An epic interview with the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer: From 'Cloud Atlas' to 'Jupiter Ascending'
Lana started nodding even before I finished saying it. "We had that exact conversation so many times. The whole impetus for 'Speed Racer' came out of the fact that we are visually-thinking people. We go to art galleries and art museums all the time. We go into the Art Institute and every room there, there are paintings that look completely and utterly different from the other rooms. But in cinema, everything looks the same. And it's a really aggressive straight-jacket, aesthetically. We started talking about cubism, for instance, and we started talking about could you make a cubist film? And we realized that if you try to make a cubist film for adults, you will end up like Picasso, running from the angry mob when he first showed Guernica. They wanted to kill him. Literally. It's because adults… they reject change, and an aesthetic change is too aggressive a death for them. Every generation experiences aesthetic death, and when you really assault an aesthetic, people freak out. But we said that kids are okay with aesthetic change."
I mentioned how the first time I saw "Run Lola Run," it was with a group of friends, and one of our friends just couldn't hang with the movie. It had nothing do with whether he liked it or didn't like. He just couldn't hang with it. He was exhausted by the way it played with time, which is exactly what I thought was exciting about the movie.
Tom replied, "What we are attracted to in general is building upon existing narrative structures that we feel like are an inherent part of our social knowledge and our cultural knowledge. It is aesthetically joyful to not just repeat that. It's a big part of art, and the development of our aesthetic has to do with the turning away from linear ways of doing it. Narrative is not the future."
Bold statement, but right now, filmmakers have to think about the future. Our business is evolving so quickly that it would be easy for a filmmaker to be totally left out if they can't adapt. I brought up the Keanu Reeves documentary "Side By Side" and talked about how that looks at the technical side of the jump from analog to digital, and how I feel like editing in particular has evolved because of the move to the Avid and Final Cut Pro and similar non-linear systems.
Lana agreed, saying, "Editing is a really interesting topic too because it's also aesthetic based. It is essentially the grammar of cinema, the sentence of cinema. And pretty much every movie since I was nine was, you know, from a capital letter to a period. Scenes progress through a series of cuts, and maybe you throw in a dissolve, which is more of an ellipse, you know, instead of a period. But we were sick of that, too. And if you read post-modern fiction, something like Rick Moody's Purple America or James Joyce's Ulysses, you see these authors trying to transcend the boundaries of conventional grammar, trying to get your brain to think about language differently."
One thing I've noticed about Lana Wachowski in conversation is that when she gets rolling with an idea, she gets excited by the idea, and it's like a feedback loop of enthusiasm. "And so we started trying to do that same thing with 'Speed Racer.' We said, 'Okay, we are going to assault every single modern aesthetic with this film.' And we said, 'Why do you have to use cuts? We want to do sequences that are like run-on sentences, stream-of-consciousness sentences that don't just start and end with the conventional cut, that are just montaged collages and flow the way'… you know, what Joyce was looking for was the way that his brain experiences the world. Joyce said, 'I want to try to demonstrate the way my mind works as I'm getting all of this input and it doesn't cut things and it doesn't order things and it doesn't always make sentences.' There were moments in 'Speed Racer,' like the races, where we just wanted them to feel like this experiential flowing thing that was was transcending normal simple linear narrative."
It's exciting to see filmmakers working in the broad commercial arena who are this devoted to experimentation, and while David Mitchell's source novel is already a pretty adventurous piece of fiction, it feels like the film is a kaleidoscopic reflection of that book, blown apart and reassembled by the three filmmakers. One of the things that they had as an advantage when making the film was that Tykwer wrote the "Cloud Atlas Sextet," a piece of music that plays a major role in the film. I asked the how it changes their process when they have the music on-set during shooting, and almost immediately, I could see how visibly ecstatic the Wachowskis were about it as Tom started to respond.
"It was crucial and elementary from the start. It's a method that I've worked with since, I think, my first film. Even in my first short film, there was music that was done before the filming was done. But on this one, it was even more so. Obviously, it was technically needed because you have people playing the piano and you want to know what they're playing, and the actors should know what they are supposedly listening to in the film. When Halle Berry is standing there in the record shop, she should know what it sounds like so she can relate to it. But also, it was for us. I always feel like the first deep atmospheric research you do on a movie is discovering its music, because it's not yet visual. It came along sort of at the time we had done some of the visual explorations, but we hadn't defined the film yet totally, so it was in the in-between period, and the music started to grow. For me, at least, and I think they say I've spoiled them forever…"
Andy laughed, nodding as he broke in. "We are not making a movie again without doing the music before."
Lana continued, also nodding. "You're somebody who studies film, right? And you look at the way the process works. You've seen it where you've done all this work, all of this aesthetic development, all of this design work, and then you cut the movie and then one of the most important elements of your film, the music, right? Schopenhauer called it a subtextual language, and it speaks to the audience directly. You take music from other movies and put it on your movie, and then you show it to people." She shuddered at the thought.
I agreed that the temp track is a strange moment in the life of a film, and Lana continued, "Oh my god, it's just the most hideous thing, and it was like slavery. It was just like, 'This is the way you do it.'" She gestured to Tom. "And then we meet this guy and he's like, 'What are you, crazy? No, I do my music when I do my design at the very beginning of the movie.'"
Andy laughed at the memory. "Yeah, at first we were like, 'Okay, Tom. Alright. Calm down.' And then… a year ago last August, we're doing a read-through with the actors, and we're playing them the sextet. It was such an important part of that read-through. It was amazing."
Lana spoke over him, excited as she recalled the reading. "it was like a revelation. I was like, why isn't everyone doing it this way?" I mentioned that Leone sometimes had Morricone write the score ahead of time so he could play it on the set while he would shoot, but that is the only other person I've ever heard of who had done things this way. "Right," Lana replied, "but why?"
Tom continued, "I did that on 'Perfume' as well. This time didn't offer as many opportunities, except when the sextet is actually being played as part of the scene, because there's so much dialogue. 'Perfume,' though, was basically a silent movie. I shot tons of scenes with the music playing. It's so amazing for the actors when you can do that. For Ben [Whishaw] in that film, I would be like, 'I know the music for this scene. Do you want to hear it?' 'Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! Absolutely! Give me something!' (laughs) And I think he was really good in that film because he could do that, he could relate to something else. It gave him some piece of atmosphere within all the technicalities of a film set to help him create his character. It's such an amazing tool. It's just absurd. And of course you know how many film scores sound alike. The reason is because everyone's temping with the same music…"
Andy broke in, "And then aping the temp."
Tom nodded. "And then aping the temp. Exactly. And it does influence your way of cutting it. You do different cuts, of course, because the music asks you for a cut sometimes. And you don't even notice it. There's a subconscious force in music that can guide you, which is something that… listen, we had the music, we used the music, but in the beginning, in the first pass of our cut, which we did together all the time, we had… we knew the music and the way it was, so we said, 'Let's do one pass without any music.' So in the beginning, we cut and we went through, and we didn't do any music on it, and then we went back and started putting in pieces one at a time until we had our first full attempt at getting it married. And you wouldn't be cutting it without the knowledge of the music and the way it was already there."