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Interview: Novelist David Mitchell of 'Cloud Atlas'

On subversion, cinema and the disgusting metaphor for 'Cloud Atlas''s structure ...

By James Rocchi Nov 8, 2012 4:00PM

With his trim build and bookish demeanor, David Mitchell could be a venerable Oxford professor, or a well-loved English teacher; instead, the 43-year-old writer is the man behind 'Cloud Atlas,' the intricate novel that inspired the equally intricate -- and cinematically ambitious -- film from Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. We spoke with Mitchell in Los Angeles about prose, politics, pop culture and more.


MSN Movies: You'll have to pardon me because I had to mentally dust off my English degree to do this. Mostly I talk to actors and filmmakers and screenwriters -- so talking to a novelist is a change. We're always told form follows function. What I'm curious about is if the thematic elements of "Cloud Atlas" that necessitated the changes in form came first, or if the appeal of doing this intricate, symphonic novel made of different pieces came first?


David Mitchell: Well, I will have to dust off my literature degree ... It's been said, but I had this idea of Russian dolls structured novel made of halves of interrupt narratives. Get to the middle, do the whole one, and then work back out again with the continuations of the interrupted …


Individual narratives.


… narratives, yeah. A little bit like, say, a woodworm eating its way through a nest of six wooden Russian dolls through the navels and getting to the middle of one and then coming out through the spinal columns ... which is quite a grotesque image at this time of the day. Sorry.


A little bit vibrant.


BING: Russian Dolls l David Mitchell

(Laughs) That idea was in there right at the beginning, and then it was a matter of working out how I could somehow make this into any kind of a readable, let alone filmable, novel, but readable at that point. And the past, and the present, and the future sort of this woodworm is also eating through time from the past through the present into the future and then back again. And then the function follow with form, what theme would be appropriate to this sort of you shouldn't just do it because you want to, you have to do it for a reason as well. So if the novel's actually about different forms of enclosure and (predatory behavior) and the way of containment, the way that one sees (predatory behavior) -- the way that individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, corporations on society, tribes on other tribes, states on the individual, etcetera. And then also if the narratives themselves could be contained, like the next Russian dolls in their successor, so if the first narrative sea voyage across the Pacific ... if that as an artifact could be found in the next one in the form of a book ripped in half, which is then found in a narrative which is written in a form of letters, half of those are then found in the narrative inside that, which is a manuscript inside a narrative inside that, which is a film inside that. Then it begins to make sense so you use a structure like this. I didn't want to do it for the sake of it. I needed to find good reasons to do such a wacky structure.


I think the best reason is that ultimately, not to oversimplify, but the book just really fosters discussion about the way that the universe can be bent towards the greater good gradually through individual effort that continues on after our individual lives. It's this very humanist try todepict human progress through time. Was the idea of doing that sort of long epic voyage of human ethics one of the intentions?


Sometimes you just start with (an idea) and sometimes somebody notices you're doing it. Again it was the latter. It's kind of in a way I believe exactly what you described. We think of society, civilization, history as a matter of great forces. When you end, that just postpones the question. What is a great force? Eventually when you break it down you'll find it's just human beings getting up on the right side of the wrong side of bed that day. Even history would, it's just these things


And the idea that 100 or 50 or 60 years ago, or two weeks, ago there were social mores, which are in fact not towards a greater good and it may take time to alter them.


Just because I feel that it's individuals who, human beings who make the great forces that then bend history ... that doesn't mean I also believe that these always go in the right direction.  There are endarkenments as well as enlightenments that litter human history, what we know of it.


A risk of quoting my adolescent Billy Bragg records...


Go on!


…the struggle carries on, right?


The struggle carries on, doesn't it just? Yeah, yeah. Every generation, it's handed to us and we either, well we do what our great grandparents did, which is to ignore it, to capitulate ... or to struggle. Up to you.


Was the fact that the Wachowskis had made these very kinetic films that in a way were about subversion a good sign? Say what you will about "The Matrix." It's an action adventure film apocalypse suggesting of all of late-stage capitalism is the invention of evil killer robots, which is kind of neat.




Did the idea that they had this taste for the epic but also smaller notes of subversion or commentary and satire within that, did that help a lot when you're making the decision to sign the novel over to them?


Again, that came after the fact, just the fact that the makers of "The Matrix" were interested in optioning the book to be honest. This isn't a very sophisticated answer but at that point I was a gushing fan like, "Yeah! Of course you can have it!"



It was not one of the major decision -- it was a major decision, but it wasn't one of those decisions that I thought that I had to chew over or I'll agonize about for a very long time.


But I mean the Wachowski's and Mr. Tykwer, if there's a commonality between their best and worst, it's sort of these philosophical ideas expressed in very kinetic ways.


What I love about both of them were that they're gloriously oblivious to the idea that you're either serious, heavyweight, and human-less or just a box ticking entertainer. They really… They're both highbrow and lowbrow at the same time, and even that phrase "lowbrow" sounds pejorative. I don't mean it.


American film critic Manny Farber had his work and techniques summed up in a great way, which was to play both brows against the middle.


(Laughs) I should remember that. That's brilliant.


I read that delightful piece you wrote for the New York Times magazine about being so pleased by the sense of many hands working on the film in a lapidary fashion and sort of smoothing the book into something more contained and more of a film's shape, but not going 'Was that my bit or their bit?' At the end of the day when you finally saw the whole damn thing were you able to link it in any way to your novel or was it completely like"I didn't picture Jim Sturgess flying around with great epicanthic folds shooting a laser beam in a flying snowmobile?" Or did you still see it as yours?




Not to knock that; it's a great moment. But you know exactly what I mean -- the process of your imagination versus the visualization of someone else's imagination.


Sure, sure. Actually, depends on the scene. There were some scenes that have been more Wachowski-ized than anything in my book, but they fit.




That's what I care about. I don't really care "Is it mine, is it too far from mine." What I care about, just when I write the book, the biggest question I ever think when I'm writing the book, it's not actually form versus function. It's what can I do to make this damn book work 'cause it's killing me. What can I do to make it work? How can it work? And that's sort of how I feel about this film as well. I don’t care to what degree any given scene has been bent away from my original or evolved away from my original ... not as a transitive verb but you know what I mean.






No, I was just ready to try and figure out past-tenses and present-tenses of 'bent'  as well.




"Bended." Yes, but anyhow…


You're like me. You're a fellow word nerd.




Word nerds of the world unite. What's important is, is the scene helping the film work? And actually the flying snowmobile does help the film work. It needs some adrenaline at that point. And that's all I was thinking. I was just thinking "This is just ingenious." The scenes themselves, but the glue between the scenes, when he walks in and it's the same room. It's literally the same set but with different stuff, but they kept the walls in the same place. That links it. Or it’s a word that links it. Or it's a question that links it. Or it's an object that links it. This is what I love. And that's what I was thinking really when I was watching the film. I was enjoying the ingenuity.


And a lot of people always say, "Oh, I hate it when you read the book and then you see the movie and then all you see is the movie." Can you still go back to the book without hearing Halle Berry saying "Give me the true-true ..."?


(Laughs) I haven't read my book since 2005, since I finished the publicity work for it so I don’t know. Here's the thing though, I'm not too sure that I want to try and rehear what I heard before Ben Whishaw's voice.




And I think I put this in the end of one of pieces but the film was actually feeding back to me. I never ... in the book for example, Cavendish doesn't get back with his…


Lost love.


…lost love. But of course he would. That's the point. That's what film is for. It allows him to close that loop. Film logic demands it.


A novel's does not, necessarily.


It does not necessarily. Novels do hanging endings better than films tend to. When films give you hanging endings it's an exception to the rule. It's the end of "The Italian Job" or something, literally a hanging ending.


I'm going to ask you another question though, that I had the fortune to ask of Mr. Tykwer and Mr. and Miss Wachowski, which is this. Now that you have this film of this quote-unquote unfilmable book, what do you consider a truly great, unfilmable read? I mean is it that no one's done a proper version of "Lolita"? Is it something more fantastical and imaginative than that for you?


That's a great question and I feel you probably have more thought that out than me, but I'll play along. But I'd like to hear what you think as well. I think it would be those novels, rare novels, whose drive is not plot or even character. It's style ... like this really great book out recently just this year, "Open City."


There's a classic moment where some studio executive said to then-studio screenwriter F. Scott Fitzgerald that "We can't shoot adjectives."

Yeah. What an intelligent thing to say.



"You can't shoot adjectives."


Some studio executive shouted it at poor drunk F. Scott Fitzgerald.


(Laughs) I bet he deserved it.


Yeah, he probably did. Finally, the Wachowskis and Mr. Tykwer did mention that all of your books have in fact been optioned but this is the first one to make it to the screen ... and the least likely one. Do you a sense of you waiting for the box office returns to see if the David Mitchell film factory is in business or you just happy with this? (POSS)


I'm really happy with it. I'm a novelist, so I'm indifferent. Actually it's not even a matter of being indifferent. It could be quite toxic if as a prose writer you start thinking about film as you're working. We've all read books that feel more like film treatments than novels.


And often books like that from very good authors, which is quite distressing.


Yeah. Without naming names, I hear you. So no, it's wonderful -- a cherry on the cake when it happens, but my cake is novels.


 For more on "Cloud Atlas," check out our video interview with the cast: 


("Cloud Atlas" is in theaters; for more information about movies, check the MSN Movies Facebook page and the MSN Movies Twitter feed.)


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