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Directors Andy and Lana Wachowski, inside their Chicago matrix, talk ‘Cloud Atlas’

Tom Hanks is shown as hotel manager one his multiple roles epic dram'Cloud Atlas.'

Tom Hanks is shown as the hotel manager, one of his multiple roles in the epic drama "Cloud Atlas."

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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:20AM

On a tree-lined and mostly residential street in Edgewater, not far from Chicago’s Rosehill cemetery, is the house “The Matrix” built.

Actually, it’s not a house at all, but a former scenery design space that was gutted and reconstructed to the exacting specifications of its owners: Beverly-bred filmmakers Andy and Lana Wachowski, whose trio of “Matrix” films have grossed more than $1.5 billion worldwide. Their latest epic, the time-hopping and nearly three-hour “Cloud Atlas,” screened last week at the Chicago International Film Festival and opens commercially Friday.

As publicly unseen as its famously media-shy inhabitants, Wachowski HQ is an environmentally friendly and tastefully decorated inner sanctum that only select mortals are allowed to visit. Many are asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement, which legally prohibits the leaking of anything that is seen or heard to the outside world.

The Sun-Times signed no such agreement, although one was presented. So we’re able to tell you all about the green Ducati motorcycle from “The Matrix Reloaded” that rests just inside two steel-and-glass security doors and an all-seeing greeter at the front desk.

Art on the walls includes a Speed Racer cartoon cell, a black-and-white photo of Bears great Walter Payton making a run for it, a clapboard from the Wachowskis’ directorial debut “Bound” and a framed, handwritten to-do list of sorts from “Day 19” of “Matrix” shooting.

After guiding you past a sizable conference room and a smiling floor-level Buddha statue, the corridor effectively ends at curved stairs that lead up to a slick screening room. Outfitted with 32 oversized light-purple seats and an expansive screen, it is something that no moviemaking mogul should live without.


Back in their front office, which is paneled in light-colored wood from a reclaimed log that had been frozen for decades in the depths of Lake Superior, the Wachowskis talked about “Cloud Atlas” with their co-director Tom Tykwer. A German filmmaker best known for “Run Lola Run,” he has been welcomed into the fold as their “long-lost brother.”

Andy, who is tall and bald, occasionally bent over and rubbed his chrome dome while staring at the floor as we talked. In a reference to the main theme of “Cloud Atlas” — from womb to tomb, we’re all interconnected throughout time — someone had asked him whose shoes he’d most like to fill were he reincarnated. One of his answers was Studs Terkel, the late oral historian from Chicago.

“Talk about a man who’s interested in connectivity and telling stories about our humanity,” Andy said.
“ ‘Cloud Atlas’ is very much about that. Since we’ve been reading him, we try to imbue all of our films with a Studs Terkel-ness, I guess.”

Added Lana, “Everyone has value. That’s what Studs did.”

Clad in black with dreadlocks of red, pink and purple, Lana (who is transgender and used to be Larry) extolled Terkel’s belief that “everyone’s story matters. He had this ability to connect.”


Before they entered professional showbiz, the Wachowski sibs worked in construction and built “this super cool, very weird, very modern” house for their parents in Libertyville. Two others helped, they said, and it was designed by the same Chicago architect who drew up plans for their Edgewater complex.

“And while we were working on it,” Lana recalled, “we said, ‘OK, we will either make a living as writers from this point on or we will starve and die.’ ”

That was unnecessary. Around two months from completion, they sold their first screenplay: “Assassins.” A version of it, starring Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas, hit theaters in 1995. Four years later, “The Matrix” became an international multimedia sensation, attracting millions upon millions of rabid fans and establishing the Wachowskis as one of the industry’s most dynamic duos.

But because “Cloud Atlas” (based on the book by David Mitchell) is sometimes dizzyingly nonlinear, it’s a tougher sell than anything the Wachowskis have made. Hence their new willingness to do media and endure public scrutiny. Not that either of them relishes the exercise.

“The movie was so precious to us that we felt like we wanted to hold its hand while it went out into the world,” Andy said. “We’re not really comfortable talking about ourselves. I mean, who wants to talk about themselves endlessly? It’s, like, disgusting.”

They’re also uncomfortable “defining what the film is,” Andy said. The audience, they think, should decide for itself. He admitted, though that certain investors aren’t thrilled with that tack, preferring a simple summary for promotional purposes.

“It’s an instant gratification society nowadays,” Andy said.

As kids, he remembered, his family “would always go to triple features, and the films were always spaced apart, so there was always some kind of meal where we could come together and talk.”

That’s what Andy, Lana and Tywker hope people to do after seeing “Cloud Atlas”: talk — about characters and themes. About this cosmic idea of interconnectedness that binds everything and everyone.

In its own way, Lana said, Chicago merges those who normally wouldn’t associate, simply by virtue of an urban layout that has rich abutting poor, gay abutting straight and one ethnicity bordering another.

“It has this incredible way of juxtaposing neighborhoods like no city I’ve ever seen, where the most hetero-normative neighborhood in the entire city, which is essentially Wrigleyville … is literally right smack against the gayest neighborhood in the entire city. And it feels like is there is tension between those two neighborhoods, but there’s also something that they learn. They expand themselves by being is such proximity. They have to make way, open up for each other.

“It’s almost like Chicago somehow puts the neighborhood you have the most to learn from right next to you.”

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