In 2011, the Sundance Film Festival witnessed the emergence of a new filmmaker with a particular voice, one that has a talent for creating affecting human stories within the context of the science fiction genre. Mike Cahill’s “Another Earth” put him under the spotlight of the independent cinema world. The film was also the first installment in his collaborative relationship his co-writer and star on that film, Brit Marling. This year they partner up again for Cahill’s sophomore feature “I Origins,” a heavily science-infused drama about the enigmatic concept of reincarnation. The film premiered here at Sundance in the Premieres section and was just recently acquired by Fox Searchlight, the same company that distributed “Another Earth.”
Indiewire sat down with Cahill in Park City to talk about his return to the festival, his relationship with Marling, and his love for sci-fi narratives.
What is particularly special about your films is the blend of science fiction and drama you utilize to create an engaging narrative. How do you balance these two in order to make it work?
When it comes to science fiction I’m interested in it as if it were real. Part of the writing process is that I just trick myself into believing this is true. It doesn’t have the treatment of perhaps the more dominant form of science fiction, which is the fantastical element. It’s actually very much treated as if this is just the truth; to the then explore the world as if this were to be the truth. I’m interested in using science fiction to look closer at humanity.
How do you feel your writing has evolved from your feature debut “Another Earth,” into something much more ambitious like “I Origins”?
I got stricter with the science. I wanted to make the science bulletproof that was really important. Our budget was bigger, the scope was larger, the canvas was larger, and the layering in the performances is a bit more intricate. The layering of the scenes makes the movie work like an interesting puzzle in a way. There are a lot of things that one has to take in to achieve that final moment, or that final sequence, to make that work. I fell like there is a lot of earning the ending that I took very seriously. Not that I didn’t take it seriously before but I was more rigorous with myself this time around. Trying to evolve and become a better filmmaker everyday.
Speaking of a having a bigger budget, at any moment did you feel like you might lose track of your goal filmmaker by virtue of the fact that you the stakes were higher?
First of all it’s not that big of a budget [Laughs], it’s a lot bigger than “Another Earth” but is not that big of a budget. Second of all, I don’t think a large budget necessarily, from the creator’s point of view, dismantles the goal of doing something meaningful. I think it can come with certain strings attached to it that may have certain requirements, but I think there are many examples of wonderful filmmakers doing wonderfully thought provoking, innovative, meaningful work at very large scales.
Would you say you could still be an indie filmmaker even when making big budget films? Does being independent depend on the budget or a certain quality to the stories?
I think that’s a debate that’s been going for a while. Whether independent films are budgetary based or based on some sort of thematic or stylistic approach that’s different from mainstream. I think there is a safe path, or certain stories that keep getting told over and over and over again. Perhaps because cinema is rather mathematical, cinema writing is very mathematical, structuring a story is very mathematical.
How did this certain fascination with the concept of the eyes as the window to the soul developed in you?
If you’ve ever looked at a photograph of an eye super up close, it looks like a nebula, a supernova, a galaxy, or a universe onto itself. The eye holds such wonder to me. I love the things that are in our everyday lives that we don’t look at carefully enough, and that if we just look at a little bit closer you would see something so full of wonder. The eye is like that to me. The eye is used by creationist as proof of the intelligent designer because of its complexity. There is this theory that it could not have evolved because it’s so complicated. If you remove one element of the eye that’s backwards mutation, it ceases to function. Or so that theory goes about the complexity of the eye, and I find that quite interesting.
At the same time the eye has this anthemic window to the soul cliché attached to it, but what if you looked at that closely, where does that come from? A lot of cultures that believe in reincarnation say that the way you can tell is through the eyes. “That’s my grandmother because this little one has her eyes” We are also technologically the first time ever in the history of mankind cataloguing people by their eyes because they are like a fingerprint. That’s interesting to me.
I feel like in both “Another Earth” and “I Origins” the uniting theme is redemption, giving you characters a second chance whether it is life in another planet or reincarnation. Is this something that inherently interests you?
You are right, that’s so awesome. I guess I’m stuck in second chances. So yes, definitely, it must be. A lot of filmmakers I’m interested in often try and work out ideas over multiple projects or multiple films. They try to get to the bottom of it. I think I’m exploring something definitely, second chances is certainly one of those I’m interested it. But this is an evolution in many ways but is still existential. Who am I? There is a moment when the little girl is looking at a picture of Sofi, and to me it feel like is she is looking at herself or part herself. What makes up that thing that we call “I”?
On that note, since you mention the use of the eye for biometric recognition, would you say that your film is about the individuality provided by this or the connections between people?
It is about the connections of all as human species. I think if you say the “I” carries over or the “I” continues you are speaking of the ego or the sense of self. But it also suggested that the global culture is one. Everyone is everyone else’s brother, father, sister, cousins a hundred times over.
You have a particular interest in science. Did you ever consider pursing a career on a scientific field?
I love science! [Laughs], is the only thing I’m interested in. I am surrounded by scientists in my family. My role models, the people that I admire the most are scientists.
How has your creative relationship with Brit Marling evolved from your first film together into “I Origins”?
I trust her so much. Trust is not the right word; I know she is capable of incredible feats that are nuanced. When I wrote this character I knew it was not an easy character to pull off, it is deceptively tricky. Because she has to make seductive the pursuit of knowledge, and that is a hard thing to do in an authentic not cheesy kind of way. I knew she could that, she has some heavy lifting to do, as I was writing the character I was thinking “There is only one person I know that could pull this off, and its Brit” I wrote it thinking “I need someone really great to play this, hopefully Brit will do it”
How has Sundance helped you developed your career, and how is this time different from the first you were here?
The first time change my life and my career. It put a spotlight on the work that I was doing. I’m so endlessly grateful. I think the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival provide such an important cultural service to the world and to up-and-coming young artists. The thing that they do that it is also amazing is that they continue to nurture the relationships with the filmmakers they discover, to be in that family, or to be considered an alumni it just one of the great honors and privileges of my life.