Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press
October 23, 2012
TORONTO – The complex storyline for the mind-bending puzzle that is “Cloud Atlas” is too big for the quippy taglines that generally get slapped on most big-budget films.
Here is a centuries-spanning, genre-blending, karmic kaleidoscope with big ideas that only become apparent as its various plots, heroes and villains weave in and out of each other to eventually reveal a common theme.
“Cloud Atlas” will challenge audiences, admits lead Tom Hanks, one of several actors playing six different characters in six different eras.
The “Cast Away” star reveals that even he was confused when he first read the script.
“Much like the film itself, the initial seven pages or so of the screenplay raised questions. As in: Who are these people and what’s going on?” Hanks told a news conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film debuted last month.
“In seven pages the connection becomes evident. And then the artistic struggle becomes evident and then the fight for survival and the choices that they make become (evident). Such that by the time I was reading the last 40 or 50 pages of the screenplay I was completely involved in each of the individual struggles and understood that these were characters that were having to make the choice between cruelty and kindness and that decision was going to change the world from there on in.”
In fact, the film’s unconventional structure and grand visions of humanity made “Cloud Atlas” an exciting acting challenge, says Hanks.
It helped that writers-directors Lana and Andy Wachowski, the masterminds behind “The Matrix” trilogy, and Tom Tykwer, who helmed the eye-popping “Run Lola Run,” presented the cast with a well-composed vision from the get-go, star Jim Sturgess added in a later interview.
Sturgess says that became clear the first time most of the sprawling cast — which includes Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon and Hugo Weaving — assembled on set and were briefed on the trio’s ambitious plans.
“I remember the hairs kind of standing up on my arms and just thinking, ‘Wow, they’re really going to try to push some sort of cinematic boundaries,'” says Sturgess, whose parts range from a seafaring 19th century lawyer to a freedom fighter in 2144 Korea.
“And I think everybody felt like that, ‘Well, let’s all just jump in and have a go and see what we can do.'”
Weaving describes the first read-through of the script as “a really extraordinary day.” His roles include a severe Nurse Ratched-like caregiver that put him in drag.
“That very leap of faith was something that galvanized everyone and that actually made it fun,” says Weaving, widely known for playing the villainous Agent Smith in “The Matrix” films.
“It felt like doing something that was risky and different and maybe you jumped off a cliff and there would be a long drop. It was always that sense of nervous excitement of going into the next day, the next character.”
For the film’s three bosses, that leap of faith began with believing they could wrestle a movie out of author David Mitchell’s acclaimed 500-page novel.
The tome itself is a literary puzzle. It’s made up of six tales that are each split in two and unfold chronologically as a series of openings until the middle of the book, when the sequence reverses and it runs back in time as it reveals each conclusion.
Those tales move from historical drama to tragic romance to ’70s murder mystery to present-day farce to slick sci-fi adventure to dystopian thriller and back again.
Lana Wachowski says they retreated to Costa Rica to come up with a workable script.
In the end, the trio decided to chop each story into segments and weave them into each other so that connections became more obvious: a man’s noble gesture in one era evolves into revolutionary upheaval centuries later, while another’s narrow-minded bigotry re-emerges as murderous tyranny.
The notion that souls return and reunite from one life to the next is reinforced by having most of the main actors tackle wildly divergent roles from era to era, in some cases switching gender, race and ages.
For Hanks, that meant playing a near unrecognizable hotel manager in 1936 and a simple goat herder in a post-apocalyptic future; while Berry plays a muckraking journalist in 1973 and a futuristic Asian doctor; and Sturgess figures prominently as principled 19th century lawyer Adam Ewing and future militant Hae-Joo Chang.
Sturgess says the multiple parts made for some chaotic days on set.
“Some days you’d be Ewing, some days you’d be Chang,” notes the 34-year-old Brit, whose past films include the romance “One Day” and the gambling drama “21.”
“There were a couple of days where you’d be two characters in one day — so maybe you’d be living in 2144 as Hae-Joo Chang and then you’d go and have lunch and then after a bit of spaghetti bolognese or whatever you’d be transported back in time to the 19th century.”
Berry says the odd casting choices allowed her to inhabit a role that would otherwise be out of reach — that of a glamorous German-Jewish white woman in 1930s Europe.
“For me to have played in that time period I was usually probably a slave or close to it, not kind of dressed up,” Berry noted as she sat alongside Hanks at the festival press conference.
“That’s why I get to do this, to play something that I would never get to play in life — I would never get to dress up like that and be that character if I were really me. So that was very poignant for me as an artist.”
Hanks calls “Cloud Atlas” “a perfect blending” of the literature of Mitchell and the cinematic artistry of Tykwer, who directed the three modern era tales, and the Wachowski siblings, who tackled the 19th century and futuristic tales.
“It’s not six different movies, it’s not even two different movies. It is one example of cinematic literature that examines the connectedness of the human race throughout all of time.”
Tykwer says he firmly believes a filmmaker can pursue grand artistic ambitions and broad commercial appeal at the same time.
“It can be so crazy and experimental and mind-opening and yet still popular,” Tykwer says of the projects that inspire him.
“Our idea of cinema and the cinema that made us want to make movies and love movies usually were films that had both — that had the potential to really involve you on many levels and make you come again and watch it again and be really struck by its ideas and yet be hugely entertained.
“(Those are) the films that we want to make.”
“Cloud Atlas” hits theatres Friday.