To bring Cloud Atlas – the epic chronicle of re-incarnation that tells six interconnected stories spanning five centuries and numerous characters – to the screen, it took three directors, two full production crews and one lone editor, Alexander Berner.
“In the beginning, I was really worried what it was going to be like, but I have to say it was amazing,” Berner said of his “epic” editing experience. “I think it was one of the most relaxed productions that I ever did. What was very interesting was that they had the same tastes, but everyone had their own specialty, so to speak, their special field of work. That helped a lot.”
Before Cloud Atlas, Berner worked with Run Lola Run director, Tom Tkywer, on a number of films, but this was his first collaboration with Matrix directors, siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski. The cutting room was set up with three couches, one for each director, so they could sit back, relax and work all the way through the film, which is what they did, achieving the final picture cut of the complicated story structure, sans visual effects, in a mere 10 weeks. “I think that came down to them liking the assembly a lot, so we did not have to change entire cutting patterns,” explained Berner. “We could immediately work on the main thing, the structure of the overall movie.”
Much the film’s storytelling success was achieved from the transitions that facilitated the interweaving of the numerous storylines. Some of them were in the original script, but the majority of transitions were developed in the course of editing. “The script was a systematic pattern of how to tell each story and what parts of each story we needed to tell that story and put together the movie,” Berner revealed. “Things changed quite rapidly in the cutting room once we started. We intercut scenes a lot more than they were originally intended to be. The transitions…I don’t think there are many left from the original script. They just happened from the material. The way things are put together now happened in the cutting room.”
The filmmakers’ goal was to turn six stories into one big story. Those stories in themselves included a number of genres – comedy, drama, action, science fiction – posing tonal differences that needed to be addressed. Creating a movie that was one piece of work became the primary challenge in editing. The team looked for emotional links between the different narratives so they could construct an emotional continuum across the various storylines in order to create an overall arc throughout the film. Discussions in the cutting room centered on which piece was the right one to continue at each point in the edit. In that way, they progressed through the whole picture.
“Where one story was at a certain point emotionally, we would look for situations in other stories that continued the emotional development of the story we came from,” Berner said. “The idea was that you keep feeling what’s happening in the stories that we leave behind, so when we come back to them, you sort of get the idea of what happened off screen. In this case, it was very difficult, because it was such a complex idea and project. It was like a big, big puzzle.”