Mike Cahill interview: I Origins, sci-fi, eyes, Solaris

Another Earth director Mike Cahill returns with a new sci-fi drama, I Origins. Here’s what he had to say about that and other things...

Could the unique makeup of the human eye hold the key to life after death? That’s the tantalising mystery at the heart of director Mike Cahill’s latest film, I Origins. Cahill’s no stranger to making sci-fi dramas on a budget; in 2011, he brought us After Earth, an atmospheric, thought-provoking movie with some great performances from his frequent collaborator Brit Marling and former Lost star William Mapother.

I Origins is cut from the same indie cloth. It’s about a young scientist who’s investigating the evolutionary origins of the eye, and following a shocking personal tragedy, finds himself veering off on a different and less mainstream scientific direction.

Shot on a budget slightly higher than Another Earth, but still tiny by Hollywood standards, Cahill once again showcases his talent for capturing great performances (this time from Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges-Frisbey joining Brit Marling) and bringing an unpredictable edge to his dramatic scenes.

On a sunny September day, we caught up with Cahill to discover the creative origins of his story, his individual approach to screenwriting, and how creating some test footage for one of his forthcoming films resulted in a decidedly damp garage…

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I thought I Origins was beautifully shot, and very much of a piece with your last film, Another Earth. I’d read your inspiration for this one was a photograph in National Geographic – a very famous photograph – is that correct?

Yeah, yeah it was. It was definitely part of the inspiration. That’s where I learned about iris biometrics – I didn’t know what that was before hearing about Steve McRurie’s search for the grown-up version of that young girl. I thought it was such an amazing story because they found her through her eyes. Have you heard the whole story?

Yes. I did read about it, yes.

I just thought wow, it was so interesting. They don’t know what she looks like, but they know what her eyes look like, because eyes stay the same – our eyes are like a fingerprint. That just set the wheels in my brain ablaze.

I started thinking about that old cliche about the eyes being the window to the soul, and why that’s persisted for millennia as an expression. Why? I was travelling through India, and I remember being in a taxi cab, and the driver was talking about having a new nephew. He said, “I have a new nephew, and he’s our grandfather.” I was like, “What do you mean he’s your grandfather?” And he said, “He’s our grandfather – he’s come back.”

I said, “Really? How do you know?” [Laughs] And he said, “You can tell by the eyes.”

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He was so nonchalant. It was like we were talking about the weather or the temperature of the water or something. It was just, like, no big deal.

Then I thought, okay. Maybe that’s why it’s persisted. Maybe there’s something to that feeling when you meet someone for the first time, and you feel this instant connection, or you feel like you’ve known them just from looking in their eyes. Maybe there’s something to child psychologists’ studies that say when kids close their  eyes, they think they’re invisible, or that you can’t see them. Why are they covering their eyes?

Where does that come from? Why do we put so much of our identity in our eyes, not on our foreheads where our brain would be, or our mouths. Why do we make eye contact? Our mouths are doing the talking, but we’re looking into each other’s eyes.

So all these things started to snowball together to make me thing that they eyes are more significant. Or at least we can tell a tale where the eyes are more significant than we normally give credit for.

But in some ways it felt like I was biting off a lot. There’s a lot in this movie. It’s not as simple and elegant as Another Earth. That was sort of scary and exciting at the same time. I thought, there’s a lot of history to the eye – irreducible complexity and Darwinism, creationism, the various mutations of the eye, the Pax-6 gene which generates the eye – all these things were clues that had to be embedded in this ultimately simple story about the desire to bring back someone that you’ve lost. It’s a great deal of complexity for a simple emotion.

The movies I really appreciate are the ones I’m really moved by, or are built around one emotion that happens in the final few moments. Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Red. Although that’s three movies building to that final moment, where she’s on the TV screen and the judge is watching – it’s visual deja vu. And that feeling you have – I thought, that whole construction and complexity was for this one thing.

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Or in Eternal Sunshine Of A Spotless Mind, you have that final moment where they’re standing in the hallway and she’s like, “You’re going to find me annoying, you’ll find me boring,” and he says, “Okay.” Then it cuts to black. That, for me, is really powerful. I love that.

So for Another Earth, the whole movie was a construction for that final moment. With I Origins, it’s about that final moment. When you’re making these things, you’re just trying to capture this unique emotion somehow, like it’s some weird butterfly, and then put it on display on a stage, and hope that it’s conveyed. What’s exhilarating about it is that you have no idea how it’s going to work. Because it’s not like cookie-cutter storytelling.

I often think that the movies that win the Oscars, or that get so much recognition, are really great stories really well told, and those are wonderful. But I think that there’s mathematics to it. You can break down the mathematics of storytelling. 

The whole Robert McKee school of screenwriting.

Exactly, yeah. I’ve read that story backwards and forwards. I’ve read every single screenwriting book. I’m fascinated by that. I think the mechanics of what makes a story work is really interesting. How reversals work, how arcs work, how structure works. Like, if you break down a two-hour film into four parts – literally, you cut it into four 30 minute chunks – there’s an act shift at minute 30, there’s a mid-point 60, and an act shift at minute 90. And we follow that in this movie, too – it’s structured in that manner. That gives it a certain propulsion and there’s even some points where things are a little  long and fall out of that, and you can feel it drag.

I don’t know why I even started talking about all this stuff! [Laughs]

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Anyways, I’m chasing after unique feelings and constructing this complex thing to get to it. And it’s risky because I’ve no idea whether it’s going to work until I watch the movie. Like, when I watch this movie, the final edit, I was moved.

It sort of reminded me – and these probably aren’t your reference points at all, but me projecting my own thing onto it – it reminded me of the scientific rigour of Primer, coupled with the philosophical, emotional elements of Solaris.

Those are totally my reference points!

Oh, okay! [Laughs]

I love both of those films and both versions of Solaris – both Tarkovsky’s and Soderbergh’s. I think they’re great. Who wrote that book?

Stanislav Lem.

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Stanislav Lem, yeah.

The book’s wonderful. It’s almost a detective story.


Which is what your film is towards the end.

It is, towards the end. Exactly. When they start finding out things about their kid, it has a sort of mystery. It’s the propulsion thing too, rather than how it comes back round. But the beginning [of I Origins] has a kind of nonchalant feeling to it, but every little thing is actually important. Because they become relevant at the end. 

I liked the way you approached the drama in this. Inevitably, in any film, you have universal moments that you see a lot – two people meeting and falling in love at a party, for example. But you always bring a little spin to it. Like the way Sofi’s wearing a mask at the party. There’s a feeling of unease rather than romantic cosiness. You did the same thing in Another Earth.

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One should be aware, I suppose, of the tropes. There are so many tropes in storytelling, and they’re tropes because they’re imperative, or necessary in some way. Like, when you have two people meeting each other, you have to show the meeting. It doesn’t have to happen on screen, but if it doesn’t, we’d be kind of lost if there isn’t someone to explain it to us.

So it’s like an interesting challenge to meet on screen, because there’s a huge history of that. And you constantly want to be aware of that, and how to do it in a way that’s surprising and yet authentic. It can’t be so surprising that it’s fault, but it can’t be so authentic that it’s a cliche.  It’s finding that balance.

There’s a wonderful cinematographer, Marcus, who I worked with on this film, and his approach was like that, which I found really exciting, visually. Which is that there’s a certain expectation for certain scenes, and to go against those would keep it feeling fresh. It would make it feel like it’s on the black notes of the keyboard rather than the white notes, you know?

Such examples are, laboratories are always blue. Everything’s sterile, blue, clinical. Ours is warm, light, yellowish. It has a feeling of home. This guy Ian, he basically lives at the laboratory – this is his safe place. We thought, let’s go against the obvious and see what that feels like. And it felt great – it felt right, it felt different than the cold blue kind of vibe.

Or the scene where he shoots the morphene he takes from the laboratory. Those scenes are often bleak, but we lit it so romantically. It’s got a glimmer to it, a feeling of sweetness. That’s totally going against the obvious. So in all dimensions of the construction of the story, I was trying to do that.

Even something as mundane as buying a lottery ticket. The way you stage it, it suddenly feels apocalyptic somehow. He steps outside and there are all these coincidences. How did that come about?

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Again, this is me trying to challenge myself. It happens early on in the movie, so I wanted to define the character pretty quickly. And one of the things that I like to do, again going against the grain, is put a character in a situation that is the opposite of their belief system or their way of thinking, and see how they deal with it.

So you have a rational, atheistic scientist who isn’t going to believe in the hocus-pocus of numerology, or coincidence, right? He’s the last person in the world to believe that. So what I’m going to do is put him in the exact opposite situation and see if he can swim, and what he does. So he follows these 11s, because there are too many of them to deny, and then he has this experience. Later, he rationalises it, by saying life was founded on coincidences, so scientifically it’s okay.

Like, the scene with Karen and Ian, I wanted a scene that established their love. The obvious thing would be to have them walking down a beach holding hands – some bullshit like that, having dinner or whatever. But no, I had him masturbating to his ex, and her walking in. The worst situation you could put him in! And yet the gold of that scene is to show their bond, because if they can get through that, you know they are probably closer than any other couple out there, because they can survive it. It says something more about them. That, again, is just the way I approach things. The way I achieve something is by finding the exact opposite, or by finding the absolute worst thing you can confront that with. 

That’s a really cool way of looking at it. When you came to making this, you had a bigger budget than on Another Earth, but it was still tiny. You achieved an awful lot on it, I must say.

We did. It’s a testament to the great producers and everyone involved. No one really got paid anything. It was all very much a passion project for everyone, so all the money that was spent ended up on the screen. And it is a very ambitious movie in terms of the visual stuff we did. There are a lot of visual effects shots that are hidden, that no one will ever appreciate because they’re invisible – and that’s the goal, for you to be able to just feel the story.

We shot with two Red cameras and used cranes and dollies. All the great tools we had available, we had to be very thoughtful about how we employed them, but I said to my director of photography often, “Let’s make it look expensive!”

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Everything we sent on the movie went into the frames you see. Again, it’s a testament to the producers. We shot there [in India] for basically nothing. The end credits are 500 million minutes long because there were so many people we were indebted to for being so generous to us. It’s hard to do things that way, but when people are excited and believe in the project, so…

There’s a little post-credits sequence that kind of hints at another, much larger story. Am I right in thinking you’re going to write another one and it’s going to branch out?

Yeah. I wrote a script for a movie called I first, and we were trying to figure out how to make it practically. It was kind of complicated – it takes place in the future. I’d written this backstory about how that paradigm arrives, and it didn’t have a title. It was just an origin story to I.

Then I met [lead actor] Michael Pitt, and told him about this backstory, and he was like, “That’s an amazing movie. We should make that.” So inspired by him I wrote a script for the paradigm shift story. And because I’m so literal, I chose the title I Origins, and no one understands it! The truth is, it’s just an origin story for I. But like Another Earth, I love literal titles. I like to know exactly what it is even if no one else understands it! [Laughs]

Another Earth is about another earth. I joke with Brit Marling all the time that we’re going to make a film called People Populating Other Planets, and it will be about that. [Laughs]

But yeah, I have a future world to explore, and it’s one of about seven things I have in the pot right now. 

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I spoke to you a few years ago, and you were thinking of making something about a fashion designer under the sea…

Underwater Love, yeah! For that, we’ve done all these logistical tests. It’s just an expensive movie to make.

Is that because you’re shooting it under the sea? [Laughs]

It’ll be shot in tanks. I built a huge fish tank, or human tank. I’d put actors in, with a digital backlot, in my garage. [Laughs]

Then the thing exploded.

Oh my God.

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It was so crazy. It was so funny, actually. Nobody got hurt. I was just thinking, all the electronics were glued to the ceiling, so there was no electricity or anything. We figured out how to do it properly, but it’s in the pipeline with a number of other things.

I’m trying to make this alien, extraterrestrial movie right now, with a script I’m really passionate about. And Underwater Love as well. It’s just trying to schedule it all, really. But I feel really lucky, really fortunate. I feel I’m living in a world of wonderful ideas, and I’ve surrounded myself with really cool, interesting, passionate people. We’re having a good time. We’re surviving. And we’re paying the rent!

Well, that’s the main thing! Mike Cahill, thank you very much.

I Origins is out in UK cinemas from the 26th September. 

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