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Immersed in Movies: Uli Hanisch and Hugh Bateup Talk 'Cloud Atlas' Production Design

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 19, 2012 at 1:30PM

While "Cloud Atlas" may be the most polarizing movie of the year (winding up on both year-end best and worst lists), there's no denying its ambition and beauty: it's the ultimate time travel movie about connecting and reconnecting and grappling with free will and destiny.
Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in "Cloud Atlas."
Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in "Cloud Atlas."

Meanwhile, Hanisch, who's worked with Tykwer on seven movies over the past 15 years, says this collaboration was joyful in it its balance of independence and close communication. The thematic imperative on "Cloud Atlas," of course, was connection, so they decided to mirror the actors' reappearances and alterations with the same elements, starting from changing the Belgium chateau of the composer Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) into a Scottish country manor to having it re-appear as the 'uglyfied' retirement home, prison-like Aurora House. Or recycling whole sets such as the Papa Song Restaurant from the Sonmi story into the Starlight Bar of the opening scene in the Cavendish story.

"The Music Salon of Ayrs Chateau had been the heart and soul of our work, as one always needs a center cell to start with, building everything around this," Hanisch suggests. "We didn't wait for the real (exterior) location to match with it, but decided to lose the grand formal shape of such a representative room and crumple it down, according to Ayrs' character.

"In fact, we have called the final shape of the floor plan a 'shrunken old man's penis,' filling it with dusty old family treasures from the colonies (Ostrich eggs), mixing it with just upcoming 'modern' elements from the arts (Paul Klee paintings and abstract sculptures). Cause Ayrs would have been very close to this kind of development at the time and also to differentiate it from the formally close Adam Ewing story."

Although clarity about the specific looks of each period was a major concern, sometimes they looked closer than they would've wished. For example, the laidback '70s was almost too contemporary-looking because it has fashionably become retro 40 years later.

"Cavendish's vengeful brother is my most favorite side character, especially the way Hugh Grant has performed it," Hanisch offers. "We were very troubled to find a good location around Berlin with an exterior pool and looking British enough. When I realized the way the scene was supposed to become grotesque, I felt it was much more important to make it look cold and hollow. It's quite a good example how a set can frame a character and tell you about him in no time: 'What a bastard!'"

In the end, Hanisch says working with two units in parallel provided its own bizarre connections. "When would you have a chance to have another designer within your project, sharing thoughts or concerns, or just pop by, asking, 'Hey, don't you have a spare living room for us?' it's funny!"

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Cloud Atlas, Production , Interviews , VFX

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.