Taking Filmmaking to the Clouds: The Production of Cloud Atlas

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A sci-fi mystery drama based on the 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas is an exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution. Starring as part of an ensemble cast are actors Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon & Jim Broadbent.
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
October 10th, 2012

Taking Filmmaking to the Clouds: The Production of Cloud Atlas

-- Set for release on October 26, 2012, "Cloud Atlas" is an adaptation of David Mitchell's 2004 novel. Taking place over six different time periods, the story touches on themes of love and loss while hinting at reincarnation and the rebirth of the soul. Directed by the Wachowski siblings ("The Matrix") and Tom Twyker ("Run Lola Run"), "Cloud Atlas" is being distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Despite its distribution by a major studio, the film was financed completely by independent production companies.

"Cloud Atlas" is Mitchell's third novel and debuted to positive reviews and a flood of awards. Like his previous work, the title was inspired by the music of Yoko Ono. The novel contains six interweaving tales, all of which feature individuals who may be the reincarnated souls of previous characters. Each story ends abruptly, with the book's final chapters bringing a proper conclusion to each tale. Following the novel's release, Mitchell was the recipient of the British Book Awards' Literary Fiction Award and the Richard & Judy Book of the Year Award. "Cloud Atlas" was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the Nebula Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

The book fell into the hands of the Wachowskis during the 2005 filming of "V For Vendetta." Natalie Portman gave a copy of the novel to Lana Wachowski, who soon began writing a screenplay adaptation of the book with her brother Andy. After completing the first draft, the Wachowskis brought the script to Twyker, who helped tweak the next few drafts. By 2009, the Wachowskis had officially optioned the book, bringing Mitchell aboard to help with refining the script. Talks began with potential cast members, and Natalie Portman, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, James McAvoy, and Ian McKellan all expressed interest in being a part of the production.

While the screenplay was coming together nicely, trouble arose when it came to finding financing for such an ambitious project. The Wachowskis were coming off the failure of "Speed Racer" and the less than positive reception to the conclusion of the "Matrix" trilogy. Twyker had seen some positive critical reception for his work on "Run Lola Run" and "Perfume," but his films were hardly blockbusters in the United States.

Funding would have to come from outside of the American studio system. The Wachowskis found backers from several German production companies, including X Filme, A Company, Medieboard Berlin-Brandenburg, and Filmstifing NRW. Through these production companies, the Wachowskis and Twyker managed to secure $100 million in financing, allowing them to begin filming "Cloud Atlas." With funding set, the filmmakers settled on a cast that includes Hanks, Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, and Ben Whishaw.

Principal photography on "Cloud Atlas" began on September 16, 2011.
As part of the agreement with the German backers, some of the filming was done at Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam-Babelsberg. Other locations included Scotland and Majorca. During the filming process, there were two film crews, with one unit being led by the Wachowskis and the other directed by Twyker. All scenes filmed by the Wachowskis will take place in the 19th century or the future, while Twyker's occur during the modern era.

Despite declining to fund "Cloud Atlas," Warner Bros. Pictures agreed to distribute the film, continuing a relationship with the Wachowskis that began with the original "Matrix" film. A five-minute preview of "Cloud Atlas" was released to several film websites in July of 2012, showing an overview of the movie's themes, special effects, and set pieces. An introduction by the directors was included, allowing for an explanation of some of the film's more complex ideas and plotlines. A more traditional trailer was released to theaters soon after.

The buzz amongst film bloggers and journalists reached a fever pitch after the initial previews came to light. On the back of this positive feedback, the film premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival to a standing ovation. While most of the reviews following the premiere were raves, there were a couple of pans, creating a clear divide with little middle ground. Regardless of which side the review was on, one thing became clear: This is a film unlike any other.

With the pedigree of the groundbreaking Wachowkis, Twyker, and Mitchell, moviegoers are guaranteed an unprecedented film experience. As the most expensive independent film ever produced, there is a lot riding on the success of "Cloud Atlas," not just from a production standpoint, but also from the future of challenging cinema. If "Cloud Atlas" is an across-the-board success, it could open the door to a return of films that are less cookie cutter and more revolutionary and original in their ideas and cinematic style.