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Popcorn & Prejudice: A Movie Blog

Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald muses on moviegoing. Email Moira: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

September 13, 2012 at 8:41 AM

‘Cloud Atlas’ and the Wachowskis

Required reading for those intrigued by the upcoming “Cloud Atlas,” directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer: this profile, in The New Yorker, written by Aleksandar Hemon. (Read as soon as you can; the New Yorker site has a habit of making stories briefly available, then putting them behind a subscription paywall.) The Wachowskis have long shied away from doing press — it’s rare to even see a photograph of the two of them — but here they seem to have given Hemon quite a lot of access, during and after the making of the film. Here’s an excerpt, about how the three filmmakers first approached the book and its author, David Mitchell:

The main challenge was the novel’s convoluted structure: the chapters are ordered chronologically until the middle of the book, at which point the sequence reverses; the book thus begins and ends in the nineteenth century. This couldn’t work in a film. “It would be impossible to introduce a new story ninety minutes in,” Lana said. The filmmakers’ initial idea was to establish a connective trajectory between Dr. Goose, a devious physician who may be poisoning Ewing, in the earliest story line, and Zachry, the tribesman on whose moral choices the future of civilization hinges, after the Fall. They had no idea what to do with all the other story lines and characters. They broke the book down into hundreds of scenes, copied them onto colored index cards, and spread the cards on the floor, with each color representing a different character or time period. The house looked like “a Zen garden of index cards,” Lana said. At the end of the day, they’d pick up the cards in an order that they hoped would work as the arc of the film. Reading from the cards, Lana would then narrate the rearranged story. The next day, they’d do it again.
It was on the day before they left Costa Rica that they had a breakthrough: they could convey the idea of eternal recurrence, which was so central to the novel, by having the same actors appear in multiple story lines–“playing souls, not characters,” in Tykwer’s words. This would allow the narrative currents of the book to merge and to be separate at the same time. On the flight home, Lana and Andy carried the stack of rubber-banded cards they would soon convert into the first draft of the screenplay, which they then sent to Tykwer. The back-and-forth between the three filmmakers continued, the viability of their collaboration still not fully confirmed.
By August, the trio had a completed draft to send to Mitchell. The Wachowskis had had a difficult experience adapting “V for Vendetta,” from a comic book whose author, Alan Moore, hated the very idea of Hollywood adaptation and berated the project publicly. “We decided in Costa Rica that–as hard and as long as it might take to write this script–if David didn’t like it, we were just going to kill the project,” Lana said.
Mitchell, who lives in the southwest of Ireland, agreed to meet the filmmakers in Cork. In “a seaside hotel right out of ‘Fawlty Towers,’ ” as Lana described it, they recounted for the author the painstaking process of disassembling the novel and reassembling it into the script he’d read. “It’s become a bit of a joke that they know my book much more intimately than I do,” Mitchell wrote to me. They explained their plan to unify the narratives by having actors play transmigrating souls. “This could be one of those movies that are better than the book!” Mitchell exclaimed at the end of the pitch. The pact was sealed with pints of Murphy’s stout at a local pub.

To read the entire story, click here.

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