We Create Music Blog
October 26, 2012

Film Music Friday: Johnny Klimek/Reinhold Heil on Cloud Atlas

Johnny Klimek/Reinhold Heil

Johnny Klimek/Reinhold Heil

With its complex web of nested storylines, metaphysical commentary and jaw-dropping special effects, Cloud Atlas is easily one of the most ambitious movies in recent memory. ASCAP composers Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer had their work cut out for them when it came to scoring the epic film. The week of the film's premiere, I spoke with Klimek and Heil about how the whole thing came together.


What were the early conversations about the Cloud Atlas score like? Did you and the directors agree about how music should be used in the film?

Reinhold Heil: Naturally, we were nervous about the score before we embarked on the journey. [Co-director] Tom [Tykwer] had given me the novel in 2008, while we were working on The International, so I had plenty of time to think about the music before Tom [and co-directors] Lana and Andy [Wachowski] finished the screenplay. When I finally received the screenplay in 2011, I had to read it twice before everything clicked and I thought: "This is going to work!"

We already talked about it while working on Tom's wonderful art-house movie THREE in June of 2010. We then convened for the first time to develop ideas for Cloud Atlas in the spring of 2011. Tom has an office and a guest apartment in the back of his house in Berlin. We set up two makeshift studios and started developing material. We brought the music back to LA, developed it a bit more and went back to Berlin in June 2011 for more writing, arranging, orchestrating, and even recording with an orchestra and choir.

All this work was done with just a screenplay in hand during a highly dramatic phase in the pre-production when the movie was constantly vacillating from being green-lit to going bust due to funding problems. After some time, we stopped asking if we were still on the job and just put our heads down and wrote. For Tom, who was always going to and fro between the production office and the music studio, our studio was a refuge from the craziness of getting the movie rolling. When we came back to LA in July 2011, we started mixing and re-mixing enough material that made up a basic library of music the filmmakers could use. The editors could temp their assembly with this catalog while the movie was being shot. Tom, Lana and Andy played the music on their sets, which helped set the emotional tone. Even more than on previous projects, the music was part of the production process from the very beginning.

Cloud Atlas is such a structurally complex movie. How would you describe the role of your score in navigating all the intertwining eras and plotlines?

Johnny Klimek: We came to the realization that music would be one of the major tools to glue all the stories together.

RH: The three writer-directors approached the structure of the film differently from the novel. While the novel has the six stories nested inside each other, leaving readers with the narratives commingling in their minds after they finish reading, the screenplay merges the six stories into one grand narrative while also synchronizing the ups and downs of the individual stories' dramatic arcs. So there was no way we could develop six individual styles and assign them to the separate stories. Our score had to be the glue that held this complex structure together. And keep in mind, the stories are from different genres, set in vastly different eras and in different parts of the world. As far as I know, a film like this had never been produced before. It was a daunting task, but also the most exciting creative challenge I have ever faced.

Did you make any attempt to match the sound of your score to each separate time period in the movie?

JK: Maybe in a very subtle way. We thought it would be too much to try and follow every time period, so we just did what felt right for the movie.

RH: While we ended up writing some music that was leaning toward one or the other time period, we were aware that the themes had to be malleable enough to be applied anywhere in the movie.

"The Cloud Atlas Sextet" is a central part of the story. What was it like creating that bit of music?

RH: "The Cloud Atlas Sextet" is like a character in the novel. It is written by the young composer Robert Frobisher in the story set in 1936, then is forgotten and comes back in the present day in many musical forms. In the story set in 2144, the "Sextet" gains quasi-religious status. In the novel, David Mitchell describes a 20th century piece of avant-garde chamber music that has the same nested structure as his novel. For quite some time we tried to reconcile this with our second task: write a piece of music that resonates with the masses and is eventually known by almost every person on earth because of its beauty.

At some point we decided that since the structure of the movie is not like the novel, we should just embrace the more important second task and stop caring about writing the "Sextet" precisely as David Mitchell described it. We wrote a beautiful melody and composed a simple piano piece from it that became the basis of all the other versions. We didn't aim for any style in particular, but style references for it might be found somewhere between Schumann, Debussy and Satie. That's just my personal impression, thinking about it now that it is done. Then we arranged the piece for string orchestra, a cappella choir, chamber sextet, full orchestra and rock band. We also wrote more virtuoso piano versions, an Asian pop version, did electronic remixes, and sprinkled the melody all over the film as one of the film's main recurring motifs. A lot of this work was purely experimental since there was no movie yet. It was lots of work, but great fun.

Which contributions on Cloud Atlas are uniquely your own, and which ones did you collaborate on?

JK: We pretty much collaborated on all the score; that's just the way we work. But I did plant the seeds for "Papa Song," "Sloosha's Hollow" and "Chasing Luisa Rey."

RH: The material is touched by all three of us in some way and there are always conceptual conversations between us. In fact I don't think there is a single aspect of this production that I haven't personally worked on. So while we are not sitting together the entire time, we do collaborate very closely. I could dissect pieces and tell you who did what, but I feel that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This of course isn't the first time that you and Tom Tykwer have collaborated on a score for a film that he directed. How is scoring one of Tom's films different from scoring for a director that might not understand music as well? And how is his input different from the Wachowskis' input?

JK: I think what is unique is the trust and confidence we have to write most of the score before the film is shot.

RH: We have been working together since Tom Tykwer's second feature, Winter Sleepers, which he made in 1996. I immigrated to California from Germany in 1997 and Johnny followed after the success of Run Lola Run in 2000. We have a long history working together. In the past 16 years, pretty much every form of individual and co-operative working style has been used. But mostly Tom alternates between Johnny's and my workstations.

Tom is directly involved in the scoring process, and we start our writing when he has an almost completed screenplay. These are the two main features that distinguish our method from the usual way movies are scored. We get to avoid having to deal with temp music and the interaction with the filmmaker is immediate and more frequent, so it's less likely we have to rework material. Instead we do a lot of extra versions as I already described.

Lana and Andy Wachowski always provided fresh ears and their own perspective in a very constructive, patient and supportive way. It was a great pleasure to work with all three directors despite the incredible challenges everybody was facing.

Was there a scene that was a particular challenge to get just right?

JK: Yes. Both of the action sequences set in Seoul, 2144 were quite difficult, as in the middle of the action sequence we would jump in and out of different time periods.

RH: The on-camera music scenes were an ongoing issue. We wrote the piano versions of "Frobisher's Audition" and "The Cloud Atlas Sextet" in the summer of 2011. They were performed by concert pianist Ragna Schirmer before the movie was shot. So we thought we'd be in good shape. But our pieces were too long and it was impossible to shoot the scene and stick to the musical structure of the pieces. Once a movie starts emerging in the rough cut, it lets you know what works and what doesn't. That can be a drawback of our method, rendering some of our hard work in pre-production useless, like my Brahms-meets-Rachmaninoff version of "Frobisher's Audition" that I was so proud of. So we had to rework these pieces several times to accommodate changes in the cut that happened between January and July of this year. I'd still like to present all the elaborate versions we made. None of them are on the soundtrack album, except for a few snippets.

Were there things that you wanted to do with the score but couldn't, due to budget, time or creative constraints?

JK: No, we got a great deal with the MDR Orchestra in Leipzig. They gave us plenty of time on the stage for a super price. Without their help it would have been very difficult to pull it off with the budget we had.

Was there music that got left on the editing room floor? Any plans to do something with it?

RH: There is always music that doesn't make it into the movie. This time, it's mostly variations of the themes you hear throughout the movie, so there is little compelling reason to do anything with them. I am actually hoping the score will be a hit and people might be so interested in other versions that it justifies the release of an additional album. One can always dream. There is another project in the works, but it doesn't use material from the cutting room floor. Our friend Gene Pritsker composed the Cloud Atlas Symphony based on our themes. But it's a work in its own right. I'm looking forward to hearing how it turns out.


Cloud Atlas went to theaters on October 26th, 2012. Find out more at cloudatlas.warnerbros.com.

Click here to listen to the entire Cloud Atlas soundtrack on Spotify.

Visit Johnny Klimek on IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0459517

Visit Reinhold Heil on the web: http://reinholdheil.com