A landmark in ambition and scope, Cloud Atlas is basically six movies for the price of one. Like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain or that bit in The Tree Of Life with all the dinosaurs and the lava, directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer have set out to distil the very essence of existence itself for our cinematic pleasure. It charts the journey of different human souls across oceans and through time, but disentangling its inner ‘true true’ could take scholars many decades. Luckily, we've been able to augment our handy Cloud A-Z with a peek behind the curtain and asked two of its stars, James D'Arcy and Jim Sturgess, to tell is what it was like to make.
Cloud Atlas's opening segment, a seafaring tale filled with double-dealing and anthropological shadiness, sees Jim Sturgess play ailing actuary Adam Ewing who gets 'treated' by Tom Hanks crooked physician. It took crew and actor to the Balearic Isles for fun, frolicks and... "fucking hard work!" laughs Sturgess. "No, we got the golden ticket because our [shooting unit] got to to Majorca. The other lot went to Glasgow."
"This is the mighty David Gyasi - my person trainer on set - with his abs out," grins Sturgess, of the actor who plays the slave freed by Ewing. "I had to get weaker to play Adam Ewing and then a Korean freedom fighter, who was quite lean too, but I really wanted to look like that. I didn't even get close."
The scenes shot on the deck of The Prophetess - in reality, a tall ship called Earl of Pembroke - were filmed in the sweltering heat of the Mediterranean summer. "I found some days harder than working on [Peter Weir's survival drama] The Way Back," remembers Sturgess. "There we were dressed according to the weather; here it was blistering heat and I was wearing a thick cotton shirt, waistcoat, winter coat, fake beard and a wig."
"This is one of my most beautiful memories of the whole movie," Sturgess recalls, with a grin. "We were in the middle of the ocean with the most beautiful sunset and I was thinking, 'There's Tom Hanks over there, and that's the Wachowskis.' It was one of those moments. David's probably thinking, 'Brace yourself for your next workout'."
A weave of characters, both amoral (Jim Broadbent's Captain Molyneux) and immoral (Hugo Weaving's Haskell Moore), bedevil the Pacific section of the story, but Tom Hanks' Henry Goose requires the most urgent redemption. The devious doc's carbuncled features required five or six hours in the make-up chair each day. "I never saw Tom except as a sweaty ginger doctor," laughs Sturgess. "I spent most of the shoot underneath him, staring up at his nostrils."
The second in the movie's entwined storylines tells the tale of musical protégé Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), his lover, physicist Rufus Sixsmith (James D'Arcy), and a manipulative composer called Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). "I read the book about six months before the shoot started and this was the story that I found most engaging", says D'Arcy, "but it's surprised me that this love story has chimed with people. I always assumed - and still do - that [Neo-Seoul's] Jim (Sturgess) and Doona (Bae) were the heart of the film."
While Lana and Andy Wachowski handled the Adam Ewing story, and, understandably given their experience with The Matrix and Speed Racer, the two sci-fi sections, Tom Tykwer directed the three vignettes stretching from 1936 to the present day. The faultlines between the two crews were non-existent, explains D'Arcy. "Normally directors have a middling-to-pretty-strong ego - you have to to be a director - but I've worked with single directors who were more conflicted than these three." Surely there was some competitiveness between the two units? "Well, Hugh Grant tried to stir it up," laughs D'Arcy. "He'd turn up on set and say, 'Well, on the other set, they're doing this...', but it didn't work."
"We were just told to strike 'conductorly poses' for this shot," remembers D'Arcy. "They filmed Ben [Whishaw] and I doing these poses and when we went home, they shot all this china falling out of the sky at 3am and put it together as a composite. They shot it at 1000 frames per second, so it took 15 minutes to playback the material we shot."
The third section – a pulp thriller that catapults us into a Three Miles Island-style nuclear conspiracy – sees D’Arcy’s physicist return as an old man. He’s the only character to span two storylines and a feat of prosthetics, in a film that’s hardly shy of them. “It took four hours each day to do the make-up here,” says the actor, “although first time it was nine hours. I looked like a boxer.” Empire, shown a photo of the early version on the D’Arcy mobile phone, notes an uncanny resemblance to an elderly Jake LaMotta. “Yes, that’s pretty fair, although they changed the make-up a lot. On the second iteration I had a really big nose.”
“This was fun,” smiles D’Arcy of his on-screen offing at the hands of Hugo Weaving’s hitman, Bill Smoke. “Behind me there’s a bloke with a long tube attached to my head and when Hugo put the gun in my mouth, he hit the button, I fell back and hit the floor. It’s a complicated reset and on a $100m film you think you can do it loads of times, but no. We only did it once.”
D’Arcy (nurse) and Sturgess (hooligan) have blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em cameos in Part Four. It’s an Ealing-style caper that mixes La’hn gangsters, sibling rivalry and a nursing home that makes One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest look like Last Of The Summer Wine into an infectiously arch romp that culminates in a Scottish pub brawl. “This was fun”, says Sturgess, “because 98 per cent of my stuff was with Lana and Andy [Wachowski] and I’d be carrying those heavy stories with me, but then I’d get to go off and have a play day acting like a thug with Tom Tykwer. This was a real pub in Berlin but there were a lot of actual Glaswegians there, probably checking my authencity.”
The Sonmi-451 thread sees The Matrix meet V For Vendetta in a future branch of Happy Eater. Doona Bae is the titular Sonmi, a clone busted out of her empty fast-food-serving life by Jim Sturgess’s guerilla, Hae-Joo Chang, in a future Seoul. The brief but toxic ‘yellow skin’ controversy that erupted over the cross-racial casting totally misread the filmmakers’ intentions, explains the actor. “I knew when Doona was cast as a Caucasian that it was going to be this massive melting pot of race, age and gender, and once I understood that it seemed like a great idea. It was really important that whoever played Ewing would progress into the character of Chang.”
James D’Arcy pops up as the Archivist, Sonmi’s conflicted interrogator, in a section that saw all three directors on set together for the only time. “They didn’t know what those monitors were going to look like when they were shooting,” D’Arcy says, pointing out the whizzy light screen console the Archivist interacts with. “They just said, ‘Well, there’s this thing and you just sort of spin it around.’ I thought it was going to look like some kind of exotic iPhone.”
“Me and Doona spent hours on this skiff bike that was on pistons, surrounded by green screen,” Sturgess recalls. “Andy and Lana would be shouting, ‘They’re coming from behind! Now they’re in front of you! Get your gun out.’ Doona and I really got to know each other just from being stuck up there, talking bullshit.”
According to all records available to Empire, Sturgess becomes the first person to be brutally killed on screen by Charles from Four Weddings And A Funeral. “That was one for my acting wishlist,” says the actor proudly. “I’ve had my throat cut by Hugh Grant dressed as a cannibal. Wait, surely he’s killed Colin Firth at some point? They must have kicked off."
The unorthodox shoot and even more unusual Russian doll of a movie might have proved too rich for some actorly tastes, but Sturgess insists that Cloud Atlas’ troika of directors shared a single vision throughout the process. “They had a total understanding that they were making one film together, even in the editing room. I never saw any friction, even between Andy and Lana who are very different characters. I wouldn’t last two hours working with my siblings.”