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Sibling Revelry with The Wachowskis

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In an age of sequels, prequels, and reboots, the Wachowskis break ground by breaking all the rules.

“We pursue originality because we grew up in a different time..."

Lana Wachowski has a theory about 9/11, involving the death of original films in favour of sequels, prequels, and reboots. And it speaks to how out of place the Wachowski siblings — Lana and Andy — sometimes feel in today’s Hollywood.

“We pursue originality because we grew up in a different time, where originality was the essential quality you sought in a movie or a book or a comic,” she says of her and her brother’s Chicago childhood (before her gender transition, when she was Larry).

“And today it is the opposite. The audience values and hungers for derivative material and stories that are based on things that we already know. I believe our relationship to originality changed like a switch in our brain, and it happened on 9/11.”

She lists all the “great, continuing stories” invented before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.: “Star Wars, Alien, Terminator, Matrix.

“And in the last 15 years? One — Avatar.”

No one can argue that the Wachowskis’ The Matrix doesn’t belong on that list. The 1999 original was responsible for planting the first existential thoughts in many Gen Y minds. The sequels put the trilogy’s worldwide box office up to $1.6 billion US.

That cash bought them cred for a lot of original projects that didn’t fit the Hollywood mold but carried powerful social messages. V for Vendetta (from an Alan Moore graphic novel), which they wrote and produced, wasn’t well-reviewed on release, but it had a profound impact. Its Guy Fawkes mask has become the image of choice for “disruptors,” from the Occupy movement to Anonymous.

The “un-filmable” Cloud Atlas featured “name” actors portraying characters of both genders — an approach that dovetailed with Lana’s decision to go public as transgender, something that had been common knowledge among her immediate circle for years.

And even lighter material, like the box-office failure Speed Racer and the sci-fi action-film Jupiter Ascending, with Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum, had subtext — particularly the latter, with its tale of malevolent aliens who “own” planets to harvest their inhabitants’ life force. It’s a riff on The Matrix that Lana characterizes as sci-fi Marxism.

“What if there’s one class of people who treat another class of people as if their lives are not as important? That’s our world today. It’s how many of us operate. We cultivate blindness of where we get our oil from or where we get our meat from or we get our computers from.

“I think of them as bad habits."

“I don’t think of them as ‘big thoughts’,” Andy says with a chuckle when I use that term. “I think of them as bad habits."

“No question, we try to stuff as many ideas as we can into what we do. Most sci-fi movies today are, ‘Here are the bad guys, here are the good guys. They fight.’ ”

After working with them in Cloud Atlas, Susan Sarandon referred to the Wachowskis as “one mind, finishing each other’s sentences.” In fact, Lana does the bulk of the talking, with Andy tending to chime in with a quip, often to steer her in mid-rant.

“We just always played together and were pretty inseparable as kids,” Andy says. “We never wanted to work apart. We started a painting company when we were trying to pay for college, and we both dropped out simultaneously from our respective schools. Then we tried to start a construction company — our mom and dad’s house was the last job we did. And it’s still standing.

“I just love her to bits,” he adds.

“There’s something beautiful about having someone you’re really close to, to work with,” Lana says. “You can give them a book like (David Mitchell’s) Cloud Atlas and they call you to talk about all the same parts that freaked you out.”

Filmmakers obsessed with originality are usually consigned to low-budget indies. But the Wachowskis tend to think big with their big thoughts. And nine-figure budgets have been harder to come by (there’s a convoluted story around the Cloud Atlas financing that apparently involves smuggled Chinese cash).

So it represented a budgeting exercise this past year when they took on Sense8, their involving but confounding Netflix series about a disparate group of people “connected” around the planet via an ability to communicate and share knowledge and skills. By cable standards, the Wachowskis had a big budget — but not by theirs.

“It’s the first experiment we’ve had with very economical, really long-form storytelling,” Lana says. “We packed as much as we possibly could — tone, philosophy, everything — into a single shot.”

Adds Andy, “It was super guerrilla, on location, everything happening on the run, literally running into this street in Seoul and, like, spewing shots. We didn’t even have permits.”

The siblings describe their creativity with a mood-swing metaphor. “We go from dark and challenging stuff like Cloud Atlas to going-toward-the-light with Jupiter Ascending. It’s like a pendulum.”

And where is the pendulum at now? “It’s kind of in the middle,” Andy says. “Make of that what you will.”

Jim Slotek is a writer and columnist with The Toronto Sun.