The Wachowskis Finally Revealed in an Excellent New Yorker Profile
Ever since movie fans, myself included, were awe-struck and amazed by The Matrix in 1999, they've been trying to learn more about the two individuals behind the technically groundbreaking film, Lana (formerly Larry) and Andy Wachowski. But they have been notoriously shy. They added a no-press clause to their contract for Matrix, and have never done press since. But 13 years have passed, and all of that now changes. Not only with their appearance in the Cloud Atlas trailer intro, but they're now doing press. And the New Yorker has published a phenomenal 8-page, start-to-finish profile on the filmmakers, their life, and their career, leading directly into the making of, and delivery of, their most ambitious movie yet - Cloud Atlas.
The New Yorker's piece is titled "The Wachowskis' World beyond The Matrix", written by Aleksandar Hemon, and fully details their entire history, from early origins and family background, to every film they've made (except Speed Racer) and studio troubles along the way. Whenever an in-depth profile like this is published, I anxiously read every word. That was the case here, but I couldn't stop reading, caught up in every last detail being revealed. It's an incredible piece, getting into every rumor anyone has had about them and their movies and beyond. The focus, however, is mostly Cloud Atlas, premiering later this week at TIFF.
The most I can say is to honestly just read the entire piece in full, even if you don't like the Wachowskis (or the Matrix sequels). It's fascinating, and they cover some brilliant topics regarding their work. For example:
"'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.
They also go on to cover the origins of Bound, The Matrix (and the struggles they went through making the sequels) as well as the idea behind the still-unseen project Cobalt Neural 9 ("grown out of their frustration with the Bush Presidency and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan"). However, I'm excited about Cloud Atlas. Not only is it their latest feature film since Speed Racer in 2008, but it looks amazing. Not just visually amazing, but it looks like it gets into the meaning of life and humanity itself. Here's one of my favorite quotes about their process of breaking down the six storylines in David Mitchell's novel to turn into a script:
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.
But the final breakthrough on bringing these stories together was the idea of using the same actors playing different roles in each storyline (as we highlighted here). "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." It's one of the aspects of Cloud Atlas that I'm the most excited to see, to watch how Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving and Halle Berry play six different characters, it should be enchanting.
The other interesting topic discussed often is how many struggles they've had with movie studios, including even Warner Bros, who is releasing Cloud Atlas, but not after refusing to fund or make the movie for many years simply because it compared too much to the (financial failure of) The Fountain, one of their past movies. ("It is hard to grasp how often this movie has been dead and resurrected," Lana said of Cloud Atlas.) What a joke. Which is pretty much what they say, too. Another one of my favorite quotes from the piece:
"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.
Damn straight. Just because The Fountain failed to find its audience doesn't mean Cloud Atlas will fail, too. It also doesn't mean it will succeed either. And I've heard both Warner Bros and the Wachowskis' say that this is all just a big experiment. A very artistic, very original, very ambitious experiment, one that could pay off in spades like The Matrix, but only if the studio is as confident in it as these two are. That seems to be the case ("a spontaneous burst of applause"), but their push hasn't been strong yet. However, the movie is premiering at the Toronto Film Festival this coming Saturday, September 9th. I'll be there. I wouldn't be anywhere else - in the entire world. I can't wait for this cinematic experience (even if I end up disliking it).
Suffice it to say, this New Yorker profile is one of the best I've ever read about filmmakers, the kind I truly admire and consider an inspiration for the way the rest of us should conduct interviews. Thanks for finally coming out and telling your stories, Andy and Lana. Let's hope this Cloud Atlas "experiment" is as fruitful as we're all hoping. So that these two can continue to tell more original, exciting, ambitious cinematic stories.