To call "Cloud Atlas" the year's most ambitious film would be an understatement. The adaption of David Mitchell's sprawling 2004 novel tells six interweaving stories -- among them, a 19th century sea expedition, a present day fish-out-of-water comedy and a post-apocalyptic adventure set 106 winters after the fall of humanity -- with stars like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Sturgess playing multiple roles of varying genders and race.
If that sounds too much for one director to handle, that's because it probably was. The "Cloud Atlas" adaptation arriving in theaters on Oct. 26 was directed by three people: Andy and Lana Wachowski ("The Matrix") and Tom Tykwer ("Run Lola Run"), all of whom co-wrote and co-directed "Cloud Atlas" together, after spending years trying to get the film financed. The project cost a reported $100 million, making "Cloud Atlas" the most expensive independent production ever. (Warner Bros. picked up North American distribution rights for the film and paid for a portion of the budget.)
The notoriously press shy Wachowski siblings and Tykwer spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about the lengths they went to get "Cloud Atlas" made, why the current Hollywood storytelling model is unsustainable, and how they feel about people criticizing the film's Neo Seoul segment, which features Caucasian actors playing Koreans.
It's incredible how well the six stories cut together. How much work did you have to do in the editing room to piece it all together or was that balance already present in the script?
Andy Wachowski: It was blind stupid luck.
Lana Wachowski: Blind stupid luck.
Andy Wachowski: We showed up in the editing room and the editor had it all assembled. It was fantastic! We're geniuses! [Laughs]
Tom Tykwer: It was a step-by-step experience. In every step of the making of the film, we came closer to what you see. We were obviously trying to give the narrative a shape that feels as fluid as possible in the writing of the script, but there's so many challenges with this intertwined way of storytelling. Because you have so many tonal shifts as we were not handling one genre. There is multi-layer storytelling within one genre, but very rarely within an idea that involves many different genres. Going from comedy to action to drama to science-fiction to period within one or two minutes and making it as connected as we felt it was, is challenging. Particularly the tonal shifts were challenging. Even though we had felt that we had found great transitions in the preparation and the design -- even though we had really thought about many, many lines that needed to appear in the future or the past -- we often found those ideas, when they were executed in the editing room, did not work because of the tonal jumps. We had to re-address some of those crisscrossing and find the relationship with them.
Lana Wachowski: The thing about the novel that was so exciting from the beginning was the revolutionary subtext that happened through the juxtaposition of these literary forms. These are literary forms that we have traditionally kept separate. We don't have a black comedy next to a science-fiction novel next to a Pidgin-English new-form novel. They're always broken apart in our market-driven segregation of literary form. David Mitchell, by cutting and splicing these forms together, is suggestion a wider understanding of storytelling and a subtle dissolution of the boundaries that have traditionally been there to keep them apart. This was something that struck us a revelation.
Do you think Hollywood doesn't give the audience enough credit to keep up with layered, ambitious storytelling?
Tom Tykwer: In particular they don't when it comes to movies that are being made for the big screen. If you want to raise a certain budget for a more spectacular experience on a large canvas, it seems it has to be connected to PG-spectacle. A superhero film. What really started missing a while ago was large-canvas filmmaking with substance. Something to discuss and revisit. Films that stay with you -- that become friends in your life. Films that you want to find other things out about. Something else to discover on your second and third viewing. That has moved to television or a certain type of art house movie. It is really struggling to survive on the big scale on the one we attempted to do.
Andy Wachowski: There's a supply-and-demand thing working there in Hollywood. The studios are making these big spectacles, but the audiences are going to see them.
Lana Wachowski: It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Andy Wachowski: Soon the audiences will stop going to see them -- and they will. We think it's hysterical that the studios are basing all of their films nowadays on superhero sequels, when just 20 years ago you saw the collapse of the comic book industry because they did the exact same thing. So, at some point, people are going to stop going to see [these movies] and the whole system will reinvent itself as something else.
Lana Wachowski: One of the problems that you encounter -- both as an artist and as an audience member in a society that's organized around the market and market-driven art-making -- is the people that talk about films say, "What is this? Let us define this and categorize this." First, the financiers say this, so we encountered this difficulty when financiers would look at the script or hear the pitch. They would say, "What is this? How do we sell it? What is the target audience?" Even people are saying it now, "Is this an art house movie or a mainstream movie?" In a market-driven, art-making world you have to say, "OK, well, our target audience is this small art-house crowd." Or, "Our target audience is this large, mainstream world." And the simple segregation of those two forms of art negates the potential a piece of art has to transcend them. Which is what David Mitchell is suggesting is possible, always, through the imagination. The transcendence of these conventional boundaries and barriers.
With that said, do you feel any pressure to have this film succeed? Speaking in film terms, are you three the Sonmi-451s of Hollywood?
Lana Wachowski: If we're Sonmi, you're the Archivist. It's up to you to spread the word. We need you.
Andy Wachowski: The movie is the reward.
Tom Tykwer: The insanity of actually getting it financed. It was the most absurd battle you could imagine ever. So many break downs and so many moments -- at least for us producers -- where we were thinking, "This is impossible. We cannot go on." And there was always one of us who would say, "We cannot let this go! We have to move on!" It is one of those films we became filmmakers for. It's so rewarding to sit here and be promoting this movie, which means it's there and people have seen it. We're getting reactions. And who knows what the world will say. But we're getting reactions that it moves and touches people in the way we were hoping it would. Meaning that there is an obvious response that reflects the desire of an adult audience to get brought back to movie theaters with films that fulfill their interest, demand and desire.
Was there a specific moment during the process when you thought, "You know, this actually will work"?
Andy Wachowski: It was when we just covered the last little bit of the financing with our own money.
Lana Wachowski: We put our houses up.
Andy Wachowski: It wasn't necessarily a joyous experience.
Lana Wachowski: Four days before we were supposed to start shooting, another financier fell out, and it opened up this huge gap. We didn't even hesitate. We just put our money and our houses in to cover the gap. What was a sort of miraculous aspect of this story was that there wasn't one more falling out. Basically the movie demanded every single thing from us and then said, "OK, you can proceed."
What was the casting process like?
Tom Tykwer: To bring the material to [the cast] and see the enthusiastic reaction was invigorating. It was uplifting and would give us strength throughout those months after that, when the film was practically beaten down by the market over and over again. It was only because of the excitement of the people involved -- and the actors involved -- that helped us really survive. We were really blessed with a really casting director, Lora Kennedy, who is just a genius. She came up with really, really exciting ideas for roles that were challenging to cast. She came up with the idea to send the script to Hugh Grant for [his] characters. He was like, "Either you must hate me or you think I'm actually good actor." And we were like, "We think you're great! We would love you to try something else." He was embracing it with such force and such abandon that it was very, very rewarding for us.
Lana Wachowski: The book itself speaks to the transformational power of kindness and love. That's the way that this project came into being: with David Mitchell's profound love for storytelling, and our connection to each other is all based on this friendship and love, and then the financiers, who got behind the movie and only did so because of a profound connection to the material. Even in the very end when the financing was still falling apart, the actors all got on a plane -- even without signed contracts -- and came to Germany as an act of love and commitment to try to do something that had never been done before.
You mentioned earlier giving the film over to the world to see and discuss. One of the early debate points -- most recently brought up by Jezebel -- has come from people concerned with Caucasian actors playing Asian characters in the Neo Seoul scenes. What would you say to them?
Andy Wachowski: Well, that's good that people are casting a critical eye. We need to cast critical eyes toward these things. What are the motivations behind directors and casting? I totally support it. But our intention is the antithesis of that idea. The intention is to talk about things that are beyond race. The character of this film is humanity, so if you look at our past work and consider what our intention might be, we ask that those people give us a chance and at least see the movie before they start casting judgement.
Lana Wachowski: Their suggestion is that our tribes have to always remain separate. That the things that makes us different are essential elements to our representation and our identity. Why we were attracted to the book is that the book has a bigger perspective. The book suggests that there is a humanity that is beyond our tribe, our ethnic features. A humanity that is beyond our gender. A humanity that unites all of us and transcends our tribal differences. As long as we continue to build these intractable and insurmountable walls between us to make these distinctions, we will continue to have intellectual apparatus that allows us to make wars and that allows to dominate, exploit and destroy others. Because we don't think of them like we think about our own kind, our own tribe.
Like your past films, "Cloud Atlas" focuses on people rising up against oppression at any cost. Do you think society is too complacent? Are we doing enough?
Lana Wachowski: There is always an ongoing relationship between progression and contraction. This is in the novel, I think it's in all really great works of art. There's an acknowledgment that there is something to our humanity that is fearful, weak, afraid and interested in power and domination. There have also been forces of kindness. There's a beautiful brilliant book by Vasily Grossman called "Life and Faith," which I was reading around the time I read "Cloud Atlas" for the first time. He said that if a project like the Holocaust cannot exterminate kindness -- because there are kind acts that actually happened inside that industrialized genocide -- if kindness cannot be crushed by that, kindness will never be crushed. So, we have to wrestle every day with our nature toward being the darker side. This is what happens with Tom Hanks' character in the film; he has to wrestle with his dark nature through the whole movie. What all of us are drawn to is a belief in humanity and a belief in the potential of the best of us, the better parts of us, to continue struggle and triumph against the darker parts of us. This is a theme that has been all of our work; there's a belief in the best part of us and a belief in a hard-earned and realistic optimism.
One last thing -- whatever happened with "Cobalt Neural 9"?
Andy Wachowski: It's still in the works.
Lana Wachowski: We're still working on it!