It's a Sunday afternoon in New York, and Tom Tykwer and the filmmakers formerly known as the Wachowski Brothers are talking about Zardoz, that odd and ambitious 1974 science-fiction drama most infamous for featuring a gun-vomiting godhead and Sean Connery in a mankini. Zardoz was a big-budget, big-studio (20th Century Fox) release that encouraged its viewers to leave the theater and remake society from scratch.
The talk had started with the filmmakers' key influences and guiding philosophy, but when Zardoz comes up, the filmmakers perk up. Lana Wachowski chuckles while Tykwer leans in closer.
"We're John Boorman fans," he says of the maker of Zardoz. "You've got three of them right at this table."
That shouldn't surprise viewers of Cloud Atlas, the trio's adaptation of David Mitchell's modernist brick of a novel, opening this week. Something like Zardoz's radical ethos — specifically its relentless drive toward taking viewers out of their comfort zones — is what is strived for with this elaborate, periods-spanning fantasy that follows multiple characters over the course of six different times from the 19th Century to the distant future.
"It was a very different world," Tykwer says about 1973, the year Zardoz was produced. "That's a big part of it," Andy Wachowski agrees.
Together, Tykwer and the Wachowskis talk like one cohesive unit composed of autonomous individuals. Their thoughts complement one another's, they sometimes finish one another's sentences, and when they all agree, they excitedly talk over one another. When asked how they feel about The Matrix sequels years after their release, Tykwer jumps in but almost immediately stops himself. "I'm sorry," he tells them, "I'm answering for you."
"To be is to be perceived," Lana replies.
Tykwer continues: "I'm grateful that filmgoers are finally watching the [Wachowskis' films] without the expectation that they're product first and art second."
No one should mistake Cloud Atlas for anything but art first. Personal art, even."It's an obvious extension of my life, and our lives, in some ways," Lana suggests, nodding to Andy. "Paradox and ambiguity and in-betweenness and betwixtness and..."
"Nonbinary," Andy says at the same time as Lana.
"Our lives are not our own," Lana says. "That's one of the exquisite paradoxes of the human condition: You're this singular, autonomous human being. And yet you're not."
Being a duo means the Wachowskis in some ways likely surrender some autonomy to each other. But they've certainly done all they can to make their lives their own. Lana, formerly Larry, has changed genders; the former brothers now joke that they should be called "Starship Wachowski."
"You cannot make a movie alone," Andy says. "Our relationship and the desire to nourish that relationship is in the process of making the film."
Not that making the film was easy, of course. Cloud Atlas proved a famously difficult film not only to produce but also to distribute. With a budget of an estimated $140 million and a 200-page script — about twice the size of the average movie — the Wachowskis and Tykwer knew their project would be a tough sell.
One of the biggest obstacles came after a well-received presentation they delivered to a roomful of potential international distributors at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Presale bids from potential distributors interested in releasing the film internationally were so low that investors got scared off. Knowing how unconventional their film would be, the Wachowskis, along with producer Grant Hill, who had also worked with the pair on the Matrix sequels and Speed Racer, opted for an equally unconventional financing scheme. Instead of offering distributors the chance to sell Cloud Atlas to the exhibitors in their respective territories, they offered equity. So when investors pulled out after Cannes, it set the project back significantly.
Still, from conception to postproduction, the Wachowskis and Tykwer held faith in Cloud Atlas. One of their more outré ideas is that the multiethnic cast, including African-American character actor Keith David and South Korean actress Bae Doona, play characters of different races: At one point, David is made to look Korean, while Bae is made to don, for lack of a better word, whiteface.
It has long been a Wachowski goal to expand what audiences will accept. They aspired toward nothing less than expanded consciousness with The Matrix and its sequels, the last of which was critically reviled. "People hated it," Lana recalls. "They said: 'I want to go back into my pod.'"
Andy recalls the fiercely negative comment they received from a test screening of their 1996 erotic thriller Bound, complaining that the film featured a "typical Hollywood ending." Andy asked, "Well, up until that point, when had you seen two lesbians ride off into the sunset?" And when the Wachowskis made their live-action adaptation of Speed Racer, they aimed for a cheerfully naive optimism that evokes, as Andy puts it, "a Frank Capra film for kids."
Lana enumerates some grander goals for Speed Racer: "A cubist modern art film, and transcend the incredibly limited palette of aesthetics that's in modern cinema."
Both Tykwer and the Wachowskis look back on the '70s as a magical period when a mad pop artist like Boorman could potentially reach mass audiences with Zardoz. They also have high hopes for the future of digital filmmaking.
"We're optimistic in the artists more so than the technology," Andy says. "We were just in that documentary Side by Side, that movie Keanu [Reeves] directed about digital filmmaking, and there were a lot of people that were staunch..."
"Fundamentalists," Lana jeers.
"'You can take the film stock from my cold, dead hands,'" Andy says, again adopting a dissenting voice from outside Starship Wachowski. He comes back to himself and responds, "OK, but you're closing yourself off from so many options by not being able to use these tools."
"What I'm excited about with digital is also happening in the creation of narrative," Lana says. "There are a lot of people, like [nihilistic French novelist] Michel Houellebecq, who I'm sure would disagree. But I believe inherent in any artist's work is an optimistic truth. That the very creation of art is in itself an act of optimism."