Adapting David Mitchell's innovative novel Cloud Atlas for the big screen has been quite a process. Writer-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) have spent the past four years fighting to get a truly unique project made. Not only does Mitchell's story contain six interwoven stories connected through time and space over hundreds of years, but the vast epic combines so many eras, characters, and themes that it seemed an impossible task.
Four years later, the talented trio has created a visual masterpiece, each working on different pieces of the puzzle. With a staggering budget, brilliant writing, and a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, James D'Arcy and Ben Whishaw, Cloud Atlas is easily one of the most unique projects ever committed to screen. The Wachowskis, Tykwer, Mitchell, and their cast - each playing at least six different characters in six different costumes, using unrecognizable prosethetics and makeup - met with Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier to discuss their remarkable film.
Emmanuel Itier: Cloud Atlas is a game-changing film. From the layered stories jumping through time to the sheer beauty of the cinematography, costumes, makeup, and design, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer have truly created something unique. What sort of challenges and themes did you explore in your experiences working on this remarkable film?
Tom Hanks: Well, we never had a moment's rest.
Halle Berry: True.
TH: We were always busy. There was no "slack" day on this. We were always done up as something, and we had a great challenge laid before us of what we had to do, even by the directors who would say, "Yay, you're here. You're ready to work. This is the most important day of the film. Most important day" - every day - "Most important day."
HB: And every day was fun. You never got bored because we were always so many different people all the time and in different skin. To see everybody else create their different characters was... as fun for me as creating my own was to see everybody else create their characters, and to see them walking around as someone else, and how they enveloped that and interpreted those characters. That was just as fun for me.
EI: Your characters each explore so many concepts, but what do you think Cloud Atlas is about, at its core?
TH: The scope of it is so massive and so long, but it's about how we are all connected to one another. How, over time and space, humanity is connected by our actions and by the things that we create. Just the nature of the creation of it, Adam Ewing writes a book that is read by Robert Frobisher, who writes a piece of music that is familiar to...
HB: Luisa Rey.
TH: Luisa Rey in 1974. Her story is written in a manuscript that Timothy Cavendish is reading at some point. He goes off and writes a book that gets turned into a movie that touches people 500 years in the future, and the person who is most moved by that movie ends up being worshipped as a goddess because of the wisdom. So even little tangible things of creation, it means that - it speaks to the quality of, like, Mozart's music still lasts for thousands of years, Voltaire's words still mean something to us thousands of years later on. Other films - perhaps, even this one - will speak to people hundreds of years from now.
EI: The movie is also about revolution—a revolution and evolution. Do you think we are in the time of re-evolution?
HB: I don't know how true this is, but someone just told me that 2013 is like a new beginning. It's a new awakening of the world where good will prevail and there's going to be a real shift. I don't know if this is true or not, but I keep getting inundated with this concept. [To Tom] Are you hearing about this?
TH: No, this is... no.
HB: I keep getting inundated with this from everywhere I travel and everywhere I go, that 2013 is new light, new energy is coming into the earth.
EI: Supposedly, December 21st, 2012, is the end of the Mayan calendar... the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new one.
HB: And everything is going to start to shift in the world.
EI: Have you personally seen that oneness that is experienced by the characters in this film?
TH: Well, it seems to me we're constantly in this battle between cruelty and kindness. Without a doubt, such a magnificent coming together is going on around the world in which color barriers are falling down and nationalities are now speaking almost the same philosophical language, and yet at the same time the Taliban is killing a little girl because she tells the truth.
We're always going to be in this constant battle between this, and I think the reason that things are a little better now than they were 50 years ago is because 51% of the things that happen in this life are based on caring and love and only 49% of the things that go on in life are based on prejudice and hate.
It would be better if it was a little more in the plus column, but let's just take the two percentage points and move forward.
Emmanuel Itier: This is such a massive film – an incredibly layered story, and so many complex subplots. What were some of the challenges you faced working on this film, and what did you come away with?
Jim Sturgess: It's a huge challenge to ask any actor to play more than one part in one film. To end up having to play four or five - or in some cases six - different characters that are all existing in different genre style of movies as well, there was a huge challenge of just getting your head around all the different characters that you were playing, what they represented, and how you could best show that representation.
What I think the film's about, it's a big... we were just talking about it earlier. It's not a film that force-feeds you anything, really. It allows you to let it wash over you, and you can take whatever you want from it. There's a lot of big themes in the film, but at the same time, it's not weighed down with cerebral kind of intellect. You can just sit, let the film play itself out to you, and enjoy it, and whatever you get out of it is what is up to the individual.
Obviously, there's themes of reincarnation, your legacy, the ripple effect of every action that you make, connectivity with people that you may not have met before but maybe you have. There's a lot going on.
EI: This is also a truly unique filmmaking experience, working with three directors and screenwriters on different stories within the film. What was that experience like?
JS: The great thing about being an actor is that you get to visit all these amazing people's imaginations and sort of live inside their imagination for a period of time. Then you can go and spend time with another director who has a completely different look at what makes a good film or what's interesting to that person.
With Andy, Lana, and Tom, you've got three people there and they're such forward-thinking, philosophical, brilliant, fun, amazing, talented, creative geniuses. They really are. It's so easy to go, "Oh, they're such geniuses," but they really, truly are some of the most incredible people I've ever met. To be recognized by them, for us to be asked by them to be in this really ambitious film that they cared so much about—it really took them a long time to get this film together and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. It was such an honor to be asked to play such special characters in such a special, once-in-a-lifetime film.
EI: Your particular story is in a futuristic world with supposed 'pure breds', synthesized humans, cannibalism – what do you think is the underlying message of Sonmi and her transformation?
JS: It's important that a quality is found and used in every angle. So yeah, I would say that that's important. What I love about the Sonmi character is that she comes through science. She's generically engineered, and she becomes a religious figurehead. I think that's really clever the way that David Mitchell's done that. It blends science and religion as one thing, so I thought that was really clever that he did that.
EI: Absolutely. Both the novel and the film explore so many intriguing concepts about spirituality, love, time, space… did working on the film change your mindset or thinking in any way?
JS: It definitely made me start thinking about the afterlife, or previous lives, or whether I've walked this earth before. It does make you think like that. It makes you think about your own legacy, your time that you spend here, and what you choose to do with that - what you bring into the world. That's what the film kind of touches on, whether that's an entry into a journal, a piece of music that you've written, or just a simple act of human kindness; how that can really create an impact later on. It starts making you feel responsible for what you choose to do, why you're here, and how you choose to behave. It's certainly things I thought a lot more about, having made the film, than I did beforehand.
Emmanuel Itier: This film is beyond a pet project. There were so many obstacles to get it made. Not only have you done that, you've done it with a phenomenal cast, remarkable visuals, and the freedom to explore your very specific vision. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges and changes you faced along the way?
Tom Tykwer: It definitely was a happy and very stressful experience. I don't remember anything in my life that I've done that was both so intensely exhausting and terrifying at times and, at the same time, constantly exhilarating and joyful. It's the most absurd combination of experiences and the most wonderful.
Lana Wachowski: You know how they say 'in dog's years' - dogs age much quicker and have so much more life compacted in a single year? Cloud Atlas, the four years - we've actually lived, like, 50 years in those 4 years. We're actually almost 100 years old, all of us.
There was such joy and a sense of expansion. The novel has this feeling of expansion in it. I was constantly feeling the spectrum of human experience where you have a crushing, soul-breaking defeat where everyone says... one day they say, "Yes, I'm in. Here's my money." The next day they say, "You know what? I've changed my mind. I'm taking my money away." You're, like, "We have a deal," and they say, "Well, sue us," they walk away and the movie dies. You go in the next day, and somehow Tom Hanks says, "No matter what, I'm in. I want to do this movie." and it suddenly brings you back to life. It was like a gift and a curse, simultaneously. It was...
Andy Wachowski: I'm in therapy right now to try to recover all of the memories that are buried deep down inside. I've been learning a lot over this press junket about what actually happened those many years ago.
LW: Don't try to trigger him. He might go into an epileptic fit.
EI: The novel is constructed in a different way than you chose to purse in the movie. Rather than keeping the story told in first halves, like a Russian nesting doll, and then finished in second halves, you chose to explore a more linear approach. Every few minutes we jumped through time. Why did you choose to portray the six different stories like that?
TT: If you say "linear," it is what you remember about it, which is a triumph for us of course, because we know it's very mosaic. It's quite complex, actually, structured, and it feels - hopefully, if you say so - like one movie.
We know we're telling six stories, but we also wanted everyone to have the experience of one completely coherent, exciting movie adventure. The challenge was that we could not take the structure of the book the way it was organized and just adapt it for a film, because the book has huge chunks of the stories.
David Mitchell took the 6 stories, cut them all in half except for one, and separated them, so it's basically 11 chapters. It would have meant for us to have the movie start over with every story again every 20, 30 minutes, which meant the sixth story would have started after 110 minutes or something - which we couldn't imagine anybody wants in a movie. You don't want a set of new characters come in and a complete new plot after 1 and 1/2 hours. You're not ready for that, so we wanted to intertwine it.
LW: What David was trying to do with making it one book and cutting it up was that he wanted you, when you were done, to have the book do something to your brain to start weaving these stories together. From the very beginning, we said if we could make a movie of the version of the book that happens after your brain processes it and weaves it together, that could be a film. The book wouldn't work as a structure for a film, but the version that happens to you after you read it, that was the version we wanted to make.
AW: Once you laid out all six stories on index cards, you could see the similarities between the stories, so one beat in a story could pay off in a different era.
TT: We wandered around in this room where there were all these index cards on the floor and all these tiny moments, and we put them together in a new order. We suddenly made all these new connections and felt like it could become something really exciting as a movie.
EI: The movie picks up so many different, beautiful threads. One of them is that life is about identifying all the pieces of this big puzzle, and putting them all together. Do you think there's any way to control that, and how does that tie into the message you were trying to tell in Cloud Atlas?
AW: Well, there's a good line in the movie that sort of illustrates that—that Lana had found based on a José Saramago line in "Blindness" - and it's, "The nature of our immortal lives is in the consequences of our acts and deeds that go on apportioning themselves throughout all of time." We are the consequences of all of the decisions that have come before us, and what will come is the consequences of all of our choices.
TT: It's beautiful to have a movie that is able to represent - we were really in love with the idea that we could make characters create their own back story and future story within the same movie. You could actually imagine them saying, "Okay, I'm an actor. I'm playing not only this character, but I'm also playing the character that made this character do some things in the previous life. And that character will influence another person in a future life."
If you want to look at it as a genetic connection or a spiritual one, like souls or reincarnations, that's up to you. The beauty of it is that you imagine that it makes every action in life - and of course in the movie - relevant for important situations in the future and in the past.
EI: Do you think the revolution is coming? That's a theme in a lot of your movies, and in a way there is that feeling that we can't escape our destiny. Do you feel that there is an awakening coming?
LW: The awakening is always here, it's always present, it's always a part of also the "asleep-ness." There's an energy between the two. Sometimes you're tired and you can't get out of bed in the morning and you can't go help fight the revolution, but sometimes you're ready for the revolution and you're more open and more sensitive to the worlds that are available to consciousness through our imagination - which is one of the manifestations of our storytelling.
Storytelling is tied, I think, importantly to the understanding of our humanity. As you go through life, a part of the way that we invest meaning in our lives is through the stories we create, and some stories are revolutionary and some stories are not - are supportive of paradigms that are in place now. We tend towards stories that lean more towards the revolutionary aspect of meaning.
Emmanuel Itier: First off, what was your experience like, working on such an incredible film? Opportunities like this don’t come along very often.
Susan Sarandon: You've seen it. You can see what the attraction is. I mean, breaking new ground, the Wachowskis, all these incredible actors, big ideas, big sets - something that never had been done before - and playing the whole time. Being playful, being able to be in a repertory company with great actors who were putting noses and cheeks and contact lenses in, putting their egos aside, and serving the piece. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We'd worked with the Wachowskis before, and I knew Tom, so you know what you're getting into. Even if you don't know how it's going to turn out, you know it'll be special, and emotional, and that they care.
EI: All three of the directors also co-wrote the screenplay for Cloud Atlas, and have very distinct styles. What do you think it is about them that makes them so unique, so perfect for this type of project?
Hugo Weaving: Well, what's unique about them is that they hadn't worked together before on a film, and you don't get a film directed by three directors anyway, and you don't get a film where there are two sets and they're doing three separate stories each. You don't get that, so the unique thing about them is them.
The unique thing about this film is them, is their triumvirate, and that Lana and Andy have absolutely adopted Tom and he's willingly been adopted as their third sibling. They are a truly unique-working unit. It's amazing to see them now after we've finished the shoot, that they want to go out to dinner, they want to talk, they want to be together.
I saw them yesterday. I hadn't seen them since we were in Toronto. Three of them came up and gave me - I was in a bear hug with this one person who was actually three people. That's what's unique about them. They have enquiring minds; they want to be groundbreaking; they want to question structures; they want to try something new; and they want to incorporate - they said they wanted to work together. They wanted to do a film that had to have action and love and great ideas, and "Cloud Atlas" presented itself as the wonderful story that they could all work on...
SS: Very often, because of the economy being the way it is, projects are green-lit thinking of how much they'll make, if they're safe, if it's worked out before, and, "Who do we put in it that has a — ?" Working backwards as opposed to coming up with something that excites you, a story that you want to tell, something you believe in, something that means something to you because the concepts are personal and yet universal.
It's great to find these people that work that way and then find a way to get the movie made as opposed to looking and seeing what's selling and working backwards. That's why you're getting so many of these things that are kind of soulless, and don't really live on the screen, and they're kind of formulaic.
Somebody that's trying to do something different - and it's riot because, very often, the films that break through and are so extraordinary are the ones that people recognize as something new. They don't want to be fed the same thing that they can recognize two minutes into the movie. Really, they'll jump for something that's different and well-made and moves them - all of those things that cinema is capable of doing.
HW: They all have such an infectious energy, too, don't they?
HW: Lana, Andy, and Tom; so that's unbelievably attractive to want to be a part of that family.
EI: As you said, you worked with them before. How have they matured as writers and directors? What's different about them?
HW: From the first day I met them, I thought they were a couple of wonderfully geeky college kids. Now they've - I suppose - individuated more, but just as excited about ideas and about making films. It's a joyous experience to work with them, and it's... hopefully... a continuing journey as well.
I think the addition of Tom kind of... well, I'd actually now love to see the three of them make another film.
SS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
HW: That would be really, really interesting.
SS: This business, the whole plus, is collaboration. That's what's so attractive, and as an actor, certainly in film, you have less say than you do on stage. For better or worse, you have a relationship with the audience onstage. In film, you never know what they're going to finally see at the end of the day. You're so dependent on your focus pull, you're so dependent on what you're wearing, so you just don't get an opportunity in your job to be that collaborative in such a surprising way and to have people present challenges to you that make you move on. It's like a marriage every few months that you get to leave if it's not working out, so that's great.
I think that they really take on so much that the collaboration becomes more and more exciting, because everybody that they asked to do even more than they have before. That's a great kind of life to lead.
EI: One of the themes of the movie, which is a bit the theme of Lana and Andy's movies - and a bit Tom's movies - is the notion of re-evolution. Do you feel that, in this day and age, the movie can resonate in that sense where it shows people, "You need to act. Stop talking and act."
SS: You need to wake up.
HW: That's the history of the world. Those sort of structures constantly evolving and revolving; revolutions coming and knocking off the 'powers that be', and then often becoming the powers that be that then get knocked off by the next evolution revolution. There are various sorts of revolutions and evolutions, and often, things get replaced by something very similar.
Increasingly, this film and the book asks you to question the whole nature of any structure, really, and allow a much more fluid sense of what it is to be a human being, a less stratified sense of what it is to be a human being.
SS: And this idea that power always uses fear of the other to control. It makes the masses want to put someone down - either someone of a different religion, a different color. Through every segment of this, every story, that notion is there.
Certainly, we're living in a time that's very polarized right now; where you're encouraged to be polarized in order for the powers that be to be able to have authority and offer you safeties. Fear is used constantly to take away your personal power in exchange for safety, and that's the way that it's been. In order to need that, you have to have an enemy.
This film is saying that, basically, when you unwrap age, color, religion, and everything else, that the essence of every human being is the same. That, really, we all want the same, and we're all afraid of the same things, and no one lives forever - all of those things. That's a very threatening thing to the order. Also for people to know, you know, the Garden of Eden, that whole story. "Don't eat the apple. Don't eat the apple or your dad gets mad and kicks you out." If you want to know, I mean, that's how the first woman got such a bad rep. She was the one that said, "Yeah, I want to know"...
HW: And she was great, wasn't she? "Let's try this apple, Adam." "Okay."
SS: Yeah, let's know. But you're constantly being told, "Don't, don't, don't because your world will unravel." In this, every single person has an opportunity to know - whether it's Halle Berry's character reading letters, finding out, making a decision to know; questioning always the status quo in a very personal way and in a very simple little way that then has ramifications in the future somewhere.
That's the way the world works. So I think is it something for now? Yeah, it's something for always, really.
Emmanuel Itier: It must be an incredible honor to be a part of this film. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer spent years trying to pull this adaptation together. What did you take away from the experience of being part of this amazing process?
James D’Arcy: This film, I don't think there's any chance that you'd be able to second-guess where it goes, what happens, the journey that you're about to go on. I think for any artist, the idea of being involved in something that's different and daring and as unique as this is, it's a bit of a no-brainer, really.
Ben Whishaw: I love the way the film takes six obviously completely different stories, but also six completely different genres, in a way, of film or of storytelling. I love the way it entwines them, because I think that is a bit how life is. Everyone is in their own movie, in a way, aren't we? We're all in our own worlds, and we can't really know another person's world or how they experience the world, but we know it's different to ours. It is different, and yet, at the same time, we are all the same and we have this common humanity and we are all one. There's something about that that the film captures, which I find very beautiful. It's very movingly expressed in the film, I think.
EI: What was your experience like, working with Tom and Andy and Lana? What do you think sets them apart from other directors working today?
BW: They're really independently-minded people. They think for themselves. They're incredibly creative people. They're kind of non-conformist people. They do things the way they want and they make films the way they want. I'm only just learning the full story, but the struggle to get this film made and funded was a Herculean task, really. It's a miracle that it exists, and I think that is testament to their qualities as people.
JD: As directors, all three of them do something that is quite rare. They swim against the tide, and instead of trying to second-guess what they think an audience might want to watch and then tailor a film to that, they trust in their own authenticity of their beliefs and make that film and see if people connect with it. Which is extremely courageous, because obviously it's different. It's not the way that most people start - unfortunately - artistic endeavors, because it might fail, it might not succeed.
The flipside to that is there's a real possibility that something extraordinarily creative could happen. If you don't dare to fail, there is no chance of that. The three of them are, for sure, linked in that regard that they dare to push themselves and challenge themselves.
EI: Cloud Atlas is a movie that focuses on different sorts of revolution – from the very big to personal revolutions of sorts. Do you believe that we’re living in a time where that theme is especially relevant?
JD: I think we absolutely are, but I'm not sure that I... on a global scale, it feels like the world is speeding up, and yes, it feels like there are more and more crisis, but actually, my bigger thought about the evolution of mankind is that we're doing it individually. That conversation is something that seems to be taking place more and more, and hopefully this film might be one of the things that fuels further conversation about our own personal revolutions and evolutions.
EI: Every movie is an adventure, an experience, a journey. In what way do you think this movie has changed you?
BW: There's something about the spirit of the film that is... I feel really enriched by having been a part of it. It's strange to say, because I'm in it and I don't usually feel this way about things I'm in, but I feel enriched by watching it as well. It feels like a celebration; and it feels like a hopeful film; and it feels like a film that celebrates humanity, which I don't think you see that often, really.
JD: Yeah, I think it encapsulates a lot of what I believe about the universe, and also it encapsulates a lot of the things that I would have hoped to have done creatively. I guess I just feel really, very privileged to have been a part of it and extremely happy - as a cinema lover, as a film lover - that films like this are made. I like films that don't patronize me and expect that I have no brain. I like films that ask me to participate in them and be complicit in it as I watch.
Emmanuel Itier: Were you worried at all before you saw the film? What do you think of the final product?
David Mitchell: You know, I wasn't. I'd seen the script early on. I've been involved on set a bit, and I knew the track record of the directors. I was just nervous that, if I didn't like it, it would be a depressing experience having to try to say nice things about it. In fact, I think it's rather magnificent, and I'm very happy to say nice things about it in public.
EI: Were you at all concerned about trusting Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis with your novel? Did you give them any words of advice, or completely let them run with it?
DM: If you're not willing to trust directors with your book, then don't sell your book to the directors. That's an unnecessary source of heart disease. No, I always had a lot of faith in them. I saw a script fairly early on that really impressed me. I loved the idea of the same actors play different roles in different time periods with different ethnicities and different genders. I badly wanted to see what that would look like. I've never seen anything like it. So yeah, I always had great faith in them. In a way, I shared their curiosity.
Screenwriting is a different art. I'm a novelist. This is how I earn my livelihood, and I never really felt confident enough to go throwing advice about, especially not to directors with the reputations of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer.
EI: When you go from a book to a script, you obviously have to tweak a few things and pick and choose what you share. How do you think they made it work so well?
DM: By disassembling it properly, by not trying to film the book literally, by not making an audio book with moving images attached to it. I feel they properly disassembled it like a Lego structure, and then they reassembled it with the same bricks... some bricks out, but with the same bricks in the shape of a film. Actually, it works, because they did make some medium-sized changes to my book. That's why it's good as a film.
EI: Did you have a particular cast in your mind when you wrote the book? Did any of the casting choices surprise you?
DM: My only film-related thought, when I was writing the book, was, "What a shame this will never be a film," so at that point, no. However, the funny thing is, since I've watched the film, now I can no longer remember how I imagined, how I conceived the characters originally. They've been replaced by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, and Jim Broadbent - but if you're going to be replaced by anyone, who would you want more than these actors?
EI: What were you trying to say in the book that you think translated well in the film? If you could pick one overarching theme, what would it be?
DM: Well, there's a lot in there. There's a lot in the book and the film. If I can just choose two, particularly important to me would be the message of interconnectivity. We don't live little, insular lives with no consequences on the people around us. We are much more interconnected than we feel. The other is it's sort of a theme about predacity; about how individuals prey on others; about how corporations can prey on the whole societies; about how one tribe would prey on another; how, in some cases, a totalitarian state can prey upon the individuals who live inside it. Unfortunately, that isn't a theme that will be going out of fashion any time soon.
EI: But the revolution is always coming, right?
DM: Let's hope it's a good one this time - better than the last one.
Warner Bros. Pictures 'Cloud Atlas' is now playing in theaters nationwide.