Sundance Director's Cut: Mike Cahill ('I Origins')

cahill and marling

In his follow-up to the 2011 attention-grabbing sci-fi drama “Another Earth”, Mike Cahill has upped his game with the audacious “I Origins”, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week. Never one to shy away from challenges, Cahill takes us inside his mind to explore his own thoughts on faith and his fascination with all things science, in the case of “I Origins” it’s the power of the eyes.   

The film stars Michael Pitt as Ian Gray, a PhD student studying molecular biology with a specific focus on eye evolution. After years of taking pictures of people’s eyes, he comes across the beautiful Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). They quickly fall in love though their thoughts on life and our existence are completely different (she believes in a God, Ian is sworn to what science tells his about our existence). But when Sofi dies during a freak accident, Ian falls into the arms of his lab assistant Karen (Brit Marling). The two get married, have a child, and through a standard test for their son uncover something that will change the way they look at life forever.

Pitt and Marling give incredible performances, with Cahill engineering a stirring love story that will keep you thinking for days.

We had a chance to chat with Cahill about where his ideas come from, his methods of making a love story around science and how a meeting with Pitt led to the making of the film.

FILM.COM: Like Another Earth, I Origins explores things that are bigger than us. Where do those ideas come from for you?

MIKE CAHILL: Why the big ideas? That's what I'm obsessed with. I have a very intense yarning. The universe is 13.7 billion years old. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old, life on Earth is 4 billion years old, humans are 100 something thousand years old. I heard this statistic, if the entire history of the universe were represented as a day human existence in that lifespan would be the last couple of seconds before midnight. So what are we doing here? There's cappuccinos, new shoes, nice cars, but literally we're here for a blink so as an artist those are the things that I would like to explore.

Was there a spark that led you to telling this story?

It's hard to pinpoint it to one precise source, but the eyes are unique and that's an idea proposed by a scientist in 1987. Not that long ago. It was a professor, John Daugman at Cambridge, who said eyes are like a blueprint. They're unique. The iris part of your eye is unique to you, everyone – even identical twins – has unique irises. So he created a mathematical algorithm to give us an ID number based off a black and white photo of the eye. I thought that's interesting because he sold this patent to a company in New Jersey and they started making iris scanning devices around the world. I found it interested that for the first time in human technology we're cataloging humans by their eyes. And at the same time going back as far as Cicero or Da Vinci, many great thinkers believed that the eye was the window the soul, so much so that it was a cliché that became an anthem. So I wanted to merge those together to create a different narrative.

Is it a challenge to combine that scientific detail with the human story you want to tell? Do those two needs collide?

What's kind of wonderful about film writing is that the meaning lives in the subtext. So I can speak like R2-D2, but if I said it in a certain context there's meaning underneath it. An often example is Casablanca, the line, "Here's looking at you, kid." What he's really saying is, “I love you.” So sometimes the words are completely in opposition of what someone is actually saying. So knowing that gives you an advantage. There's a scene early on where Ian and Karen are in the lab talking very science-heavy. I don't even understand them. But you get what's going on because she says something that impresses him and takes him aback. And there's a reversal in the scene, it starts off where he underestimates her and then he suddenly respects her. So in that way film is this wonderful thing where you can layer every moment with great depth and an audience can find enjoyment and hopefully feel the emotions throughout.

How did Michael Pitt get involved?

This is kind of weird, but I wasn't even planning to make this film until I met Michael. It was a story that was near and dear to me, but I hadn't written a script. I'd written a 17-page synopsis. And my wife said you need to make this as a film and so it started bubbling in my mind as the next project to do and then I met Michael at a general meeting in Brooklyn. We have the same agent at William Morris so they set us up like a blind date and see if we'd click. I was mesmerized by him and the reason I took the meeting in the first place was I respected his integrity in choices, and he has an astounding track record of film choices. He makes the bold, fearless choices. Both in roles that he takes and the choices as an actor in a scene. He's not making obvious choices, he's making human choices. So it wasn't until I was sitting with him that I became drawn to his energy and his emotional intelligence. I was like, the story! And I pitched it to him right then.

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Did it scare you at all that he'd never played a part like this before?

But I could see he could do it. He has the ability. He does the work. We were fortunate to spend a lot of time in biology labs at the John Hopkins building up to shooting; we started doing that in September and we shot in January.

Would that role have been different if you didn't have that much time before shooting to prep?

I don't know. It was definitely useful. I would watch him watch the scientists and it was so interesting because the more mundane things they did the more interested he was. He'd pick up these nuances, he really built this character from the ground up.

Can you observe at all how your talents have evolved since “Another Earth”?

“Another Earth” was my first film, it's an imperfect movie. Definitely. It's a movie that gets one thing really impactfully well, I think, if I was to analyze myself, and that's the confrontation of the self and the feeling of not being alone. And that's wonderful. But it’s flawed. With this one I wanted to be stricter with myself. Everything. I wanted the science to be so bulletproof and yet not get too nerdy.

Were there any scenes where you were curious how they would play with an audience?

Technically we pushed boundaries and did things that from my knowledge are being done for the first time. For example, when Ian sees Sofi's eyes on the billboard that is the world's first double vertigo shot. The reason that I know it's the world's first ever is because you weren't able to do this before very recently. I didn't look to anyone to see if it could work, I just had a theory it could work. He sees the billboard, but it's so far away, so when you vertigo it, it grows. I wasn't sure it would work but I think it does.

In regards of belief of a higher power, are you more an Ian or Sofi in that regard?

That's interesting, I'm both. I'm both at the same time. I was thinking about this recently, belief is one of those interesting words. Say you believe in something, then you absolutely know it's true but you can't give any evidence that it's true. So it's very powerful. If you want to know what I think, the movie is what I think.