By Danny Peary
I Origins fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. The second science-based SF film written and directed by Mike Cahill (the impressive Another Earth, starring Brit Marling) opens in New York City on Friday. It is described in the press notes as being “both a molecular biology thriller and a love story.” Smart, provocative, and well cast, it begins as a SF film but no experiment goes wrong and leads to horrific consequences, and it turns into an exploration of reincarnation. Michael Pitt is cast against type as Ian, an atheist scientist who is studying the origins of the eye. Ian is aided in his research by Kenny (Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead) and Karen (Brit Marling), his brilliant freshman assistant. Ian falls for Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), a mysterious, spiritual woman he meets at a party. Years after Sofi’s death, Ian goes to India because it’s discovered that a young girl, Salomina (Kashish), has eyes that are, impossibly, a perfect match for Sofi’s. Last week I participated in roundtables with Mike Cahill, Brit Marling and Steven Yeun, and Michael Pitt and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey. I note my questions.
Q: What is the origin of your movie?
Mike Cahill: I didn’t know I was going to make the movie until I met Michael Pitt. I was asked if I wanted to meet him, and since I’d admired him for a very long time, I jumped at the opportunity, just to chat. We sat down in Brooklyn in a coffee shop, on Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. During the conversation I told him the story of I Origins, and he was like, “That’s really cool, I’d love to hear more about that one day.” And that set off a wildfire in my head to write it. I’d had the idea for twelve years floating around in the ether, and I’d written many, many things up until that point on it, but I didn’t have a script. I wrote it two weeks later, that was in August, and we started shooting at the end of January 2013. It was one year in the making, and we released it at Sundance, literally to the day that we finished production, January 2014.
Q: I think it you should be commended for making affordable science fiction films.
MC: For me, the sense of wonder in movies, over the last fifty or sixty years, has partially been driven by visual effects, but it has also been driven by ideas. Cutting-edge visual effects that are in very expensive movies and give us a sense of wonder are lame after about two years. But an idea can last forever. And an idea is free.
Q: Virtual technology has actually become reality these days. The question is, How do you bring those elements in and separate the spiritual element?
MC: Well, I think writers of science fiction are often influenced by current technologies and the predictions of where they may go in the future. So they extrapolate what’s going on now to tell their stories. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was about electricity animating dead things and it was extrapolated to be this great horror/sci-fi, but that’s what science fiction writers do, except for Jules Verne who was completely prophetic. Iris biometrics first began in 1987 at Cambridge University. Minority Report is set years after that, but it’s an extrapolation to where we may end up. On the other hand, I wanted to make my movie grounded in now, using current technologies.
Q: The giant eye billboards in your movie remind me of the Great Gatsby eye posters–with kind of a dark God looking down on us in a sense.
MC: Completely. I’m sure something made me choose to have a billboard. I once lived in LA and this company, Joe’s Jeans, had a billboard of just eyes on Sunset Boulevard. I remember thinking that was really a pretty spectacular image, and it was very different from the Gatsby one. It was sexy. The one we have has a different feeling. It is as if a ghost were looking from the void. I kind of wanted to create that feeling, I guess. Originally, Ian didn’t find the girl in India through a billboard. That was an idea that Alex Orlovsky, the producer, came up with. That was kind of cool.
Q: So this idea for the eye, was that from this poster on Sunset Boulevard?
MC: I worked at National Geographic a while ago, and I used to read National Geographic when I was a kid, in my childhood bedroom, and the June 1985 issue was of that famous “Afghan Girl.” Steve McCurry took that picture. His story really inspired me, because he didn’t know the little girl’s name [Sharbat Gula], and it was something like seventeen years later they mounted a mission to find her, and they found her through her eyes. They had had these biometric scientists scan her eyes from the photograph. That was a trigger for me. What if you could find somebody through their eyes? What if they were a different person and their eyes persisted? And we live in a world now where there are databases of eyes. Hundreds of millions of eyes are catalogued in biometric databases. And in India, where the third act of the movie takes place, there is a national program to scan all of its citizens’ eyes. There’s over a billion people there. I wanted to tell a science fiction story that uses current technology and that is romantic.
Danny Peary: Michael Crichton used to mix real science with fake science, and jumble it around so readers couldn’t tell the difference. Your film does that.
MC: I like when you’re not entirely positive if something is true or not. What we propose in this film is not something you can disprove, right? It gets me really excited that you can actually believe the narrative when you leave the theater. I’ve heard people say that when they see the moon in the day sky that reminds them of Another Earth. I like grabbing that thing that’s right in front of us. One time I was on this island called Brioni in Croatia, in the Adriatic Sea. And there are these old and beautiful Roman ruins on the beach. Tourists were taking pictures of the ruins. Along the water are all these rocks and on the rocks are dinosaur footprints. It was so fascinating to me was that this civilization had risen and fallen and all the kids for centuries had played in the puddles of the dinosaur footprints long before we discovered dinosaurs had lived on earth. People came and went without finding dinosaurs. I asked myself, “What are the dinosaur footprints we will leave behind.” What is it that we look at right under our noses that has such a significance that we just take for granted? And so that kind of inspired the story, in a way.
Q: Do you truly believe in reincarnation? You’ve done a documentary on it before.
MC: No, I never did a documentary. I edited a documentary about Leonard Cohen and he talks about reincarnation a little bit. But do I believe in reincarnation? I don’t know. Scientifically speaking, nothing gets destroyed. If something’s destroyed it then manifests into energy.
Q: You’ve described filmmaking as being similar to being a scientist. Do you feel that connection with this storyline?
MC: I really admire scientists, I wish I were a scientist. I was kicked out of biology in freshman year at Georgetown. I was in one of those 101 classes, with like 200 people, in a big auditorium, and I remember the professor kept showing the atom and how the electrons move around it, and I was asking, “Why do artists draw it like this, why don’t you draw it a different way?” I couldn’t get over the fact that there were so many different ways to artistically render an atom that would accurately show what it does. And the professor told me to see him after class. He said “You’re going to be here for twelve years if you can’t get over the fact that an atom looks like that. You’re not going to make it through.” He didn’t kick me out but he encouraged me to get the fuck out of biology and pursue something else. I had a little knack for economics, which I thought it was fun and interesting. I didn’t love it like I love filmmaking, but filmmaking was very much a hobby. So I ended up studying economics and doing filmmaking through a crazy series of coincidences and fortunate happenstances.
Q: Do you feel this movie is challenging to the scientific community because of its ideas on reincarnation?
MC: My oldest brother is a neuroscientist and my second-oldest brother is a molecular biologist. They watched the film–and a lot of scientists watched the film–and I was wondering what they’d think. What one brother said to me was that more so than anything else, the movie captures the spirit of young PhD students in the lab, wanting to make discoveries. He has never seen that in a film, and thought it was true to the reality of being a scientist. I thought what he said was really exciting and nice. When I got the Sloan Award, a scientist came up to me. He was a really sweet, older guy, and he kind of whispered to me, “I just want to thank you, you made scientists fuckable.” It was one of those moments! Jill Tarter, who’s the head of SETI at NASA, was the one who presented the award for scientific themes to me, for this movie, so that was one of the most exhilarating, rewarding feelings.
DP: I’m the only person who likes the movie Winter’s Tale. Basically, Colin Farrell’s character falls in love with a young woman and you think that’s what the film is all about, but it turns out this romance leads to him years later saving a little girl who has a connection to his true love. Is your film about such fate? Does he meet Sofi, an adult, and fall in love with her only so he can save this girl later on?
MC: I don’t know I can say entirely that was meant to be. Anyone who watches the film can read it any way they wish, so I can’t necessarily put in the interpretation that it’s about fate.
DP: But did you want it to be about fate?
MC: It’s suggested that Sofi lost her parents at a very young age. Salomina has a very similar fate. If you watch the film several times, there are layers upon layers that hopefully can be pulled from it. There’s something that’s very subtle there and I don’t know if one gets this or not, but it’s part of a read. It’s that you get the sense ever so slightly that once Ian has found Salomina–and Priya [Archie Punjabi] pulls up in a car–the child’s going to be okay, someone’s going to look after her. Perhaps this was meant to be.
Brit Marling, Michael Pitt and Steven Yeun
Brit Marling & Steven Yeun Roundtable
Q: How did your careers begin?
Brit Marling: We both have weird origin stories. We ended up in this business ass-backwards, both of us.
Steven Yeun: My story’s just very kismet. Everything just kind of happened and there were a lot of closed-doors and open-windows situations. I’ll give you one example. I remember moving to Chicago and everyone was telling me that it was impossible to get into Second City. I decided to go for it even if it took four or five years to break in. I went to this agent panel, where everyone in the audience was trying to get an agent. After the panel was done, everyone rushed the stage and tried to give the agents their headshots. I thought there was no way I was going to get a word in edgewise with any agent, so I dropped back. The stage lights went down and the house lights went up one by one, and one just goes on– bonk–right over my head. And the agent Vanessa Lanier points over everybody and says to me, “You, stop right there.” And then she walked over and said, “Give me your headshot, I’ll call you tomorrow.” That’s just one of many crazy stories.
Q: What’s your weird-fate story?
BM: Gosh, it’s funny that I was actually having a conversation with somebody the other day about the difference between fate and destiny–and how much of fate is you muscling your way through a certain amount of something and how much is a happy accident. I don’t know, I sort of muscled my way through a lot of it, writing my way in, because it was so hard to decide that I wanted to be an actor at 24. If you have an econ degree and are not even in SAG, people are allergic to you in LA–they want to put on a hazard mask when you come in the room because you’re just so illegitimate and so out of left field. So I had to really just try to eke it out by writing and certain happy accidents totally happened. Another Earth and Sound of My Voice were programmed the same year at Sundance, and that was a total happy accident, and created enough of a thing where I could sort of keep working. Fate and destiny is a confusing thing, how much of your free will is involved, and how much is it you marching toward some place that is preordained. I don’t know the answer to that.
SY: If I did, I would be in space.
BM: Yeah, we would be in space.
Q: To play your parts were there any scientists who you borrow from?
BM: Michael Pitt was reading a lot of Richard Dawkins. Michael and I visited some labs. Mike Cahill’s brother used to work at Johns Hopkins, so we went down there and put on lab coats and gloves and sort of started living in real time that lab life. We read a lot, reading Dawkins and sharing evolutionary biology textbooks. But I didn’t really model Karen after any particular female scientist. I was interested in the idea of a girl who really didn’t wear any make-up. And not like a no-makeup look, where she’s secretly curling her eyelashes and secretly putting on foundation. Nothing on her face, and never brushes her hair, and shows up in sweats and doesn’t care about presentation and doesn’t care about being loved or having her work recognized. She’s just obsessed with the work. In a time period in which we’re all so fixated on Instagram and Facebook and capturing the moment, and validating our tweets, she’s the opposite of that. She’s just obsessed with the work and doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, and doesn’t care how many fans or followers she has. That type of character was really interesting to explore right now.
Q: Do you get that certain perspective from playing a female in a male-dominated field?
BM: I remember reading a bit about Marie Curie, about her and her family. Of course there have been really influential women in science, but their stories are just a lot less told. I think a lot of times it’s been hard for women to be validated in that profession. I was just reading something the other day about a group of women who were testing very well to go into space, even better than the men in some of the physical and psychological trials. But they just felt, “No, if someone’s going to put their foot on the moon, it needs to be a man first.” And I think that has been part of our culture for a long time, but it’s changing.
Danny Peary: Brit, you tend to play educated women, as you are yourself. Karen is educated. Would you ever want to play a stupid character?
BM: I think definitely I could. I think there are just different kinds of intelligence. Some people are very academic and well-read, and that’s one kind of intelligence, and some people are very into their bodies, about movement and communicating with a physicality, and that’s another kind of intelligence. I’m very interested in playing people who think or feel differently than I do.
DP: Can Karen and Sofi ever have a conversation?
BM: Often with love triangles it’s about two women fighting over a man and them competing. Because the world has been arranged for women to fight over men. And I thought the moment when they came together was so interesting. We didn’t plan this, but the look that happened in that scene between us wasn’t of hatred or anger or jealousy or–it was of compassion. These two women really deeply love the same person, and because they deeply love him they love each other. And there is something painful about that, and intense and overwhelming. Though they’re really different people, I think the truth is if they had a conversation they would have respect for each other and been interested in each other’s ideas. Maybe.
Q: Was this role a challenge for you in any way?
SM: Yeah, it was a challenge because Karen’s a bit socially awkward. I think in real life, like when we all went out to do the scene in the bar and were hanging out, Michael and the three of us, and we were just being ourselves, we were having a great time. Karen just isn’t quite able to communicate or engage that way. I think she’s drawn to people like [Steven’s character] Kenny in the story.
Q: Steven, you bring an energetic, comedic side to the film.
SY: I guess Kenny ends up kind of being the relief in a pretty heavy discussion. I don’t know. Going back to the bar scenes, which were a lot of fun–there’s a lot of stuff on the cutting room floor that, if anything, served the purpose of getting us all into character. And it was great to improvise.
Q: How was it balancing making this film and the Walking Dead?
SY: I loved to be a part of this film just to get to work with Brit and Mike Cahill and Michael Pitt. That’s what initially drew me to Mike Cahill and Brit–knowing Another Earth, knowing what they do. I love their aesthetic, that you can take something that’s science fiction, which can be totally out there, like space aliens and lasers, and ground it with reality that it could happen tomorrow. That to me is the ultimate draw for this film. At the time, when I wanted to be a part of it, I remember I was reading Schopenhauer and really dark, weird stuff. I was reading about suffering, and how that’s the norm. It was just perfect. I was in that weird middle space of: What is life? Is it spiritual, is it science? Also, on The Walking Dead, we talk about that. What is humanity? What does it mean to be connected? Are we made of the same material? For me the biggest joy of this was discussing such things with you guys, Brit and filming it. And the final thing is that people walk away from this film questioning everything.
BM: Between shooting scenes we’d be sitting in this room off the set, and we would just start talking about what the scenes provoked us to ask each other. In our conversations we’d ask, “How did you grow up? What did you first think of spiritually? Are you interested in thinking about things logically or not?” So we got to know each other because of what the film makes you hone in on. It was really an amazing thing.
SY: We got close in a very short span of time, and were propelled toward each other. It was just a great bonding experience. We were in a collaborative environment that really allowed all of us to just play. And I think that might be the fabric of what this movie is.
Q: How do the two of you feel about reincarnation?
BM: I have very complex feelings about it. I feel that human perception and language are so limited that we don’t yet have any way to talk about this stuff we don’t understand. There is something that I think every woman will say at some point in their life–that they met someone and during the encounter they locked eyes and there was a sense of knowing them far beyond what was possible in the brief time they’d spent with each other. What is that? How do we explain phenomena like that? I don’t know what any of that means. I think that if reincarnation is happening, if there is some recycling of energy, then it’s probably not as literal as any of human attempts to describe it are. But I think when we tell stories, we’re just pointing at something that we’re collectively feeling.
SY: Have you ever read [Andy Weir’s] short story, “The Egg?” Basically, to sum it up, this guy dies and he talks to God, and God’s going to send him right back down to Earth, and he’s like, “Why?” And He explains that you are to experience every single person on this Earth until you have a complete understanding, because you’re all one. You get to experience everybody’s life. So maybe those moments when you lock eyes and you’re feeling that you know this person, it’s because you’re looking at yourself. That kind of stuff is interesting to me.
Q: You talk about reading scientists and biologists, but did you read anything about metaphysics or reincarnation, or the idea of science needing spirituality?
BM: I was reading some theology and poetry that was hinting at the spiritual, but not any texts that actually fused them together. I think I didn’t go deeper on purpose, because the movie was looking to do that. So I didn’t want to read too much about other people’s ideas.
Michael Pitt & Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (pictured left in still from film)
Astrid Bergès-Frisbey: It’s a shame that today we have to convince people to leave their living rooms and go to the theater to watch the film. But at the same time I understand and I’m happy to do it because I feel from all the screenings and Sundance that people view it as an experience. This is cinema and it’s different from just watching TV.
Q: I absolutely love your character. I loved how she is honest and didn’t beat Ian over the head with her beliefs but she just tries to convince him in a loving manner.
AB: I would change a lot of what you’re saying. I would say that she invites him to see the world in an entirely different way. Just assume that it exists. And that’s a little bit what the film does in a way, too, to people. It doesn’t tell you the way to think, it just invites you to think about it. I like that she tries different ways, including having a serious conversation using his vocabulary to explain things. Something that I’m amazed by is that she sees these possibilities inside him.
Michael Pitt: I love how you explain things, it’s so awesome.
Q: Michael, you’ve played insane or irrational people, rock ‘n’ roll people, and dangerous people but here you play this very grounded character. I think that’s a compliment to your skills.
MP: Thank you, thank you. When I met Mike Cahill he said, “I want you to play that character.” Normally in this business people want you to keep doing what you’ve been doing and they can’t think out of the box. Right off the bat, I was very impressed that he was a young director who seemed to see something in me that other people hadn’t. And so that was one of many things that went into my decision to play this character.
Q: Because this is a completely different role from anything you’ve ever done, were you hesitant about it at all?
MP (tongue-in-cheek): Yeah, I was hesitant when Mike Cahill asked me to play the role and offered me insane amounts of money and fancy cars and said I’d get laid for the rest of my life if I made this movie. Was I hesitant? It was a very organic experience. We started talking about the project and we just kept workshopping it, and then it just seemed like we were on the set. I’m really happy I made this film, I think it’s a great film and I’m happy to have been able to work with the actors who are in this film, I totally support them and everything they’re going to do in the future–and the same with Cahill. When you can say that and mean it, that’s a really good feeling.
Q: What do you think about the symbolism of the eyes?
AB: That made me probably escape a little bit from eye contact. When you’re an actor, something that I regret sometimes is that you disconnect a little bit from people, just to preserve your soul. In some ways something that I felt was that the soul is behind the eyes of the people. There is something very mysterious about it. I think there are so many people who ask themselves, “Have I met this person before?” Our eyes can look so much like planets, as if everybody has a single unique planet. There’s research that cannot explain the eyes. It’s such a mysterious organ.
MP: If a religious group is debating science, and that debate gets to a really a high level, they bring up is the human eye [as an example of intelligent design]. Which Darwin said could never be–the stages of evolution of the eye are not there. The data’s not there. It’s what religious groups use to discredit evolution. And the truth is if you base it on data and proof, you can’t say they’re wrong. You can’t explain it yet..
Q: During the research process, scientists sometime shy away from the religious element because they are always going for facts.
MP: Richard Dawkins is a brilliant scientist. I think it’s obvious that he’s a bit mischievous and is definitely trying to provoke people. He has very strong atheism. He’s a lover of knowledge and [detests] groups who in the name of religion throughout history have tried to hold science back. He doesn’t want that to happen. It’s his passion, his love, so he gets very defensive about it.
Danny Peary: Can Ian lie, is he capable of lying?
MP: I’ve never been asked that question before. Can he lie? Hmm. I think that in his pursuit of truth in data, lying would be a waste of time. For him to flat out lie about things is maybe against his nature. For better or worse. Maybe there are things that he should lie about, you know, that he shouldn’t be so up-front with.
DP: So, when he tells Karen that he didn’t want to stay with Sofi because she was too childlike, is he telling the truth or is he lying?
MP: When he says to his wife that he didn’t think that he and Sofi would end up together, he believes that. I do think he believes that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it would have been his choice. That could have been what he thought Sofi’s choice would have been. It’s good that you’re asking that question because it’s really interesting. I think that he believes in data and he has to be obsessed with science. When you really research these guys, you find that they have to be obsessed. They pick a thesis and go in that direction and don’t know for seven years whether or not they went down the wrong road. It’s heavy.
DP: Karen’s the better match for Ian, in that way.
MP: Yes, I think certainly that. But he’s haunted by Sofi. She explained to him that there’s a crack in the door and the light’s coming through. What she sees in him immediately, which makes him very uncomfortable, is the 2% of the unexplainable. He knows it’s in there, and if no one else is around, he’ll think about it. But certainly he’ll never talk about it. And she sees it from the moment she meets him, and that is a very powerful thing when someone sees that. And I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s haunted by her.
DP: Astrid, in the opening sequence when Sofi meets Ian at a party, she tells him she’s from outer space.
AB: Another planet. That’s the scene where she provokes him.
DP: This film is about origins and connectivity so is there a 1% possibility that’s true?
AB: I never thought about it! Maybe she is an alien.
MP: I never thought about it either, but now I think it’s true!