Genre-splicing epic ‘Cloud Atlas’ pushes boundaries

Susan Sarandon reported for work on “Cloud Atlas” midway through the shoot, in time to see a collection of far-flung film scenes that the cast and crew were viewing.

There were bits of a 19th-century sea voyage, a 1930s period drama, a 1970s thriller, a contemporary comic adventure, a 22nd-century tale of rebellion and a 24th-century postapocalyptic saga.

“I just thought, my God, this looks like the trailer for every film a studio is doing for the entire season,” Miss Sarandon recalled.

Yet it was just one film: “Cloud Atlas,” an epic of shifting genres and intersecting souls that features Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Jim Sturgess, James D’Arcy, Doona Bae, Keith David, Miss Sarandon and others in multiple roles spanning centuries.

That diverse cast is a great selling point for distributor Warner Bros., which opens “Cloud Atlas” in U.S. theaters Oct. 26. So, too, is the filmmaking team: American siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski, creators of “The Matrix” films, who wrote the screenplay and directed “Cloud Atlas” with German filmmaker Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”).

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The writer-director trio of (from left) Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom ... more >

The fact that the film is adapted from a best-selling novel also should help its audience appeal. Yet considering that “Cloud Atlas” author David Mitchell himself once felt the novel was unfilmable, fans of the book may have serious doubts about handing over their cash and spending nearly three hours in a theater to digest Hollywood’s version.

It’s such a tough sell that even the notoriously media-shy Wachowskis, who had a no-press clause on earlier films, are out there eagerly hawking “Cloud Atlas.”

“It’s dear to us, and that’s definitely part of it. Our partnership with Tom, our marriage with Tom, that’s definitely a part of it. Tom engages with the press and has shown us, taught us some tricks that have made it a little easier for us to get back involved,” said Mr. Wachowski in an interview alongside his sister, who is transgender and changed her name from Larry to Lana, and their longtime pal Mr. Tykwer.

With mixed but generally appreciative early reviews — some critics reveling in its audacity and even detractors admiring its ambition — “Cloud Atlas” already is an artistic success simply by existing, given its unlikely path to the screen.

The Wachowskis discovered the book when Natalie Portman was reading “Cloud Atlas” on the set of their 2006 thriller “V for Vendetta.” The siblings recommended the novel to Mr. Tykwer, and the three spent years overcoming creative and commercial obstacles to adapt it for film.

The $100 million budget was pieced together from a variety of international financiers and distributors; Warner Bros. acquired U.S. rights but declined to finance the film, despite the studio’s success with the Wachowskis’ “Matrix” trilogy.

Then there were the challenges of condensing dozens of key characters in six stories that span the globe and sprawl across 500 years as reincarnated souls progressing through the ages.

“The book seemed almost like a revolutionary act in and of itself,” Ms. Wachowski said. “David has said since that they did have trouble with, do you put it in science fiction, do you put it in drama? Where do you put it on the shelf in the bookstore?”

The way they cracked the code was, in a word Mr. Mitchell tosses about repeatedly, ingenious. The same actors would play characters in different periods, sometimes switching race and gender, as each soul moves upward, downward or sideways on the karmic plane.

“The book is unfilmable, but they haven’t quite adapted the book,” Mr. Mitchell said. “They sort of disassembled the book and reassembled it in the form of a filmable film by having actors recurring, and implying therefore it’s the same soul on this sort of ethical journey — or, no pun intended, a matrix of ethical journeys.”

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