“Cloud Atlas,” the sprawling and epic adaptation of David Mitchell’s celebrated, heady and dense novel, screened last night at the Toronto International Film Festival. An unorthodox arrangement, as it was directed by the Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, plus German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) at a cost of over $100 million, “Cloud Atlas” is the most expensive independent film ever made (i.e. outside of the studio system and from a triage of financiers). The film played to polarizing results — many adored the picture and its ambition, some loathed it altogether, and others were left scratching their heads. It fell flat with our reviewer Kevin Jagernauth, who was on the negative side of things, but either way, “Cloud Atlas” sounds like an almost once-in-a-lifetime spectacle that must be witnessed to be believed.
Featuring a stellar international cast — Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy, Zhou Xun, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant — "Cloud Atlas" is a time-tripping science fiction epic where several of the actors in the film play multiple parts. Confusing? Possibly. The Wachoswskis, Tykwer, Hanks, Berry and most of the principal cast spoke to the media at the TIFF press conference today. Here are a few highlights.
The Wachowskis and Tykwer decided to make the film only if author David Mitchell gave their blessing.
Something of a mutual admiration society, the Wachowskis loved Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run,” and like many filmmakers, Tykwer adored the mix of entertainment and complexity in “The Matrix.” The three had been hoping to work together for years, but it wasn’t so simple. "We met, the three of us, it was something like a magical meeting. It was love at first sight,” Tykwer explained, noting that filmmakers tend to be solitary creatures absorbed in their work. “Directors never meet." The trio had hit it off, but then every time they tried to meet up, one of the two sides was starting a new project. The solution became finding a project they could direct together. Then “Cloud Atlas” fell into their laps thanks to Natalie Portman, who was reading it on the set of “V For Vendetta,” a picture the Wachowskis produced. After reading it, all three members of this unlikely triad were hooked.
“It was the most exciting novel we’ve read in a long time,” Tykwer said of Mitchell’s novel. “It also had [elements] in it that seemed to invite us to make a joint experience." Dense, complex and potentially unfilmable, the trio made a pact. “We swore an oath that we would adapt it only if we could make it work in a way that the author — who we so admire and respect — likes and loves. So we gave it a first try.”
That first attempt was the friends travelling to Costa Rica where they broke down the novel and rearranged it in a way that might make sense. Lana Wachowski said Mitchell told them he had written all of the stories individually as short stories and then cut them up and intertwined them. “He said it took him 20 minutes to do all the chopping,” she said with frustrated admiration. “But when you read the book you see that there are very resonant things in all six stories, so once we started seeing the resonant pieces of narrative that seemed connected, we started laying it out as if it were one big story.”
A smart blockbuster? The Wachowskis and Tykwer don’t think about genre, rules or classifications.
Much of the media wanted to know whether the team were creating a blockbuster, an arthouse film or something in between. The answer? To the directors, none of the above.
“One of the things that unites us very profoundly is the idea that something can be crazy and experimental, mind-opening and yet still popular,” Tykwer said. “And the [type of] cinema we loved… and made us want to make movies, did [many things like that]. [Those films] had the potential to involve you on many levels… [you would be] be struck by its ideas, and yet be hugely entertained. And those are the films we want to make."
Lana said Mitchell saw the movie and loved it. "You do this amazing thing where you take highbrow ideas and lowbrow, entertaining narrative motifs, and combine it into a one-brow experience,” she recalled Mitchell telling her. “We try to make monobrow movies. We don't like commercial, market-driven thing of splitting movies into arthouse and mainstream."
The Actors: "When I heard they were making a German blockbuster written in Costa Rica, I was in," joked Tom Hanks. “I had never heard of such a bodacious United Nations approach to making a film before.”
"This was a fully realized vision presented to us at the get-go,” Hanks said on behalf of the entire cast. “They were aiming at this piece of cinematic literature, and all we had to do was read the blueprint to understand that was expected of us. That sounds like all the things that acting in movies is meant to be."
Halle Berry said she was grateful that the directors thought of her, and she jumped in immediately. “What I take away from this experience, Lana and Andy speak as one person, their thoughts are the same, they've talked about this so long that the vision is clear. So there was a safety with that.”
“It's a fantastic source material, and a great adaptation of that,” Hugo Weaving said. The Australian actors said the entire cast had to take a massive leap of faith and jump off a cliff together because they were never sure if the material would cohere into one unified vision, but taking this risky adventure bonded everyone on set. “That leap galvanized everyone, and it actually made it fun, something risky and different,” he said. “There was always that sense of nervous excitement about going into the next day and the next character.”
The Wachowskis, who have been notoriously press shy in the past, said they had to reconcile their need for privacy with Tykwer’s eagerness to speak to the media. And in doing so Lana Wachowski, once Larry Wachowski, acknowledged her sex change. To a degree…
Though maybe she didn’t expect to address it in a press conference. “You knew it was coming,” quipped Tom Hanks when a journalist asked her about “coming out” in the recent New Yorker piece.
“I did feel some responsibility to the LGBT people, and a lot of people have been asking me to be more public,” Lana said, but explained the siblings' dilemma. “We love anonymity, we love privacy, we don't think celebrity does much to improve your life. It was a big decision, and it took a lot of years, but we have this movie, and a new sibling [pointing to Tykwer] who loves to do press.” She explained that a compromise was struck between their “no press” rule and Tykwer’s love of speaking to the media. “He can’t do enough press, our media-whore brother” she joked. “So we came up with this middle of the road [decision about doing press].”
The appeal, for the cast, came from the screenplay.
Tom Hanks said the script, while multi-layered and abstruse like the novel, eventually intrigued and dug in its claws in a way that wouldn’t let go. “The initial seven pages or so of the screenplay raised questions,” he said. “It's like a hug that gets tighter and tighter. A lightbulb goes off in your head, and then the artistic struggle becomes evident.”
By the time he got to the last 40 to 50 pages of the screenplay, the actors said he understood that these were characters making a decision between cruelty and kindness. “I think it's a perfect blend of David Mitchell and the cinematic power of these three. It's not six different movies… it’s one movie that examines the interconnected nature of human beings through all of time. And it was worth it to see Hugh Grant as a cannibal walking around Babelsberg Studios during the makeup test.”
For those that missed it at TIFF, “Cloud Atlas” will make its U.S. debut at the New Yorker Festival later this month. The picture hits theaters on October 26th.