Lana and Andy Wachowski have been largely absent from the film world since the 2008 release of Speed Racer, but the Matrix duo is back in a big way this year with the incredibly ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The story involves six storylines taking place in different times and places, and for the film adaptation The Wachowskis have cast the same actors in multiple roles. The road to getting the film made was incredibly rocky, and a new feature on The Wachowskis and Cloud Atlas sheds an eye-opening light on both the film’s road to production and the elusive filmmakers. Hit the jump for more.
The Wachowskis first became aware of Mitchell’s novel when Natalie Portman raved to Lana about the book while on the set of V for Vendetta (which was penned by The Wachowskis). The siblings fell head-over-heels for the book and became fixated on crafting a feature film adaptation. They teamed up with Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer and rented a house in Costa Rica to try to figure out how to turn this “unfilmable” novel into a screenplay (per The New Yorker):
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.
The trio broke the book down into “hundreds of scenes” and wrote them out separately on colored index cards. They began to arrange and rearrange the cards each day, trying to figure out a cohesive and interesting way to tell the entire story in one feature film. Towards the end of their trip, they finally stumbled upon how it could be done:
It was on the day before they left Costa Rica that they had a breakthrough: 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.
Though they had settled on how to tackle the mammoth adaptation, The Wachowskis and Tykwer decided that if David Mitchell didn’t like the screenplay, they wouldn’t make the movie. Luckily he was a big fan, so they moved forward. Finding financing for the film, however, wasn’t exactly easy. Warner Bros. initially mulled over the prospect of striking a distribution deal, but backed out after subjecting Cloud Atlas to an economic-modeling process that yielded low numbers (their model likened Cloud Atlas’ box office prospects to those of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain).
Since Costa Rica, the Wachowskis and Tykwer had viewed the dramatic trajectory of the script as an evolution from the sinister avarice of Dr. Goose to the essential decency of Zachry, with both characters embodying something of the Everyman. Tom Hanks, they agreed, was the “ultimate Everyman of our age.” “Our Jimmy Stewart,” Lana called him.
Hanks sparked to Lana’s pitch, in which she likened their vision to a blend of Moby Dick and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The actor signed on, but he doesn’t hide the fact that the script was a little complex:
“The script was not user-friendly. The demands it put upon the audience and everybody, the business risk, were off the scale.”
“The true genius of the screenplay is that it’s ridiculously narrative. They’ve managed to keep almost every little block of storytelling a cliffhanger. They’ve managed to make you feel the kind of propulsive movement that makes you want to keep coming back.”
The trio finally secured enough financing to begin production on the film, and they divided the shoot into two different crews, one handled by Lana and Andy and the other run by Tykwer:
Lana and Andy were going to direct the nineteenth-century story and the two set in the future, while Tykwer took the narratives set in the thirties, the seventies, and the present. The plan was to work with two different crews but to collaborate closely.
The first trailer for the film wowed audiences earlier this year, and the film is poised to make its debut at the Toronto Film Festival later this week. The author of the New Yorker piece, Aleksander Hemon, was in attendance at the friends and family screening of Cloud Atlas and has some high praise for the finished film:
The movie carefully guided the viewer through its six story lines with just enough intriguing unfamiliarity, while succeeding—nearly miraculously—in creating a sense of connectedness among the myriad characters and retaining Mitchell’s idea of the universality of love, pain, loss, and desire.
I highly suggest you read the full piece on The Wachowskis over at The New Yorker. The duo has been famously private for most of their career, but Hemon’s piece eloquently sheds a light on this truly talented and fearlessly ambitious pair of filmmakers, delving into the bounty of difficulties they faced during production on The Matrix sequels.
Cloud Atlas opens in theaters nationwide on October 26th.