Another Earth: an interview with director Mike Cahill

With the excellent indie-sci-fi movie Another Earth out in UK cinemas on Friday, we caught up with director Mike Cahill to talk about its making, and what he’s up to next…

Mike Cahill’s excellent sci-fi drama Another Earth is the latest addition to a long line of films, including Monsters, Primer and Moon, whose ideas and quality of acting far outstrip the limitations of their budget.

Based around the concept of an identical planet Earth appearing in our solar system, Another Earth is an emotional tale of loss and redemption, featuring some outstanding performances from Brit Marling (who co-wrote) and William Mapother. Given just how well-shot and edited Another Earth is, we just had to find out how former documentary maker Mike Cahill put this feature together for little more than $200,000.

Here, Cahill explains how he and Marling came up with Another Earth’s concept, how he managed to stage a gut-wrenching opening car crash on a shoe-string budget, as well as his future projects…

So, Another Earth. How did the idea come about?

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Brit [Marling] and I have been friends for years and years, and we made many documentaries together, and we wanted to make a fiction film. It started with a simple idea, which was what it would be like to meet yourself. Like, if Ryan gets to sit across from Ryan, what would that feel like emotionally?

We thought, what if all 6.3 billion people on the planet could imagine that possibility. Emotionally, would you like or dislike that person if you could objectively look at them from the outside? And so we came up with this idea for Another Earth, and then we were thinking, what’s the most important story to tell within this context, and we thought of someone who’s seeking self-forgiveness. Could she let herself off the hook for doing something tragic?

I understand you didn’t storyboard anything, necessarily.

Some things needed to be storyboarded because they were technically challenging, but I took that documentary background I have, which is catching things fly-on-the wall, and being able to construct a scene when we arrive on set. Some things we just shot guerrilla style, where we’d just show up and steal a shot from in front of a prison. “All right, we got it, let’s get out of here!”

There’s a certain amount of freedom in the making of it, which allowed for a certain rawness that makes it feel more real, I guess.

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At the same time, you have character arcs to consider, especially with William Mapother’s character. At the beginning, he’s a mess, and then you see him change. How do you keep track of developments like that?

Well, I was fortunate to be able to shoot the relationship stuff in order, which was nice, because you could really feel the transition of his character arc from grief to lightness, and William’s such a strong actor. He’s so, so talented, and he has this intensity – it’s this sort of fear and energy. And piece by piece, through his interaction with Rhoda, it gets moved, and this joy comes out, until you see William in full joy, which is very nuanced in the way it unfolds.

I liked the way his talent as an actor gives his character an unpredictable edge. There’s anger beneath the surface all the time.

Volatility. I love that. You don’t know if he’s gonna snap one moment, or break down and cry.

I liked the bonding over Wii Sports, too. I don’t know whose idea that was…

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[Laughs] Actually, when we wrote that, we were thinking it was going to be a much more intense scene. They’re boxing, so there’s a meta vibe to it. But it’s so tender the way it unfolded, and sweet. It took their relationship a few beats forward in the story, which is great. And shooting in order allowed me to recognise that it was so sweet and tender that we could move things forward in later scenes. It’s been earned – their relationship’s earned a couple of beats’ closeness.

The antithesis of that, I suppose, was the car crash at the beginning. How did you achieve such an intense scene on a low budget?

Ah, the car crash. God, that was one of the most fun nights of my life. A friend of mine is a police officer, and he – typically, it costs sixty thousand or a hundred thousand dollars to close off a street, but he closed it off as a favour, like a friend. [Laughs] He closed off a four-lane highway from midnight to eight o’clock in the morning.

For me it was really important to do the shot from a bird’s eye point of view. The other Earth’s point of view, looking down. It slowly, slowly, rises up in a single shot. I didn’t want the car to come up, and then we cut to black, and you only hear the crash. I wanted to visualise it. So I conceived of this idea of doing it half digital effects, half live action, and I wasn’t sure if it was going to work, but I had to convince everyone, [With false nonchalance] “It’s going to work, it’s going to work.”

We rented this crane from Hertz for fifty dollars. Not a proper film crane, but a window washing crane. Like a cherrypicker. So in the shot, it’s like, [makes mechanical droning sound of a crane unsteadily rising] very wobbly. Somehow, we managed to get it stable enough to do this bird’s eye shot. We did four takes of it.

So we didn’t really smash the cars. We went to a junk yard, and asked the guys if we could borrow two cars that looked like they’d smashed up – a BMW and an SUV. They let us borrow the cars for free, basically. And we found the same matching cars for free.

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That’s amazing, because a lot of filmmakers would spend more than your budget on just that one scene.

But I love that constraint. The constraint of the budget was nice, because you had to think creatively about those things.

So was that the most technically challenging scene in the film?

Technically, probably the most challenging. I mean, the film is a drama at its heart, and so my key role as a director is to be a barometer for the authenticity all the way through, so for the most part, that’s where the major focus is. You’re obviously choosing your shots – I obviously shot and edited it as well – so there is a technical aspect to it, but the most challenging thing is making sure the beats are reading as true and not false, I guess.

It’s interesting, the last couple of years have seen some really good indie sci-fi. It’s almost been a mini renaissance, really. Why do you think that is?

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I think that’s such a smart thing to say. There is a mini renaissance in sci-fi. I think there’s a lot more access to the story making tools; I think, as a culture, telling stories through fantasy and science fiction allows a certain metaphor to get closer to who we are as humans, and so there’s a great deal of freedom of the imagination, and a questioning of who we are. So the fact that filmmakers have the tools to tell these stories is really exciting.

We’re not just making ‘kids sitting on a couch drama’, we can tell big, big stories to understand humanity.

It’s a bit like Monsters

Yeah, I loved it.

That’s a similar thing, where the sci-fi is the backdrop to an intimate drama, which isn’t something that sci-fi does much in cinema.

Absolutely. That’s speaking to my heart – I love those kinds of films. Primer, Moon, Monsters. Really strong films.

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Is sci-fi something you want to carry on exploring as a filmmaker?

Yeah, for sure. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sci-fi – just fantastical. I love reality with a twist. And twisting something fantastical that allows us to get to the truth.

What writers have influenced you?

I love Asimov. I love Sagan. I love many sci-fi writers, but also many American and British novelists. I think in terms of the realm of film, specifically, there’s a director called Krzysztof Kieslowski, who’s not necessarily a science fiction director, but he makes metaphysical films. Have you seen the Three Colors trilogy?

Yes, fantastic.

What he does is look for the divine within the mundane. He shows regular, mundane drama, but something through the cracks, through the gaps, he’s touching on something else.

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A visual poetry, I think.

A visual poetry, yes.

Which is something Another Earth has, I think. Brit Marling brings a definite sense of that to the film.

She’s so hard working, and so dedicated to the craft. That’s one of the most inspiring things. She spends months and months, and hours and hours, digging into the history of the character. I’ve never seen anyone work so hard in my life.

You get a sense, too, in this film, that there’s so much more happening outside these two characters. There are so many more potential stories in this world. Is that something you might do one day?

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Absolutely, definitely. We talked about so many different stories that could fall under this large context, and in a way, that’s where a television series could be something. I have two other projects in development, and I realised that they’re world changing ideas, with a drama set within them. And Another Earth is ‘what would it be like if there was another you”, so there are another 6.3 billion stories that could be told, of people confronting themselves. Which is great, and maybe we’ll make something else, and maybe it’ll just be there for people to imagine for themselves.

So how did this film come together in the edit, and how long did that process take?

Eight months, I think. Six to eight months. We had tonnes and tonnes of footage, because half the project was shot on the grid, which is full production and support, and the other half was guerrilla style – off the grid we called it, which was just Brit, myself and a friend running around finding magic to fit in with the story.

So we had a tonne of footage, and I guess the first, the assembly edit, was three hours long, or something like that. And the final film is 88, 90 minutes. So yeah, six to eight months. And then we had four months to work on the score, which was really exciting. It was composed by Phil Mossman and Will Bates. They’re British guys from London and live in Brooklyn now. They made this beautiful soundtrack.

On the topic of music, there’s a sequence where William Mapother plays the saw. Where did that come in?

I live in New York, and I was taking the subway, and I heard this sound careening through the underground, and it was this enchanting, ethereal, haunting voice. It sounded like an angel dying, but in a beautiful way. This woman was playing the saw, and I took her card. For a long time, we wanted William’s character, as a composer, to be able to speak through music, and we thought it would be great to show that he takes back his craft as his relationship blossoms. His passion comes back.

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We knew we wanted him to perform something for Rhoda, but we didn’t know what. And we heard the saw, and I thought it was a hat tip to old sci-fi, that kind of Theremin sound. It’s a nod to old-school science fiction, but I wanted to modernise it in our own way. And I loved the idea that this instrument has such a fragile sound, and yet it’s a saw, which is this aggressive thing that you could kill someone with. In a way, the saw, poetically, reflects John’s character – jagged, aggressive and yet so fragile and gentle.

So, these projects you’re working on next. There’s a reincarnation one, and something about a fashion designer at the bottom of the sea. Is that right?

[Laughs] Yeah. So both fantastical. The second one’s a bit more fantastical, but it’s still reality with a twist.

Will they be similarly low-budget, do you think?

I don’t know. They’ll be budget that is required to execute them right. We’re figuring out the reincarnation one right now – I’m working on Searchlight on that, which is amazing. The underwater one, it’s a little more technically challenging, so that’ll probably be a bigger budget. But all in due time. I’m so excited.

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When did Searchlight pick up Another Earth?

In January, at Sundance. It was such an amazing experience. And they’re so cool. They have a reputation for being very filmmaker friendly, and I can see where that cames from. They’re so supportive and thoughtful. You can see why people like Danny Boyle keep coming back to them to make new films. For me, to be among all these great directors I admire, just this small little film, is wonderful.

Mike Cahill, thank you very much.

Another Earth is out in UK cinemas on Friday 9th December.