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.
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?
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.
Did Hollywood woo you?
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.
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.
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."
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.