Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Screenplay Review - Cloud Atlas

Genre: Period/Epic/Sci-Fi
Premise: (from IMDB) An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.
About: Wachowskis again!  This script was adapted by the Wachowskis as well as Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run fame.  The three also directed the film together.  Cloud Atlas is a 2004 novel written by British author David Mitchell, who had written two books previous to Atlas.  The film stars Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.
Writers: The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer (from the novel by David Mitchell)
Details: 230 pages

A PDF script is usually compressed in two different ways.  There's the "smart" way, where the program compresses it down to a computer friendly 200 kilobytes.  And then there's the "dumb" way, where the program creates a big lumbering 4-6 MB file.  I hate the big 4-6 MB files.  They take longer to download.  They take longer to send.  And they just obliterate your hard drive space.  So whenever I see the 5 megabyter, I roll my eyes angrily at whoever originally compressed the thing.

Naturally then, I was pissed off when I saw the 6.7 MB file size of this one.  Another dumb compression.  That is until I opened it and realized Cloud Atlas was 2 million pages long!  This wasn't a dumb conversion, just a really long freaking screenplay!

The question that comes to mind when analyzing Cloud Atlas is, "What do you get when you try and tackle every question humanity has ever had since the beginning of time?"  Yes, Cloud Atlas is ambitious.  Maybe the most ambitious movie ever attempted.  There are six storylines spanning four different centuries.  And two of those centuries haven't even happened yet.

Many of you have probably assumed I'll give this one a thrashing.  I complain about the length on 120 page scripts.  Surely it would be impossible for me to like a 230 page one.  Well, a couple of things about that.  First, this was written by the Wachowskis.  Not Joe Beginner from Proudfoot, Wyoming.  Is it unfair that I give a pro more leeway than a newbie?  I don't think so.  If someone has an established track record, you're going to give them more rope than someone you've never heard of before.  Also, it was adapted from an extremely ambitious novel.  So I'd been prepped going in for what I was up against.  I knew I was going to have to reallllly focus.  Joe Beginner doesn't have that luxury.  Nobody knows anything about his spec until they start reading it.

With that being said, the Wachowskis...I mean they just...they're really going for something spectacular here.  And when you see the trailer, it makes you a believer.  I mean how often do we get thoughtful sci-fi, something that's well done and actually makes us think?  Every 7 years maybe?  Still, it's gotta work on the page.  Those images are beyond beautiful, but the black pixels must be formulated on the white screen in a way that makes sense and that moves us.  Does Cloud Atlas succeed?

Leprechaun 10??

Like I said, there are six storylines.  Some of them are clear, others not so much. The first is set in 1846 with a lawyer named Adam Ewing.  He's on a boat crossing the Atlantic and finds an African-American stowaway.  The captain wants to kill him, but Ewing fights for his life, and the stowaway proves his worth.  Ewing is also keeping a diary that I believe is being read in one of the other time periods, which is how it's (very loosely) connected to the other storylines.

The next story occurs in 1931.  A young closeted homosexual composer named Foshbinder leaves his lover, a man named Sixsmith, to train with the greatest composer in the world, a genius named Ayrs.  Ayrs is old and sick and therefore needs an assistant to help him.  Foshbinder secretly falls in love with him, and must decide whether to tell him the truth or keep it a secret.

In 1974, a reporter named Luisa Ray is investigating a nuclear power plant when she runs into Sixsmith - yes Foshbinder's lover from the 1931 storyline.  Sixsmith seems to be holding a big secret, a secret he's being chased for, and after meeting Luisa, wants to offload it on her.  Unfortunately he's shot and killed before he can tell her, but he does leave behind the letters between him and Foshbinder, which she begins obsessively reading.

In 2009, an older gentleman named Cavendish, who used to be one of the biggest publishers in the world, checks into a hotel only to wake up the next morning and realize it's an "elderly care" center.  It isn't clear whether Cavendish is suffering from dementia or he was really wrongfully placed here.  Either way, he gets a group of fellow seniors together to try and escape the prison-like building.

In the year 2144, a clone named Sonmi-451 is being interrogated about being the first clone to break away from what she was programmed to do, which is be a slave to man.  We go back in time (as if jumping around to six different storylines wasn't enough!) to see her story, which amounts to a human named Chang bringing her to a resistance movement in the 22nd century where she will become a key piece in the plan to free all the clones.

In the year 2346, your guess is as good as mine as to what's going on.  The original author really went crazy here, imagining a world where people talk like insects might if they gained intelligence.  People are spitting out gibberish in copious amounts, but basically, a guy named Zachary who sees an imaginary Golum-like creature wherever he goes (I'm assuming Leprechaun up above?) is coupled up with, I think, an alien, who's taking him to a place that can save his dying daughter???  Beats me.  This storyline, by far, is the most wacky.

Hanks in disguise!

So how did it all fit together?  Well, if you ever saw that movie Red Violin, you'll love this, because Cloud Atlas is Red Violin on crack.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Mitchell was inspired by that Canadian film.  But just like Red Violin, it suffers from a lot of the same problems, namely that you're trying to find out why these six different stories really need to be told together and you come to the conclusion that they probably don't - or at least most of them don't.

There's two ways to connect the stories in a movie like this.  One is with plot and the other with theme.  Plot tends to be the more audience friendly because everything ends up making sense.  With plotlines from one story intersecting plotlines from another, it's sort of neat to see how it all comes together.  Cloud Atlas is NOT that kind of screenplay.  I mean, there's a little plot overlap, but it's vague and doens't really go anywhere.

That leaves us with theme, and unfortunately, that doesn't really work either.  Why?  Because it felt like Cloud Atlas was exploring every theme in the book.  Just watch the trailer.  At the end when the titles proudly claim, "Time, love, death, birth, hope, courage, everything is connected."  This script REALLY IS trying to tackle every single one of these themes.  And as a result, it just never finds its footing.

But here's the strange thing.  I still liked it.  While I'm against epics in principle because they're so hard to get right (all but the best writers fail at them), I have a place in my heart for when they're done well.  They're the most emotionally rewarding of all the genres.  And if there's one thing Cloud Atlas has, it's a sweeping epic scale.  We're just taken to so many different places and are following so many interesting disparate characters that you have to read on if only to experience the grand scale.  And to look at the trailer and see that they actually had the money to pull off what they were going for - I mean it's pretty damn inspiring.

I will take this time to point out, however, why writing these kinds of movies is so challenging.  The reason this is 230 pages is not because the story wanders.  It's 230 pages because they covered six different stories.  And when you do that, you NEED MORE SPACE.  I mean think about it, following one normal movie storyline takes 110 pages.  So had you told Cloud Atlas' six tales in any less than the 40 pages each section received, it probably wouldn't have been enough.  For the epicness and scale of this movie to work, those storylines needed to breath.  So attempt these multi-storyline scripts at your own risk!  Your scripts WILL get fat.

I would not encourage anybody other than experienced screenwriters (10 years of writing or more) to try something like this.  It's just way too challenging, so I don't want you to interpret my "worth the read" as some kind of endorsement to go write your own epic.  I just thought this script was so unique and so weird and so ambitious, that I enjoyed reading it.  So say it is and it shall be.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: I was JUST dealing with this in an amateur script. If you jump around in time a lot in your screenplay, it's INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT that you KEEP US ORIENTED TIMEWISE.  The amateur script I read didn't, and I was constantly unclear about where we were in the story, what year it was, if this was a flashback or flashforward.  At the end of every slugline in Cloud Atlas, they put the year (aka "YEAR - 1931") - so we ALWAYS know exactly where we are.  Again, this is a huge mistake beginners make.  They think you're in their head with them so if they decide to randomly jump back to 1912, they don't need to tell you.  Nothing could be further from the truth.