Bringing the 'Unfilmable' Cloud Atlas to Screen: An Interview with Author David Mitchell

David Mitchell on the set of ‘Cloud Atlas’/Photo © Warner Bros
David Mitchell on the set of ‘Cloud Atlas’/Photo © Warner Bros

'Cloud Atlas,'the movie adapted from the novel by bestselling author David Mitchell, hits theaters this week, courtesy of directors/writers Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski. Signature caught up with the author to talk about the process of making the un-adaptable novel adaptable, what he learned from the filmmaking experience, and, of course, what it was like watching the film for the first time.

Signature: What new and surprising discoveries have you made about your own book during its long journey to the screen?

David Mitchell: That the book is adaptable to film, after all. That the text harbours some decent lines in it, though many of the film's best lines are by the three director-writers. That the book has something lurking inside it, which seems to address people's belief, or hope, that the never-ending pin-balling of reality is less random and more interconnected than it appears, and that if you look closely enough and from the right angle, no chaos is so chaotic that you can't locate the cause and effect it is made of.

SIG: In a recent interview with The New Yorker, you were quoted as saying that as you were writing Cloud Atlas you'd thought it was a shame that this book was "un-adaptable." Do you remember what particular aspect of the book made you think it would be tough to translate into screenplay structure? What aspect of the book did you think would be most cinematic?

DM: The first thing was the structure, and here at least I was right: The directors have turned the novel's Russian Doll structure into a mosaic. I also thought such a vast cast would make the book unfilmable - before a viewer could get to know a character, the character would be gone, surely. The directors tackled this by making the same actor play several characters, so we get to know the actor's face - or more precisely, his or her reincarnating soul - as the film progresses, which I have to admit was a masterstroke (and nothing to do with me). I also thought the various stages and scenes and settings would escalate costs into the stratosphere, but I'd reckoned without CGI. As for your second question here, it's hard to say which aspect of the book I thought would be the most cinematic, because I never envisioned the story going anywhere near a cinema. Maybe what is the most cinematic aspect of a book depends largely, or even wholly, on the director/s. James Cameron does "cinematic" with sinking Titanics, Mike Leigh does it with dialogue in damp working-class dining rooms. Appropriately, Cloud Atlas found three directors, all gifted individually, to scare the cinema out of my book.

SIG: According to that New Yorker story, the aspect of Cloud Atlas that most moved and compelled the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer was that, amid the post-Fall calamity and despair, there were often moments of reprieve and hope. Many fictions set in a post-apocalyptic reality take on a much more nihilistic and bleak view of our future. Is that lack of cynicism fundamental to your world view? Was that reconciliation of light and dark part of what inspired you to write the book?

DM: In a post-apocalyptic world, nihilism and bleakness won't be poses to strike, but the medium in which we struggle to survive. How long would you last without supermarkets, hospitals, the rule of the law, mobile phones, electricity? Not much longer than me, I'd guess. That said, that said, Homo sapiens made a decent hash of getting by without iPads for 200,000 years, so we'll probably get by without them when our power grids fall dead, but for the transition generation, watching our lifespans and standards of living regress by decades if not centuries, the pain will be considerable. Hmm, not much "reprieve or hope" so far. I guess in the book I just wanted to show how compassion and wisdom doesn't necessarily get you killed, like Piggy in The Lord of the Flies: that where there are people, an urge to help and build exists as well as a tendency to justify slashing and burning. The desire to show this duality wasn't so much an inspiration as how I perceive our noble, ignoble species, and a recurring pattern in history.

SIG: It's surprising that this is the first of your novels to be adapted into a feature film. What kind of interest has Hollywood shown in adapting your other books? Which of your other books has come closest to getting made into a film?

DM: Pretty much all my novels have been under option for most of their lives, except my first. I ask my agent not to let me know what might be happening until something really is happening (that way madness lies) so I don't know which of the other books are closest to getting out of development purgatory. There have been some positive signs regarding Number9dream of late, and a very dynamic studio has The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet under option, so we'll see. In the meantime, I'm a novelist, and books are how I earn my living, so if it happens, it's a welcome cherry on the cake, but it's not the cake.

SIG: Had you been wary of how your work might get butchered or mishandled on the way to the screen? What gave you confidence to entrust this trio of filmmakers with your work?

DM: Spending a day with the directors was enough to know that they weren't butchers. As well as being anatomists of narrative - that is, fellow story-nerds - the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer are thoughtful and well-read people. Plus they have form - if the directors of "The Matrix" wanted to adapt a book you had written, how long would you agonize before saying yes?

SIG: Are you a movie buff? What are the films that have most influenced you creatively?

DM: I know more about film than I did two years ago; the directors gave me a "Must View" list that I've been working through, but I still know less than any first-year Film Studies undergrad, so don't let me give myself airs. Mike Leigh, since I mentioned him earlier, has godlike powers of building character through dialogue, a skill that comes in handy for novelists, too. To prepare me for my three days on the film junket in Hollywood, the directors had me watch "Sunset Boulevard." (That's another reason I trusted the directors - their mordant senses of humour.) Scenes from those films Woody Allen made around "Husbands and Wives" have stayed with me all these years, too, and I've been watching Yasujiro Ozu's work recently. I love its measuredness. Magical art form when it's done well, isn't it?

SIG: What are you reading right now?

DM: Little America by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, about the bloody and meandering campaign in Afghanistan, and Seven Gothic Tales by the Danish writer Isak Dinesen. I'm trying to kick a lecture into shape this week about how fiction works, so I'm also re-reading James Wood's How Fiction Works.

SIG: What was it like watching "Cloud Atlas" for the first time?

DM: Like going to a strange and beautiful party somewhere not quite real, attended by all the major players in your previous life, some of whom you'd forgotten. I'd recommend the experience.

Check out an excerpt of Cloud Atlas here.

See some of our favorite stills from the movie here.