Notes from a CLOUD ATLAS Preview with the Wachowskis and Tykwer

Luck tapped me and dimmed the house lights this weekend, when I found myself in a preview of the film Cloud Atlas, thanks to a Generous Genius. I’ve been fizzing with anticipation for this, especially since seeing the trailer, swinging between an optimistic grin and pessimistic pursed lips. Making the preview even better: a Q&A with co-writers and directors Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer.

The notoriously press-shy Wachowskis and Tykwer were practically giddy as they took the stage. Aleksandar Hemon, who recently published an article on the project in the New Yorker, led off a short discussion.

What the Wachowskis and Tykwer Said

Jumping into the narrative deep end: The film takes the Russian nesting-doll structure of David Mitchell’s novel and splinters it, weaving the six stories back together in short fragments.

Lana Wachowski explained her breakthrough in scriptwriting: “Based on Cavendish’s line, ‘my editor’s disdain for flashbacks and flash-forwards and tricksy gimmicks,’ I thought, ‘That’s it! Tricksy gimmicks!’

“The trick will be weaving them together, so that people feel the dissolution of those borders and boundaries, between those six—between time, between place, between characters, between human beings,” she said. “We wanted to achieve the affect that the book has on you after you’re done with it. It goes into your mind and your mind begins making connections.”

Tykwer described how the three directors got together in a vacation house in Costa Rica and started writing down key moments or ideas on index cards, laying them out in “a huge mosaic . . . to wander around the room with hundreds and hundreds of index cards. Suddenly we started to move them about,” finding new points of connection. (I wonder if they photographed or recorded that floor full of cards?)

“[We] discovered so many things, situations, characters, even rooms are related,” he recalls. “We came to this most relevant conclusion when we’d say, ‘well, this character’s in a similar position than this one, even if it’s a supporting situation—shouldn’t it be the same actor? Ah, that’s a woman, that’s a man . . . ah, so what!’”

This connectivity eventually extended to the sets. Tykwer noted that they sometimes used the same set, redesigned for a different time period, when they found thematic links. “As an example, the room where the big restaurant is located, the Papa Song restaurant, where slavery’s happening and a person gets killed, is the exact same set, just redecorated, where Tom Hanks as Dermot Hoggins kills the film critic—uh, literature critic.” Tell us how you really feel, Tom?

Inevitably, musical metaphors come into play: how they orchestrated the film, carefully calibrated the tone. Andy Wachowski noted that during the editing process, “we had to coax the film symphonically.” Tykwer wrote the music for the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” early in the process, so that the actors heard it during their read-through. This is unusual in film production, as music is typically added at the end; Lana raved about having the music as an additional character throughout.

The filmmakers were frank about the difficulties of funding and producing their passion project, but they repeatedly turned to the script for resolve. Lana circled back to Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas: “The book is very ambitious. When people write about it, they’re uncomfortable because they start with ‘it’s so ambitious!’ But we like those kinds of things. We’ve always been drawn to them. We were drawn to them, as young people and young audience members of movies in the 70s and 80s, these very large-canvas subjects and approaches to those subjects. And we wanted to make a film that expressed our love for cinema and our love for that kind of ambitious filmmaking that moved us, inspired us . . . that asks you to abandon your perspectives.”

How About the Film?

During the Q&A, Andy joked: “we’ve always wanted to have a video on the Sum of Human Experience shelf in the video store. Right next to Comedy: Sum of Human Experience.” On first viewing, I’d say Cloud Atlas totted up a hefty figure, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

But there are fantastic performances, visual effects, and sheer gutsiness that make this film a must-see.

Generous G. pointed out how well each narrative is couched in the language of a particular film genre—for instance, how the Luisa Rey section visually quotes classic 1970s dramas such as Bullitt. (G. noticed that even the cars on the street duplicate cars seen in Bullitt.)

The main actors appear in multiple storylines, switching from major to minor characters. I couldn’t help but play the “who’s under the prosthetics” game, which occasionally pulled me out of the action. (No amount of nose-bulb or facial hair can hide Tom Hanks.) The British actors seemed most comfortable in their shape-shifting—notably Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, and David Gyasi. Hugh Grant braved some truly eye-popping transformations and created an entirely believable character out of his line reading of the single syllable “Ms.”

The scenes flow remarkably well, especially considering the multiple directors juggling more than a hundred fragments. Visual threads, voiceovers, and a storytelling framing device kept everything in focus, though they sometimes struck me as overly solicitous. I’m especially curious to hear people’s impressions if they haven’t read the novel—is it still easy to follow?

Of all the narratives, the far-future “Sloosha’s Crossin” story left me cold. And perhaps I’m now too cynical to be moved by the solemn, repeated incantations that “by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” But for the sight of Whishaw smoking a cigarette at dawn, porcelain exploding in a fever dream, a VW plunging into inky water, or the glee of a pub riot, I’m eager to go back again.

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