Interview: Mike Cahill discusses intertwing science fiction and drama in Another Earth
In Another Earth mankind discovers that another version of Earth is also spinning around the sun. This monumental discovery serves as the backdrop for the moving story of Rhoda (Brit Marling, whose interview is on its way) whose life is fundamentally changed by this celestial body. When I sat down for a roundtable interview with Mike Cahill (co-writer, director, director of photography, and editor of the film) we discussed blending the grand science fiction elements of the film, which ultimately is a personal human drama, as well as the process behind creating the film and being bought at Sundance by Fox Searchlight. Click through for the full, unedited interview.
Shall we begin?!
Caleigh Flynn (Pretentious Film Majors; WKDU Philadelphia 91.7 FM): Yeah. Well, my first question isn’t a big, opening fanfare question, but were you influenced by any other sci-fi films when it came to writing and directing Another Earth?
Yes, a lot of sci-fi films. I’m a big fan of the thinking man’s sci-fi but I guess even more specifically there are these metaphysical films by a director Krzysztof Kieślowski. He made this movie The Double Life of Veronique which had a pretty profound effect on me. It’s this story about a girl who has a Doppelgänger and a duplicate soul. I think there’s this primal yearning that we have to not be alone in the world and yet we do see the world through a singular prospective, through our own eyeballs. It’s a fantasy to have a connected soul and we wanted to take that idea and extrapolate it so that everyone in the world could experience that – all 6.3 billion of us are duplicated so you could sit down with yourself and confront yourself.
Joe (Drexel Student Newspaper): It wasn’t what I expected and the way you handled the story – a lot of handheld camera and the colors were really bleak and dark. I was just wondering what your thoughts were behind a lot of those type shots.
Yeah, I wanted to approach it, in a sense, verité, and employ the syntax of realism which is a little documentary style, shaky Dogme 95 kind-of camerawork and combine that with the aesthetic choices and the tone, which really derives from Rhoda’s POV. In the first 10 minutes of the film the music is very pulsating and it is the only time you see red in the film – her red dress. (there’s the red robot and the red sweater later) But there’s all this youth and vitality which exists in the beginning and then there’s this car crash which is from a birds’ eye, which is almost the perspective of the other earth so it’d be the reverse shot of the tiny blue dot in the sky. Then for the rest of the film the shots are wider and we sense the loneliness of her character. It’s bleaker colors – blues and grays – and as the two characters begin to blossom it starts to warm up, towards the end. So like the tonal choices are two-fold: one for realism and one for the POV of Rhoda.
Billy Soistmann (Cinedork.com): You wrote, directed, shot, and edited the film so could you talk about what it was like to be so involved and also, given a larger budget, would you continue to do all of them or what would you like?
I mean, yeah, I did all those things out of necessity for a project this small. It was very guerrilla and no-budget when we started. For me it feels like a continuous artistic brushstroke and even on bigger movies when all those things operate smoothly they’re all in sync. I’m very hands-on and I like to get all up in there. I like to touch the camera and I like all the different aspects of it the pacing and the rhythm that’s created through editing, the seeking out the authenticity and dialing forward or backward the performance based on where we are in the story and then the shooting which is just the ability to capture spontaneity if you need to to compose things in a way. I have like a perspective OCD almost, I need things to fall under a certain composition. Anyways, I like getting my hands dirty and getting up in there and probably on every project from now until forever I’ll at least be up in there and probably work with great collaborators.
Irv Slifkin (MovieFanFare and TCM): Just quickly to pick up on that what was the shooting schedule and what kind of cameras did you use?
Basically we started with myself and Brit. We wrote the script and then me, her, her sister, and a friend of ours who had a Sony EX-3 shot for about 8 days at my mom’s house which was Rhoda’s house. And we came up with the aesthetic tone, we shot a bunch of scenes from the film and basically my approach was, you know, most people think about it like dominoes. In a production you’ll set up all the dominoes: the script, the producers, the money, the cast, all the things in line, and then you push the dominoes and watch them go and you get out a final film at the end. For me, we had like two or three dominoes and I was just like ‘Push the first one.’ and hope that we could run fast enough to insert the rest of the dominoes by the time we get there. We shot half the movie without William Mapother, the male lead in the film, even cast. We shot a chunk of 8 days then producers got involved and gave us a micro-budget, enough money to keep going. We had a casting director and a family so we shot those things out in the middle of the summer. So we shot over the course of a year in chunks 10 days here, 15 days here, 15 days there – probably about 50 days in total.
Irv Slifkin: But over a period of a year, you said.
Over the period of a year, yeah. So you see all the seasons in the film too.
Caleigh Flynn: What was it like directing Brit after having closely collaborated on the story and all the film in general?
She is so gifted and before we were on set we just had writer’s hats on. We’d throw around ideas and we’d work out the rubix cube, the story, and how to intertwine and weave together this like macro/science/spectacle backdrop with this micro/tender-but-complex human drama. We would work out all the details of that and that was an exhilarating process but then when we started production it was like, ok, the writer’s hats come off then I’m the director and she’s an actor. What was great about her was that she did 6 months of homework on the character so she knew Rhoda so deeply and so profoundly and it’s interesting, if you were to ask her what Rhoda did on her 7th birthday, even though it’s not in the film, she will know precisely – that’s how deeply she goes into building the histories of the character. She brought so much to the table and it was just a pleasure. So much of the film, there’s about 20 minutes and there’s no dialogue – it just reads on her face and she carries every little beat in the scene and you so precisely get it from just a look or a glance.
Joe: Getting back to you guys, when you guys set out to write it did you have the idea first of the sci-fi with another mirror earth or…
…or the drama? We started with the bigger concept. We started with the idea of what it would be like to meet yourself. I did a video art piece where I sat down and had a conversation with myself, I used this split screen thing. Then we came up with the idea of the duplicate earth so that everyone would have that experience. We thought how weird would that be if everyone on the planet could meet themselves – it would be so strange. And then after we had devised that larger concept it was like “Who needs to meet themselves the most? What story should we tell?” Because we could tell the narcissist making out with himself or like a love story with a person who is the same person or people who are fighting or – all of these different stories can evolve out of 6.3 billion stories, really. So we said what about someone who needs to forgive themselves – someone who’s done something really bad and is seeking redemption but can only find it within. It was the larger idea and then the smaller one.
Billy Soistmann: With the special effects, because you had this larger story with the other earth but you wanted to keep it down to earth one, I guess…
Down to earth one, exactly.
Billy Soistmann: How did you achieve those effect and how did you make it subtle enough where it wasn’t attention-grabbing but then also actually having impact?
Right, well I wanted it to feel sort-of like the moon in some ways. I was inspired by the moon landing. If Hollywood had approached this film it would be a 100 million dollar film with rockets blasting and Neil Armstrong and all right up in there but the everyman the everywoman really experienced that by watching it on television. There are stories of people who’d watch the landing and they would walk out on their front porches at night and just stare up at the moon and even though they couldn’t see the craft or anything like that they felt connected to this experience. So we took a cue right out of that and wanted to tell the story of the everyman and the everywoman – two people who know they have to keep going about their lives but with this as the backdrop, to let them reflect on the meaning of their lives. So I based it off the moon and wanted it to be this spectacle in the sky that was very far away but allowed us to, through this exterior world, imagine her interior world. And I like it handheld because it makes it feel even more real. Like you might leave the theater and [looks in the sky] like “Woah is it up there?!”
Irv Slifkin: I didn’t stay for the Q&A because I was afraid the Parking Authority would do something nasty to me because they’re animals in this city but anyway they even have thier own reality show that’s how popular they are. There were two questions I heard asked both from the person I was with and other people around me about the film. One involved, and I can’t remember his name, the janitor who blinded himself and why did he do that. That was the first thing. And the other thing was there was much debate about the last scene in the movie where she sees the image of herself. I’ve been wondering if you’ve been getting feedback about those two things and, in fact, if the ending is open for interpretation or do you have a definitive answer?
Interesting question. First with Kumar’s character Purdeep. He’s sort of a mirror to Rhoda. Instead of going too deeply into what he did we just wanted to suggest that he had some sort of similar tragedy that happened in his life that burdened him with guilt and so they connected as two souls that were dealing with that and understood each other’s language. The bleaching of the eyes and of the ears was a literal eradication of the senses. As we started to learn more and more, as the movie progressed, that there was another version of us he couldn’t deal with that. The last thing in the world he wants to do is confront himself so he eliminates the senses that will even allow that to be possible.
Irv Slifkin: What does she write on his hand? because the camera angle switches and I though “you bastard”
Yeah it switches. Actually someone always asks that question and I throw it back to the audience and someone always knows the answer. It’s a fun sort-of give-and-take but if you watch carefully you can see it says “Forgive.”
Irv Slifkin: I thought it was Forget.
Yeah, I did that on purpose. I cut it right after the G and with the other angle if you watch carefully you can see it say “Forgive.” As for the ending, there is a definitive idea that we’ve come up with as writers. I don’t like to say what it is because it has kind-of wild interpretations and I don’t want to steal that experience away from an audience by saying definitively what it is but it is in the texts of the film enough to understand what that final moment is.
Irv Slifkin: But people do respond that way with different interpretations..
With different interpretations which is really exciting because I like that idea and I feel like it’s one of those things I don’t want to spoil. I want it to be private before people come in but our idea and some people definitely know about it The notion is, If you notice in that final moment as she turns we never cut to a reaction shot of her – we just stay on that moment. I know that if I held it one second longer it would’ve lost something and if I held it one second shorter it would’ve lost something. It was the precise time I felt and this is just where you start breathing the flow or the feeling of the film and I think that that moment is really special and more going through here [heart] than going through here [brain] and so the interpretations are fun and varied but if it goes through here [heart] and I hope that happens. Like a certain sort of breathless feeling.
Irv Slifkin: It worked, I think.
Oh thanks, thanks guys.
Caleigh Flynn: Did you ever worry about the audience’s suspension of disbelief? Last night at the Q&A you had a bunch of scientists, physicists, and astrophysicists in the audience. Did you ever sort of hold your breath like, “I hop you buy into this.” I think the film demonstrates it very well and it seems very plausible in the film but did you ever worry while you were writing like “No one’s ever gonna buy this.”?
For sure. I mean it’s one of those things that is difficult because you’re ultimately using science as metaphor. You do want it to work in some ways but if you ask an astrophysicist straight-up “Would it work like this?” the answer is no. However, we tried to create rules that we followed. Ideally, I can only hope that the audience recognizes that it’s only for metaphor and let it wash over you in a way. There’s also a few scenes in the script that dealt with the gravitational fluctuations that happened because of the proximity of the two earths and I actually shot one of those scenes but it came it out so hokey that it just didn’t work. I was like I’d rather eliminate this and trust the audience. But it is a tricky balance because you want to you don’t want the authenticity to be lost. You hope the audience almost sees it as a parable and can forgive the little strange details such as the tides not moving right where they should.
Caleigh Flynn: So it’s on purpose that as the film progresses it moves closer?
Absolutely, absolutely. If I were to draw it out – everyone who worked on the film had this explanation of how it works: We’re in an ellipse around the sun and we’re here and the other earth is here and the other earth is exactly on the other side of the sun and there’s an alignment of the planets which is going to occur that is going to pull earth 2 out from behind the sun and shifts it’s orbit so its ellipse is like this and our ellipse is like this so we’re kinda like two ellipses and what happens they get closer and there are four points during the year where we’re close enough to travel but there’s no risk of collision. And there’s a little snippet of that in a radio broadcast but it’s very in the background. That’s sort of the idea
Joe: Were you into astronomy or physics before the film or did you have to get into it for your idea?
No, I already was a lay person who was interested. I loved Carl Sagan, I love Isaac Asimov, there’s this Dr. Richard Berendzen who’s this astrophysicist who has this book called Human Kind and the Cosmos. I forget the exact title. Pulp Physics is the American title but the British title is a bit cooler. Anyway, he narrates this book about the cosmos with his own voice and I listened to the audiobook. I would like blast it in my car before doing this film. And I was thinking about space and the cosmos and how it’s weird because scientists and artists are sort-of doing the same thing but with a different technique. Scientists are using mathematics and numbers trying to answer the question, “Why are we here?” and artists, through emotion and juxtaposition and combination of imagery and all this are trying to answer this same question of “Why are we here? What does this all mean?” It’s just interesting how like they’re different yet very similar.
Billy Soistmann: Going back to talking about Purdeep’s character. We see the instance where he makes himself deaf with the bleach but hadn’t he made himself blind earlier? What was the significance of that and was it in relation to the other earth?
I think it was more in relation to his own reflectoin and we try and show that in the film – we try and show that in a subtle way with Rhoda. There’s this scene it’s kinda based on. I take my references from all kinds of different places. It’s kinda like Ratatouille meets The Double Life of Veronique. You know the scene like where the rat wants to go into the kitchen and he gets inside and he’s like, “Oh shit, what am I doing here?!” and then he wants to get out and he’s scrambling around to get out and then he gets to the window to get out and he smells the thing and wants to come back in. It’s like a total story structural reversal – really tight storytelling. We do a similar moment with Rhoda where she comes to apologize and then she tells him that she’s there to clean the house and he invites her in but once she’s inside she’s like, “Oh wait a second. I don’t think it’s safe in here. I should get out, I don’t want to be in here.” and she tries to surreptitiously make her way out just like Ratatouille and she finally gets to the side door and in this moment (this is where The Double Life of Veronique part comes in) she gets to the door and she catches her image in the reflection in the glass door and it becomes almost like this choice. She can I can either face this woman by herself out there or she can turn around and try and make this man’s life better. And in that moment all by herself – this is all very subtle filmmaking stuff – she turns and then reenters the house. I think Purdeep had a similar feeling which is, “I can’t face myself even in the reflection.” and so he eradicated that sense. Then as we discover that there’s actually another you that can actually talk to you, communicate with you, he took it a step further. It’s weird – you make these things and there’s layers upon layers upon layers of meaning. There’s the basic through-line that you hope is conveyed, there’s the emotion that you hope is crossed over but if you peel all the layers you’ll see it’s interesting all the details that went into making this. The score for example is it’s so intricately designed with the sounds for each character and the melodies for each character and how when the characters come together and make love for the first time the cello that represents Rhoda and the piano that represents Jon come together for the first time and there’s a discordance in their melodies but it works. It’s so cool that upon multiple viewings there’s lots to mine there I hope.
It’s very organic, I guess that’s the best way to describe it. We get together in a room and throw around ideas. Once we had the basic concept of the other earth and meeting oneself it was basically, “This is our canvas. What should we do?” and then we’d throw ideas at the wall and whatever stuck stayed and we could vet things together like “What if she does this?” “Oh that’s not gonna work.” “What if she does this?” It’s very egalitarian and very brainstormy. Some days one person breaks up and has more energy and better ideas and the other day someone comes to the office and has better ideas and more creativity. We challenge each other and it’s very collaborative. It’s hard, though. We’d both write extensive back-stories – who they are before the first frame shows up and we would both write a version for each character and then we’d show them to each other and we’d read each other’s and be like, “Oh I like that element. I like this element, what if we combine them?” So it’s very organic, it’s not very defined.
Irv Slifkin: It seemed like the lead actor’s appearance kept changing throughout the film and I didn’t know if that was how you lit him or your angles but he seemed older at first, the accident, and then the last time you see him he seems a lot younger.
Yeah, that’s totally intentional. There’s a few different ways we did that. Through lighting and we also did it through costuming…
Irv Slifkin: his nose?
A little bit, yes, there was a little bit of makeup used on his nose. It’s funny you noticed that, I forgot about that. Also you’ll notice he does sort-of have this older, and especially after the accident when she comes to meet him he’s wearing this skull cap and is down-and-out and his clothes are stained. And the color choices – there are more blues but as there relationship begins to evolve his shirts become brighter colored, collared shirts, you know, tucked in. You can see that he is wanting to present himself over the course of their relationship. It’s tricky with all these things because you can’t do anything too heavy-handed otherwise it becomes so blatant. So it has to be very gradual movement but it all sort-of follows the structure and the story. It’s interesting, it’s cool that you noticed it. And then by the end his spirits have been lifted, he’s wearing these warm colors and things are warm. They both brought each other out of this darkness and yet it’s only beautiful if there’s no acknowledgment of the past. I’s beautiful in isolation in the present but all secrets have expiration dates and it’s going to come to light. That’s where the..
Irv Slifkin: There’s one shot and I think it’s when I guess it’s the last scene before you see him on the TV screen. It really jarred me because I wasn’t even sure it was the same person and I was like “Who else would it be in that house?” but he seemed so much younger and more vitality – it was just jarring.
Yeah, definitely. And it’s a performance thing too. What I loved about William is that he did this movie called In the Bedroom where he has this brilliant performance – super intense. He plays the ex-boyfriend and a volatility that’s really intense. As Ethan in Lost he has this very sort of intimidating energy as one of the Others and you kinda get freaked out by him and I wanted to…
Caleigh Flynn: He’s terriyfing
Yeah, he’s terrifying, and I wanted to harness that energy that he had but I also saw that he had this lightness and this warmth underneath that’s rarely depicted in films that he plays – he usually plays that kind of stock character. Why he was attracted to the part was that he kinda started from a place with that energy and that volatility and that ability of him to just snap her neck is a realdanger in the subtext and in the vibe of him. But as the movie goes on that shell cracks and this lightness starts to sine through and I really wanted to harness that in the storytelling.
Caleigh Flynn: Music plays a big part in this movie. John is a composer, things like that. What was is like to collaborate with the people, Fall on Your Sword, who did the score and where did you get the idea for the scene where John plays the saw, which is one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
Working with Fall on Your Sword was amazing. They were recommended through the executive producer Tyler Brodie who co-founded a record label called DFA. They have LCD sound system and hot shit and all these really cool bands and he was like “Dude you should listen to this band and see if their interested. I’ve been getting music from them for years now.” I heard a piece Fall on Your Sword did for an art installation and I loved it because it had that organic, electronic-but-human and very textured vibe to it and it felt like the perfect match. So we met and we were totally in sync – they loved the movie and I loved their work. We had a good 4 or 5 months, which is a nice chunk of time, to work on the score. I gave them a lot of freedom. We worked out some of the details and the sounds and things and they would present stuff and then I sort of let them run loose and go to the deep, deep levels that their music will take them and it was amazing. As for the saw, I was in the subway in New York City one day and there was a woman playing the saw and I just listened to it for a while. It was so haunting and beautiful, like an angel dying or crying out.It was so mesmerizing. I got her phone number and information. In the film John is a composer and his passion is music and Brit is someone who’s passion is the stars and as they kind-of come out of their darkness their passions get reignited. When she tells the cosmonaut speech he’s looking at this woman like, “Look at all this passion and brightness. Who is this person who’s cleaning my house?” The same with him with the saw, which was also sort-of a hap tip to old school sci fi with the theremin…
Caleigh Flynn: I was gonna say, it’s one of those instruments used in old like UFO movies.
Yeah, and the saw is a modern twist on that. It’s an acknowledgement of that and then at the same time I liked the idea that it’s an aggressive instrument. It is a saw so you could saw somebody’s head off. It is dangerous and represents the passion that’s beautiful but also danger. All these reasons combined. So that woman, she trained William how to play the saw and it was pretty cool. It was one of the funniest sessions. He had no idea what he was doing [laughing] and then he got it down and he hit every single note of the song, it was cool.
Joe: A lot of the scenes it was uncomfortable watching, it was just so tense and I was wondering as a writer, director, and you cut the movie too, where do you build that tension? I’m just thinking, “If the shot were a different way would it be as tense? If one word were off would it be?” It was just so building I mean from you know they’re gonna get in a car accident the first shot of the movie and until the end it’s just tense it’s so…
Right and then whether that’s gonna come up. If it’s working right you’re building the tension. You make a movie three times – once in the writing, once in the shooting, and once in the editing – and if it’s working right in the script stage there is a sort-of magic the performance is imbued with. That those words with the reality of it and to shoot it in a certain way. Longer takes help add suspense. Hitchcock and Truffaut had this big debate over surprise versus suspense. One was arguing that one was better but I thought they’re not mutually exclusive. Like the car crash shot is single take starting in the window and rising up. That single take adds to the suspense as well as the fact that you know that it’s. You kinda cringe because you know it’s coming but even when it comes it still feels like a surprise. In a way it achieves both and that’s why a lot of filmmakers use the long take as a way to build tension. For example, in Children of Men it’s used so brilliantly…
Joe: …the whole movie…
[laughs] Yeah, the whole movie. And I think that’s one of the ways every different department can contribute to the building of suspense – whether it’s the photography, the editing, the directing, the performances, or script and so if everything is working on the right cylinders. However there are also moments where the tension needs a little bit of levity. That’s why we have the Wii boxing, which is this moment where we have this break. It’s like a tea kettle boiling and boiling and boiling – you want to let out just a little bit of the vapors and put it back on so you can build toward the climax.
Billy Soistmann: So I guess talking about the car crash, people would know it’s coming and that would add to the suspense. I guess the only way they would know it was coming is from reading about the film or seeing the trailer. So you would rather they know it was coming ahead of time or…
No, no, not necessarily. I think what’s one of the things that’s so powerful about montage and about storytelling through cinema in the first place is that it speaks directly to our intuitions and I think even if someone has never read anything about a car crash when you see this girl driving in a car and you see the family in the car you start to, you start to put those images together – ok something’s coming. Even if your logical brain is not saying it, your gut is telling you that and so therefore you like clench up for a second like, “oh no.” The shot that goes to the family the first time is a long, slow, gentle crane shot and the conversation in the car is very light – the kid asks what rhymes with this and they say “What are you going to name the robot?” and it’s like oh and you can feel it, “Oh fuck.. oh fuck.. No.” It’s too light and the music is light and then it goes to that above shot and in that way there is suspense. The pov of the other earth shot and when it comes like [bam] like the camera doesn’t rest, it goes through the movement of the shot which is nice. Cool guys, anything else?
Caleigh Flynn: I’m sure you’ll get this from everyone you talk to but what would you say to yourself? Would you go to Earth 2?
You know, I would definitley go to Earth 2 for sure because I’d just be curious. [pause] What I would say to myself? Funny, I have been asked that a lot and I haven’t come up with a good answer yet.
Caleigh Flynn: Well I guess the point is does anybody have a good answer?
You know I think I would want to observe a bit and then like I’d probably play him in tennis and see if he could beat me. No, but I’d probably ask him if he’s doing anything meaningful and if he made a movie I’d be like “I’ll check it out and you should check out mine.”
Irv Slifkin: Im sure you made the rounds in film festivals and then Fox picked it up, I mean it’s gotta be a dream come true. What has happened to you since Fox has picked it up? Are you working on new projects?
I’ve written a couple of projects – there’s two scripts I have written. It’s been a whirlwind since it released at Sundance and was really well-received and Fox bought it on the second day which was insane. They’ve been so great like everyone’s been saying. Fox Searchlight has such a good reputation among filmmakers and being very director-friendly, auteur-driven and you realize like why Danny Boyle, Aronofsky and all these great filmmakers wanna go there and I feel so humbled to be among that crew and to see how they how they so deserve that reputation They really are so inclusive – they said to me, “You don’t have to change a single frame of the film.” It wasn’t one of those “Let’s re-cut this.” They really believed in it and they’ve kept me involved in all the marketing. I designed the poster which, it’s rare they’ll even let people do that. And they’ve just been wonderful, like really supportive. Yeah, and so and then I’m working on a project all about reincarnation.
Everyone: Thank you
Thank you, and it’s all about sptreading the word. If you guys liked it it’s so helpful for us – the little engine that could – but I appreciate this, thank you guys for coming.
Everyone: Thanks. Thank you!
I hope you enjoyed this in-depth discussion, I know I certainly did. Check back in the next couple of days for an interview with Brit Marling, star and co-writer of the film, as well as the group who did the incredible music. Our review hits this Friday when Another Earth opens at the Ritz East.