On the eve of Tuesday’s presidential election, the famously press-shy filmmaker Lilly Wachowski is speaking out about the urgency for people to vote and mobilize at this critical juncture when everything in our democracy—from human rights to climate change—are at stake.
“I feel like we’re at this point in our history where we’re facing this existential crisis,” says Wachowski. “It’s all about participating in this moment. We all have to participate.”
In a rare interview, Wachowski, who along with her sister Lana co-created “The Matrix” trilogy, “V for Vendetta,” “Sense8” and more, spoke exclusively with Variety about her views on the “desperate straits we’re in as a country,” the danger of Trump getting re-elected, and the need to tackle crucial issues and hold politicians’ feet to the fire beyond election day.
Like most people, Wachowski is struggling with her conflicting thoughts and emotions as we ponder what the future holds. “Optimism and pessimism are slugging it out in my brain right now,” says Wachowski. “It looks dark out there on the horizon, so I try to get a good night’s sleep. I hang on to hope.”
Even if Trump loses, the 52-year-old writer-director-producer says it would be a grave mistake for people to think that there isn’t a lot of work to be done. “We can’t get into our heads that we’ve crossed the finish line if Biden wins,” she says. “This is not a brush with authoritarianism. As a country, we crossed that line a long time ago.”
With all of the ways that the GOP has tried to suppress the vote, Wachowski says, “I do not see a situation where Trump wins this election legitimately.”
Wachowski also spoke about being a transwoman, on who she is as an artist, how her “Grams” was a huge inspiration for the Oracle character in the “Matrix” trilogy, and how her involvement in Showtime’s comedy series “Work in Progress” has motivated her to pursue future creative endeavors centered around telling stories of the LBGTQ+ community and people of color.
She recently finished co-writing the second season of “Work in Progress,” which will begin shooting in March after the start date was pushed back this fall over safety concerns.
Wachowski recently published a personal political essay on the literary website, LitHub.com, which Variety has reprinted here in full. (See below).
The following are excerpts from our Variety interview.
How petrified are you of tomorrow’s election?
I have longer range petrification. My fear extends out past tomorrow, much further. I feel like we’re facing this existential crisis in terms of human rights, in terms of climate change, and you can just keep going down the list.
If Trump loses, what can be done to try and mitigate all the damage he’s done to our democracy and human rights?
We aren’t returning to any salad days and in fact the whole idea of there were even “salad days” is bullshit. Trump and the GOP are the result of an accumulation of white, moneyed power corrupting whatever semblance of a representative democracy that exists, if it even exists. What we’re seeing isn’t a brush with totalitarianism. We’ve been on this trajectory for a long time.
What are the most crucial issues we face?
All of these issues have always been with us and they reaching a tipping point where we won’t be able to do anything so when you try to imagine all the shit we have to work on the list is massive—white supremacy, climate change, dark money in politics, voting rights, housing rights, abolition, queer liberation, trans liberation.
And, when people start getting all agog about defunding the police, I think it’s much bigger than that. We have to de-militarize this whole country from the top down, from our defense budget to our police departments to our armed-to-the-teeth citizenry.
What can we as concerned citizens do right now?
It’s all about participating in the moment. Obviously, we have to vote, that’s a big thing, but what do you do when you have voter suppression and voter intimidation? We have to hold our politicians’ feet to the fire so that this cannot happen again. We have to give voice to every single person in this country.
Have you always considered yourself an activist?
Not really. I am an artist who believes that all art is political. Even art that takes no position at all is a position to maintain and reinforce the status quo.
In your recently published essay that was posted on LitHub, you spoke about how the nagging, unanswerable question “And then what happens” is something you have always addressed in your films.
Yes, all of my and my sister’s [Lana Wachowski] films talk about the idea of participation and revolution and transformation. All of these things require folks to step up and be counted.
You’ve always been so press-shy when it comes to talking about your work, or going public at all for that matter. What prompted you to write your personal essay and speak out now?
The last thing you want to do as a filmmaker is talk endlessly about the thing you just spent a year and a half making. As a transwoman, I spent a good portion of my life hiding who I am. The attention you get by participating in interviews is antithetical to the way that my brain is wired.
I feel like I took on a fatalistic view of my life. I couldn’t reconcile my trans-ness instead of trying to persevere and just play the hand I was dealt. This is important when you talk about politics and the desperate straits we are in as a country. We do not have to play the hand we were dealt because the rules and the game are rigged.
Can you talk about your involvement as a co-writer and co-executive producer of “Work in Progress,” which was created and co-written by Abby McEnany based on her writings as “a fat queer dyke” who struggles with depression and OCD in Chicago and the critical self-analysis of how she is who she is?
I really love it. It’s rekindled my love of filmmaking to some extent. That fact that I’m able to lift up queer voices and the amount of trans content that I was able to bring to that show really energized me the way I hadn’t been in a long time.
Are you currently working on any film projects?
Not at this time. The thing that “Work in Progress” did for me was made me want to do more of that. If I’m doing anything, it’s forming alliances with local queer, trans and people of color, Black Lives Matter and so I’m going to explore options for myself in the future that are centered around that sort of stuff.
In your LitHub essay, you reference your late paternal grandmother you affectionately call “Grams,” saying she left an indelible mark on your family and was the inspiration for a supporting character in the “Matrix” films. Can you tell us a little more about her?
She grew up in Michigan City and was a Dutch woman from this giant family that was super poor. She raised my aunt and my Dad, a lot of it by herself because her husband at the time had had a stroke and she nursed him back to health. She did all this while she was a maid. She fed my family and took care of people. Ultimately, it’s about connectivity and how we’re all interconnected with our past and future. So, when we talk about our history and we talk about our personal history and all these things my Gram gave to me—how to make a Thanksgiving dinner and all—it’s illustrative of our connectivity as human beings. That’s why it’s important.
Read the essay Wachowski wrote about fascism, originally published at Literary Hub on Oct. 30, below. At the end, watch a video from the filmmaker demanding Trump and Pence leave office.
My Grams was one of those people I loved to make laugh. She was a mighty woman who left an indelible mark on the women in my family. Myself included. I think of her when I fold a fitted sheet or make “Gramma eggs,” our family’s name for “egg in a basket.” Her atoms can be felt in every one of my and my sister’s films and was a huge inspiration for the Oracle in the Matrix trilogy. At the very end of her life, one of the things she said that carries wistful weight in our family’s lore was, she wasn’t afraid of dying, she just wanted to know the rest of the story, to know what was going to happen.
As we approach the crucible that is the 2020 election, this moment of our potential unmaking, I am at a loss when presented with the idea of what happens if Trump denies the will of the people and refuses to honor a peaceful transfer of power.
And then what happens?
That is the question that leaves me tossing and turning in bed at the darkest hours of the morning, my brain in free fall reaching out for purchase, grasping. The strange event horizon of this post-election moment in its unknowableness is unsettling.
When I was a kid playing D&D with my pals, there would be some crucial moment in the story of the game where we’d all start chanting, “And then what happens?! And then what happens?!” It was a joke we repeated based on some newly initiated player who didn’t understand the idea that role playing requires participation in the story, but would only ask Lana (the GM) what happened next. We always took the joke to absurdist conclusions. “And then what happens? You get hungry. And then what happens? You collapse from starvation. And then what happens? You die. And then what happens? You decompose and become a skeleton. And then what happens? A pack of wild dogs divvy up your bones and bury them. And then what happens? Dung beetles eat your bones….” Hilarious stuff at the time.
We played endlessly. It was a game that would hone my imagination to create and understand hypothetical situations and how to navigate through them. It helped my young mind in the creation of my own sense of self and my moral universe. It offered a salve to my gender dysphoria with the opportunity to disappear and inhabit other worlds, other bodies, bodies that more closely aligned to the one I yearned to be.
The ability to answer the question “And then what happens,” has served me immeasurably in my career as a filmmaker. To make a film is an impossibly ponderous endeavor, from its inception and ideation, to story, to script, to production, to post production; a film is a flowchart of seemingly infinite variety of decisions. And right now, days before the election, the question nags ominously.
Over the last months, that sense of uncertainty, that hole in our story, had me scouring the abyssal of the internet, ultimately turning to the hard answers offered time and again by sites like Truthout, Gaslit Nation, The Indivisible Project, Stand Up America, and Refuse Fascism. These are folks who have been ringing this alarm for the past four years and succinctly put all of my anger, fear and anxiety into words on the desperate looming cataclysm we face.
How many more fucking bodies have to pile up?
The urgency of Refuse Fascism though, is that we cannot wait until after the election. That we have to mobilize now, to take to the streets now, to pre-empt the rolling fascist coup that is taking place NOW. Definitely exercise your right to vote but they posit that this regime will likely have to be forced out under the weight of mass-nonviolent protest in the streets. And though this premise is full of the promise of direct action which I like, I still find my mind wanting, grasping.
And then what happens?
If there isn’t some kind of Frank Capra ending to this nightmare, if there isn’t an overwhelming electoral landslide of the decent, what do we do?
What happens when Trump disputes a close election, then tries to legitimize his coup via his illegitimately packed courts and corrupt DOJ? The evidence is that he’s already doing it.
“The moment when we cannot in any way connect what is taking place and what we know, is a traumatic one, because the solidity of reality—the belief that its continuity cannot be altered—catastrophically falters.”
This knocks the wind from me. Because the “solidity of reality” is that I can’t see through the murk of this situation that doesn’t end in violence.
Violence. It is the GOP’s go-to. The one substantive piece of their political platform.
And while the Democratic party’s habitual calls for bipartisanship make them accomplices in Republican crimes, violence is the core value of the GOP. The violence of 220,00 dead Americans and counting. The violence of exposing voters to grueling lines in this pandemic. The violence of their economic sanctions against their own populace, sadistically starving those with the least. The violence of their gun-crazy militias and white supremacist thuggery of the fraternal order of police. The violence against immigrants and the xenophobic politicizing of our border. The violence against Black and Brown lives facing more brutality and criminalization on top of a racist carceral state and for-profit industrial prison complex. The violence against my queer and trans brothers, sisters and siblings.
How many more fucking bodies have to pile up?
The truth is, if Trump “wins” this election, I am having a difficult time imagining I am not going to be one of those bodies. This does not make me special. By the inauguration the number of Covid deaths will likely double. “Rounding the corner” to half a million dead Americans. It is a staggering number. A crime against humanity. And is indicative that one way or another the violence of the GOP is going to come for us all.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The dung beetles don’t have our bones, not if we rise up and participate in this moment. By freeing our radical imaginations we can create that Capra-esque for ourselves. The movements around the world have shown us the Black Lives Matter has shown us the way. The courageous citizens that are hurling themselves into the ballot blockades have shown us the way. We must come together and end this fanatically violent regime that imperils our lives and the Earth itself. We are the writers of this story and we get to decide how it’s going to end.
So get out there and vote with all your fucking might, rabidly protect your ballot with everything you got and I’ll see you in the streets.
The world will be watching to see what happens next.