Part comedy, part drama, throw in some flying motorcycles shooting lasers and the most beautiful classical music you’ve heard in years and you’re barely scratching the surface of Cloud Atlas, as SFX learnt while meeting the directors and cast in LA.
It used to be movies were the place to explore big ideas, not just in visual scope but those with far ranging ramifications for the human condition. But today, after a generation of dumbing movies down to reach the widest possible audience, cinema has lost ground to TV when it comes to dramatic exploration.
Still, every now and then a film comes along that reminds us some directors still know how to fill a movie screen not just with sweeping imagery but lofty ideas, and Cloud Atlas is one such gem.
Translating David Mitchell’s best selling 2004 book took three of our most exciting directors to do it, Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Twyker (Run Lola Run). Says the German born Twyker of the European shoot, which saw nine principal cast shuttling back and forth between Spain, Germany and the UK; “We wrote and prepped the movie together and to us that’s the most important part of what a director does.”
With a roadmap and a plan, the trio split directing duties between them, each wrangling a segment of the story set in one of the six time periods depicted. “We were constantly communicating,” Twyker adds, “emailing, texting, calling and showing camera moves with our Skype cameras.”
The collaboration then ended up where it began, with the Wachowskis and Twkyer bringing all the footage together where they cut it down to its current 172-minute theatrical cut. Twyker says if the team could have shot together they would have, but pointing cameras at Halle Berry, Tom Hanks and their costars across Europe was only one piece of the puzzle. “The editing room’s another level of directing,” he explains, “shooting is only three months out of a four-year process.”
Staring at clouds
Cloud Atlas is one of those ideas that allows for all the world-building literature and movies can offer but which can be captured in a beautifully simple premise. From 1849 to several hundred years after humanity suffers an apocalyptic decline, a collection of people meet, their souls connecting across time, race, gender and class, their human stewards unaware of their immortality but feeling the inextricable links to others whether good or bad.
Twyker and The Wachowskis have used the medium to great effect to translate the 544-page novel. Each actor plays the same soul throughout the film, often changing race and in one case, gender. Tom Hanks begins as a conniving 19th century explorer, becomes a thuggish cockney writer and then plays a goat farmer speaking pidgin in a post-technological age. Halle Berry plays a demure white woman, Brit Jim Sturgess a dashing young Korean revolutionary and Hugo Weaving a cruel (and female) nurse at an old age home.
“It happened when we were deconstructing the book,” explains Andy Wachowski. “We put all the characters on cards on the floor and started finding the interconnectivity between them to create one storyline. As soon as we did that we noticed consistent obstacles each of the characters had to go through. Some of the obstacles were other characters so we started matching these people up and thinking about how you could show them evolving or devolving.”
A talisman from the book that suggests reincarnated souls is the comet-shaped birthmark. It not only finds its way into the film, it partly inspired the unique casting. “We thought if you could take that idea and represent it in the casting you can use the birthmark as an agency for change,” Wachowski adds.
Throw in a whole semester’s worth of film theory devices like having each segment of the story as a different genre, symbols that recur throughout the film to subtly signpost the connections and more, and even the running time of just under three hours seems remarkably disciplined. It’s an entertaining thriller, comedy, sci-fi action movie and historical drama all in one, each segment with a style all its own.
Yet still Twyker and the Wachowskis wanted Cloud Atlas to say more. “Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 relates to our experience of a work of art that asks you to participate in the construction of its meaning,” Lana Wachowski says as she explains how she found her love of allegory. Her and brother Andy were very young when they first saw Kubrick’s 1968 watershed and found it infuriating because she couldn’t understand what ‘the big stupid black box was’.
“Every time it came on screen I was just so frustrated. I got all upset and when I explained what was wrong to my Dad he said ‘oh, that’s a symbol, it’s the consciousness of God’,” Wachowski says. “I just froze because I suddenly understood and had this insight into the idea of something representing something else.
Wachowski went to see 2001 again a week later, watched it through new eyes and saw something completely different. “Something happened to my experience in that theatre, it was like changing your eyeballs and seeing something that wasn’t available to you before. I began looking at other films, novels and works of art with the idea that you have to engage and participate and look underneath things for meaning. That approach was mirrored by the book Cloud Atlas and that’s what drew us all to it.”
Star Tom Hanks, who plays six roles, talks about another inspiration, one that unwittingly pegged him as the perfect lead. “I’d tried to read Moby Dick many times and just couldn’t get through it,” he says. “I couldn’t get past the language or the big sermons. So I was trying again and when I told Lana that she just exploded, saying that was what they wanted to do. They wanted to take the way Herman Melville tells the story and match it to that. They wanted a cross between Moby Dick and 2001 and that’s very different from being a cop with a dog, so I said ‘if you can get the funds, I’m in’.”
“The best novels have philosophical content,” adds Andy Wachowski. “I mean, in Les Miserables, Victor Hugo stops somewhere halfway through and says ‘OK, let’s just debate this, is it better to live a life believing or not believing in God?’ He goes on for six pages and then you’re back into the story.
“And at the end of his book, in this incredibly bold way, David basically has this four-page moral argument about how you should live your life. We were all drawn to that discussion and we began to think about it in terms of the characters.”
A new kind of movie
Cloud Atlas is as enigmatic as it is beautiful, much like the haunting musical motif The Cloud Atlas Sextet that forms the backbone of the score by Australian composer Johnny Klimek. All the elements (from the music to the running time to each self-contained story having its own visual approach) add up to one thing, which was the philosophy of the whole movie.
“It’s about a lot of transcendence of convention,” said Twyker. “The movie itself transcends conventions, it transcends the way we commonly understand movies, it asks why we should separate all these movies into different boxes – as in ‘this is an arthouse movie, this is a mainstream movie’. Why do we have to have those distinctions?”
The impressive cast that fell into place became enthusiastic cheerleaders for the approach, and all of them reported the same excitement at working on something none of us had ever seen before, some of them not seeing the real magic until the cameras had stopped rolling. “I wasn’t aware of having a spiritual connection to being with,” says Hanks, “I understood they were in there somewhere but it wasn’t till [Twyker and the Wachowskis] were done that they were obvious. I’ve seen it three times now and I swear to God I’ve taken new and profound things away from it each time. Some of them are just little things that make you say ‘did you see that? Oh my God, that means everything, that little thing they did right there. I didn’t notice it the first time’!”
Released in the US last October, the US$100m Cloud Atlas did respectable business but didn’t light the box office on fire, perhaps getting a little lost in a traditionally quiet time for movies. Thankfully it’s a slow-burn movie that asks as much of you as it has to say and might find its feet on DVD with extras and add-ons that are presumably just as expansive as the film.
But if you’re thinking of forgoing the theatrical release in favour of home video, ask yourself just how often we see movies that are naturally at home at a cinema rather than on a laptop. In name as well as spirit, Cloud Atlas is as big as the sky is wide.
Q&A – David Mitchell
Is it frustrating for an author when you don’t really have any say in how a movie of your book turns out?
It’s a long way from having a book optioned to it appearing on the screen. I just concentrate on what I’m writing because a movie is someone else’s problem. They wrote a script and about two years later they flew to meet me at home in Ireland to talk about their ideas. I’d already given my blessing not thinking it would even go that far, but of course it’s now come all this way and here we are talking about a movie starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.
Was the philosophy of the movie of crossing genre lines part of your approach with the book?
Sure, all my favourite books have that. I loved [Twyker and the Wachowskis] idea of it having different tones. I love entertainment as well as think pieces. The best kind of art does both and this movie does it as well as I hoped the book would when I was writing it.
Did you think it would work as a movie?
When there was first talk of filming it, I knew the structure would have to be thrown out altogether. In the book we tell the stories more linearly, but in a movie you have to introduce characters fairly quickly. Here there are about six major players to meet, so Tom, Lana and Andy did a great job restructuring the story to the medium.