Lana and Andy Wachowski, the sibling directors that brought us The Matrix, talk to Time Out about their latest futuristic flick, the joys and pains of working with family and creating new worlds through film.
With their new film Jupiter Ascending, sibling writer-directors Lana and Andy Wachowski have pulled off something more and more unusual in modern filmmaking: a big-budget sci-fi adventure that isn’t adapted from a comic book or TV show, but springs directly from their own idiosyncratic imaginations. Bursting onto the blockbuster scene in 1999 with their second film, The Matrix, the Wachowskis have consistently proven to be a daring, subversive voice in mainstream cinema. And while films like V for Vendetta (which they scripted and produced), Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas may not have replicated that early commercial and critical success, their movies could never be mistaken for the work of any other filmmakers.
Speaking on the phone from Chicago, Lana, 49, is by far the more expressive and outgoing of the pair, while Andy, 47, finds it harder to hide his distrust of critics and interviewers. But they’re equally enthusiastic about their work, and the sheer joy they take in the
You’ve been in the film industry for more than two decades. How have the changes you’ve been through personally in that time affected the stories you want to tell?
Lana: There are ideas that have resonated through our work since the beginning – the nature of identity, and the struggle against institutional oppression. Those things will always be a part of us. But we’re more courageous as storytellers now. We’re better and braver and we take bigger chances. We don’t want to tell simple stories about good guys and bad guys. We try to make movies that are unique and complex.
Jupiter Ascending harks back to The Matrix, the story of an ordinary person who turns out to have extraordinary powers. Why do saviour stories appeal to you?
L: We’ve always been interested in identity and its relationship to society. What’s your place in the world, what do you have to offer? Those are ideas that we all confront and wrestle with in our lives. And when you add spaceships and kung-fu, it naturally spirals towards a grander scale.
A: I don’t necessarily agree. In The Matrix, all the characters claim their own destiny. Everyone participates in the saving of the human race. The message is that we all have responsibility for the outcome of our lives, our destinies and our fate.
You’re both writer-directors who like to create their own worlds, why does this have special significance for you?
L: There’s a joy in creating a new world. It goes back to our childhoods when we used to love role-playing games. It was all about creating a new world we could play in. But there’s drudgery around it too. Oh, now we have to invent a new way to represent traffic, or buttons!’
A: We don’t claim ownership over the worlds we build. This myth of auteur directors with massive egos is a slap in the face for everybody who works on a film. We give ownership to everyone who works with us.
How do you explain your huge success? There are lots of kids who grew up with role-playing games, but they didn’t all become massively successful filmmakers.
L: We went through all of the typical things that people describe when they’re trying to understand how they got in the unbelievably fortuitous position of getting paid to make things up. You have parents who are supportive, you love reading and writing, you work constantly and you get lucky. For anyone who gets to make a living making art, it’s the greatest gig in the world. It’s like a rainbow has come down on your head. But we worked hard, we laboured long into the night trying to get better and better.
Is your sibling bond an important part of it? There seem to be a lot of filmmakers in a similar position – the Coens, the Dardennes. You don’t get that with firemen or doctors.
A: It’s a hard job. If you have a partner that you can trust implicitly, that helps. For directors, it can be incredibly lonely. Unless they’re super well-adjusted, the prospect can be somewhat frightening.
You must have creative differences, though. How do you resolve them?
A: We call mum. She sorts it out for us.
L: If there’s discord around a creative point it usually means there’s a better solution we haven’t thought of yet. When we both feel good about it we know it’s perfect.
In your last few films you’ve worked a lot with prosthetics. How does an actor like Channing Tatum, who plays a genetic hybrid wolf-man in Jupiter Ascending, deal with all those hours in the make-up chair?
L: When we show the actors our ideas they get excited. It has a circus, dress-up feel to it. But it can be tough. Channing’s hair was a big issue. We wanted to create a texture that was like fur but didn’t end up looking like Teen Wolf! We finally combined one kind of grease paint with product to make a really fur-like texture. It destroyed his scalp but he was a trooper about it!
Channing’s character, Caine, feels like the most straightforward action hero you’ve written. What was the thinking behind that?
L: We wanted Mila Kunis’s character, Jupiter, to be the most complex in the movie. We didn’t want another action movie where the woman ends up being just an armpiece for the man. We wanted to make the man into her armpiece! The Wizard of Oz was a big reference. I thought how great it is that Dorothy has Toto, he’s always at her side, defending her. We wanted Jupiter to have a protector like Toto.
How hard is it to get a completely original script made in Hollywood nowadays?
L: That’s a can of worms! As a society we don’t seem to value originality as much as we once did. We hype and we champion derivative material. I have a theory that if you look at the great original sci-fi movies – Alien, The Terminator, Star Wars – they were all made before 9/11. So I think it’s about our relationship to certainty. We’re drawn to certainty, to books and comic books, to things we know. With Jupiter Ascending, we wanted to make something that was original, and that wasn’t cynical. A fairytale romance. Again, if you look at Star Wars, there was something so joyful about it. We wanted to find out if we could still make a movie like that today.
Jupiter Ascending is out in cinemas across Dubai from Thursday February 5.