mattis, the Wachowskis were “the hot flavor of the month” when he sent the “Matrix” screenplay out, in 1994. “But then everyone read the script and passed. Nobody got it,” he said. “To this day, I think Warner Bros. bought it half out of the relationship with them and half because they thought something was there.” The brothers had spent two years writing the script, and they insisted on directing the movie. To prove themselves, they took on a smaller project first: “Bound,” with Gina Gershon, Jennifer Tilly, and Joe Pantoliano, a lesbian thriller with a happy ending. “Bound” convinced Warner Bros. The Wachowskis shot “The Matrix” in a hundred and eighteen days. To make the movie, the brothers and their visual-effects team developed a number of new techniques, most famously “bullet time,” which allowed them to create the effect of a bullet progressing through space in slow motion, by using virtual cinematography to manipulate a series of still shots taken along the bullet’s trajectory.
“The Matrix,” which opened on March 31, 1999, took in nearly thirty million dollars in its first weekend. Eventually, it earned close to half a billion dollars worldwide, and four Academy Awards. Audiences responded to its cool, ultramodern style while rooting for its heroes, whose only reliable power was their old-fashioned humanity. “The Wachowskis have a mythic sensibility,” David Mitchell told me, “consciously clothing ancient stories in new dress, language, and form.” The movie’s philosophical underpinnings won it a cult following, as well as numerous academic studies, with such titles as “Neo-Materialism and the Death of the Subject” and “Fate, Freedom, and Foreknowledge.” The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has written about the “Matrix” trilogy, and titled his book on the responses to 9/11 “Welcome to the Desert of the Real”—a quotation from the movie, which is, in turn, an allusion to a line from Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation.”
The two former construction workers from Chicago were suddenly stars of the global movie industry. In the contract they signed with Warner Bros., however, the Wachowskis included a no-press clause. Avoiding the scrutinizing glare of the industry press, they gave no interviews and did no publicity; they stayed loyal to Chicago, close to their family. “My desire for anonymity is rooted in two things,” Andy told me in an e-mail. “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. You know, equality and shit.”
With the “Matrix” rage in full swing, the Wachowskis moved to Australia to work on the second and third parts of the trilogy. “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” released in May and November of 2003, respectively, earned more than a billion dollars worldwide, but the production process was notoriously difficult; the shooting alone took nearly three hundred days. In addition to the usual stresses of movie-making—constructing a world from scratch; managing hundreds of people; dealing with actorly egos—the crew had to cope with tragedy. Two actors died before filming all their scenes. Then a grip committed suicide. At the insistence of his boss, the grip’s girlfriend went to Bali with a friend to recuperate, only to witness her friend’s death in the 2002 terrorist attack there, in which Islamist militants’ bombs killed more than two hundred people.
At the same time, Larry, who had separated from his wife, was dealing with depression and struggling with his gender situation. During the production, he told Andy that the reason he went swimming in the bay every morning, rather than in the pool, was that he was half hoping to be hit by a boat or attacked by a shark. “For years, I couldn’t even say the words ‘transgendered’ or ‘transsexual,’ ” Lana told me. “When I began to admit it to myself, I knew I would eventually have to tell my parents and my brother and my sisters. This fact would inject such terror into me that I would not sleep for days. I developed a plan that I worked out with my therapist. It was going to take three years. Maybe five. A couple of weeks into the plan, my mom called.”
Sensing that something was wrong, Lynne Wachowski flew to Australia the following day. The morning after her arrival, Larry told her, “I’m transgender. I’m a girl.” Lynne didn’t know what he meant. “I was there when you were born,” she said. “There’s a part of me that is a girl,” Larry insisted. “I’m still working at that.” Lynne had been distraught on the plane, worried that she might lose her son. “Instead, I’ve just found out there is more of you,” she said. Ron, who soon flew in, too, offered his unconditional support, as did Larry’s sisters and Andy, who had suspected for a while.
A couple of days later, the Wachowski family went out to dinner in Sydney. Larry was now renamed Lana and was dressed as a woman. A waiter referred to Lana and Lynne as “ladies.” The next day, Lana showed up at work in her new identity, as though nothing had happened.
But the news got out, and the blogosphere was abuzz with rumors. Among other things, the Wachowskis’ reclusiveness was now interpreted in terms of Lana’s gender identity. When Lynne and Ron returned to Chicago, reporters were camping in front of their house, the brazen ones ringing the bell every once in a while.
Eventually, the press retreated. Lana completed her divorce and met and fell in love with the woman who became her second wife, in 2009. “I chose to change my exteriority to bring it closer into alignment with my interiority,” she told me. “My biggest fears were all about losing my family. Once they accepted me, everything else has been a piece of cake. I know that many people are dying to know if I have a surgically constructed vagina or not, but I prefer to keep this information between my wife and me.”
I first met the Wachowskis in December, 2009, when they were in the midst of their struggle to find financing for “Cloud Atlas.” Uncomfortable with being idle while they waited, they were also developing “Cobalt Neural 9,” a project that had grown out of their frustration with the Bush Presidency and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Curious about how the early aughts would be perceived in the future, the Wachowskis imagined a documentary film made eight decades from now, looking back at the country’s plunge into imperial self-delusion. In order to write a script for “Cobalt Neural 9,” the Wachowskis were filming interviews with people, from Arianna Huffington to Cornel West, who they thought might be able to help them elucidate their concerns. I was invited to participate and was costumed to look as if I were speaking in 2090. Dressed like a Bosnian Isaac Hayes (with sparkling lights attached to my skull, a psychedelic shirt, and a New Age pendant), I ranted about the malignant idiocy of the Bush regime. Lana sat next to the camera, asking most of the questions, while Andy was somewhere beyond the lights, his voice occasionally booming from the void.
Usually, I experience an erosion of confidence around famous people—an inescapable conviction that they know more than I do, because the world is somehow more available to them. But I got along splendidly with the Wachowskis. Seemingly untouched by Hollywood, they did not project the jadedness that is a common symptom of stardom. Lana was one of the best-read people I’d ever met; Andy had a wry sense of humor; they were both devout Bulls fans. We also shared a militant belief in the art of narration and a passionate love for Chicago.
Eventually, I asked them to consider letting me write about the making of “Cloud Atlas.” They talked it over and decided to do it. By then, they’d sent the script to every major studio, after Warner Bros. had declined to exercise its option. Everyone passed. “Cloud Atlas” seemed too challenging, too complex. The Wachowskis reminded Warner Bros. that “The Matrix” had also been deemed too demanding, and that it had taken them nearly three years to get the green light on it. But the best the studio could do for “Cloud Atlas” was to keep open the possibility of buying the North American distribution rights, payment for which would cover a portion of the projected budget.
Since Costa Rica, the Wachowskis and Tykwer had viewed the dramatic trajectory of the script as an evolution from the sinister avarice of Dr. Goose to the essential decency of Zachry, with both characters embodying something of the Everyman. Tom Hanks, they agreed, was the “ultimate Everyman of our age.” “Our Jimmy Stewart,” Lana called him. They sent their script to Hanks, and he agreed to meet with them. On the way to his office in Santa Monica, the siblings received a phone call from their agent, who told them that Warner Bros. had decided to hold off on a distribution deal. “Cloud Atlas” had been subjected to an economic-modelling process and the numbers had come back too low. The template that had been used, according to the Wachowskis, was Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” (2006), because it had three autonomous story lines set in different eras; “The Fountain,” which had a mixed critical response, had lost almost twenty million dollars.
“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 modelled.” The template for “The Matrix,” the Wachowskis recalled, had been “Johnny Mnemonic,” a 1995 Keanu Reeves flop.
In the parking lot outside Hanks’s office, the Wachowskis and Tykwer shook off the bad news before going in. Hanks had read the screenplay, though not the book. “The script was not user-friendly,” he told me. “The demands it put upon the audience and everybody, the business risk, were off the scale.” But he was interested in working with the directors and intrigued by the challenge of playing six different roles in one film. Hanks was in the middle of reading “Moby-Dick” and, when the filmmakers sat down, he engaged them in a discussion of Melville’s masterpiece. Lana pointed at a poster for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which was serendipitously hanging on the wall of Hanks’s office, and said, “ ‘Moby-Dick’ and this—that’s what we want to do.” “I’m in,” Hanks said. “When do we start?” Looking back at that meeting, Hanks told me that he had been particularly impressed that the Wachowskis “were not ashamed to say, ‘We make art!’ ”
With Hanks on board, the directors went back to Warner Bros. to plead their case. They insisted that a project as narratively complex as “Cloud Atlas” had no precedent and therefore no template. They presented the overarching story as a tale of redemption, of the continuity of essential human goodness, whereby individual acts of kindness have unforeseeable repercussions. They broke the story down into a simple progression: “Tom Hanks starts off as a bad person,” they said, “but evolves over centuries into a good person.” Warner Bros. was convinced, and the studio was in for distribution, but with a lower offer than the directors had hoped for.
The projected budget for the movie was around a hundred and twenty million dollars. The only other guaranteed money was coming from the German Federal Film Fund. The directors tried to drum up investment from other European sources, but near-catastrophic reversals continued. “We realized we wouldn’t be able to raise the amount of money we needed in a normal way, selling territories for distribution,” Grant Hill, who has worked as a producer with the Wachowskis since the two “Matrix” sequels, told me. “So we started talking with distributors about taking equity in the project.” Eventually, the production signed up a number of investors, including four in Asia, whose contributions totalled about thirty-five million dollars. But this financing structure was inherently unstable. With so many separate investors, each providing relatively small amounts, the entire project could teeter if one of them pulled out. With troubling frequency, the filmmakers had to contemplate giving up. “It is hard to grasp how often this movie has been dead and resurrected,” Lana said. Each time they reread the script to see whether it was worth proceeding, they emerged more determined, even if they had to revise it to fit the diminished budget. But what they would not give up—the scale and the complexity of the project—was exactly what was worrying potential investors. “I’ll never be attached to anything like this in my life,” Tykwer said. “It is that one thing I actually waited for when I wanted to be a filmmaker.”
When a European investor said she would contribute to the project, then withdrew her support in a text message, the directors were desperate. But then, in the winter of 2010, the Wachowskis sent the script to James Schamus, the head of Focus Features, NBCUniversal’s art-house-films division. Schamus called them the next day and offered to handle international sales for the movie. Reading the script, he told them, had brought back what it was like to see “2001” for the first time. Schamus teaches film theory and history at Columbia University. In his office there, the level of his excitement not quite compatible with the bow tie he was wearing, he told me, “The true genius of the screenplay is that it’s ridiculously narrative. They’ve managed to keep almost every little block of storytelling a cliffhanger. They’ve managed to make you feel the kind of propulsive movement that makes you want to keep coming back.”
Schamus cooked up a plan to presell the movie at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, that May. He and the filmmakers pitched the movie directly to an audience of distributors. “We got on the stage of the Olympia Theatre in Cannes and spent forty-five minutes in one of the most ridiculously fun cinephile conversations you can have,” Schamus said. “I was giddy at the end.” The three hundred industry people present seemed to enjoy it, too, a few of them approaching Schamus afterward to share their enthusiasm. But the numbers were disappointing, barely reaching fifteen million. Word of the weak presale spread, and scared a few investors enough for them to flee the production. When news of the decampment got out, more investors backed off. “It is super frustrating that people think that it’s like a stock market,” Andy said. “You bet on the movie you like because you have taste. It’s not like buying Shell Oil. You get into the movie business because you like movies. Not because you like money.” The projected budget had to be pared down to about a hundred million dollars, which, with all the contingency fees and financing costs, meant an eighty-million-dollar shooting budget. This still made “Cloud Atlas” one of the most expensive independently financed movies ever. The Wachowskis, in addition to deferring their directing fees, invested some of their own money in the project, betting their livelihood on its success. “No work of art can ever really testify to the scale of its own impossibility,” Lana said. One of the Wachowskis’ favorite films is Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” (1967), for which Tati built a set the size of a small town on the outskirts of Paris. The project ruined him financially and almost ended his artistic career. The Wachowskis, however, did not appear daunted by the risks of “Cloud Atlas.” “When you have repetition of calamity, the calamity begins to lose its emotional weight,” Andy said, with a shrug.
By June, 2011, the cast included, in addition to Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, and the Korean star Doona Bae. The Wachowskis moved to Berlin to join Tykwer, with the financing still in flux. Lana and Andy were going to direct the nineteenth-century story and the two set in the future, while Tykwer took the narratives set in the thirties, the seventies, and the present. The plan was to work with two different crews but to collaborate closely.
Around Thanksgiving, I visited the set in Babelsberg and sat behind the Wachowskis as they shot a scene from the post-Fall story line, in which Hanks’s Zachry takes Meronym (Berry), one of the last of a tribe known as the Prescients, people who still have some access to pre-Fall technology, to a defunct satellite-communication center, where she hopes to put out a call for salvation for her people. Old Georgie (Weaving), a hallucinated devil whom Zachry can’t shake, urges him to kill her. (In addition to Zachry and the malevolent Dr. Goose, Hanks also plays a thieving hotelier in the thirties, a nuclear scientist in the seventies, a memoir-writing thug in the present, and an actor who plays Timothy Cavendish in a movie in the twenty-second century.)
Berry was suffering from a cold that day, in addition to her sore foot, so the Wachowskis were working on closeups of Hanks and Weaving and hoping that she would be well enough to shoot in the afternoon. There was no apparent anxiety on the set. The Wachowskis were casual and relaxed. A second camera was added, and they discussed the setup with their director of photography, John Toll, a 1995 Academy Award winner for “Legends of the Fall.” Hanks was in his chair, entertaining a crew member. “I work for free. I get paid for waiting,” he quipped, quoting Orson Welles. The Wachowskis decided to use 50-mm. and 100-mm. lenses, going for some extreme closeups and a few “ ‘Batman’ angles.” Lana climbed a ladder to point the viewfinder from above at Hanks’s stand-in. She joked with a camera assistant, while Andy, in a Motörhead T-shirt, began each suggestion to a crew member with “It might be quite nice . . .” When I asked why Lana was always the one looking through the viewfinder, while Andy covered the sight lines and the over-all architecture of the shot, they were stumped by the question. Mitchell refers to the two as “a kite operation”: “Andy is on the ground, handling the spindle, anchored, while Lana is up there, performing the loops.”
Ron Wachowski remembers watching his children direct a scene on the set of “Bound.” Not having discussed anything between themselves, Larry and Andy got up from their chairs to talk separately to the actors, then sat back down without exchanging a word. Each of them already knew what the other one had said. “They have the same picture in their mind without talking,” he told me. “I watched two bodies and one brain.” The phrase “two bodies, one brain” is often deployed by people who have worked with the Wachowskis. According to James McTeigue, who was their first assistant director on the “Matrix” films, “There’s a little bit of myth in it. The unification of mind comes through the filmmaking.” The siblings develop their ideas together, arriving at a common vision after a long process of creative negotiation; by the time they’re on the set, all possible disagreements have been worked out. Their relationship, if anything, has improved since Larry became Lana. “She’s a lot easier to work with than Larry,” Andy told me. “Understandably, Larry had issues, but he could take them out on people. On me. Lana is much more open-minded.” “They have the best marriage I have ever seen” is how Ron Wachowski puts it.
If the Wachowskis have a kind of marriage, their cast and crew are their family. (Toward the end of the shoot, Hanks even took to calling them Mom and Dad.) Steve Skroce, who has storyboarded for them since the “Matrix” films, told me, “After the success of the first ‘Matrix,’ they were able to get points on the box-office, video games, etc. They had a dinner at this great Italian restaurant in Santa Monica and all their key collaborators were invited. At each place setting was a golden envelope with a check inside. I’m not sure who got what, but I know what I received was far beyond what I could ever have guessed or hoped for.”
At Babelsberg’s Stage 9, on one of the two monitor screens, Weaving, as the devil Old Georgie, was now hissing, “Lies . . . nothin’ but lies,” while Hanks’s lower lip trembled. In the script, much depends on whether Zachry will decide to obey Old Georgie’s command to kill Meronym, so Hanks went through a series of takes exploring his moral entanglement. When Old Georgie advised Zachry to “slit her throat,” Weaving relished the succulence of the sibilants, and the directors giggled with joy. The set was rudimentary: the control room of the satellite-communication center would be completed with computer-generated imagery, imagined by the Wachowskis down to the minutest detail. The scene in the control room, for example, features an “orison,” a kind of super-smart egg-shaped phone capable of producing 3-D projections, which Mitchell had dreamed up for the futuristic chapters. The Wachowskis, however, had to avoid the cumbersome reality of having characters running around with egg-shaped objects in their pockets; it had never crossed Mitchell’s mind that that could be a problem. “Detail in the novel is dead wood. Excessive detail is your enemy,” Mitchell told me, squeezing the imaginary enemy between his thumb and index finger. “In film, if you want to show something, it has to be designed.” The Wachowskis’ solution: the orison is as flat as a wallet and acquires a third dimension only when spun. Mitchell, who had been kept in the loop throughout the process (and has a cameo in the film), was boyishly excited by the filmmakers’ “groping toward exactitude.” “I was like Augustus Gloop in the Wonka factory,” he told me. “I’ve witnessed a long sequence of decisions, which I never had to make while writing a book. Intellectually, I know it’s a replacement, but I don’t feel a loss at all.”
Weaving now lowered his voice to reach the outer ranges of whisper, his tongue menacingly close to Hanks’s ear: “How long you goin’ jus’ stand there an’ let a stranger keep fuggin’ your b’liefs up ’n’ down ’n’ in ’n’ out!” The Wachowskis exchanged glances and nods. Hanks’s face tightened into resolution as he walked out of the shot.
Eventually, Ralph Riach recovered from his illness and was able to finish his scenes. The production went over schedule by only a few days, and the shooting of “Cloud Atlas” was completed in December. In March, the Wachowskis and Tykwer flew to Los Angeles to show a hundred-and-seventy-minute cut of the movie to Warner Bros. executives in Burbank. A small group, including Jeff Robinov, the Wachowskis’ former agent and the current president of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, had gathered for the morning screening. The directors were nervous, not only because much depended on the reaction of the studio honchos but also because Hollywood executives were not their ideal audience. If what you’re aiming for is rebellious originality, the suits should have trouble liking and understanding your work. The directors introduced the movie, then left the screening room. When the film was over, the executives tracked them down in a nearby office and delivered a spontaneous burst of applause. “That almost never happens,” Lana said afterward, with a disbelieving head shake. Perhaps, she added, the applause would translate into an enthusiastic marketing campaign—starting with placement of the “Cloud Atlas” trailer before “The Dark Knight Rises,” Warner’s flagship 2012 summer release. (In the event, that didn’t pan out.)
The Wachowskis had told me that one of the “orgasmic” moments in their filmmaking process is showing a movie to their friends and family. I attended that screening, later the same day. “Cloud Atlas,” I discovered, would have been the perfect movie for a Wachowski family film orgy. It seemed poised to usher audiences into an era of imaginative adventure filmmaking beyond the mindless nihilism of “Transformers” or “Resident Evil.” The movie carefully guided the viewer through its six story lines with just enough intriguing unfamiliarity, while succeeding—nearly miraculously—in creating a sense of connectedness among the myriad characters and retaining Mitchell’s idea of the universality of love, pain, loss, and desire. Doona Bae, who plays (among others) Sonmi~451, the “fabricant” who evolves into full humanity in 2144, was a revelation. The Wachowskis’ formal boldness, balanced with heartwarming redemption, was a perfect match for Tykwer’s precise filmmaking and gorgeous music. (He and his musical partners composed the “Cloud Atlas” soundtrack before shooting even started.) In addition to applause at this screening, there were tears and triumphant hugs. The Wachowskis and Tykwer were visibly touched. Their rocket ship had reached its cosmic port. (The movie will première at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and open nationwide on October 26th.)
The previous fall, the “Cloud Atlas” production had spent six weeks on location in Mallorca. The Wachowskis were shooting scenes set on the Prophetess, the schooner on which much of the nineteenth-century story takes place. The filming proved challenging—the weather was not coöperative; the ship was hard to maneuver; shooting in its cramped spaces was difficult—but through it all Lana had, she said, “a self-awareness of gathering memories . . . a sense of witnessing” something extraordinary. More than ever before, she was convinced that the experience of making “Cloud Atlas” was going to be special.
One day, the siblings had planned a helicopter shot of a nearby mountain. Andy and Lana hoped to swoop down from above with an aerial camera. But, as the helicopter was ascending, a mass of clouds moved in, and the Wachowskis and the camera crew found themselves lost in whiteness. While waiting for the fog to disperse, the helicopter climbed above it. “The sun was butterscotch yellow,” Lana recalled. “And there it all was, you know—an atlas of clouds.” She and Andy watched the celestial landscape until a hole opened in the cloud bank and the helicopter was able to sink through it and below to discover the verdant landscape of their imaginary world. ♦
Published in the print edition of the September 10, 2012, issue.