Audiences have fixed expectations of big-canvas movies, and those who try to subvert them do not fare well.
There are exceptions, of course, but studios generally aren't in the habit of backing potential "exceptions". Even if you deliver a great film, marketing still has to make the case to moviegoers - who tend to be as risk averse as the folks doing the selling. And if you're selling an experience over the expected, your name better be James Cameron. Otherwise, good day.
This is how the far-from-untested (or unsuccessful) trio of Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer found themselves cobbling together financing from a variety of investors in order to realize their sprawling adaptation of David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS. Restructuring the novel's six stories as a sprawling, symphonic whole, their film is a deft interweaving of disparate genres spanning hundreds of years. With major stars like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant playing multiple roles (occasionally buried under mounds of makeup ala Peter Sellers or Eddie Murphy), it's also a surprisingly playful movie, light on its feet even when stating (and restating) its Very Important Themes. As a forthright, unabashedly humanistic work, it's a rarity - much closer to TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD than the leaden, self-congratulatory likes of GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER? It's not subtle, but you never feel bullied.
The Wachowskis and Tykwer have delivered. Emphatically. Now to convince moviegoers that this strange agglomeration of stories is worth their time and money - thus ensuring that three of our most talented filmmakers won't have to waste years of their lives watering down their aesthetics in the service of something strictly commercial.
When I spoke to the Wachowskis and Tykwer a couple of weeks ago, they had no illusions about the demands of the marketplace. They get that this is a business, and that, in order to splash paint around on that big canvas, they need to connect with moviegoers on a MATRIX-size scale - this time without the draw of guns and kung-fu, or the novelty of bullet time. In this contentious moment (both in the U.S. and abroad), I think people are desperate for something hopeful and humane; I also have no doubt that CLOUD ATLAS will, ten years from now, be cited as one of the most influential films of this decade. These are, unfortunately, not selling points.
As they did, respectively, with the underrated SPEED RACER and PERFUME, the Wachowskis and Tykwer can only stand by the work and hope that it is broadly accepted. Before I asked my first question, Lana thanked me for my support of CLOUD ATLAS, then qualified that by saying, "If you're supporting it." I said that I would bang the drum for this film as I did for SPEED RACER (though I like CLOUD ATLAS more). When I hit record on my iPhone, Lana was discussing the divisive reaction to SPEED RACER.
Lana Wachowski: People always resist assaults on the dominant aesthetic. Throughout all the history of art, whenever anyone has changed an aesthetic dramatically, or tried to find a new aesthetic that was in contrast to the dominant aesthetic, people get very upset. They experience aesthetics as a form of their perspective about life, and it occupies a really significant way that people view the world. When you try to do something different, they actually take it as an assault on their perspective. So when Picasso painted "Guernica" and hung it for the first time in Spain, the people were so upset about the representation of this dramatic event in their history, which they felt could only be represented in a traditional, classic way. They felt that he was almost mocking the event. And they chased him, literally, to the train station throwing rocks at him. We felt that there was some of that in people's reaction to SPEED RACER - maybe not to that extent. (Andy laughs) We find that the dominant aesthetic of cinema is really hard to take as visual-minded artists. When we see the range of possibilities and aesthetics in a gallery or a museum, we say, "Why can't we do that? Why can't we make a cubist film? Why can't we experiment with stream-of-consciousness and surreality?"
Tykwer: Honestly, we can. We're not allowed to do it on a large canvas. We can do a little bit of a sketch for the entrance area of a hotel room, but not that big thing in the main hall of a museum.
Lana: And not in your cinemaplex.
Beaks: Shouldn't our great artists basically be commissioned to do great works of this magnitude?
Lana: That's an interesting point. We always make this joke that if we had to choose between working in the Middle Ages under the Catholic Church, which was the studio system of its day... (Everyone laughs) They had all the money. You only got to do big work if you were commissioned by them. They're the ones who painted the giant things, and sculpted the huge things; if you wanted to work at that scale, you had to work for the church. And if you look at that era, in terms of our history, that thousand-year period where the Catholic Church was completely dominant before the Renaissance, everything looks exactly the same. Mary is always painted the same, Jesus is painted the same, everyone is painted exactly the same. And there's something similar - not exactly, but similar - to working in the studio world. If you want the kind of scale that we love, you have to work in the studio world - and Baby Jesus has to look a certain way or they get upset.
Beaks: With SPEED RACER, you had this exhilarating flood of visual information. In CLOUD ATLAS, the exhilaration I felt was derived from the flood of narrative. And I love how the narrative unfolds like a musical composition, with recurring themes and leitmotifs. In adapting David Mitchell's narrative, how did you arrive at this musical approach?
Lana: (To Tykwer) You were saying something quite beautiful this morning about the difference between notes and chords; where the book has a more note block kind of structure, our musical structure is much more chord-like. It's a chain of phrases as opposed to this more cold, contained thing that's in the book.
Andy: Because we wanted everything intertwined, I guess that's what gives it its musical quality. The fact that there's voiceover that's overlapping scene to scene; we have incoming and outcoming dialogue trailing over the head and tails of the scenes. But also we knew, because we were going to have these voiceovers that were going to be binding these montage sequences at various points of the movie... that's what also gives it its musical quality. A melody will play throughout a symphony. There will be some rhythmic thing that's happening that's not the typical block narrative structure that you would make like we made BOUND or THE MATRIX.
Lana: [Tom] should probably talk about the music in this film, so I'll set him up one more time since he wrote it. (Everyone laughs) But this score, probably more than any other film we've worked on, is a real series of characters. I think that's a great point about the way the voiceover works to bind the movie, but the score is also a voice to bind the movie. It has a tonal character, the different pieces of the score.
Andy: A character progression. There's an evolution to the music as it goes through the movie.
Tykwer: Just to add to that, the structural difference to the book that we finally ended up discovering, which also guided us into the actual possibility of it being a movie... we were always sure it was very cinematic and that it would be amazing as a movie, but maybe undoable if we weren't able to bring the scale of the novel into a proportion that was somewhere under a three-hour running time. Although we wanted to step out from convention in most places, there are some things we want from cinema, that we like about cinematic convention. Meaning, for instance, we didn't feel like it would be joyful, as it is in the book, to start a new story completely from scratch, introducing new characters after 100 minutes of film time. You would feel like, "Come on!" Things are supposed to propel upwards at that time; you know there's probably another hour to go, and you wanted not to go to a new, low-energy starting point.
But making things become related to each other within the film, finding that mosaic structure, resonated in several of the other art forms that we use when we make a film. So what we're saying about the music, the music was treated as a character as much as sometimes rooms were treated as characters. We took sets and redecorated them in a different period for a different scene. Of course, that's not something you're supposed to identify immediately, but you feel an interconnectedness between all of the arts that are contributing to the entire movie.
And just one example for the music: the music that Frobisher writes - which is the "Cloud Atlas Sextet", which is the core composition of the film, which becomes also part of the score itself - is something that resonates everywhere in the score. This theme that Ayrs and Frobisher invent, it's written in the '30s. Then Luisa Rey [in the '70s] hears this one record in this record store, and she hears it as this leftover piece of music that nobody seems to care for anymore. Then it still somehow survives and becomes more like a product, which is used in elevator music in the present day. The Muzak that's being played in the elderly home, where Cavendish is saying "I want to get out of here!" While he's having this discussion, the piano stuff that you hear in the background is the Sextet again.
Lana: That's actually the room that he tried to imprison Frobisher in [as Ayrs], and now he is imprisoned in as Cavendish. And the thing that he tried to own, which was Frobisher's piece of music, Frobisher's soul, is now helping to be a part of the prison he is in.
Tykwer: That set is the same set as the salon of Ayrs, where they were actually composing it in the '30s. So Cavendish is justly being punished for his slavery system that he set up with his assistant. And he has to hear the music even though he doesn't understand that he's hearing that music. And ultimately it ends up as the music being sung by the fabricants when they're being brought to their execution. That melody becomes the requiem for their death, which was initially the requiem Frobisher wrote for himself.
Beaks: You've talked about transcending traditional film grammar with CLOUD ATLAS, but this isn't an experimental film. You're basically experimenting within a classical framework. How far do you think you can push experimentation within that framework?
Lana: I think we're on the edge. (Everyone laughs) We've gone to the edge of the Earth. Beyond this point, people may fall off.
Tykwer: (Laughs) Or we have to reinvent it and make it round. But there's limits to artistic boundary expansion. The fact is that it's an industry, and it's [going to stay] an industry. We're not questioning this. We know that's what it is. The money that's involved is only possible with an industrial concept or construction. And the movie... we had to go down with the budget so massively, even though it is still an expensive film. In a regular budgeting way, and in a studio-financed-movie world, it would've probably been twice as expensive. The expense made it so difficult to close this kind of a budget, and we felt beaten down felt so many times. I think we wouldn't have survived it if it wasn't three directors. You know, you're beaten down and you're all bleeding, but one of us was a little stronger, so you could drag the other ones up and say, "Come on! Let's go! We have to move on!" I don't think any of us would've survived the amount of back lashes by ourselves.
Lana: And the rejection... it felt like it was almost personal sometimes. People would say, "Yes, I'll give you the money." Then three weeks later, they'd say, "You know what? I changed my mind. I'm not giving you the money."
Tykwer: You had deals. You sometimes had contracts signed. You'd go, "What do you mean?" And they'd say, "Well, sue me, but I changed my mind." You say, "But the movie will not happen if you do that." And they'd go, "Okay. That's not my problem."
Andy: There was also a moment when the script itself was the thing that buoyed us. We were all fed up, we'd had enough rejection, and we decided, "Okay, everybody, we'll read the script one more time and see if this is really worth the effort." It was around the holidays when we all read the script one more time, and that's when we said, "Okay, we've got to give this one more chance."
Tykwer: Just sitting down and reading it in one go, with not thinking about anything but imagining the movie again, I think it was incredible how much it blew us away again. If any of my other movies would somehow, for whatever strange science-fiction-y reason, disappear forever, it wouldn't matter as long as this one stayed. It's the closest to where I could imagine myself getting to expressing what I love about the art form we are in.
Lana: And yet we constantly felt the tension your question pointed to. "Where is the limit?" We had a limit where we said, "Okay, we can only raise $40 million. Can we make the movie for $40 million?" And there was some level that the movie could not be what we needed it to be without a certain amount of financial investment behind it. The version that was in our heads, the version that we wanted to be the one film that survives in the fire, was quite large scale. And the experimental-ness of it - which I think it's great that you don't feel it as intensely when you're watching the film. So many people say, "It's so energetic. It has so much energy, it just carries you along. It's not hard to understand. It's emotional. It's action-y." All of those things. But when you had it as just a script, and we were saying, "All of the actors are going to play all of these parts..." you could feel the experimental nature of it a little more stronger. It scared people, particularly studios. Because we had this cast, this giant cast and the three of us and the script and really amazing art, and we would go into these places and they'd say, "No. No way."
Andy: "I don't get it."
Lana: So we were at the limit of probably what was acceptable. All of them said, "Half the budget? Done." We could've made it, but then it wouldn't be the movie we wanted to make.
Tykwer: And until the very end, I think we were days before shooting, maybe into the shooting, there were sequences that were still in danger. If we went over-budget at any point, they would've had to be killed. They were still in danger of not being even part of the budget. We kind of squeezed them in the budget.
Andy: (Laughs) In the margins.
Tykwer: It was this secret reframing of the budget where we simply know, "Actually, that's impossible, but it's fine. We'll just..."
Andy: "Hey, look over here!"
Tykwer: (Laughs) We have to really admit that it's also due to many, many people and companies stretching their limits hugely to make it fit into the budget. The whole visual effects part of this movie...
Lana: This movie could not have been made without Method's participation. They were so committed to this film.
Tykwer: Method is Dan Glass's company. He was the [visual effects supervisor], too. They contributed so much, and probably didn't even bill. It was more like a package, and the package was growing every day, and they just stayed within the package. There was a devotion to the idea that this is going to be unique and worth it.
Lana: It defies financial logic. Our participation is not about financial logic at all. We didn't take a fee, and we put our own money in. It was a pure act of love and desire to see this thing realized.
Beaks: One of the interesting things about the book is that each story has its own prose style. In your film, I can see a subtle attempt to change up the color palette - especially the '70s, which has a sort of THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR vibe.
Lana: THE CONVERSATION.
Beaks: Right. San Francisco. That's an even better comparison. Was there ever a thought to give each story a more clearly defined look?
Andy: Yeah, it was enticing to go in that direction, but we knew that we were going to be battling the perception that the movie was an anthology, that there are six disparate stories. Philosophically, we felt that we had to resist that enticement because it's really one story. They were always going to feel different because they're all set in certain time periods, but because we needed the audience to grasp that it's this meta narrative, we tried to keep it more cohesive.
Tykwer: Even if you feel there's a certain vibe from the periods, I think the biggest amount of it comes just from the design that represents the period. We came to the conclusion more and more so that that would be enough separation, that it was far enough. Because the designs are really far away from each other, at least fifty years or something, you would always feel immediately where you are. And actually getting the DPs and the production designers to really stick their heads together, as we did, to become one group, was necessary to make the movie become this one tale.
Andy: That's why sets are the same, the shapes of the rooms are the same, some of the textures in the costumes are the same. Ayrs's bed shirt is the same pattern that's in the tattoos.
Lana: We had color palette things, too, where Jim Sturgess would have a color that we would find bits and pieces of in his buttons. Even funny, weird details, like the predator characters tend to have bones or symbols of animals. Dr. Goose has a ring that's made out of a molar, and behind Ayrs there are these swordfish teeth. With the design, we were always trying to integrate the stories into a single narrative.
Beaks: Those are the kinds of details average studio filmmakers wouldn't even consider. They'd just push them off on their designers. I think your involvement in every facet of the production, to this degree, is extremely rare.
Tykwer: I'm not sure that's true. Is that really rare?
Beaks: I think it is at a studio level.
Lana: Well, we love the collaborative process.
Andy: That's right. The participatory process.
Lana: We have unbelievably talented people who we've worked with throughout our whole careers that we're in love with. A part of the filmmaking family or filmmaking entity that makes our movies is a very large social network. We don't want to make movies without them. We love working with [costume designer] Kym Barrett. We love [production designer] Hugh Bateup. These people are part of our creative voice. And because we love Kym, and we love to work with her, it's part of the joy of the experience that extended out when [Tykwer] joined. The party just got bigger.
Tykwer: And I've been working with the same crew forever. I've never made a movie without [cinematographer] Frank Griebe.
Lana: And let me just add that, again, one of the extraordinary things about this film is that we asked these other people who are extensions of our families to get together. It was like a wedding. "We're getting married. Now you guys have to partner up." And you could sense it was a little bristly at first. People were like, "I've always been the queen of this kingdom," or "I'm the duke of this kingdom." And we were like, "Well, why don't you work together? Why don't you pool all your toys and play together, and let's see what happens? Maybe it'll be fun, maybe it'll be cool, maybe it'll be awful." What I find incredible is that here are two DPs, and even the cinematographer union can barely understand that two DPs made this movie together. When they were talking about submission, they were like, "Well, which one shot it?" "Well, they both shot it." "No, no. Which one was the main?" The movie does not look like the work of two DPs. It looks amazingly cohesive. The design of the costumes and the design of the sets, all of it is completely integrated.
Tykwer: It's a testament to them giving into this idea, and embracing this idea of connectedness in the creative process.
Lana: Transcending a convention that we have in this business, where it's like, "You must be separate."
(I'm way over my time at this point, but Lana graciously permits one last question.)
Beaks: You've expressed an affection for the work of Roy Andersson.
Lana: (Gasps) "Affection?"
Andy: "Undying love."
Beaks: Have you ever thought about collaborating with him?
Lana: Oh, my god. He's such a unique voice in our medium, and, again when we were talking about aesthetics, someone who's been able to find an aesthetic that feels so wholly original. He's like van Gogh. He has a vision that is so unique and so particular and so idiosyncratic, and I look forward to every single frame of film that that man invents and makes material. I don't know that he would ever find any use for us. We'd be strange appendages. We'd be the appendix. You could get rid of us. "You don't need them!"
Andy: The way that he works is totally antithetical to the entire industry. It's like, "I'm going to shoot this scene. Now, to do this, I'm going to spend three months building the set in my studio."
Lana: Which is an old bank.
Andy: And it's just for the four or five minute scene he's going to do.
Lana: He builds for three or four weeks, and then he brings in these actors and starts rehearsing - and he's covered in paint because he does a lot of it. And then he's like, "Okay, let's rehearse." Then they shoot in a day. One shot. And he finds this shot. "This is the shot." And that's it. They shoot it in a day, and that scene is done. And then he starts building the next set.
Andy: It's closer to what you'd do in stop-motion, but with live actors.
CLOUD ATLAS hits theaters on October 26th. Please see this movie opening weekend. Prove to the studios that there is an audience for adventurous, non-franchise event filmmaking. And, you know, treat yourself to a cinematic feast from three of the most talented filmmakers working today. This isn't homework, folks. It's pure exhilaration.