“They take it so personally,” he continues, seemingly amazed. “It's apparent in the way they talk about us and in the way they write about us and in the way they project stuff onto us, which is really more about themselves.”
Lana Wachowski smiles a sad smile and nods at her brother, and her pink Raggedy Ann-style hair bounces in agreement. She's as tall and warm as he is boxy and chilly. “They seem to think that we're strange,” she says, her voice a high whine, “and they think we're snobs, hunkered down in our little exclusive space.”
A Metra train rumbles past.
The tracks, across the street, fill the west windows of their office. The rumble is frequent, and with each train, Kinowerks, the secluded Andersonville production house where the filmmaking siblings have been based since redesigning the building in 2007, vibrates. Yet it's here where the Beverly-raised creators of “The Matrix” movies and the new genre-stuffed “Cloud Atlas” work on their films, pre- and postproduction. It's here where they store artifacts, trophies and miscellanea from their movies. And it's here where, despite being two of the most influential, successful filmmakers of the past decade, they toil almost anonymously.
“The Wachowskis are among a rare breed of filmmakers who are successful but choose to stay in Chicago and elevate the entire scene,” says Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office. “To not only be headquartered here but to do it with pride, that gives the entire community credibility, I think. But, that said, I doubt that a lot of their fans even know that they're based here. They tend to keep to themselves quietly.”
Why the low profile? Why not out and about more often, playing the face of Chicago film?
Lana, who is transgender and was known until 2002 as Larry, replies, “Well, you just said why. Because people know those Chicago celebrities who are out and about. Anonymity allows you to participate in civic space in a way that once you lose that anonymity you can no longer participate in it anymore. That space, that ability to just hang out with a friend or move though a park or walk through a bookstore or go to a movie theater, the way everybody does, it's very important to us. It would be a loss to not have it, a decrease in the quality of life. You're no longer a person in the same way. I warn you: Loss of anonymity will impair you.”
Tom Tykwer, the German filmmaker who also directed “Cloud Atlas,” is on a couch, nodding.
Andy leans forward.
“The thing is, you can't win. Even when you participate in these things, people reject you for the same reasons, still repeat the same things,” he says. “When we introduced ‘Cloud Atlas' in Austin (Texas), partly because of the stuff that Lana is articulating and stuff you read about us on message boards — ‘Oh, what do we call them now?' — I said to the audience, I made a joke: ‘I am Andy Wachowski and this is my sister, Lana. We were formerly the Wachowski brothers, and now we're the Wachowski Starship.' Which disarms everybody. Then later you read somewhere, some news item, that we are seriously calling ourselves Wachowski Starship.”
Lana smiles weakly.
It seems unlikely I would be invited to Kinowerks if “Cloud Atlas” were an easier sell. While the Wachowskis were making their “Matrix” trilogy, they so valued their anonymity that they arranged a no-press agreement with Warner Bros. But “Cloud Atlas,” a remarkably ambitious and faithful adaptation of David Mitchell's 2004 best-selling novel, weaves together six interlocking stories spanning eons of time, scores of movie genres and actors and, not unlike “The Matrix” series, aims to be nothing less than big-scale entertainment about life and free will.
Asked if they sought touchstones or precedents before starting a work so vast, they say “2001: A Space Odyssey,” then Andy adds, “Really, though, we're (drawing on) all films, pulling from every cinematic language, because when the main character is humanity itself, you draw from all sorts of wells.”
Like I said, tough sell.
Also, I am obligated not to divulge where their facility is. Which is fair: The Wachowskis do not want fans showing up at their front door, and so far Kinowerks has remained impressively under the radar, an industrial building that appears neither old nor especially new. It has no discerning mentions of movies or the Wachowskis or pop culture on its facade. It could be an upscale dentist's office.
“The idea was to be very restrained on the outside because there is intellectual property inside and (the Wachowskis) are modest and didn't really want to advertise their presence,” says Bill Ketcham of VOA Associates, the Chicago architect who designed and renovated the interior for the filmmakers. “But inside the place does get rather unexpected.”
Kinowerks is 20,000 square feet.
At the front door, there is an umbrella stand full of identical umbrellas, each imprinted with the glowing green data streams from “The Matrix.” On a table in the waiting room, alongside the front desk, the iconic mask from “V For Vendetta,” which they wrote and produced. There's also a small replica of the massive art deco goddess statue at the center of “Cloud Atlas.”
Beyond this, a long hallway serves as a kind of memory lane: one of the Ducati 998 motorcycles from “The Matrix Reloaded,” several models of the evil robot squid from the series, models of the cars from “Speed Racer,” MTV Movie Awards, Oscars, a severed prosthetic finger from their first film, “Bound.” Also, character busts and a camera belonging to their brother Chris. On the walls, movie posters, “Matrix” concept art (from Chicago cartoonist Geof Darrow), a framed call sheet from the first day of work on “Matrix Reloaded.” Also, an autographed Michael Jordan Bulls jersey.
That? I ask, pointing to an autographed Bears helmet.
“Willie Gault signed it,” Andy says. “He wanted to be in ‘Reloaded,' but we couldn't make it work.”
The Chip and Dale statue?
“Susan Sarandon gave us that,” Lana says. “She likened us to chipmunks.”
The two early-'90s Macintosh computers, placed side by side?
“Believe it or not, we wrote ‘The Matrix' on those,” Andy says.
Beyond the long hallway, a kitchenette, editing suites, a 409-seat screening room and a conference room with a table imprinted with recycled circuit boards — the lighting scrims above the table are imprinted with what looks like the duo's signature stream motif, the data streams.
“Have you seen the back yet?” Lana asks, and we push through a set of doors that lead to a basketball court and, around the corner from the court, a cramped green-screen studio. “We can do small things here,” Andy says. “Because of trains, it's not great for sound.”
The place is so spotless and quiet it feels like an Ikea after hours; couple this with the Wachowskis' secrecy and the dark holes that stare down from exposed ductwork — holes where one could hide a video camera — and I also get a slightly paranoid feeling. But, oh! The elevator. Wish you could see the elevator. It's a pneumatic tube, a metal cylinder surrounded by metal mesh. It acts like a Shop-Vac, pushing the small metal disc you stand on to the roof, where you find a pretty garden.
The basketball court is made with reclaimed bamboo; the walls of the offices are made from a log salvaged from the bottom of Lake Superior. None of which is a surprise if you know what they did before making films.
They started a construction business. Ketcham, the architect, tells me, “They were young painters and carpenters. They built my house. I got their flier. They were called Cheap-O Painters, but did such a good job and were hard workers, I hired them later. But they were just kids then, trying to pay off college debts.”
Reading Foucault and Derrida on their breaks.
Back in their office, the Wachowskis, Tykwer — they look somewhat like a road company “Breakfast Club,” reclining and hunched forward in various degrees of expectation and boredom. They worked on “Cloud Atlas” by shuttling between the Wachowskis' Chicago and Tykwer's Berlin, where the film was shot.
They talk for a bit about this, about the similarities between “The Matrix” and Tykwer's “Run Lola Run,” which Lana says she saw in the old Fine Arts Theater on Michigan Avenue, then left, bought another ticket and saw it again.
I ask if they were big moviegoers growing up here. The siblings lighten somewhat. Lana: “Our parents took us to a lot of films. We have one legendary triple feature.” Andy: “All three at the Colony Theater, right?”
Lana: “No, it started at the Colony.”
Tykwer: “Does it still exist?”
Lana: “One of the theaters was the Adelphi.”
Andy: “It started on the South Side, then … Near North?”
Tykwer sits up in his chair: “You didn't say what the triple feature was.”
Lana: “Oh, ‘Harold and Maude,' ‘The King of Hearts' and ‘The In-Laws.' And we would go to a movie, then eat a meal, then go to a movie, then eat dinner. This was all in one day.”
Andy: “After each movie, our parents would ask what we thought and tell us what they thought, and it was a dialogue. As a kid, you might not understand something, but you were intrigued. They would show us that experiencing art was about abandoning your own perspective and yourself, and one way of understanding is by reaching out to people and having a dialogue about a movie. Which sounds radical now, I suppose.”
Lana: “But any work of art that doesn't inspire that dinner conversation is not much of a work of art.”
Andy: “Otherwise there's really no value to the work.”
By now they look irritated and resigned again. They cycle back to Chicago. Andy says: “Someone asked if we could reincarnate, who we'd be? My first answer was Studs Terkel, who has been a huge influence on us, especially the way he drew the connections between people.” Lana says: “The point is, Chicago is influential to us. We think of ourselves as Chicago artists. We are Chicago artists. Most of our films are set here.”
But not shot here.
“There are no sound stages,” Lana replies, “not big enough ones anyway. Write that down.”
What about Kinowerks? What about expanding it?
“Kinowerks,” Andy says, pausing, “Kinowerks is as big as we can imagine this place ever becoming.”