‘Cloud Atlas’ Filmmakers Talk Casting and Giving Tom Hanks 'Wild' Direction

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Photo Source: Jay Maidment

Andy and Lana Wachowksi are the visionary filmmakers who brought “The Matrix” blockbusters to life and produced such eye-popping films as “V for Vendetta” and “Speed Racer.” Tom Twyker is the German auteur who has helmed art house hits like “Run Lola Run” and “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.” Together, the three filmmakers have collaborated on an adaptation of David Mitchell’s beloved novel, “Cloud Atlas,” a perfect series of contradictions for the trio. Epic yet intimate, big-budget yet done independently, the film is an ambitious work that tells six stories over different time periods and features a cast of actors, who appear in each story, often playing different ethnicities and sexes. The stellar cast includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Wachowski regular Hugo Weaving, best known as the ominous Agent Smith in “The Matrix” films and revolutionary V in “V for Vendetta,” playing a series of villains over the years in “Cloud Atlas.”

How did you first discover David Mitchell’s book?
Lana Wachowksi:
Natalie Portman was reading it on the set of “V for Vendetta,” and I went to visit. She was reading “An Orison of Sonmi-451” and I said, “That’s a great title. Is it related to ‘Farenheit 451?’ ” She said, “Yes you would love this book.” So I took it home that weekend and read it and loved it so much I immediately shoved it down his throat. He was like, “Gulp.”

Andy Wachowkski: It was pâté.

Lana Wachowksi: We just devoured it. And gave it to Tom later.

How do you decide on projects to collaborate on? What if Andy hadn’t liked the book?
Lana Wachowksi:
We would have kept looking.

Tom Twyker: I don’t think we were frantically looking, we just had our subconscious radar out. And it just made sense. It was a crazy idea in a lot of ways; I mean nobody has actually done this. Either it’s an anthology movie or episodic, but not one coherent movie directed by three directors.

Lana Wachowksi: There was a certain amount of space in the story. We were like three kids who wanted to play together and were looking for a cardboard box to build a spaceship out of. And you go through the alley looking for one, trying on different boxes, but none are big enough. We finally found a box that was right for us.

Andy Wachowski: A Viking refrigerator box!

Tom Twyker: We share a similar way of looking at our art form and embracing cinema in a broad sense in the ways it can represent itself. We don’t relate to categories like “the art house filmmaker” or “the commercial filmmaker.” And David Mitchell’s novel was so overwhelmingly exciting to read; it’s a hysterical page-turner and then turns a philosophical corner and has through-provoking passages. It was exactly what we are trying to do in films. It was screaming at us, “Try me! Try me!”

What was it like working with such a large ensemble of international actors?
Tom Twyker:
For me, this was the most beautiful collaboration with the actors that I’ve ever had. There was such a range and diversity of acting approaches and styles. It was exciting.

Lana Wachwoski: We were like family. Like a giant circus troupe. We had so much fun. The makeup tests were these hilarious Carnival masquerade balls. Halle Berry would walk by as a Jewish, white woman, passing Jim Sturgess as an Asian man.

Andy Wachowski: That’s when you saw the energy of the actors go up; you could feel this crackling between them. They’d get so excited.

Lana Wachowksi: They were feeling the potential, the transformational nature of the piece. It started even at the read-through. Any actor that’s open to transcending convention and is someone we want to work with. We would give Tom Hanks wild and strange notes and he would just get so excited and look at you with these boyish, gleaming eyes and go, “Watch this!” scamper back to the set.

What’s an example of a wild note you gave Tom Hanks?
Andy Wachowski:
Frank Gorshin.

Lana Wachowski: Right, we would say, “More Frank Gorshin.” And he understood what that meant.

Did the casting change any of the roles at all?
Tom Twyker:
Sometimes in strange ways. Jim Sturgess embraced his little in-between characters so fantastically and full-on. I remember he finished shooting one night as one character, and he had to drive through the night to Berlin to be transformed into a Scottish rugby fan. We had two days shooting in this pub with the brawl scene and he couldn’t make it for the first day so we shot everything without him. But when he entered the crowd that second day, the crowd was completely transformed into a different energy by him. I actually decided to reshoot many of those shots on the crowd with him because everybody was so drawn in by him and so much more enthusiastic and aggressive. Two hundred people were behaving differently because he was in that crowd. I remember Frank, the DP, going to me, “We have to shoot it all again, don’t we?”

Hugo Weaving continues his streak of playing nasty character in your films. Can you cast him as a nice guy to play?
Lana Wachowski:
No, he’s too nice in real life. I think he’s only drawn to us because we give him these incredibly awful, terrible, malicious characters. It’s the only way he gets to express this other side, because he’s so adorable in real life. He’s the sweetest, most gentle, kind person you’ve ever met.

Andy Wachowski: Playing V is about as nice as he can get in our films.