Cloud Atlas: Interview with Wachowskis (Lana and Andy)

An ambitious and dazzling epic spanning five centuries, “Cloud Atlas” explores questions about life and purpose that humanity has contemplated since the beginning of conscious thought.

With a kaleidoscopic array of action, emotion and urgent human connections that lights points along an infinite timeline, it suggests that individual lives continue their personal trajectories through the ages. Souls, reborn, renew their bonds with one another, time and again. Mistakes can be rectified…or repeated. Freedom can be gained or lost, but is forever sought.

“The scale of its ideas is what we were instantly attracted to, its compassion for human beings, its boldness and audacity and the way it felt simultaneously classic and yet completely new,” says Lana Wachowski one of the film’s three writer-directors who adapted the award-wining David Mitchell novel on which it is based. “Thematically, it transcends boundaries of race and gender, location and time, and tells a story that implies the nature of humanity is beyond all those boundaries. That’s what intrigued us when we read the novel and then when we started working on the script.”

Filmmakers and longtime friends Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer had often thought about working together, but it was their passion for Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas that finally galvanized the three into action. Befitting its unconventional storyline, they formed a truly unique creative alliance to share writing and directing efforts in bringing this book that has been hailed as a modern masterpiece to the big screen.

“It strikes so many powerful notes,” says Tykwer. “There’s truth to be found in simple, individual observations that anyone can relate to, but, by setting those moments into a broader dramatic context and with the sweep of time, you see the human condition in a fascinating way.”

Encompassing a range of genres and set simultaneously in the past, present and future, “Cloud Atlas” illustrates how events and decisions made by the people in one period can reverberate in unforeseeable ways across the timeline to touch the lives of others.

A San Francisco attorney harbors a fleeing slave on a fateful voyage home from the Pacific Islands in 1849…a poor, gifted composer in pre-World War II Britain struggles to complete his magnum opus before the cost of a reckless act catches up with him…a journalist in 1973 works to avert an industrial disaster…a present-day publisher, on the eve of his greatest success, faces unjust imprisonment…a genetically engineered worker in the year 2144 feels the forbidden awakening of human consciousness…and in the ravaged far-off future of the 2300s, a goat herder battles his conscience over what he has done to stay alive. Each scenario is introduced, then unfolds alongside the others, while fluid transitions from one to another reveal the ways in which they are all linked.

It soon becomes clear that these are not separate stories, but moments captured from a single flow. “The key is to abandon the idea that it’s six stories. It’s one,” Andy says. “Each of the pieces and time periods reflects upon the others throughout the movie. As all these souls evolve, you see the connections between them, and follow their chronologic progress.”

Likewise, each character is part of an ensemble that eternally returns and regroups in new identities and circumstances. “It’s not just one person; it’s all the major characters in each of the worlds,” offers author David Mitchell. “The relationships between them and the nature of those relationships also evolve. In a universe where reincarnation is possible and a film where the past, present and future co-exist, death is just one door closing and another door opening.”

In this way, conflicts arising in one era may be resolved lifetimes later, injustices revisited—with often surprising results—and lovers can mature together through the centuries. “Part of the movie is a great love story that moves through different lives, but you see it in moments, not all at once,” Lana reveals, referring to the way in which a couple’s young love can grow and influence their actions via repeated encounters through time. “This is another of its themes—that love can alter the direction of your life at any time.”

Other forces are also in play. Tom Hanks, who appears in six roles, representing the journey of a single soul through points along the continuum, observes, “The characters are often witnessing something that could change their lives forever and they have to act. They can be heroes or cowards. The question is, ‘What is history but countless moments like this, strung together? What is the human condition but a series of decisions you have to make?'”

With eloquent examples of courage, hope, and wonder—as well as treachery, struggle, and loss—”Cloud Atlas” brings such moments into sharp focus. “It’s a wildly entertaining piece of storytelling,” Hanks continues. “Take what you will from it. There’s never a moment when the camera is not capturing some spectacular stunt or human emotion. When I read the screenplay, it initially raised questions about who these people are, and then their connections became evident. Their artistic struggles, their fights for survival and the choices that bridge one life to the next also became evident and I was completely involved. It’s a perfect blending of David Mitchell’s story and the cinematic power of our three directors—a brilliant piece of cinematic literature that examines the connectivity of the human race through time.”

“This was truly a one-of-a-kind filmmaking experience,” says Halle Berry, who likewise assumes six identities. “I don’t think I’ll ever be part of another film like this. I love its originality. There are so many barriers being broken here, so many exciting concepts and, hopefully, it will leave people thinking about how they perceive the world and their own lives.”

These elements that resonated so strongly with Tykwer and the Wachowskis also attracted esteemed and accomplished actors from around the world. Starring with Hanks and Berry in a corresponding series of characterizations is a cast that includes Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D’Arcy, Xun Zhou, Keith David, David Gyasi, Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant. As the story moves forward, the focus shifts from one group of central players to another, while others figure in key moments or make their presence known in more subtle ways.

“It’s a project of enormous scope,” says producer Grant Hill, marking his fourth collaboration with the Wachowskis. “It has depth of character, romance and pathos, and also a broad physical scale. Everything plays out on a giant canvas.”

“There are huge chase sequences here, incredible sets, really epic storytelling, but also food for thought,” adds producer Stefan Arndt, Tykwer’s producing partner.

Says Lana, “We love to make movies that are exciting, entertaining and romantic, but that also explore ideas. We’ve tried in our work to offer many levels or many ways to enjoy our films: visually, we try to show the audience things they haven’t seen before; emotionally, we try to offer enough thrills or action or romance to satisfy the kid in us as well as the audience; and, finally, we try to offer new perspectives or thoughts about very personal issues or ideas relevant to our everyday lives.”

“That’s what drew me originally to Andy and Lana’s work, the conviction that you can engage the heart and the mind simultaneously,” states Tykwer. “You can have this fusion engine of intriguing issues to talk about, and yet, while watching it, you’re just blown away.”

Based on the celebrated best-selling novel by David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas” is produced by two-time Oscar® nominee Grant Hill (“The Thin Red Line,” “The Tree of Life”), three-time BAFTA Award nominee Stefan Arndt (“The White Ribbon,” “Goodbye Lenin!,” “Run Lola Run”), Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski. Philip Lee, Uwe Schott and Wilson Qiu serve as executive producers, with co-producers Peter Lam, Tony Teo and Alexander van Dülmen, and Gigi Oeri as associate producer.

The creative filmmaking team includes directors of photography John Toll and Frank Griebe; production designers Uli Hanisch and Hugh Bateup; editor Alexander Berner; costume designers Kym Barrett and Pierre-Yves Gayraud; and visual effects supervisor Dan Glass.

The music is composed by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil.