Monday, 28 November 2011

Cinematic Anticipation - 'Cloud Atlas'

[UPDATED on 28 November 2011: I changed around some character guesses and added a link to some great set pics (thanks to]

How on earth did Cloud Atlas end up on my Constellation of Cinematic Anticipation? I can’t remember when last I faffed around as much before writing something. I tried to illustrate the story by drawing clever little pictures, graphs, infographics, you name it. Well, I have given up. Filming only got underway in September, so there will be loads of good stuff on this film in future. As to why I chose it? I’ve read the book, and can not wait to see how they think they are going to turn this beast into a film. Hit the jump to see what I mean.

What’s it about?

For once, this one is all about story. The official synopsis of the film says this: “Cloud Atlas is an epic story of humankind in which the actions and consequences of our lives impact one another throughout the past, present and future as one soul is shaped from a murderer into a savior and a single act of kindness ripples out for centuries to inspire a revolution."

The above synopsis really tells us nothing. Well, it actually tells us a lot, something I did not even notice after having read the novel. However, saying anything more would be giving too much away. Even though this post will tell you quite a bit about the story that makes up David Mitchell’s award winning Cloud Atlas, I can assure that none of the information will spoil anything. So read ahead, unless you are ultra sensitive, in which case the Constellation of Cinematic Anticipation is not for you in the first place.

Cloud Atlas consists of six 'nested' stories, each very different, and each taking place in a different point in time. These stories are structured in a rather unusual way. The book begins at the earliest point in time, and works its way to the sixth story at about the half way point. Then, we begin to revisit the previous stories, in reverse order, as each of them concludes. It’s kind-of like a pyramid, and is also where I got trapped in the web of my own conceptual confusion while drawing pictures to depict this. If I could draw the 4th dimension, it would have worked! The synopsis of the book will tell you a bit more of what it’s about:

A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer bragging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan's California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified "dinery server" on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation -- the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other's echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.

If the above synopsis does not raise suspicions, the table below should explain just how difficult it will be to make a film out of this book (guesses in italics). However, if they pull it off, it will be awesome.

Section Time Main
Profession Location Narrative
Genre Link Director
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing circa 1850 Adam Ewing Notary The Pacific Diary / Journal Adventure A Journal Tykwer
Letters from Zedelghem 1931 Robert Frobischer Musician Belgium Letters Crime Drama Spoken Word Tykwer
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery 1975 Luisa Rey Journalist California 3rd Person Thriller A Manuscript Tykwer
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish Present Day Timothy Cavendish Publisher United Kingdom 3rd Person Comedy A Movie ?
An Orison of Sonmi~451 Dystopian Near-Future Sonmi ~ 451 Server "Korea" Interviews Sci-Fi An Orison Wachowski
Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After Post-Apocalyptic Distant Future Zachry Tribesman Hawaii Storytelling Sci-Fi - Wachowski

That is: six time periods (spanning from mid-nineteenth century to the distant future), six main characters, six different jobs, six locations, five narrative structures and 6 different genres. All in one movie, and each part linked to the next by some communication method: a journal, word of mouth, a manuscript, a movie and an orison (being a futuristic device). Crazy! There are many other links too, obvious and subtle, narrative and thematic. As stated in this excellent analysis of the book, “the linkages between the six narratives are difficult, perhaps impossible, to summarize.” It’s those linkages that made the book for me, and that will make or break the movie.

The book was great, even though I wondered at times whether David Mitchell was trying a little too hard to cover everything in one novel. He pretty much pulled it off though. What can be done in writing is much harder to do on screen. So, let’s talk a bit about the film…

3 Directors for a Mammoth Production

Cloud Atlas has no less than 3 directors: Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run and Perfume: the Story of a Murderer) and the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix Trilogy). They also wrote the screenplay together which, for a complex film like this with so many interlinking stories, is probably a good idea. It has also been reported that Tom Tykwer will be directing the period sections, and the Wachowski Brothers the futuristic ones. So, where does that leave The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish (Part 4)? My money is on Tykwer for this one too, not only because the last two sections will take longer to film, but also because the Wachowskis have already started work on their next film, Jupiter Rising. If this film was someone’s baby, I would say it is Tykwer’s, and that pleases me greatly. Cloud Atlas has been referred to as "unfilmable" (and I'm sure many readers will agree), but then again, Stanley Kubrick himself once said that Perfume was unfilmable, and in my view, Tom Tykwer did a great job!

Having 3 directors on a single film does of course create a few too many cooks spoil the broth concerns. However, the fact that each director is filming discrete sections of the story (in fact, there are two parallel filmmaking units working completely independently of one another), probably makes it a lot easier. That is until the editing process begins in earnest, and they start fighting about whose footage must end up on the cutting room floor. My bet is that this is going to be one long movie… (and it has been said that the running time will be in the region of 3 hours).

An Ensemble of Note

With six different stories, one would expect that the cast of Cloud Atlas would be big, and it is! However, the most interesting bit of information here is not who's playing who, but that all major actors will play multiple roles in the film. Not only that, Ben Whishaw (who stars in the film) has stated that:

"Everyone in the cast is playing at least three parts, some big and some small. I’m doing three: Frobisher in the thirties; a female American in the seventies, in the Luisa Rey section; and a smallish role, where I’m basically an extra, in a modern-day nursing home, in the Timothy Cavendish section. Everybody’s swapping race and gender, so it’s very ambitious and quite fun. I’ll really love playing a woman!"

Gender swapping! I wondered if the Wachowskis (in particular Larry / Lana) had something to do with that. One a serious note though, I think it's a great idea to have actors play multiple roles. Because of the six nested story structure, the subtle links between the individual stories is very important, and I was worried that a film (even a 3 hour one) would not illustrate that as well as a book. However, it seems that the directors have harnessed the visual power of cinema to make this issue... disappear.

With that in mind, here is the cast and my guesses as to who will be playing what. If you haven't read the book, this may not make sense, but check out the impressive cast anyway! The choice I am most stoked about? Doona Bae of course! She has been in some of my favourite Korean films, including The Host and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance.
Once again, I spend an age doing a table only to realise I don't have a clue who will play who! Help if you can. I suppose things would be easier if I could get hold of a comprehensive character list!
As I said above, filming only began in September, and so we are bound to see a whole lot more from this one in future. I will therefore end it here before I waste anymore time in fruitless speculation. So, as a parting shot, here are some pics of the cast and crew on set (so far it seems that they've only started filming the third section of the story) and this quote from Tom Hanks just to get the appetite whet (via Flickering Myth):

"Boy, that’s going to be a beast. It’s going to be wild. Those guys are geniuses! I admire those guys’ films because they throw deep and long. Those are uncompromising movies that are forcing the audience to go on a very deep and different track. Very adult kind of journey. Quite frankly, I want to be tested like that. Then you match it up with the material of Cloud Atlas, which is pretty spectacular. And the screenplay is off the scale! I just want to be part of something that is much, much bigger than showing up and hitting the marks. I’ve had good experiences of being the guy in a movie, and in huge pieces of commerce, like the Robert Langton movies, and it’s part burden and part challenge. It’s part ‘Let’s just get the friggin’ thing done’, as well as how as artists do we make sure this beat is about something. And that is a little bit about what the Wachowskis are going to demand from Cloud Atlas, of me, and plenty of other people. It’s a big ensemble – so it’s not a vehicle for any one of us that are in it."

Head on over to this page for some great set photos as well.

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