The Wachowski Siblings became their own brand over a decade ago with the first The Matrix film. Between the five directorial features under their figurative belts from 1996's Bound to 2008's Speed Racer, the Wachowskis clearly have eclectic tastes. "We want to be challenged and we want to find something to do that’s new and different," Andy Wachowski said. "This movie in particular was an opportunity to do something. Talk about breaking down convention, the idea of working with another director who we admire so much and had a love affair with his movies and him, the man himself, and the idea of bringing our two crews together who in a way are extensions of us, and all getting into a sandbox and playing together sounded like something that would be life-altering to us. So when those opportunities present themselves to you, you have to jump at them."
Their earnest embrace of big challenges is, oddly, represented by the presence of the siblings at a press event. Throughout their mutual career, the duo has eschewed the spotlight, deliberately opting out of promotion for The Matrix movies and Speed Racer entirely. With Cloud Atlas, however, both have been front and center in selling this labor of love.
"We didn’t mean it as a rejection of this process or a rejection of the people in this process," Lana Wachowski explained of their reluctance to be public figures. "We feel that anonymity allows you a way to participate in the world, and particularly participate in civic space. Once you lose your anonymity, that door, that access to that way of being is denied to you. And we didn’t want to give that up. We love that aspect of our lives, of our humanity and we didn’t want to lose it. In the end, we met this beautiful human being. Just like in the movie, encountering someone can change your life. We encountered him. He does engage in this process. He told us, 'Don’t be afraid.' And he engages in it in a very authentic and very I think inspiring way, and at the same time, the movie itself is about engagement with the world, that if you want to imagine a better world, the only way to achieve that better world is a process of engagement. And we wanted to maybe help make the world, or at least help participate in the imagining of another world, so here we are, engaged."
The actual production of Cloud Atlas had the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer shooting simultaneously with their own crews, swapping actors from day to day. The process may sound unwieldy and potentially disastrous, but according to Andy, it was completely natural for all three, as he said, "Ourselves being sort of natural collaborators the way we write and the way we participate, we embrace the social aspect of filmmaking, that it’s a social art form. The fact that it’s a conscious act that we don’t take 'A film by' credit because we’re aware that the whole crew is the collective that make the movie. So ideologically, Tom is sort of sympatico with that. The way that he’s made his movie with the same people over and over again because he goes into the process in an act of love, so he’s extraordinarily collaborative as a director."
As a result, the film features myriad instances where the stories recall one another. "There is an organic thing in the DNA of the movie that is constantly reflecting. It’s like a hall of mirrors in a way," Andy asserted.
Tykwer replied, "It’s beautiful you say that because I don't think we had an explicit discussion about shooting it to make it similar but it’s this kind of thing that we were so in tune obviously that things really turned out to be even connected when we had not discussed everything to the detail, and we had discussed a lot of course to be prepped as much as we could. It’s beautiful."
For most of the principal cast, the approach to Cloud Atlas found them playing six different characters, undergoing extensive makeup and costume changes from day to day in order to inhabit the various segments of the film. For Halle Berry, that meant the opportunity to portray individuals well outside her wheelhouse. "I loved every second of it," she enthused. "And only if it had not been for a movie like this that required each person to play all of these characters, to fulfill the kind of the theme of the movie, nobody would have ever picked me to play a Jewish German woman or an Asian man. I mean ever! There was a knowingness when this was all happening that this was pretty special and as artists we should soak in every moment of what this process is and really every day that Ovid stuff was on to like really enjoy what that felt like and what that was about."
Despite the obvious logistical challenges, Tom Hanks said that the sheer number of characters he was called upon to play was never debilitating, as he explained, "We always knew who we were playing the next day. We'd read the call sheet at the end of the day so we knew where we were going to have to be and how long it was going to take to do it. Sometimes you make films where you're playing the same guy, but you go to six different locations, you shoot part of it in Iceland, you shoot part of it in the Sahara Desert, you shoot part of it in L.A. This was like that, but squared, or cubed, it was like an algorithm because the concentration and the output of each one of the characters was so completely different, they all required a different energy. They all required a different kind of vibe that you can't carry you all day and they all felt different because the costume and the makeup literally changed the way you stood or sat or tried to take a nap on occasion. It was almost like a huge amount of the quote unquote work was done for us. So much of what we have to do is pretend it's happening for the first time. And this movie literally everyday you're doing something they will never, ever be repeated again because that character's going go away in another day or two."
"It was so much fun," Berry added. "I can't remember the last time I had this much fun on a movie. There's one day my daughter came up as I was dressed as Dr. Ovid and she loved coming to see all the different characters and she liked most of them. But this day I just said, 'You're going to come see mommy's new character.' So she walked up and she saw this old man and she was a little frightened of him because he's got this thing on his eye and she's like, 'What the heck's that?' And then I walked up to her and she was kind of a little scared of just who this man was and then when I said, 'Hi honey!' I mean her wheels came off and she took off running in the other direction. She was just traumatized."
"She's never been the same," Hanks joked. "She started smoking since then. A four year-old smoking cigarettes."
As surreal as playing a California reporter one day and an emissary for an advanced civilization the next might be, Berry said that it was even stranger interacting with her co-stars. "What was really dizzying and even more fun was to see everybody else," she explained. "I had conversations one day with Hugh Grant for five minutes and had no idea he was fully in his character and I didn't even know until five minutes I was like, 'Oh no, Hugh! I'm talking to Hugh!?' I had no idea. So to see everybody else sit in the makeup trailer and be transformed and little by little put pieces on and walk out of there somebody you know when I first saw Hugo [Weaving] as Nurse Noakes, I just about fell out. I mean that was one of the funniest images that I've ever seen and then he's out there smoking talking in this deep voice, but looking like this woman."
All the different roles were a function of the co-writers' attempt to accomplish what seems impossible: replicating the experience of reading Mitchell's novel, which is structured like a Russian nesting doll, with five stories split in half around one complete story in the middle, so that the book both begins and ends with the same story.
Rather than simply move that structure to the film, Tykwer and the Wachowskis were less literal, as Tywker said, "It was fun that we were thinking that if you look at the book, if you read it and then think about it and memorize it, it’s different than the process of reading it because somehow in remembering it, all the stories merge. They become one tale. Once we had discussed and analyzed this experience, we kind of go, 'So the movie should reach out to this experience.' Actually, we were saying, 'Let’s make a movie that represents the experience post-read, where this is one unified tale.' And we knew that we would have to find a different structural approach cinematically, as opposed to the book because you wouldn’t really want to start over again and again every thirteen minutes into a movie, and then after two hours open up a new book of new characters and stuff."
Andy Wachowski picked up from there, explaining, "When you pull apart the book, when you pull apart the fiber of the book and the genetic structure into these molecules and you lay the stories out, you’re constantly having breakthroughs because the book is so brilliant in that way that it’s meant to feel—I mean, the structure of the book is a palindrome, right? So the first story is also the last story and the center story is sort of the top of the pyramid. Just the way that David Mitchell wrote it, it’s like you can feel how each of these little things connect so constantly you’re noticing the similarities in between them."
"Yeah, but the goal of David Mitchell’s splicing the six stories together is to make you as a reader start thinking about the ways that the stories are interconnected," Lana said. "And they’re reflecting and they’re resonant and the structures are the same and characters and challenges are the same so the goal that he had was the same as our goal, that he wanted to dissolve the barriers between these genres and tones and time periods and suggest this larger work, this larger idea, this larger humanity, understanding of humanity. And in the same way, that was our goal with the film. That interweaving way that we did it represents perhaps what Tom’s saying, is the way that the book ultimately works on your brain."
Replicating the feel of Mitchell's novel meant finding cinematic equivalents to the book's motifs. One of the biggest in the film is the score, which is composed largely by Twyker himself. Unifying six stylistically varied stories over an almost three-hour film was no simple task, Tykwer answered when asked about the particular challenges. "Challenging, yes," the German director said. "And of course it’s exciting because you know you make it a character itself. Music becomes a character for the movie. As much as we realize the more we were working on it the more it was clear that there was an operatic structure involved to the film, connected to the film. There was an operatic module that would help connect the dots of it. The individual challenge and beauty of it was that treating the music as a character with several incarnation and reincarnations would again help and support the togetherness of all the elements that the movie’s constructed of. If you take the Sextet as this example, Frobisher composes a thing in the ‘30s that hardly survives, but does survive in a few record shops with a few vinyls and then we can revisit it. What we’ve heard in the ‘30s we can find again in the ‘70s when Luisa Rey discovers the record in this record shop being sold by the actor who played the composer which is of course so fun. And then it somehow still survives but not as what it initially was, but as elevator music style stuff that you might not even have realized the Muzak that’s being placed in the elderly home when Cavendish is saying, 'I want to get out of here. This is a violation.' The music, the piano stuff is actually the sextet again."
The film is a sprawling collection of stories that may very well leave some viewers scratching their heads, but the connections between all six stories run from complex to sublimely simple. As Tom Hanks said, the film's ultimate narrative is easy to spot. "Every one of them is fighting against this brand of cosmic injustice that is completely defined by the era that they are in," he explained. "So that by the time you get to the end of it, [Meronym] is fighting to stay alive because radiation is actually killing her and Zachry is trying to escape the primitive dangers of these cannibals that are trying to kill him. So, it’s all variations and versions of freedom from slavery, or the embrace of freedom that you cannot comprehend. Hugh Grant always talks about the status quo and the natural order of things. In every one of those generations, the natural order of things enslaves people, and it shows that some people are meant to be kept down, and you just can’t change things. Well, that’s not what the human condition or human history has proven, again and again and again and again. I’m not saying that that was on the forefront of what we were doing, every day. Every day, we were just trying to figure out, 'Is this a real moment? Does this make sense?' But, in the minds of mom, dad and Tom – the geniuses who were our bosses – they knew that. They were slowly shepherding to that, and they kept adding these little dollops of what that connection is. I just think that’s friggin’ extraordinary."
Cloud Atlas arrives on regular-sized and jumbo-sized IMAX screens nationwide this Friday, October 26th. It's a big, bold, experiment of a movie that's unlike anything you've seen before, so get in line.