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Cloud Atlas: A very complicated coming-out party

There were many moments of doubt and perseverance in the making of the new film Cloud Atlas, its three writer/directors said in a joint group interview in September. One took place in Tom Hanks's driveway.

As they recount this story, the trio – Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run), and the siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy) – are trying to look relaxed in a Toronto hotel suite, and mostly succeeding, even though Lana, who is transgender, is making one of her first public appearances as a woman. (Born Larry, she'd transitioned 12 years ago, but both Wachowskis are famously press-shy.) Lana, whose voice is warm and husky, and whose dreadlocks are dyed bright pink, sits in the middle. On her left sits Andy, whose head is shaved and whose nails are painted black, and on her right is Tykwer, a stylish fellow whose sentences employ the inverted constructions of his native German. As they chat, they finish each other's thoughts like teenagers reminiscing about a road trip.

They were headed to Hanks's, happy as clams. Three weeks earlier, Warner Bros. had agreed to finance their sprawling cosmic epic. (It opened in theatres Friday.) That had unlocked other, international investments, and now they were hoping to woo their star.

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The road thus far had had bumps. David Mitchell's source novel is fiendishly complex, telling six interconnected stories over a span of six centuries. To write the screenplay, the trio had spent weeks holed up in Costa Rica dissecting the stories, searching for thematic echoes and reverberations. They'd bought every index card in town and filled them with scenes, and at one point had 500 spread across the floor. "There were moments where our brains ached," Lana says. "It was like some horrible higher-level algebra class, and you're just staring, because you know these things somehow fit together, but you can't quite see it."

Eventually, they built a script that's as ambitious as can be, a three-hour tour of fate, psychic evolution, elaborate visuals and epigram-tastic dialogue. (Sample line: "From womb to tomb, we are bound to others past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.") To hammer home the notion that souls reincarnate – improving or worsening through time – the trio wanted their actors to pop up in different roles, changing ages, races and genders from segment to segment.

Along the way, something was happening within Lana, too. Though her friends, family and colleagues had lived with her as a woman for years (they'd accepted her unconditionally, she says), and though she'd made other major changes – divorcing her first wife and marrying her current one – she'd vowed to be more public. Having spent months reading and writing Cloud Atlas's "philosophical, moral argument on how you should behave in the world," including the lines, "Every choice we make has the potential of changing the world," and, "You have to do whatever you can't not do" – surely that had some effect on her decision to speak out, I ask.

"That would be a nicely tidy narrative projection," she answers carefully. "But I admit it's not entirely unrelated. There is a line at the end, 'If I had remained invisible, the truth would stay hidden.' As I was writing it, I was like [she mimes being moved]. This movie is in so many ways about transcending our fear of Other, transcending the boundaries of Other, [so becoming more public around it] seemed quite natural."

"She's absolutely the same soul and spirit she always was," the actor Hugo Weaving says in a separate interview. He's worked with the Wachowskis for years, on The Matrix trilogy and V for Vendetta, and he plays six characters in Cloud Atlas, including a nasty female nurse. "We're all such complex beings, and it's so wonderful that she's become who she was meant to be. Physically, she's a little bit different, and vocally different – Larry's deep voice comes to mind, and now Lana's wonderful breathy voice. But I respond to Lana as I always have done."

So there the three directors were, approaching Hanks's home, hoping he'd take a leap of faith with them. Then their phone rang.

"It was our manager," Lana says. "He'd just spoken to Warner Bros., and they'd decided they couldn't do it."

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"They said they made a mistake," Andy continues. "They retracted the offer."

"Which basically meant, the movie is not happening," Tykwer adds, because with Warner out, the international deals would likely fall apart, too.

"And the door is opening," Lana says, "and Tom Hanks is walking out saying, 'Nice to meet you!'" All three groan at the memory. Still, they steeled themselves, and went inside. "We had to be very Scarlett O'Hara – don't think about this right now, think about it tomorrow," Lana says, giggling.

Fate was with them. "It was the most amazing meeting of all time," she continues. Hanks was reading Moby-Dick, one of her favourite books, and had a poster of 2001 on his wall, one of the trio's favourite movies. "He said he remembers riding his bike to the theatre to see 2001, and being a different person afterward, which was true for all of us," Tykwer says. At the meeting's end, Hanks announced, "Okay, I'm in!"

"We've been in a hundred meetings like this," Lana says, "and no one ever says, right there on the spot, 'Yes!'"

With Hanks in, Warner Bros. came back "incrementally," Andy says, though more challenges lay ahead, including smuggling financing dollars out of China during an embargo, and shuttling the huge cast – which also includes Halle Berry, Hugh Grant and Susan Sarandon – between sets in Scotland, Germany and Spain. "But we all felt a great buoyancy and spirit of adventure," Weaving says. "The thrill of the risk was definitely part of it for all of us."

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"We wanted to make the kind of film that made us want to make films," Lana says. "One that had an unabashed scale and scope, a philosophical investigation of what it means to be human." And if it had personal reverberations for her, well, that's the point.

"There isn't even a pronoun to describe someone like me," Lana says, open now, her early wariness gone. "As Wittgenstein says, 'The limitations of my world are the limitations of my language.' Our culture and language have to evolve to transcend the boundaries of simple binary gender. I don't believe in binary gender; I don't think it's accurate. Kinsey proved to us that sexuality is spectral, and so is gender." She smiles and gives a small nod. "So that's my little gender lecture." Amazing what acts of bravery art can inspire.

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