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CLOUD ATLAS

From Book To Screen
"Listen close and I'll yarn you 'bout the first time we met eye to eye..." - Zachry, 2346

The opportunity to bring audiences a tale of this magnitude was irresistible to the Wachowskis and Tykwer. But, how? Mitchell presented his story as a series of opening acts whose plots reach a climactic halfway point, stop, and are then resolved one by one. "We knew we couldn't make that structure work for a film," Lana recalls. "But it made us think about the possibilities of expanding the confines of a standard cinematic narrative."

Mitchell gave each chapter its own genre "to make the parts different enough so the stylistic color of one doesn't bleed into another," he says. "I thought of it as a menu with courses from different cuisines." This construct the filmmakers gladly adopted, making one segment primarily a drama, one a romance, and still others a crime thriller, a comedy, and a futuristic scifi adventure.

Yet the power of "Cloud Atlas" is not the ways in which these elements diverge but in how they weave seamlessly into what Andy calls "a mosaic. As you go from scene to scene, you are creating that mosaic in your head. You are automatically finding the associations between them. So we intuitively went in that direction for the film."

Distilling scenes and relationships from the book onto index cards, the filmmakers then spent days organizing them into groups and arrived at a more direct interlacing of storylines. Says Andy, "When you're staring at these hundreds of cards, you see the characters side by side and naturally gravitate toward the points where they have similar arcs, or how one picks up where another has finished."

"Our goal was to develop a meta-narrative to bind everything together into one flowing story with its own momentum," Tykwer explains.

Exploring the novel's motifs of eternal recurrence allowed for haunting déjà vu moments of recognition when characters meet seemingly for the first time, yet feel they know each other, or the notes of a symphony ring familiar to a music store clerk who might have been the person who composed it a lifetime ago.

Toward that end, the filmmakers expanded on Mitchell's device of a comet-shaped birthmark on certain characters to indicate the migration of a single soul. "In the novel," says Mitchell, "the comet birthmark insinuates that it's the same character being reborn over time...a soul crossing through eternity, shifting its form."

On screen, that rebirth is represented instead by the visual through-line of actors reappearing in one period after another, taking another turn on the karmic wheel. Tykwer says, "As we discussed the ties between characters that occur over time, and the ways in which it sometimes seems one person fulfills what another had begun hundreds of years earlier, we thought, 'Why couldn't it be the same actor following through?' Why not cast the film based on the idea that each actor portrays not an individual role, but several roles that, together, represent the evolution of a single being."

Adds Hanks, "Each character has its own personal arc, but there's an overall arc that they form together. One lays the foundation and another continues. Like a string of pearls."

When players return in successive lifetimes as souls inhabiting new vessels, they naturally appear across a range of geographic locales, and often as different nationalities or genders. Dialect coaches William Conacher, Peggy Hall-Plessas and Julia Wilson Dickson worked with the cast to help develop convincing characterizations as the assemblage of American, Australian, British, Chinese, German and Korean natives modified their speech to match their shifting cultural screen identities.

"One of the characters I portray is a German Jewish woman, and one is a woman from the 24th century," Berry recounts. "As an actor, that's a thrilling prospect and a huge challenge." At the same time, she says, "People are just people. And they will always be, no matter the circumstances or the time. What I needed to do was find in each the human quality that's relatable to everyone because that will always be just flesh and bones, heart and brains."

Meanwhile, the birthmark image remains. But rather than a sign of passage, the filmmakers used it to identify those who have reached a certain level of enlightenment and are on the precipice of a critical decision that could significantly alter their lives, or the lives of others. Says Tykwer, "It became more of a messaging system between a person in one era who does something or creates something that then inspires the person bearing that mark in the next lifetime."

With this protocol in place, it enabled additional interesting possibilities. Notes Lana, "We started to wonder if the villain of one time could be the hero of another. And once we made that connection, the question was, how does a villain make that transformation? The comet became a phenomenological event. Its appearance symbolizes the opportunity for that individual to make a difference in the world."

For Mitchell, embarking on the first film adaptation of one of his works, "The process was bewitching to watch. I'm delighted and in a way envious of the way these filmmakers have disassembled my book and reassembled it in ways that play to the strengths of their medium. I feel like the provider of stems cells, which they have grown into their own creation. It's a magnificent piece of work. I was swept away."

Taking an equally unorthodox approach to the physical production, the producers pioneered a plan for two units to shoot "Cloud Atlas" concurrently, beginning in September 2011-one helmed by Tom Tykwer and the other helmed by Lana and Andy Wachowski. This spilt their production time by half, keeping the substantial cast for only three months instead of six, and required duplication of key contributors, including two cinematographers, two production designers, two lead costume and hair and makeup designers.

Using Berlin's Babelsberg Studios as base camp, the Wachowskis filmed in and around Berlin and Germany's Saxony region, as well as in Mallorca, Spain, for the segments set in 1849, 2144 and the post-apocalyptic 24th century. At the same time, Team Tykwer set off for points in Scotland to capture those set in 1936, 1973 and 2012. The actors, nearly all of whom appeared in each piece on the timeline, shuttled from one locale to another.

Tykwer also composed the "Cloud Atlas" score, with Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil, months before cameras rolled. Composing their own music is uncommon enough among filmmakers, and to begin so early is even rarer, but Tykwer found the approach valuable in helping define the tones and meanings of each scene as it was being created, and to inspire his cast and crew. The heart of the score is a symphony born in the 1936 sequence about a young musician laboring to realize his masterwork, called The Cloud Atlas Sextet, and its challenge, says Tykwer, "was to have a piece of music that connects with the period in which it is supposedly written and also serves as the central theme for the entire movie, reappearing and underscoring many scenes; a piece of music that someone who hears it ages later may recognize as something from his own memory."

For the filmmakers, bringing "Cloud Atlas" to the screen was undeniably a labor of love. Even while writing the script, they agreed to move forward only if author David Mitchell was enthusiastic about their adaptation, and that commitment extended through every aspect of the production and was shared by cast and crew alike.

"It's a fabulous filmmaking experiment, an epic, adult film about epic, adult ideas and what filmmaking is all about," states Susan Sarandon, who plays, among other parts, an Indian man and a spiritual leader in the 2300s. "It's one of those rare scripts you read where you don't know, three pages in, what's going to happen."

"The whole approach is adventurous and ambitious and refuses to go down formulaic lines," adds Hugh Grant, who particularly relished the way he was cast against type in an escalating range of villainous roles.

"Even now-and I know this sounds a bit mushy-I get teary with gratitude when I think about the fact that we actually got to make this thing," says Lana, echoing the sentiments of her colleagues. "We are deeply indebted to all the actors who joined us and embraced this experimental concept and this extraordinary story. Few movies have asked so much of their actors. After our cast read-through, one of the funnest we've ever experienced, Hugo Weaving summed it up best: 'The story demands the characters act with courage and faith and that is also true of everyone here in this room.' The making of this film constantly demanded our courage and faith."

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