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Mike Cahill on Crazy Sidetrack to Mind-Blowing 'I Origins,' Working with Michael Pitt, Opening Karlovy Vary

Interviews
by Anne Thompson
July 11, 2014 5:24 PM
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Mike Cahill and Michael Pitt of 'I Origins'

What struck me about Mike Cahill's "I Origins" when I saw it at Sundance was how clearly it was the work of the same director who made "Another Earth."

One of the challenges for many rising filmmakers as they navigate from their first feature to their second is what compromises they are willing to make as they seek outside funding and bigger budgets. The story of how "I Origins" got made is instructive.

"Another Earth" and a second film, "The Sound of My Voice," made by Cahill's Georgetown buddies Brit Marling (who produced, co-wrote and starred in "Another Earth") and director Zal Batmanglij, were both released by Fox Searchlight, who were investing in their next films as well. As Cahill struggled to find the right story, Marling and Batmanglij moved ahead with eco-terrorist story "The East," which turned into one of those 'tweeners, too glossy to be a gritty indie, and not thrilling enough to be a commercial draw.
 

'I Origins'

Meanwhile Cahill realized that one of his background stories for his ambitious movie that wasn't going anywhere was the one to make on a smaller scale, and Searchlight agreed. Brainy and spiritual with an unexpected emotional kick, "I Origins" isn't going to be for everyone. But it's unabashedly the voice of Mike Cahill, and that's worth celebrating. Watching it again opening night at Karlovy Vary, it struck me that his questions are ones we all ask, at some point, from Descartes to Hamlet. 

We spoke on the phone.

How did you manage to hang onto your voice?

I have very specific passions. One is science and one is Existentialism. Part of science is the question "why are we here, what is all this about?" If the universe is 3.7 billion years and we only have 100 million, how do we negotiate those numbers and making meaning out of our lives? Both of my films come from my attempt to answer or fulfill a fantasy of a primal fear.

That's a universal thing that is embedded in being human. For "Another Earth" it was the fear of overwhelming loneliness. Following a singular POV, we go through the world looking out of two eyes. No matter how many people we are close with or who we love, we are very much alone. There's something scary about that. We all feel we can ignore it. In "Another Earth," the connection comes through empathy and shared experience, the idea of an alternate self in that final moment. "Another Earth" is satisfying that fear or fulfilling that fantasy of not being alone-- what it feels like for me.

And what were you trying to tackle with "I Origins"?
The fear of death, the nothingness of death. We inherit that from birth, being human. The big void vast unknown is a primal fear. "I Origins" constructs a narrative, gives us a fantasy to diminish that fear. These voices come from my obsession. I've written other scripts that haven't been made, big in scope, with this common theme throughout.

"Another Earth"

You and collaborators Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling came up in the industry together.

It was amazing, we've been friends since Georgetown. We'd only made short films until "Another Earth," and originally set out to make three short films. Each was vesting in a different character. That was the experiment we were going to do. It turned out "Another Earth" was expanding to 30 minutes. We got the most excited about that one, daily session after session, writing "Sound of My Voice," Zal lived in Silver Lake. It was amazing cracking a start together and bouncing ideas off of her.

You did this one alone?

I lived in Brooklyn while making "Another Earth" and ended up staying here while making it. I fell in love and got married and had a baby a month ago. It's been an amazing year!

Did Hollywood woo you?

I met many amazing people I admire on lots of projects and offers to direct projects, it got sort of complicated. After Fox Searchlight purchased "Another Earth" they asked me if there was anything else I was working on. I had this movie called "I." A very bold title, it takes place in the future, a bigger-budgeted film. They bought the script right away in the summer of 2011. I naively thought we were going to start making it. We were in development, I got notes. After a few rewrites I was on holiday in Croatia with my wife, feeling like we were getting farther way from where I wanted it to be. I had this backstory for "I," about this doctor who discovers duplicate eyes in a database that duplicate the eye of someone he once loved, a 15-page backstory, an iceberg under the tip. It was one thing in how this world comes to be. My wife read that and said, "that's the whole story, make that into a film."

My producer also said, "why not make the origin story?" I came back, called Fox and asked them if I could make it. They owned the rights, were gracious. I said I'd like to try to make it independently for a super-low budget, with your permission, without notes. We had been in the process of development to make not a nugget of film, a year had gone by. I was hungry to make something, and for whatever reason they weren't about to make it.


What budget did you have for "I Origins"?

"I Origins" cost $1 million. I figured out how to stretch every dollar. We shot across the world. India is India. We used wonderful expensive toys like a super-Techno 70-foot dolly in India. We just found a lot of people passionate about it. Brit was doing her own thing, she had a lot of projects. This was my 12-year project, "I" and "Origins." That's why I have so much material on it. Fox from a legal aspect wrote a simple thing saying "it's yours to make." By some grace we got back into Sundance, and all the folks at Searchlight watched it and acquired it. It worked out beautifully, so we said, "let's make 'I' now."

Really? Will you make "I"?
We're in "active development," not in production. The story is closer to the original version, with alterations now that I've made since "Origins." It's a followup, 20 years into the future. This paradigm has become the new normal. It's a fun story. The original "I" movie is a bigger movie for me, but small for the Hollywood world. It's a science fiction movie that has to do with aliens, but it's the most grounded take on aliens, anywhere.

At the end of "Origins" way after the credits --we moved it around after Sundance to a teaser coda that's kind of fun, with the doctor. A lot of people miss it, we scan through eyes from the past: Einstein, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Lenin, and on the globe we see match after duplicate match. We never say the word reincarnation in the movie, which I'm really proud of, that word would have too much baggage. 

So you kept your independence?
I appreciate the freedom to make it the way I wanted to make it. "Another Earth" we made for $70,000, so $1 million was huge. There are 200 VFX shots in the movie, it's complicated. That would be hard to achieve for even a Hollywood movie. The Indian girl's eyes are motion tracking composited. It's part of the premise that the eyes are unique, and they come back. And I needed to do that filmicly, the coincidence that Astrid Berges-Frisby who plays Sophie, also happened to have very specific eyes with a rare quality --sectorial heterochromia, having more than one color in your eye. The poster is just the iris, middle brown outside green blue, two different colors in the eyes, two black dots, crypts in the iris.

It was the hardest thing to do in all of this: we had to make it visual. The eyes had to act like a flag for the country so we recognize it. No matter how well we know our partner, we may not know where all the little dots are. Astrid has magnificent eyes, we wanted the little girl to have them as well. Exactly these eyes, even if we don't stare carefully, we'll intuit it. Everyone knows that VFX eyes are hardest, they give you away, you get to the uncanny valley. It's very ambitious, so we put in the most difficult challenge. We tried contact lenses, trial and error. Contact lenses in the 4K Red epic format were so obvious. We had to figure out away to do it and dilate them so they looked realistic. We shot Astrid moving her head and for the young girl we cut out Astrid's eyes and rotoscoped them and put them in the little girl's face, frame by frame.  We used Michael Glen the VFX artist from the Harbor Picture Co. who did color correction work on "Another Earth."

You were willing to make a smart movie about Science?

A lot of movies have dumbed down scientists. My family, my brothers are molecular biologists, my older brother is the best neurosurgeon at Mass General, a brilliant scientist, my brother Hugh is a neuroscientist and biologist. I know them as real guys, they're extraordinary ordinary people. I want to see that in movies. I think that's honest, and it's ok for it a scientist to be a woman, the very eminence who is the wonderful Brit Marling, who can be really smart. It doesn't have to be cheesy. That's the beauty of film, writing the meaning is in the subtext anyway. These characters are speaking Greek, but we can tell they're flirting. So when we know Michael is underestimating Brit's character at first, he probably should not be underestimating someone younger than him who is already in a league beyond. 

Michael Pitt has a bit of rep?
I hear about that. Funny, he and I met in Brooklyn. William Morris put us on a date. The agencies do this. There's a person you are interested in. I always admired Michael, loved his movies and choices, he's bold and his microchoices in scenes are always surprising. We happen to live near one another and went on a general meeting. We connected over coffee. I felt him and he felt me, we felt like brothers. After a long time, midway through, wait a second, I pitched him the story, not the character, but he could play this guy. I do remember "The Dreamers," him sitting in a tent with a zippo talking about how all distances between things are mathematically aligned. That's something I do in my head. I thought he'd be perfect. I didn't have the script yet, but "let's do it." We decided to work together. 

He's dedicated, really dedicated. He likes to have a lot of time. That was August and we were not going to shoot until the end of January or February. He wanted to build the characters slow, spend some time in a lab, read Dawkins, the scientific voice he stands for, watch videos of him. I feel like he needs the time and wants the time and deserves the time if you can give it to him.

It's hard to have perspective on how people respond, I have my own barometer. Every time I watch it, I enter with a spotless mind, and get choked up and moved by him. I cry at the end. I watched it three days ago at BAM with an amazing, cool, rad audience. Everybody stayed for the Q & A  and it was fun. 

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