When Mitchell wrote the sweeping epic, it was puzzle-like. It takes 6 interwoven storylines and spans 500 years and several genres. The novel recounts the 6 interrelated story lines chronologically until the middle of the book. In the middle of the book, the sequence reverses.Lana Wachowski read the book and felt it would be a good project for the 3 filmmakers who had been looking for a joint project. Ultimately, filming took place in Germany, Scotland and the Spanish island of Majorca, beginning in September 2011.
Among the pluses for the film: its stellar cast, which includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, and Korean star Doona Bae playing multiple roles. The minuses? Cohesion of the story line and financing. As Andy Wachowski told the Chicago “Tribune” in an October 14th interview, “People were blown away by the concept and blown away by the cast, but they wouldn’t give us any money.” Ultimately, the directors had to ante up 10% of the $102 million-dollar budget.The division of labor for the interwoven story lines broke down to Tykwer directing the early 20th century composer plot line, the 1973 thriller, and the contemporary caper about an aging book publisher, which provides the comic relief in the film. (When the elderly gentleman, who is intent on escaping from a nursing home his brother—played by Hugh Grant— has committed him to passes the window, he shouts, “Soylent Green is people!” from the Charlton Heston film; one of the many previous sci-fi films whose ideas are recycled, along with “Logan’s Run”.) The Wachowskis handled the 1849 sea story and two stories set in a futuristic world of 2144, which uses “Logan’s Run” Carousel concept of the doomed thinking they are going to their great reward, when they are really scheduled for death. The aerial shot of the look-alike Korean clones reminded of “Metropolis” cinematically.
The 6 story lines were:
1) Dr. Goose (Tom Hanks) administering medicine onboard ship to naïve traveler Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) in 1849 in the South Pacific. The slave trade flourishes at this time and a stowaway slave figures in the plot. Not my favorite of the plots
2) 1936 Scotland where Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), a poor musician, reads Ewing’s journals from aboard ship while working for a noted composer. The “Cloud Atlas” composition that Frobisher composes (and the elderly composer attempts to steal) is quite lovely and was actually composed by Tom Tykwer and his regular musical collaborators, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil. Among my favorites of the sub-plots.
3) Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is a journalist investigating a nuclear reactor and becomes the object of an assassination attempt by Bill Smoke (Hugo Weaving). She hears “Cloud Atlas” in a record store in California in 1973. An interesting plot.
4) Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), a vanity publisher trying to escape the nursing home his brother (Hugh Grant) has consigned him to in 2012 Scotland. He is considering publishing Rey’s story. The film’s only humorous character.
5) Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a Korean clone who toils in Papa Song’s diner in 2144. She sees a TV movie on the life of Cavendish and, from there, goes on to become a revolutionary and, in the primitive island on which one version of Tom Hanks lives, worshipped as a Divine Being.
6) Meronym (Berry) and Zachry (Hanks) on an island in 4th century Hawaii where civilization is primitive, cannibals roam, and Sonmi is worshipped as a Goddess. Needs subtitles.
If comparisons to other films are made, among those mentioned is “Babel” by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, which was critically acclaimed for its complicated storylines that intersect (Brad Pitt and Gwynneth Paltrow starred), but only earned $35 million in profits. Others might mention Daren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain,” which earned $10 million. On the positive side, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” earned $292 million, so perhaps there is hope for the film to earn more than just plaudits. Another film I would compare this one to is “Magnolia,” that had seemingly random events contributing to plot developments and earned Tom Cruise an Oscar nomination. Others might include last year’s Terrance Malick film “Tree of Life” in the category “artistic films that took on big themes and tried to translate them to the big screen, with mixed results.” [While a critical success, the film was not a commercial success.] As the moderator of the Q&A put it, “An uncompromising work of artistic integrity.” (They probably also said that about “Holy Motors,” one of the worst films ever, but winner of some big awards.)
In the Q&A following the film, here is what the directors shared:
Q: What convinced you to put in 4 and ½ years making this film?
A: (from Lana) We wanted to spend time with one another, so it was actually fun! (She went on to say that the trio had been searching for a vehicle for the 3 of them since 1999). Andy Wachowski interrupted his sister with, “We wanted a movie that tested the most stalwart bladder.” (The film is 164 minutes long).
Added Lana: The book—there was something about it that took my breath away, that was so delicious, that we wanted to savor it. The book touched us because we kept trying to connect. This book speaks to the implied desire to connect and to speak to the future and to be in dialogue with the past…David Mitchell loves literary forms so much. He has this post-modern energy. There’s this way to love storytelling. He has energy and a narrative drive, but he is still trying to explore the human condition in a philosophical way. But you can also make it a thinking and entertaining movie. These don’t have to be separated. You don’t have to say, “This is a thinking movie; this is for people who don’t like to think.” As Lana Wachowski told Rebecca Keegan of the Chicago “Tribune” in the December 14, 2012 interview: “There was a time when movies were funny and sad and dramatic and slapsticky and challenging and thought-provoking all at the same time. That would be one movie. Now you break that all up into a comedy, a romance, and a drama. With ‘Cloud Atlas’ we were thinking: It could be everything.”
Tom Tykwer, the co-director said: We felt very attracted to it because there were a multitude of voices. It was an experiment. If we failed, then we failed. If we can write together, we feel we can do anything together. Identifying ways to get into the novel was a step-by-step process.
This led Lana Wachowski to describe the Costa Rica index card method, (with the cards on the floor.) She said, “We had to re-arrange the way the novel is written. The novel is in bigger chunks. It will have 60 pages with one character and then jump to another character. We felt that would not work in the movie.”
Andy Wachowski: “The whole process was this act of love for the book and our love for each other and that carried us all the way to the end.”
The moderator commented on the line from the film, “Isn’t an ocean a multitude of drops? “ He referenced the many acts of kindness in the film.
Lana: If something so horrific as the Second World War and the Holocaust can’t kill kindness, you will never kill kindness. Extend yourself. This idea is what has really propelled us. Still, as pessimistic as we can be, we don’t think of Pollyanna endings. You believe that there is someone that is going to be affected. It’s a great reason to believe in the future.
The first question from the audience was from a woman who had a good friend who underwent sex change surgery. She asked Lana Wachowski: “Is there a certain significance in your gender change affecting your artistic choices?”
Lana: “This is getting very personal right away.” She went on to say, “David Mitchell is not transgender. The novel is not about transgender identities. But we have always been interested in material that transcends convention. And I was probably the first one to say, ‘Hey! That male character can actually play this female role over here.’ (Which occurs when Hugh Grant plays a Nurse Ratched sort in a nursing home). I may have had an attraction to specifically transcending the idea of gender in this film.”
Q: How did you pick who directed what?
A: (Lana) “ In the deconstruction of the stories, the experience is not the same. During that time, your mind is making all these connections. We would find all this interconnectivity in the stories.”
(Andy) “Our feeling is we all directed it together. (Lana made a joking comment about the Directors’ Guild not being quite as flexible, at this point.) It was a four-year process. We shot it together. We wrote it together. We edited it together. We were only apart for 3 months.”
(Tom): “You’re playing a genetic stream, a string in the film.” (There is much talk of déjà vu and the idea of reincarnation would certainly play into the film’s themes.)
Q: Do you experience emotion watching your movie again?
A: (Lana) “It’s a P.R. situation. I would have been crying and my make-up would run.” (She pantomimed crying at the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes”). Lana digressed to point out the Wachowskis’ parents in the theater (the duo is from Chicago) and say, “We’d cut school and go to triple features.”
A: (Tom) “It’s considered to be embarrassing to still like your own movie. There are moments where I think, ‘That’s my—or our—influence.’ The last 1/3 of the film Doona Bae was so unbelievable in the last 20 minutes. There’s this weird way of being touched. I feel like we sort of set the stage. I can still watch it as though I’ve never done it. There were things that the actors offered to us that were really beyond our expectations. I’m still touched.”
Q: What was most daunting: making the book into a screenplay or making the screenplay into a movie?
A: (Lana) “Showing it to David Mitchell.”
A: (Andy) “Making the film was staggering. It was an independent film, with money coming in from all over the world.”
A: (Lana): “Four days before we were to start, another financier went under, and we all had to put up our own personal money. Ten percent of the contingency was our money.”
A: (Andy): “Four days in Halle Berry broke her foot.”
A: (Lana): “It was daunting, but we couldn’t NOT make the movie. It was such an act of love for the material and the actors. It was strangely joyful, even in the midst of everything falling apart.”
A: (Andy) “For every bad thing that happened, a good thing would happen.”
There was some discussion of how excited David Mitchell was to be involved in helping design the futuristic spaceships in the film’s futuristic sequence.
I enjoyed the film, but I also found it difficult to follow and often confusing. The weakest performances, overall, for me, were from Tom Hanks. His Dr. Goose played like broad farce, and his native on the island seemed to be wearing a woman’s knitted shawl. His gangster (Hanks unleashed the “F-bomb” on live TV on ABC while supposedly speaking in character) was unconvincing. The language created for Hanks and the island natives was also difficult to decipher without subtitles. (I did better with the movie from Iceland that had subtitles.)
The parts I enjoyed most seem to have been supervised by Tom Tykwer (“Run, Lola, Run”) whose “Cloud Atlas” music—so central to the plot— was lush and lovely. His portions of the story were, for me, the best. (I especially enjoyed the comic relief of the nursing home escape featuring Jim Broadbent).
Having said that, the sets and spaceships and futuristic touches that the Wachowski Brothers gave us in “The Matrix” (back when they were still two brothers) were matched here by the visual effects portraying clones in the year 2144 (Method Studios Visual Effects, Vancouver, B.C.)
It will be interesting to see if the film makes back its investment, but at least the Wachowskis —who have been notoriously loathe to promote films at festivals in the past—can now say that their film played the Chicago Film Festival, because they revealed during the Q&A that they submitted student films many years ago that didn’t make the cut.