Mike Cahill once considered being a biologist. Now, he has made a movie about a couple of such scientists who thought they disproved God until they looked into a certain set of eyes.
I Origins is an ambitious science fiction movie that turns real, existing iris biometric recognition technology into a multi-year saga about how a Richard Dawkins like atheist molecular biologist (Michael Pitt) discovers a possible path toward reincarnation by following the trail left by a remarkable set of eyes. The director of this and Another Earth was kind enough to sit down with us earlier this month in preparation for I Origins’ release. Here is that interview.
So, you weren’t paranoid that you wouldn’t have fundamentalists stirred up or controversy around this movie?
Mike Cahill: I think the movie’s kind of earnest and sincere—It’s not trying to stir up shit, I don’t think, in a way that’s cheap. I think it’s sincerely asking these questions. If this were to be the case, could you imagine a narrative where, maybe, possibly, something else happened after we die?
You’ve described filmmaking as being similar to being a scientist, or it’s something that you strive for. How did you felt connection with this narrative?
I really admire scientists. I wish I were a scientist. I was kicked out of biology freshman year. I was in one of those 101 classes with 200 people, a big auditorium, and a professor kept showing an atom, and how the electrons move around the atom. And I was like, “Why do artists draw it like this? Why don’t you draw a different way? Can you see it under a microscope?” They’re like, “No, no. This is what the behavior suggests it is.”
And I couldn’t get over that fact that there were so many ways to draw an atom, to artistically render an atom that would be accurate to what it does. And the professor’s like “See me after class.” And he’s like, “Get the fuck out of biology. You’re going to be here for 12 years. If you can’t get over the fact that an atom looks like that, then you’re not going to make it.” So he didn’t kick me out, but he encouraged me to pursue something else [Laughs]. And then I had a little knack for economics, which I love. I thought it was fun and interesting. But I didn’t love it like filmmaking, but filmmaking was my hobby. So, I ended up studying economics, and ended up doing filmmaking through a crazy series of coincidences and fortunate set of happenstances.
So do you feel because you left science, which you’re fascinated by, do you think this movie is challenging the scientific community with its ideas of reincarnation or the Richard Dawkins authority?
No, I don’t know—my oldest brother is a neuroscientist and my second oldest brother is a molecular biologist, neuroscientist, and they watched the film. And a lot of people who are scientists watched the film, and I’m always nervous when a scientist is going to watch it. I’m like, “What are they going to think? Are they going to be into it?”
And what my brother said to me, which was really exciting or that I thought was nice, he said, “More so than anything else, the thing that this movie capturers is the spirit of a young PhD student in the lab wanting to discover. To make discoveries.” And he’d never seen that in a film, and it’s like true to the reality of being a scientist.
At Sundance when I got the Sloan Award, there was a scientist who came up to me, and he whispered to me, and it’s kind of vulgar, but he says, “I just want to thank you. You made scientists fuckable!” [Laughs] And I thought that was great.
It was one of those moments that was like when Jill Tarter, who’s the head of NASA’s [High Resolution Microwave Survey], who in Another Earth, the character of Joan Tallis is based off her. The one who speaks to her other self on the television and holds up the space strawberries. That character is based off her. And she was the one who presented me the award for Scientific Themes for this movie, and that was one of the most exhilarating, rewarding feelings.
You’ve also made science fiction affordable again. There are no aliens.
For me the sense of wonder for the last 100 years has been partially driven by visual effects, but it’s also been driven by ideas. It’s like, “Woah, I’m filled with awe, because of either some massive spectacle that I’ve never seen before”—and that only works in really expensive movies that are on the cutting edge of visual effects. Otherwise, two-year-old effects are like lame, right? But it can last forever if it’s an idea, and it doesn’t need any money behind it. It’s free.
The eye posters in this remind me of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby where the eyes of God are looking down. Was that a conscious parallel?
Yeah, totally. It wasn’t conscious, I don’t think, but I’m sure it was subconscious or unconsciously something made me choose to have a billboard. But I was in LA, and Joe’s Jeans had a billboard of just eyes on Sunset Blvd., and I remember thinking that was a really spectacular image. It was very different from the Gatsby one. It was sexy. But this was as if a ghost from the void [had come]. So, I wanted to recreate that feeling, I guess.
And originally, he didn’t find her in India through a billboard. That was an idea that Alex Orlovsky, our producer, came up with to give him more agency.
…We live in a world now where there are databases of eyes. Like hundreds of millions of eyes are catalogued by iris biometric databases. And in India, the third act of the movie takes place in India, that’s true. India does have a national program to scan all of its citizens’ eyes, and there’s over a billion people over there. So, I wanted to tell a science fiction story that uses current technology and was romantic.
Are you a Michael Crichton fan? Because he likes to mix real science with fictional science.
Like the taking out the [DNA] from the amber? Yeah, definitely. I like when you’re not entirely positive if it’s true or not. What we propose in this film is not something you can disprove. So that gets me really excited, because you can believe the narrative when you leave the theater. Even after Another Earth, I have this feeling when I walk out, and I’ve heard other people, when they see the moon in a daylight sky, they go, “Oh, this reminds me of Another Earth.”
I’ll tell you another thing, I was on this island one time called Brijuni in Croatia and on the Adriatic Sea, and there are these old Roman ruins, really beautiful ruins, on the beach. And along the water there are all these rocks. And the tourists all taking photographs of the ruins, and on the rocks there’s dinosaur footprints. And you can go to this place and see the ruins and the dinosaur footprints. What was so fascinating to me was this civilization had risen and fallen, and their kids had played in the puddles of dinosaur footprints right there, but we didn’t discover dinosaurs until much later. They came and went without finding dinosaurs. And I was trying to think, “Well what are our dinosaur footprints?” Well, there are eyes. What is it we look at, that is right under our nose, and we don’t realize? That we take for granted.
Do you believe reincarnation is a possibility?
…I don’t know. I mean mathematically, energy is preserved. Scientifically speaking, nothing is destroyed. If something is destroyed, it manifests mass energy equivalence, like E=mc2. In that sense, certainly the atoms or the molecules that make up you, the most tiny things, persevere. Whether the ego or the id, or the sense of self perseveres, I don’t know.
Could you talk about the casting of this movie?
Well, I didn’t really know that I was going to make the movie until I met Michael Pitt. We had a general meeting, we were both at William Morris, and we had a general meeting in Brooklyn—a rabbit hole on Bedford—and they asked me if I wanted to meet Michael Pitt. And I had admired him for a very, very long time, so I jumped at the opportunity just to chat.
And during the conversation, I had a constant flow of ideas and things in different stages in my mind. And I told him the story of I Origins, and he said “that is really cool. I’d love to hear more about that one day.” And that kind of set off a wildfire in my head to write it. Like I had it for 12 years floating in the ether, and I had written many, many things on it, but I didn’t have this as a script.
How do you bring in the scientific and spiritual elements at the same time?
Well, I think in science fiction, writers are often influenced by current technologies and where they may go in the future to tell their stories. You look at Mary Shelley with Frankenstein, electricity was 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. But otherwise, iris biometrics was founded in 1987, that is when it first began at Cambridge University and John Daugman invented iris biometrics. So, it’s an extrapolation about where it might end up.
So, for me, I wanted to make the movie grounded in now, using technologies now, but also being science fiction.
I Origins is now playing in theaters in select cities.