With the concept of Earth 2 comes a thousand different story possibilities. How did you and Brit Marling hit on exactly what type of story you wanted to tell, using Earth 2 as your backdrop?
Mike Cahill: It is in the background. That is true. That is a great question. Because when we came up with the concept, we came up with the other earth first. It was a duplicate earth. All seven billion of us are living there. Really, you could tell seven billion different stories if you want to. People confronting themselves. We were into that first. But then, we thought, "What story is the most important story to tell?" We latched onto this character. A young female protagonist. Because we knew that Brit was going to play the lead. We wanted to tell a story about someone who needed to meet themselves the most. That would be someone having a hard time letting themself off the hook about something. Ultimately, it is a story about forgiveness. She is burdened with guilt. Her antagonist is this guilt, more than anything. As this protagonist, without any self-pity, she has this war like way of tying to get rid of that guilt. To eliminate it. We thought that was an interesting story to tell. The only person that can free you from that, is yourself. In a way, perhaps. At least, we do leave the hope of that at the end.
Did the concept ever become overbearing during the initial phase of story development? Just thinking about Earth 2, in terms of telling this particular story, seems like a slightly daunting task. It opens up a wormhole of conversations, and it hurts the brain...
Mike Cahill: (Laughs) Yeah! You ponder forever. But I love the Hollywood high concept that allows you to speculate and come up with ideas. It lets your imagination run loose. But then, I also like keeping it very restrained. Keeping it as one complex drama. Your brain could run forever about what this means. There is a huge paradigm shift, as you have this other earth in the sky. We were using it as poetry. A metaphor for the changing of perception about one's self. Something we can't really do is get outside of ourselves, and objectively view ourselves. Perhaps we can be forgiving. We can be kind to others. We can be hardest on ourselves. If our self was another person, how would that change things? How would that change one's perception of their selves? Even the story she tells about the Russian Cosmonaut. That is a changing of one's perspective, again, as annoying as that sounds. If you can somehow get outside of that, the first time you see the earth...If you can get outside of that, and change her perspective on it, maybe it can be something beautiful. We try to black out all the other complications that come with Earth 2. Nuclear warfare. Human resources. La, la, la...
Another Earth pushes science fiction in film to a place we haven't quite seen it go yet. We also have the movie Melancholia that came out this past week. It really seems like sci-fi is evolving and being pushed in a new, exciting direction...
Mike Cahill: I like that idea. I'll say this. Originality is a very hard thing to find. I don't think the goal of art is to create something original. It should be to create something that is emotionally moving. But, that being said, originality can't come from just one thing. It's a juxtaposition of two things. So, taking sci-fi...I think people would have expectations considering the history of the genre...You take that expectation for one thing, and you combine it with something totally outside the realm of that. But there is a history of thinking man's sci-fi. Like Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Still, this is more poetic, I guess. I like that mash-up. I think combining two different things came make something original and meaningful.
It is breathing new life into the genre that we haven't seen in a long time. I think that's necessary to keep the genre alive. In truth, we don't even get that many true science fiction films nowadays. Its all goofy superheroes and giant robots.
Mike Cahill: It's become all about the spectacle. Its two or three hours of explosions. Yeah.
Maybe the last really interesting one before Another Earth and Melancholia was where those two guys invented a time machine in their storage shed...
Prime hurts my head. It's too intelligent for me. It's beyond the thinking man's sci-fi...
Mike Cahill: It's hard to follow, that one. I was at a Q&A screening, and I felt bad for the director afterwards. The first person to raise his hand said, "I didn't get that...At all..." I thought it was very clever. And a great use of limited resources.
Having co-written the screenplay of Another Earth alongside you, what do you think Brit Marling, as an actress, was able to bring to this role that another actor may not have achieved?
Mike Cahill: Sure, yeah...Brit Marling is a very unique human being. She is probably the smartest person that I know. She has very high emotional intelligence, along with book smarts. She was Valedictorian of Jonestown. She is also, incredibly emotionally intelligent. The beauty of her writing the screenplay with me...She ended up having a lot of time to do the character exploration that some actors aren't allowed. Some actors have a week before they have to go shoot a project. Here, she had six months of imagining and living this character's life. Which was useful. But I think what makes her such a great actress is her ability to speak through her eyes without using dialogue. There's maybe twenty minutes of the film where she doesn't even say a word. But yet, emotional beat by emotional beat, moving forward, it just plays in her eyes. And we can follow that. It's a huge challenge for an actor. The other thing she does that is extremely sophisticated...Her character? She doesn't even exhibit one act of self-pity. Self-pity is something that is very alienating. If a character has self-pity, it is isolating. It's hard to empathize with them. She carries this burden of what she has done, very much on her own shoulders. She tries to figure out how to make things right. Her choices are questionable. But you get the sense that she is trying to do what is right. That was such a smart play by her as an actor.
Having worked in documentaries before directing Another Earth, did you approach the material from the viewpoint of a documentarian?
Mike Cahill: Yeah, absolutely. There was a certain amount of confidence in capturing the fly on the wall, in the scene, without having to storyboard. It was a 'capture the moment' feeling. I operated the camera, which gave me a great deal of comfortability, to keep it fresh, while we were shooting it. It also influenced the aesthetic choices. For example, I had 35 mm prime lens at my disposal. It gives a very cinematic, beautiful field...I tried not to use it. I used a stock lens, to give it more realism...If you have a more documentary, hand-held camera aesthetic, and you lift up and see this other earth in the sky, something about that makes it feel more real. I wanted it to feel as though it were real. I wanted audiences to leave the theater and look up, "There's the moon...Where's the other earth?" I try to make it poetic realism. I want it to be real, but I want it to be a certain moment of poetry. These wide, landscaping shots that emphasize her loneliness. But still, keep it in the realm of realism.
The movie is beautiful in terms of that. The way Earth 2 is shot, it's so quaint, but amazing to look at...How did you use the special features on the Blu-ray to expand this particular universe that you are presenting?
Mike Cahill: One of the cool things is that we have Dr. Richard Branson on there. I loved listening to his books on tape. Like a nerd, instead of bumping music, I would drive around, listening to him talk about the stars, and the creation of the universe. At the beginning of this project, I wrote him a passionate letter, saying, "I know you don't know me. I am making this film. Can we meet and talk about it." He was so gracious. He added such a beautiful element...He can talk about space and the cosmos. He can talk about it in an emotional narrative that the layperson can connect to. So he lent his voice to several things for the film. He is on the DVD extras. I could listen to him for hours. He brings a cool angle to the multi-verse. These questions of science that we deal with.
Another Earth arrives on Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack November 29th, from 20th Century Fox Home Video.