At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Mike Cahill scored a major hit with his cerebral sci-fi romance, Another Earth. Along with his co-writer and star, Brit Marling, Cahill collected the Feature Film Prize and Special Jury Prize at Sundance for his movie about a young woman who’s involved in a tragic accident on the same night a parallel Earth is discovered in the solar system. We recently caught up with Cahill last month to discuss Another Earth, which was released on DVD and Blu-Ray last month.
How did you decide on the film’s aesthetic?
It’s interesting because I just started shooting with Brit to try and find the aesthetic, but I knew I wanted it to be like a documentary. I wanted it to feel more naturalistic, a poetic realism. There’s a sensual aspect to filmmaking you can find, and it opens up a different part of your mind besides just the eyes and the ears, so I look for that a lot.
How did you come up with the film’s concept?
I was making all this video art, and I made a piece where I interviewed myself and then I also made a piece where I put an earth up in the sky, very simple. I’m big into the tech, I like touching and playing and editing and shooting, so I was experimenting and I composted another earth in the sky that looked authentic and real, and I was like, alright this is interesting. And Brit and I were talking about the emotional side, which is the confrontation of the self. I wanted people to leave the theatre and look up and be like, Is there another earth up there?
You’ve received some criticism for asking questions and not answering them.
That’s what scientists say, and I really love that and there’s this idea that whenever you find an answer it opens up more questions. I think scientists and artists are kind of doing the same thing: they’re asking the questions of who are we and why are we here, but they’re using totally different tools to do it. I liked a certain amount of open-endedness to allow the viewer to participate. I imagine it’s like building a bridge over a river, and the filmmaker is putting all these bricks, and I don’t think they should put the last brick in there. I think the audience should put it, and that’s where the emotional transference comes hopefully.
Is science something you’ve always been into?
I grew up reading Bradbury and being obsessed with Carl Sagan. and I worked for National Geographic for a while, and my family is all scientists, I’m like the black sheep. I didn’t set out to do a science-y movie. It just happened to be the thing that peaked my interest. Like right now I’m making a movie about reincarnation and it’s also based in science, like biometrics.
When you started writing Another Earth, was it a bigger idea, or were you writing it thinking about the means you had to make it?
The means we had to make it. I was like, we are going to make it with nothing. I told Brit I was not going to have permission from anyone, I was not going to send it the script around. I wanted to write something we could execute, and it was a bit naive and ambitious, but you have to have a bit if self-deception. So we thought big and embedded a smaller story that was more personal, into that bigger concept.
How did you write it together?
Most of the time we would just talk. We’d go back and forth telling a story, just trying to entertain and move one another, and we did that for months without writing anything besides the character’s backstory, but we still didn’t open final draft until we cracked the story, as they say. There was this moment when we were in my apartment in Los Angeles at the time, and we couldn’t figure out how to end the movie, and when we clicked into the ending we were jumping up and down. And we opened our computers and wrote the script.
How did William Mapother get involved?
We cast him very late in the game. I was seeing a lot of guys for the main part, but no one was exactly right. Then we just began shooting, and shot everything we could without a lead male, so Brit was acting with her parents and her brother, not knowing who the lead guy was.
For how long?
Like twenty-something days, and then it was summer time and we wrapped that, and I was still looking for a main guy, and then they asked if I had ever thought of William, and I loved his work in In the Bedroom.
He was petrifying in that.
Yeah, and I thought that was a really great energy to harness, because he’s played a lot of roles that are very intimidating characters, yet he also has such a brightness and lightness, so I thought if we start for a place where of intimidation of fear with this young girl who feels a bit afraid, and then slowly peel away those layers. He’s a genius actor.
Did you anticipate that people were going to see the movie?
We were going to show it to our group of friends, that was our aspiration. I mean, we really just wanted to make something that moved us. We didn’t expect all this amazing shit to happen, which was a dream come true.