I absolutely loved Cloud Atlas. I loved the way directors Andy & Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer broke the conventional rules of storytelling. I love the way all the actors played multiple roles. I love the combination of genres. Finally, I loved that even though the film plays out over hundreds of years and it features a variety of characters and races, Cloud Atlas reminds us that everything is connected. While everyone loves to complain that Hollywood is only about remakes, reboots and telling the same stories again and again, Cloud Atlas is a shining light showing us what’s possible in cinema and I implore all of you to see it as soon as possible.
Last week I did an exclusive phone interview with the Wachowskis and Tykwer. Since they’ve done a number of interviews to promote the film, I tried my best to ask all new questions. We talked about their favorite movies, how long was the first cut, if they believe in test screenings or friends and family screenings, deleted scenes, what will be on the Blu-ray, how many takes do they like to do, how much changed during pre-production due to budget, how the finished film compares to what they thought they were making, and more. In addition, one of my favorite movies from 2008 was Speed Racer. At the end of the interview I asked if they had plans for a sequel (had the film been a hit at the box office) and why it didn’t connect with moviegoers. Hit the jump to listen or read the transcript.
As usual, I’m offering you two ways to get this interview: you can either click here for the audio or the full transcript is below. Cloud Atlas is now in theaters.
Note: After ten or so minutes, Tom Tykwer had to leave. He’s not just being silent.
Collider: So what’s this day been like for you? Because I believe you’ve been doing press all day.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: And we think we’re going to do this for a living actually, we just love talking. It’s the best. If we could find a way to just do this.
TYKWER: It’s a bit… I mean it’s unfortunate, I’m sorry you, you know, you are one of our last, so we are starting to have a little of a meltdown-y situation here. But honestly we are actually sitting here because we’re so- you know, we love the movie, we are really proud of it and we want to talk, we want people to talk about it. We can sense that there is an urge to communicate about it, and that there is a spark that the movie sets off that has to do with the fact that it makes you want to discuss it, which of course is very satisfying about it.
Yeah, I’m going to start by saying that it was my favorite film at the Toronto Film Festival. I absolutely love this work. I know you’ve answered a lot of the same questions, so I’m going to try to hit you up with at least a few things that you haven’t been asked. I hope.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Alright.
LANA WACHOWSKI: We don’t mind, whatever you want to ask is fine.
I always like to ask directors if they have any favorite movies or favorite directors, and I know it’s such a big question because there’s so many great movies and great directors out there, but are there a few films for each of you that really resonate with you to the point that if they’re ever on cable you have to watch them? Or if you’re feeling down you have to watch it?
LANA WACHOWSKI: Got it. Here’s one. It was an encounter that happened after we had finished Speed Racer and there was something quite depressing in peoples uh…uh….
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Reception.
LANA WACHOWSKI: Well rejection of any aesthetic exploration that was outside the boundaries of the typical, conventional aesthetics of cinema. And at that moment I was feeling really crappy about the aesthetic direction of cinema, and especially the dialogue around the aesthetics of cinema. And I went to my favorite- one of my favorite theatres in Chicago that had been a sustaining force, an inspiring force when I was much younger, it’s a small, tiny place called Facets, and they were screening You the Living. And I watched You the Living, directed by Roy Andersson, and it was so unbelievable and it was so- it was an aesthetic experience, and as an audience member I had never seen anything like it. He had created something so idiosyncratic, so original, so vast in its representation of humanity. I instantly felt an association with Chekov and the way that Chekov understands the more dark, more selfish, narcissistic, destructive nature of humanity and yet he never stops loving humanity. And Roy Andersson has the same compassion, the same ability to dissect us and see us for all of our faults and yet is still able to embrace us and find humor and joy in the human condition. This movie did everything I needed. It was like a resurrection and I was inspired again, and since then I watched the movie, I don’t know, twenty times and I can’t stop watching it. I am so excited about his new movie, I actually made a pilgrimage to meet him and see how he works. Anyway Roy Andersson, that’s one. Was that too ramble-y?
No, no. I would rather hear a passionate answer than a throwaway, “I like, you know, Bringing up Baby”.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Do you know Roy Andersson?
I do not. No.
LANA WACHOWSKI: Songs from the Second Floor and You the Living; they will change your life.
On my list of things to see, but has not been there yet, I’ve not seen it yet. But there’s two people who have not answered yet, I’m just curious if you have quick answers, or even long answers.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: We were just talking to David Mitchell last night; we were going through the same thing with David Mitchell and he was asking us what movies that we- and so we gave him our Hollywood box set. And that is-
LANA WACHOWSKI: If you want to understand Hollywood.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful, All About Eve, The Player and Barton Fink.
Those are some really good movies.
TYKWER: Yeah, it’s a good package for somebody who says, “I don’t really know how Hollywood works.” Go, “Hey, check this out, make it a day and then you know.” And off the track and off the regular beat- the movie I actually recently saw the second time, and the movie that will probably stay with me for quite a long time the movie from this crazy Thailandeese, Thai? Do you say Thai- filmmaker called Apichatpong Weerasethakul – have you heard of him?
I might have not, what’s the title of the film?
TYKWER: It’s called Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives and he’s a Thai filmmaker who’s like, I think like us, really interested in- and of course it’s a completely different aesthetic as much as Roy Andersson is a completely different aesthetic in a way, but there’s a substantial structural interest in, you know, shaking up the ways linear filmmaking has become this kind of rule system. And just going elsewhere with grace and without any ostentatious attitude, but just by sheer pleasure of exploration where else can you just go or stop or make breaks? And there’s this movie where, you know, it’s actually about ghosts and spirits of people who died or who might die, and they just appear as if it, the movie handles it as if it were the most normal thing, as if you know a waiter comes in and asks for your coffee and there’s a ghost sitting down on your seat next to you, and you just start talking to them. And the movie is just so incredible in handling seemingly very spiritual things as part of our existence. That the borders between, you know, between real and supernatural and all of that, they completely blend. And it’s an incredibly beautiful film. So as we take this chance to introduce people to a little more unusual, and the fact that of course I think most people know we also do love 2001 and things that are more- on more peoples list. This is the stuff that makes us really go and move on with what we’re trying.
I also like it when filmmakers that a lot of people respect, when they list the movies that they’re really into because hopefully it does inspire people to seek out these things that maybe they wouldn’t before. But I definitely want to jump into why I’m getting to talk to you today. I’m fascinated by the behind the scenes aspect of film making. I’m curious with Cloud Atlas, how long was your first cut when you first got in the editing room?
ANDY WACHOWSKI: The editors first past was three hours and forty-five minutes.
When, now obviously that has everything, the head and tail, it has all the scenes, when you first did your first cut after that how long was the film?
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Two hours and fifty-seven minutes. We’re particular stat hounds when we get into the editing room. And our first question was, “How long was it? How long was it?” And they told us at that time that it was three hours and thirty minutes, and so we were getting close to our first pass and getting very excited because getting under three hours we knew was going to be a task. And just as we were closing to finish, probably within a couple days, they came in and said, “We made a mistake it was actually three hours and forty minutes.”
LANA WACHOWSKI: Forty-seven minutes.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Forty-seven minutes. And we were just getting close, and we had to get it under three hours, so it was- but I don’t think we ended up even cutting a single scene; it was just tightening the screws on it.
Do you believe in the test-screening process, are you more a fan of the friends and family screenings, and what did you learn when you first showed cloud atlas for the first time?
LANA WACHOWSKI: Well, that usually starts with a screening for ourselves. We usually do a pretty elaborate kind of editorial temp and we have Tom’s music and we massage the music a bit, and then we screen it for ourselves. And the first screening was kind of a shock and a revelation because your instinct would be that, or your intuition would be that cinema is a medium that would allow you to travel faster than the written word in terms of the narrative story telling. And what we discovered was that your eye across the page could actually sort of comprehend the connectivity and the transitional nature of the cuts, the juxtaposition much faster and much better than the film, the cinema version. We found that cinema actually was so assaultive at that speed that the connectivity was being lost, you couldn’t keep up, it was moving too fast. So we realized that we had to back off and restructure the first three reels to let people sort of get into it. So we kept the opening kind of intense.
But that was always, that scene had always been written- I wrote the first ten pages on the plane on the way down to Costa Rica as sort of an experiment and when I read it to tom and Andy they, they, instantly their eyes lit up and they saw that the mosaic structure was the key. So we kept that, but then after that we slowed down and let each of the six separate stories progress until a narrative hook was set, and they we were able to sort of say to the audience through Chang if you want you can stay here, or you can come with me. We’re sort of saying to the audience, “You can come with us.” And then we get back into an interweaving mosaic structure. But I will say that the friends and family screenings are always, their probably the most insightful screenings we have. We have a lot of cinepheliacs in our friends and family, and they understand aesthetics and they understand cinematic storytelling and they always have great insights and great notes. And it’s also the most rewarding because when they love something we feel, we feel really positive about it.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Yea the first one of the main friends and family screenings was funny because some of them before the movie started, there was this, you could sense that there was a slight nervousness or apprehension among them and you know we weren’t sure what it was. We put them in the movie theatre, got the film going and partially we started to understand what was going on. All of these people were huge, huge fans of the book. So when the movie was over they all came out and there was this like gushing positivity about it and what we found out later was that it was release. That they had gone into the screening with such apprehension because they had no idea how the film, how the book was going to translate to the film. They didn’t think that we would be able to do it. So they were worried about how they were going to break it to us or how they were going to lie between their teeth, that, “Oh yea it was really good, it was really good, I liked that one part.” But they came out and they were, you know, they were very, very positive.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: It was pretty funny.
I’m definitely curious though, as a fan of the film, and speaking for all the fans out there who will want to see if there are deleted scenes, are there deleted scenes that you are planning on putting on the eventual Blu-Ray?
LANA WACHOWSKI: We don’t usually do that, because we are usually in love with the final product. I mean the final piece of art is usually the one that represents what we were attempting to achieve. So it kind of suggests that there’s incompleteness, or there’s something that is lost due to whatever logistical or financial studio constraint. And this movie is, we had final cut on this film, and every single edit is- that was part of the process, which was so fun, was that we wouldn’t stop cutting until all three of us loved the cut. If one of us thought, “Eh, I’m not sure about that transition” or “I’m not sure about that cut.” We would keep massaging it or keep working on it until all three of us thought it was right.
So basically, no deleted scenes.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Um, sorry.
[Laughs] No, no, no its fine, I’m just curious.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: For number one there aren’t that many, there’s like dialogue trims and things like that, maybe there’s like one or two deleted scenes, and you know they were good scenes, but they were just, we just had to kill those babies.
LANA WACHOWSKI: We found that, we often find that the baby killing is really where the final cut is made, where you have these incredibly hard intense decisions but you know it’s for the better of the complete work; the total work is improved by the edit.
I’m always curious about the amount of takes that a director likes to do. Some people prefer the Clint Eastwood method of two takes, some people prefer the fifty to a hundred takes of David Fincher or Kubrick. What is your comfort level, what do you like to do, and what is the most you’ve ever done?
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Well, we’ve run the gamut actually. I think we’ve come to this happy medium where it’s about our satisfaction and it’s about the actor’s satisfaction. And all actors are different, you know, there are actors who they put everything into their first few takes and then they go down, they go downhill and they become lost so you try to shoot them out in as little takes as possible. And then there are actors who like to massage their performance and like to try things. So we, for us I think we’ve reached this point in our careers where we let the actor decide a little bit more than it’s about where we are, Because, it’s a collaboration between them and us. But, the most we’ve ever done, I don’t know, it might be too embarrassing to say, to reveal.
[Laughs] I’m curious in the pre-production process, obviously you had a lot of money, but no movie ever has the exact amount of money that you would love to have. How did things change in the pre-production process to get to the budget that you eventually had?
LANA WACHOWSKI: Well the first budget that was done was probably twice the amount of money that we ended up with. And the making of the movie was this arduous, agonizing, challenging trail of tears in which the finances would come together and fall apart and then we would think we would have the total we needed and then somebody would drop out and then we would have to make more cuts. We got to this one number though and we just felt we could not get another dollar out of the budget, and it seemed that the financing had come to a place where the actors were going to travel, and then just as they were about to travel this one financier, this one bank collapsed and there was suddenly this huge gap between this number and what we had, and the bank said they would not close the loan unless that gap was filled. So the choice became is there a way to cut enough material to make up the gap, and we couldn’t imagine a way to cut any more and so we basically put our houses up, put up the mortgages of our house and finance that gap ourselves.
So, you know, that’s a “wow” statement.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Yeah, well we were so close, you know, we had put so much of our lives into this and we couldn’t not make it at that point.
LANA WACHOWSKI: Yeah, it was more preferable to be homeless than to not make this piece of art.
Obviously when you have a script and you’re getting things ready and then you get on set, things can change and the final film can sometimes be nothing like what you set out to make for whatever reason. I’m curious how the finished film compares to what you thought you were making when you first started.
LANA WACHOWSKI: We never have that experience.
For some people they do.
LANA WACHOWSKI: All of our movies are pretty good representations of our script.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Yeah, I mean, you know there was an evolutionary process, were not so rigid that we can’t, we never feel like- writing is rewriting and we never feel like you can’t ever improve a script, or improve an edit and so you know we were talking earlier about the editing and the rhythm. It’s like the editing and they rhythm and the timing of the finished film was something that wasn’t necessarily that had to do with the number of frames, it was often you would feel like the movie wasn’t working rhythmically because of what happened when you went from one tone to the next, and when those two things aren’t suited for one another there is a disjointed quality and it becomes arrhythmic and unsettling and so there was always this struggle that we found because the first cut of the script, or the first cut of the movie was based right strait from the script so there were moment s where on the page we had written this very clever dialogue transition but it was going from you know something very dark to something very funny and it didn’t work so we would massage those areas and find other connections.
Which is sort of what was good about the movie is that it was facile enough and fluid enough that you could easily move scenes around, where you would have, you could cut from a scene with Bill Smoke say, a scene with Hugo Weaving as bill smoke to a scene where Hugo Weaving is Tadeusz Kesselring this German composer in the Frobisher story and suddenly the moment within that seen would infuse it with a sense of danger because we’ve seen Bill Smoke kill six men and suddenly it brought on a new connotation to it. So there were little discoveries that we had made, but in general we were playing it pretty close to where we were on the page.
LANA WACHOWSKI: One of the reasons though that were not just writers, one of the reasons we are filmmakers is because of the joy we experience in watching what we write transform through the artist that were collaborating with. We love watching the description of a room suddenly being brought to life by somebody like Hugh Bateup or a costume, you know, we could not have conceived of the elaborate genius costumes of the Kona warriors.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Yeah, or the fabricants, those paper gowns.
LANA WACHOWSKI: And, you know, our imaginations aren’t that good and one of the reasons that we love making film is that there is this incredible social, almost circus group of artists that come together, and the final really transformative aspect of the page being material is the acting performance and we often experience the same thing that David Mitchell experienced when he came to the read-through and he was sitting around and we let him play some of the parts and he watch watching the actors and his eyes were just like little kid big saucer eyes and a couple time the actors would try things and afterwards he said that he had a whole new appreciation, a whole new respect, a whole new understanding of the art form that is acting. And I think it’s really acting is very misunderstood and is often very denigrated in the understanding of cinema. Because David, who has an amazing imagination he wrote-he said, “I had this line, the way Cavendish says this line in my head and I thought it was so perfect and then I just watched Jim Broadbent whip out four variations on that line and all of them were better than the one that I had in my head.” And when you sit there at the monitor and you watch Tom Hanks fifteen different versions of the line and every one of them is so good-
ANDY WACHOWSKI: And original.
LANA WACHOWSKI: And original and you’re just- their, their one of the great really joyful aspects or one of the real reasons were filmmakers and not just writers.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Sure.
I am a huge, huge- love the movie Speed Racer, it was one of my favorite movies that year, as far as critics, people, whatever I don’t fucking care I love that movie.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Thank you.
LANA WACHOWSKI: Thank You.
I’m definitely curious, why do you think the audience did not connect with it, because for me it was brilliant on so many levels. I’m also curious; did you have ideas for where a sequel could go?
LANA WACHOWSKI: That rocks. We knew the movie was dangerous because where the movie came from was we’re very visual thinking artists, were often drawn to ideas that stimulate our imagination visually, and unfortunately we live in one of the most rigid, or we work in a medium that is one of the most rigid aesthetically. So if you go to an art gallery, particularly a modern art gallery or art museum, or any art museum, you will experience an unbelievable range of aesthetic possibilities, and in cinema pretty much every movie looks exactly the same. I mean maybe you’ll make one a little greener, or maybe one will be a little more dark, but essentially they all look pretty identical.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Particularly around the language of editing.
LANA WACHOWSKI: Yeah, we have always thought that it’s interesting that no one has really done much with the cinematic language of editing. Editing is this very straightforward grammar; it’s like a sentence it begins with a capital letter ends with a period. Every cut is a period. And we thought, well because of computers we actually have the ability to transcend this older language and try something more postmodern the way Joyce and other postmodern writers like Rick Moody have tried to extend the grammar of literature to reflect more the way that we experience the world. We don’t experience the world in sentences and capitols and periods. We experience the world in this like rushing stream of consciousness and connections. And we thought wouldn’t it be amazing to create sequences in a film that are just rushing montages that simulate the way that we actually experience the world. Particularly in like a race or a sports event where its swirling historical memory experience strategy conflict all woven without constructed, falsely constructed sentences. And then that led into a whole discussion of well because we make things in computers we don’t need all of these sort of primitive aesthetics that are slaves to cameras because we don’t rely on cameras anymore to make the image so we can do whatever we want in terms of focal claims or in terms of what is even in the grain of the out of focusness, what is in the-
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Lens flairs
LANA WACHOWSKI: Lens flair; all of these things can be redesigned to an aesthetic choice instead of connected to just what the technology can produce and then as we talked about all this, we had this moment that we were talking about cubism and the way that cubism offers this construction of art based on the imagination of perspective. And we’re like “wow, we could make the first cubist film because we could do edits that have the back of someone’s head and the front of their face on the screen at the same time.” But we knew, we knew just as the way Picasso was hunted and rocks were hurled at him when he first released or when he first-
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Unveiled-
LANA WACHOWSKI: -unveiled Guernica, I mean he was like literally hounded by a mob out of the city. We knew that adults cannot accept challenges to their conventional aesthetic, the aesthetic that they are bonded to, adults, if you sort of assault that aesthetic they will really rage in this primitive way. So we thought maybe we can make it for kids because kids are much more open aesthetically than kids are.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: But it just didn’t work out. [Laughs]
LANA WACHOWSKI: We don’t know why.
LANA WACHOWSKI: We were just running from the mob like Picasso.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: But we love it.
I have a million other questions about a million other things but I really do appreciate you giving me your time today.
ANDY WACHOWSKI: Thank you very much.
For all our Cloud Atlas coverage, click here.