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EXCLUSIVE: Writer David Mitchell On Seeing Tom Hanks, Halle Berry Bring His Novel 'Cloud Atlas' To Life

28/06/2013 12:48 BST | Updated 28/08/2013 10:12 BST

When it was reported that 'Cloud Atlas' was going to be made into a film, there were many firm fans of the book who doubted that the best-selling tome, with its changing times, places and labyrinthine connections, could ever be adapted successfully for the big screen.

But it's made its way to cinemas, and will be available on home release from Monday, with a star cast including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Susan Sarandon, Hugo Weaving and even Hugh Grant.

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Ben Whishaw is one of the stars of 'Cloud Atlas'

The most personal challenge must surely be for author David Mitchell. He talks exclusively to HuffPostUK about the process of watching his pet project unfold on celluloid...

QUESTION: You initially said you thought your book was unfilmable. At what point did you change your mind about that?

DAVID MITCHELL: I changed my mind when I read the script about 2009, I think. The script looked good. And then the directors agreed to meet me in West Cork, in Ireland where I live. I spent a day talking with them about their ideas for the film, about amplifying what is in the book. It was just a motif, really, of reincarnation, to apply that principle to six or seven of the major characters and have them played by the same actor but in different ethnicities and genders. And to show them moving through time in a sort of matrix of 'pilgrim's progresses.'

I thought, 'yep, I think they'd probably do it.' I didn't know what it would look like because I have no frame of reference, didn't know a film like this. But from then on I thought they might be able to pull it off.

QUESTION: The directors said that they wouldn't have made this movie if you didn't approve the script. When you read the script, were you aware of that and would it have affected you?

DAVID MITCHELL: I wasn't aware of it. And I'm very glad that I wasn't aware of it at the time. Would it have affected me? In a way, because the question never existed, it's actually very hard to answer. I was intensely curious what it would look like.

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Halle Berry plays six characters in the film

When I wrote the book, the structure was there first. And the book was sort of a feasibility experiment to see if you could write a book with that structure of six encased Russian dolls and sort of drill through them, through the navels and then out to the spinal columns. I just wanted to see what that would look like. And I had the same feeling with the film. So, perhaps even if in my heart of hearts I wasn't sure about it, I might have kept my mouth shut just because that would have robbed me of the pleasure of seeing what it would look like.

QUESTION: Did you have narrowing images in your head, like your own movie playing of what it looked like--the far future, all the different stories--and, if so, how did they compare to what the directors put on the screen?

DAVID MITCHELL: Yeah. I did. Otherwise you couldn't write it, you couldn't describe the scene unless you were imagining it. The funny thing is I've never been to Anchorage in Alaska. But when I think of it, I don't think of the void, I think of a blend. I kind of think of an imaginary Anchorage that's made of bits and pieces of Vancouver or something in a documentary I once saw or something from the Michelle Shocked song, or whatever. It just sort of just compounded like that. Then you go to Anchorage and you see the real place, and your imaginary Anchorage evaporates and it's replaced by the real Anchorage. And from that point on you can never, ever remember what your imaginary Anchorage looked like.

So, it's the same with the film. Now I did visualize the future Korea or what Cavendish the vanity publisher looked like. But damn me if I can think what they were now. I have no idea. They've been replaced by the actor's faces. But if you're imagined the characters are going to be replaced by anyone then let it be Jim Sturgess and Doona Bae.

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... And so did Tom Hanks

QUESTION: This is the first of your work to be translated into Spanish. Can you talk about the experience of being a celebrated author thrust into the world of showbiz and movie making?

DAVID MITCHELL: Okay. Not that celebrated, I'm able to say. Thank you for that. I feel like how I might imagine somebody from Hungary during the Cold War who, say, during 1975 or something, gets a one-month tourist visa to Los Angeles. I've heard about this place; I've heard about the film world all my life, and I've sort of seen films like Sunset Boulevard or The Player or whatever. So, yeah, there isn't a vacuum there.

But I'm here. It's something of an anthropological experience in a way. And filmmaking and industry like this is made of tribes. The executives, the actors, the directors, the set designers, the dialogue coaches are so interesting. They're bigger words nerds than novelists, they really are. It's not just the etymologies of words, it's all of the accents. So, just meeting these people and talking with them and finding out about their jobs...

QUESTION: Was there any particular or specific 'stranger in a strange' land moment where you thought this just can't get any more surreal than it's gotten just now?

DAVID MITCHELL: Yeah. There was--at the read-through in Berlin when all the actors flew in. Meeting Tom Hanks is probably no big deal for you. You probably do it several times a week, I don't know. Or people whose faces you've seen all your life on the screens. Of course, as an outsider, as a non-resident of film land, at the moment, not all of the actors were able to come to the screen were able to come to the read-through. So I took a few of the parts just to help things along, just the smaller parts.

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Many fans of the book could not envisage how 'Cloud Atlas' could possibly be filmed...

And there was one line. You know when you're at high school in an English class and you're reading Macbeth or something. And you and your classmates get parceled out the characters and you read them through as a class. It was exactly the same sitting on this big roundtable. And Tom Hanks read a line. I read a line. Then Hugh Grant read a line. Now, see, I'm already in my pajamas here because this can't be happening.

It's just like reading Macbeth at age sixteen in my English class, but with some of the most famous faces on the planet, actually. That was the most 'stranger in a strange land' moment that I will never be able to top.

QUESTION: Did you spend much time on set yourself?

DAVID MITCHELL: I was in Berlin for about a week last- late November, early December. A minute of my performance is in the film. Blink and you miss me. But as Sonmi is leaving the rebel base, she goes up some steps, I'm walking down them, our eyes sort of lock for about one point five seconds, and we walk on.

QUESTION: The directors have said that even though all the stories start in 1800s, these souls have been going on forever. Did you ever think of going further back into the past when you were writing?

DAVID MITCHELL: Well, yeah. There were originally going to be not six, but nine. Novels are big and baggy. But there's an anthropological limit you get to. Tom's story pulls it off. But the longer on you go, exponentially the greater the risk becomes that you're going to get boring. And then you got a dead duck on your hands.

So I took it from nine to six. But when it was nine it was going to start in the twelfth century. The first one was going to be a Chinese section based around Leopold and the Du Fu, the poet, which is even earlier, actually. And there was going to be a Korean section set in the present day. So I was so sure I was going to write this that I went to Seoul and Busan and spent a freezing New Year's holiday going around Korea. Then realized I was writing yet another narrative about a gifted young musician because he was going to be a rap singer. Then it was getting too big, so I reduced. But I was too mean and miserly to jettison the money and time I've spent in Korea, which is why the future sections are in Korea.

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... as the story travelled through time and distance, strands constantly overlapping

QUESTION: In the book, you end each story separately. What did you think of the film where it continued to lap over until the very end?

DAVID MITCHELL: It had to be done. I think I just about get away with this in the book, just because novels are novels. They're baggy, capacious, capricious things. And as long as it doesn't slack and get dull, you can do what the hell you like in them. Films are less forgiving. To ask a viewer to start over a new film six times, the sixth time being in the middle of it, being an hour and a half in, I completely understood and sympathized with, and saw the logic in why the directors thought that we couldn't get away with that. So, smash it up, make a mosaic, and reconstitute it as a mosaic, fragment by fragment.

For me, this actually generates another propulsive force that makes the film flow, which is pleasure at the ingenuity, at the way one scene is just supposed into the next, glued to the next one. So a question will be asked in 1850 and then that same question will be asked in post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Or someone walks through a door into one's set. And if you look closely, and even if you don't look closely, at some level I don't think you know it's the same set. It's the same shaped room that the character's walking into hundreds of years earlier, or later. Or it's an object or it's an image; it's a picture handing on the wall that's actually a still from an earlier section.

I get a little lob of pleasure each time; I think that's nice, that's good. So there's the propulsive drive to the plot, of the narrative arc, and the character development, when one's seen as conceptually, or linguistically, or architecturally, dove-tailed into its successor. So, hey, I'm a happy camper. I'm happy they changed the structure in that way to facilitate that extra propulsive drive.

'Cloud Atlas' is available on DVD/Blu-Ray from Monday 1st July. HuffPostUK has an exclusive clip above. Stills from the stunning film below...