Centuries-spanning 'Cloud Atlas' proved a mind-boggling challenge for stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and crew

October 21, 2012


If “Cloud Atlas” — with its six intertwined stories that span 500 years — looks like one of the most audacious epics ever filmed, imagine what making it was like for the cast and crew.

Enduring long stretches in the makeup chair to play multiple roles and bouncing back and forth between sound stages to film different story lines each day, the cast sometimes lost track of their own place in space and time.

“We would often have conversations with each other, and not know who we were [because of the makeup],” Halle Berry tells the Daily News. “Tom [Hanks] shot a scene that Ben Whishaw was in and he didn’t even know it was Ben until ...”

“Until I saw the movie,” interjects Hanks. “It was so funny. The last time I saw it, I went, ‘That’s Ben! When did Ben get in that scene?’ I was there that day and I don’t even remember Ben being in that scene.”

For one character, Berry endured eight hours of having the skin tone all over her body lightened so she could play a 1930s high society woman.

“I had a prosthetic nose, a pair of contacts and a wig,” she says. “Getting the skin to be believably Caucasian when you’re the color I am proved to be a big challenge for the makeup crew.

“But it was fun every morning to put on our new skin, and to see what everyone else did.”

On a Monday, Hanks says he might receive a call sheet informing him to show up on one set to film a sequence set in the far-flung future. On a Tuesday, he might have to show up at another part of Berlin’s mammoth Babelsberg Studio to play an 1850s doctor for a different movie-within-the-movie.

“That actually was the process, and I have to say, that was the fun of it,” says Berry. “Just when you got a little bored and tired of being in the 1800s, all of a sudden you’re in the year 3000.”

Based on the 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell, “Cloud Atlas,” opening Friday, has so big a scope that it required three directors (siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski of “The Matrix” and “Run Lola Run’s” Tom Tykwer) and two production design teams.

How best to explain the intricate plot of what Mitchell himself describes as a “Russian nesting doll” of a story in less than the film’s 172-minute running time?

In the 1850s, a lawyer from San Francisco (Jim Sturgess) protects a stowaway slave (David Gyasi) and befriends a shifty doctor (Hanks) as he struggles to survive a dangerous sea voyage. His journey is chronicled in a diary read nearly a century later by a young, ambitious composer (Whishaw), who gets in too deep in a creative struggle during pre-World War II Scotland.

The musician’s physicist lover (Sturgess again) grows up by 1973 to be a key figure in a sinister nuclear conspiracy being unraveled by a courageous journalist (Berry).

Four decades later, a beleaguered publisher (Jim Broadbent) ends up being trapped in a nursing facility against his will.

The comedic tale of his escape inspires an enslaved clone named Sonmi-351 (Doona Bae) in 2144 Neo-Seoul to make a courageous stand of her own.

Her oppressive future, however, is not quite as apocalyptic as the Hawaii of 200 years later, where a goat herder (Hanks again) aids a mysterious visitor (Berry again) searching for the key to their salvation.

They’re all interconnected by similar comet-shaped birthmarks and nagging senses of déjà vu.

“Reading the screenplay was a daunting task, because ... it’s like a written version of what the final movie is,” says Hanks. “It’s every beat from the books that are shuffled into this extensive deck of cards, in which one scene in 1854 plays against another scene in 1974, and from that you go backward in time and then forward in time.

“But the end result was something that was so audacious ... that [Halle and I] both said, ‘If you can make this happen, I’m in.’ ”

The Wachowskis weren’t even thinking of making anything grandiose happen when they spied Natalie Portman reading “Cloud Atlas” on the set of 2005’s “V for Vendetta,” for which they wrote the screenplay.

Lana just wanted a good book recommendation.

“I saw the title of one of the chapters, ‘An Orison of Sonmi 451’ and I asked, hey is that related to Fahrenheit 451,’ ” she says, laughing. “And Natalie just sort of looked at me with those brilliant and insightful eyes and said, 'You. Will. Love. This. Book.'

“So I went out and bought it that week and read it over the weekend, and she was right.”

“But the fact is that we weren’t sure we could do it, so there was a period of exploration,” says Andy.

Once they decided to attempt the virtually impossible, finding a studio that would fund their vision, “Cloud Atlas” actually became a four-year exercise in cost efficiency.

“I learned for the first time that anything on a film that’s made of metal is apparently made of plywood, including spaceship doors,” says author Mitchell, who got to visit the set for a week and film a cameo as a rebel in Neo-Seoul. “You know those doors they have on ‘Star Trek’ that go whoosh? It’s actually the grip or even the grip's girlfriend that’s opening them from behind with a primitive lever pulley device.”

After the Wachowskis’ production designer, Hugh Bateup, finished using the set for Papa Song’s — the futuristic restaurant at the heart of the Neo-Seoul story line — he handed it off to his counterpart for a 2012-set segment.

A fresh coat of paint, new lights and a giant fish tank later, voilà, says Uli Hanisch, the production designer for Tykwer’s story lines.

There was one thing, however, that no one could plan for.

“I went ahead and broke my foot two days into shooting, which sent the schedule into another big tailspin,” says Berry.
“I was just at home. I got up one morning with my daughter ... I was walking one morning with her and having a cup of coffee, and I just fell. I just pretty much tripped over my own feet.”

“She just wrapped a sock around it tight and went right back to work,” adds Hanks. “No, she disappeared for weeks and then came back hobbling like crazy.”

Somehow, the cast and crew managed to pull off one of the most ambitious movies ever filmed over just 50 shooting days.

“I’ve never heard of anything like this, two crews shooting six movies simultaneously,” says Hanisch. “I don’t think it’s ever been done before.”

By Ethan Sacks

Source : New York Daily News