Catching up With Cloud Atlas

By September 17, 2012

I don’t feel anybody else could possibly convey the intent of the filmmakers, nor the intended content of the film, more so than the three themselves, so before I try, please watch this most excellent video…


That was the Lana and Andy Wachowski, (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), the three co-directors of Cloud Atlas. Now, what is Cloud Atlas?

Written by David Mitchell and published in 2004, Cloud Atlas was released to much bafflement and even more acclaim. It went on to become a New York Times bestseller and was a runner-up for several awards, including two of science fiction’s tops, the Arthur C. Clarke and Nebula. The book presents 6 interwoven stories that span from 1850 to the post-holographic, post-apocalyptic future Earth. At times told through the simple means of letters, diary entries and campfire stories, it also delves into the contemporary medium of film and the aforementioned future technology of holographic recording. Written within six vastly different styles and genres, the novel’s overlapping and continuous themes such as reincarnation and oneness amongst humanity throughout space and time must have very much appealed to the Wachowskis, as they optioned the rights, co-wrote a first draft, and even started shooting test footage in 2009, only to have the actual shoot commence in late 2011.

On record as one of the most expensive independent productions ever conceived, the directors culled an approximate budget of 100 million from various international sources, most prominently European and Asian, with the remaining costs covered by Warner Brothers and Focus Features who will distribute to the domestic and international markets, respectively. After funding was secured, an agreement was reached that Tykwer would be handling the sequences set in the 30s, 70s, and the present, while the Wachowskis would handle the ones set in the 19th century, as well as the two set in the future. The bulk of the shooting itself took place at Studio Babelsberg, in Berlin, and utilized two wholly separate crews, sharing only the actors, who would jump from soundstage to soundstage to play their parts.

In 2006, having been in contact for a long time and wanting to work with one another for just as long (Lana claiming Tykwer as a “lost brother”), the Wachowskis recommended the book to Tykwer, who brought a copy with him on vacation with his wife, a “mistake” as he claimed, since he could not put the book down. Immediately after completing the novel, he contacted Lana and committed himself to the project. It took them almost three years due to prior commitments, but in February of 2009 the three directors rented out a property in Costa Rica and hunkered down for some serious writing. After leaving their idyllic island hideaway, the three would communicate on a regular basis and work on the script further. By August they had completed a first draft and set a date to meet with Mitchell in Ireland, who after some time claimed that, “This could be one of those movies that is better than the book!”

To better represent the “universality of human nature” and merge the various story arcs portrayed in the book, the directors decided that each of the actors hired would play several different roles throughout the film’s six central stories, no doubt further helped by the visual accompaniment of a comet-shaped birthmark shared by many central characters in the novel, a device that fits very neatly into the visual medium of film. Tykwer has also taken it upon himself at times to refer to the actors, “playing souls, not characters”. Fitting, no?

Playing our various souls, the directing trio has brought on a considerable talent roster. Ranging from Hollywood A-listers Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Halle Berry, to other cinematic stalwarts such as Keith David, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon, Cloud Atlas promises one of the best ensemble pieces in years, due no doubt to it’s normally almost incomprehensible nature. Announced during pre-production, the filmmakers drew out a bit of a minor controversy when they further disclosed that not only would the actors be playing multiple roles, they would at times potentially be playing roles that would not correspond to either their race, age or gender… When it came to press time at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered, and Berry was asked who her favorite character was to play, she responded:

“I would say probably the white, German, Jewish woman. “I was having a fitting and I remember Tom said to me while I was trying on all of these beautiful dresses, trying to figure out what looked best on her, and Tom said, ‘Have you ever done a period piece before?’ and I said ‘Yeah.’

“And he asked, ‘Have you ever worn clothes like this in film?’ and I said, ‘Tom, think about it for a minute… For me to have played in that time period I was probably a slave or close to it, and not dressed up as formally.’”

“It was one of those heavy moments but we found a way to laugh about it and I thought, ‘Great, that’s why I get to do this, to play something that I would never get to play in life, I would never get to dress up like that and be that character if I was really me,’ so that was very poignant for me as an artist to get to do that.”

While Hanks himself said of the filming

“It was all totally worth it if only to see Hugh Grant as a Cannibal walking around the film studio during the makeup session.”

Susan Sarandon, who at one point plays a man in the film, acknowledged that even after all her years working in film, she had never had the experience of turning to a mirror and not recognizing herself, joking referring to herself as looking like “Chris Walken’s cousin”.

Behind the scenes you will find many a Tykwer regular, least of whom would probably be his regular composers, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, who along with Tykwer himself, composed all the music contained within the film, including a piece referenced several times throughout the novel called “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”, no pressure there. Alongside their many credits with Tykwer, they also composed the score for the Robin Williams starrer One Hour Photo, and the bulk of HBO’s Deadwood. Cinematography was handled on one end by another Tykwer regular, Frank Griebe, and on the other, two time Oscar winner John Toll (for Braveheart and Legends of the Fall), while editing duties fell upon frequent co-collaborators Claus Wehlisch and Alexander Berner who are already gaining some buzz themselves for so ably managing the scope of the film. As far as the ever-present make-up for the film is concerned, praise and laurels may likely be heaped upon Nik Williams, who until now is probably best known for his work on Emma Thompson for the Nanny McPhee films.

Whew! So that was exciting, no? Eh. I’m personally very stoked about all of this and am seriously going to attempt to read the book, finally, which has been sitting on my living room table for a couple months now, just gathering dust. I was a huge fan of Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and the Wachowski’s Speed Racer (a recognized minority, us), and equally disappointed by their efforts on the Clive Owen starrer The International and the Matrix sequels, respectively, so I find myself trying to temper my expectations a bit, but at the same time, my lust for spectacle is not really helping due to what is perhaps in a class with some of the most awe-inspiring trailers of the past ten years, ‘Tree of Life’, ‘Inception’, and ‘The Fountain’ amongst them (of the three, I really ended up liking The Fountain the most). The cast as I already mentioned before, is very impressive and although I would see any movie for Hanks, David, Whishaw, Broadbent or Sarandon alone, I’m very eager to witness South Korea’s Doona Bae, who is being hailed by some as ‘a revelation’, a term which admittedly gets tossed around a bit much these days, especially with regards to films…


Cloud Atlas will see release on October 26, so we can all see it, and perhaps, believe it.

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Jacob Hayman
Jacob's stomach often hurts and his mind often races. He prefers a good drink and chat to most other things in life, his OkCupid is far more active than his Twitter, and Brazil, Gremlins 2, Magnolia, Pather Panchali, and Roman Holiday are his favorite films. He lives in Los Angeles, where he was born and raised, and constantly considers taking up welding.