Co-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski only had six minutes every day to shoot a single giant chase scene for their space opera Jupiter Ascending. Why could they only film the chase at one time of day? They explain in our exclusive interview. Plus they tell io9 why they're so obsessed with telling stories about "The One."
When the trailer for Jupiter Ascending first came out a lot of people name-checked the movie Fifth Element a lot. It got people excited, a lot. Were you actually influenced by Fifth Element in this film? Or what other space opera influences did you have while making Jupiter.
Andy Wachowski: I think we were probably more interested in where The Fifth Element came from, which is Moebius. We were huge, huge readers of Heavy Metal magazine. The design that was in those books, pretty much blew our minds. The designs of The Fifth Element are basically Moebius' designs. Science Fiction owes this guy a huge debt of gratitude. The imprint that he's made just as a visionary, and the influence that he's made…it keeps rippling out.
Lana Wachowski: He's everywhere.
Andy: Yes. His DNA is everywhere. His atoms are in all of us. They're certainly prevalent in almost all modern fiction.
Now that you mention it I can definitely see the Moebius influences in the ships that you designed in Jupiter Ascending.
Lana: We've been obsessed for a long time with the fact that spaceships are always so ugly. Why do they have to be so ugly? The history of transpiration is filled with incredible, exquisite beauty. Especially [vehicles for] rich people. Rich people always travel in exquisite style. If they're rich and they're in space, their spaceships should look amazing and be gorgeous. So that was kind of our first design meeting.
I immediately just thought of Eddie Redmayne's half human chariot. That was really beautiful and insane. What was that? I was not expecting that.
Lana: We're kind of populating the whole world with our symbols and myths from the past. As if this world has actually been around for millions of years. They're sending elephant-headed god-people to help us get started. And that's where all these cat-headed gods and goddesses come from.
[Human splices are a big part of this world, and Channing Tatum is a Lycan/human splice.] I caught bees, owls, lycans, wolves — are there any other splices in that we should keep our eyes out for?
Lana: If you look at Egyptian, Babylonian or Chinese myths and you see the half combined heads of jackal dogs or basque cats, all the things that are in our Earth mythology. We turned into a scifi character somewhere.
Andy: There's quite a few in Titus' floating orgy as well. The dragon girl.
Lana: And in the bureaucracy. A Yeti... Snake heads. If it's in the history of human mythology, we tried to wedge it in there.
What made you want to create your own world entirely after adapting other people's work in Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas?
Lana: We'll we've been talking a lot today, because we're old, we've been talking about our career. Our career is pretty unique, it's hard to anyone else who has ever experimented as much with tone and aesthetic as we have. And we tend to sort of swing from one experience to the other. After we do something very dark we tend want to do something light. And Cloud Atlas was a really intense film for us, and we thought, "Oh my God, let's do something light."
As we began working on the story we found little pieces of all the other films. The DNA of our entire career is sort of in Jupiter. The joyfulness of world building, like in the [Matrix] trilogy, it's a lot of work. And it's a lot of work even in one story. The world building takes a lot of energy and it takes a lot of thought. We usually spend, at least, several years working on the design. We started the design on Jupiter before we even went to shoot on Cloud Atlas.
It's also a really great action film. You guys are so good at putting together an action scene. What makes a good action scene? Is it possible to break down, what's involved in setting up an action scene that moves the story forward or keeps the audience engaged?
Lana: We care a lot about marrying the emotional content and the story content into our action sequences... I have a strange fetish for Bollywood films. I like the way that these kinetic dance numbers serve as metaphors for people falling in love. The chase scene, which we thought would be the first big set piece, we wanted to kind of use as a falling in love metaphor. So she's literally falling in the sky and she's falling in love.
We then got it into our crazy heads that we were going to try to make it beautiful. Like the most beautiful chase that's ever been filmed. We took [Cinematographer] John Toll up to the top of Willis Tower in Chicago. Which we were also just excited to make Chicago look beautiful because we love it. It's an amazingly beautiful city and everyone always shoots it in too flat of light.
So we went up there's this one period, right before the sun breaks, where the sun is bouncing off the lake and the sky and it lights up the sky in this indigo, rich blue. And the L train and all the city lights are still orange. And the twinkling of the city slowly going down and the sun slowly coming up. This transitional period is exquisitely beautiful. We're with John Toll and he's saying, "Oh my god it's amazing. What do you want to shoot: a kiss scene, a romance scene?" And we said "We want to shoot the chase!" And he said, "No, really?" And he looked at his watch and the period of time lasted about 6 minutes.
So for every set day, we got up at 3 AM in the summer and got ready to shoot. And had a million PAs block every doorway and every street because we were really flying people on helicopters in these crazy rigs. They looked like figure skaters for a moment. And we shot for six minutes one shot, or one set up a day, for the whole summer.
Wow, 6 minutes a day. Wow.
Why do you both keep gravitating and telling stories about "the One"?
Lana: This one was interesting, because we didn't think of [Jupiter] as the one as in Neo — because there's a reocurrence. And that was what we were kind of interested in as an idea. Well firs the fun of the mathematical possibilities if you're living infinitely long, the mathematical possibility that your exact genetic duplicate could happen. That was intriguing to us as science nerds.
The story is kind of about... I loved the Wizard of Oz as a kid. And I'm still kind of obsessed with that movie a little bit. But there's one thing that I always found kind of unsatisfying about it, that I'm Dorothy doesn't really change from the journey. What if we had a character that was a sort of Cinderella/Dorothy and the journey is discovering a perspective that she has in herself. That helps her to re-see her life and what she loves about her life. She's Dorothy, and when she gets back into her life she is different.
What was cool was, we thought about this reciprocating gene identity that was the same in so many respects. And yet one of them had everything and one of them had nothing, and yet they both felt the same about their lives. They were both miserable. So that was kind of the origin of the story, it didn't really come to us as the one as the Neo story came to us as The One. Andy has a take on "The One" anyway. Even in the trilogy, is that it's not about "The One" anyway — it's about the group.
Andy: We have a conflicting perspective on individualism, especially on American exceptionalism. The idea that America is special because of the individual. Our characters... there's this idea of the Messiah myth. But ultimately we have to (all of us) have to become the Messiah to go forward. In the [Matrix] trilogy, without the group effort, without every single person within the group doing absolutely everything they can, we don't go forward. Our heroes, the ones who are given the label of "The One," reject the label.
Lana: The whole point of the oneness, is that anybody could be Neo, but that everybody will be Smith. They're kind of the same. Everyone can be either of them, but for Neo you have to make certain choices. And for Smith, you have to surrender more choices.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.