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. As a film that confronts viewers from its first scene, with the floating head of a narrator addressing the audience directly, 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. "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. 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-between-ness and betwixt-ness and . . ."
"Non-binary," 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. "It's a social process. It's why I think cinema has such an impact on our society. There's an essence to it that has almost a broader connectedness in a way, sometimes. 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. But as artists that seek to "transcend conventions," as Lana puts it, they considered this challenge paramount.
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. Pre-sale bids from potential distributors interested in releasing the film internationally were so low that investors got scared off at a time when they could not afford to be lost. Knowing how unconventional their film would be, the Wachowskis, along with producer Grant Hill, who also had 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 them 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's a decision that the Wachowskis and Tykwer knew might alienate investors, but bullishly resisting that kind of counterintuitive casting is integral to the film.
"Having actors play different races and different tribes is already generating conversation," Lana says, somewhat warily. She then launches into a blustery imitation of a hypothetical detractor: "'You can't have this kind of person play this kind of race. That's wrong!'"
Andy spurs her on: "'How dare you.'"
Lana says it again: "'You can't have this kind of person play this kind of race! That's wrong!'"
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. I want to go back.'"
She elaborates: "Growing up, fantasy was the world as the world would never be, and science fiction was the world — filled with problems and ideas — as it could be. We were always drawn more to science fiction than to fantasy. There's a lot of people who wanted Neo to go up and throw the magic ring into the volcano and banish all of the evil demons. But for us, science fiction has always been an experimental genre."
"All movies are essentially matrixes," Lana suggests. "You plug in, you're in tune, the movie tells what you think, what to feel, how to behave. You go out, and it almost tells you who to be in relationship to the movie. From the very beginning, we thought that The Matrix is the most matrix-y of the three movies: It works the way other movies work.
"So the second movie is about destroying everything we've built in the first. And then the third movie is 'Well, now what are you going to do?' Now you have to participate in the construction of meaning. We wanted to see if we could change the moviegoing experience, a passive experience, into an active experience. And people resented it."
Andy recalls the fiercely negative comment they received from a test screening to 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."
Tykwer's recent films are likewise shaped by a drive to challenge audiences to expect and accept unconventional conclusions, include the manic/erotic drama Three, the it's-the-economy-stupid thriller The International, and the bewitching adult fairy tale Perfume: Story of a Murderer. Tykwer says that, when making Perfume, the most substantial change he made was in the protagonist's rationale for suicide: In the movie, it's not because the character hates humanity but because he feels he has failed to connect with it. Tykwer says, "It's that longing for connection and that failure to find it that makes the film's ending something other than: 'Oh, humanity sucks. Let's all die.'"
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, "Okay, 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."