Chicago-born directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (the “Matrix” series) and German director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) talk about their three-way directing feat on “Cloud Atlas,” the sprawling new film that opens Friday.
It’s never easy to interview three people at once. But being holed up in a Beverly Hills hotel room with Chicago-born directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (the “Matrix” series) and German director Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) offered no difficulties, at least as far as telling them apart. They were there to talk about their three-way directing feat on “Cloud Atlas,” the sprawling new film that opens Friday.
Their voices are very different: Tykwer has a thick German accent, Andy’s is deep and loud, and the transgendered Lana’s (formerly Larry) is higher pitched. Physically, it’s their hair that really differentiates them. There’s none on Andy’s big head. Tykwer’s has likely never met up with a comb. Lana appears to be wearing a bright, multi-colored mop of dreadlocks.
But when it came to discussing their film, they were all on the same page. Based on David Mitchell’s multi-leveled 2004 novel about the common bond running through all of humanity, it was written and edited as a team by the three filmmakers, while the Wachowskis directed certain segments and Tykwer directed others. On top of that, most of the actors – Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, among them – play five or six different roles, each in different time periods and locales. The film turned out to be the project that the Wachowskis and Tykwer were likely fated to work on jointly.
Lana said she believes that the creation of the movie is actually mirrored by the novel. She talked about how Ewing, one of the characters in the book, did something that indirectly resulted in a reaction to it, many years later, by Frobisher, another character.
“There was David Mitchell in this tiny room, somewhere on a windswept coast of some island, writing this novel, in seclusion, in the way that Ewing was writing his journal, completely in seclusion,” said Lana. “Then that journal is translated into a book, and then Frobisher reads the book and he writes letters and music, and that inspires another book and then a movie is created.”
Lana deftly switched from literature to reality.
“I saw Natalie Portman reading ‘Cloud Atlas’ on the set of ‘V for Vendetta,’ and I’m a gigantic truffle hound; anyone who’s reading a book, I have to know what the book is. She said you will love this book. I read it that weekend and then I gave it to Andy. He had to read it because I had to talk to someone about it. Then we gave it to Tom and he read because we had been looking for a project to work on together.”
Andy added, “Tom came into our lives through appreciating his stories that we were watching onscreen. His stories were speaking to us the way that Ewing’s story was affecting Frobisher. We knew each other’s films, and we were thinking, ‘Wow, there’s something about that’s guy’s films. We must be on some psychic meridian that’s going through the earth from Chicago to Berlin.”
Tykwer thought there was even more of a connection.
“Coincidentally, ‘Run Lola Run’ and the first ‘Matrix’ came out in the same month,” he said. “They were kind of back to back and waving at each other, crossing paths.”
They had known each other for years but couldn’t find the right project. Lana, though, thought this might be, to borrow from “The Matrix,” the one.
“It was from sharing this incredible book,” she said. “I think the sheer joy and excitement that we shared about it made us all say why don’t we try to make this the thing we were looking for.”
They worked on the script for two and a half years, taking apart and putting together the six separate storylines that all had a distinct humanitarian thread running through them. Then they phoned Tom Hanks.
“I wasn’t familiar with the book, and it’s an impossible screenplay to describe, but they said ‘here’s what we’re trying to do.’ They talked about the multiple times and the multiple characters, and would I just entertain it,” Hanks said. “...By the time you’re reading the last hundred pages, it’s all about one door opens in the year 2050, and somebody walks in, and in the next scene somebody walks in the room in 1974, and you are right there, connected to the theme of the story. It’s a difficult, complicated blueprint for a very complicated building, but that was one of the joys of it.”
Halle Berry was onboard before she had given much thought about the script’s intricacies.
“Although after I said yes, I thought it was going to be a nightmare,” she added. “Three directors? I’m gonna feel schizophrenic. Who am I gonna listen to? Is this gonna work the way I like to work? But it was just seamless.”
Part of the reason the directing trio was so attracted to the book was due to its ensemble and multiple story arcs.
“The film has actors disappearing and coming forward and disappearing,” explained Lana. “...It doesn’t feel as if it’s a conventional Tom Hanks movie; he’s playing these characters that are unlike his typical persona, and he’s also playing characters that are sometimes a part of the background.”
When all of the acting and shooting was done, it was time to put the swirling movie together in the editing room.
“It was a really natural continuation of the process,” said Tykwer. “The three of us felt that we were generally on the same page. The beauty of it was that we said we’re not going to let any cut go until all three of us love it, which is a triple quality check.”