Interview: I Origins Writer-director Mike Cahill and Star Michael Pitt
Three years ago, writer-director Mike Cahill and his collaborator, writer-actress Brit Marling, helped lead a new sub-genre of science fiction with their breakout film Another Earth: intensely thoughtful and intelligent, smaller-budget films that aren’t afraid to raise complicated existential issues.
Cahill’s sophomore feature I Origins may have a somewhat larger budget and more expansive locales (including India) and an even richer visual palette, but Cahill, writing solo this time, doesn’t back off the Big Questions–instead, he dives in even deeper.
I Origins is the story of Ian Gray (Michael Pitt, Funny Games, The Dreamers, Boardwalk Empire), a molecular biologist specializing in ocular evolution. Around the same time Gray falls in love with Sofi, a highly spiritual young model (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), he and his research partner Karen (Marling) also make a huge scientific breakthrough.
But a series of tragedies and coincidences eventually lead Gray down a path that challenges his adherence to scientific fact over spiritual faith and could change human’s understanding of their very existence.
Two other writers and I sat down with Cahill and Pitt a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about the challenges they faced in making a film that enthusiastically and earnestly tackles tough fact vs. faith questions.
I Origins is playing now at select theaters.
Michael, you were boxing? Is that something you do all the time, or is it preparation for a film?
Michael Pitt: I try to sweat a little bit. Sweating is good for the brain, I think. I’m a little addicted to it.
Cahill: How long does it take you to start sweating?
Pitt: If you know what you are doing, about three minutes. I can get you drenched. I’m lazy, so the reason I box is that I can get to that sweating in a few minutes. I don’t have time to work out for an hour and a half. Jump rope for three minutes and you will sweat.
I Origins asks and wrestles with some big questions about science, faith, love, and death.
Mike Cahill: We ask questions, but we try to frame them in an interesting way. Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been trying to construct narratives that make us feel peaceful. We don’t ask questions with our films and leave it wide open—it’s very precise in that the audience members put themselves there, and put their beliefs on the table as well. That’s part of the experience.
The film makes you start to see art, religion, and science as organizing metaphors for the human condition.
Cahill: Totally. It’s how we understand it all. The existential task is that it’s our responsibility to give meaning to life, otherwise it’s fucking chaos. Whether that meaning is true or not, who cares?
Cahill: When wishing to tackle ideas that are universal, you are dancing on the delicate edge of pretension; right on the border. Post-modernism has taken hold of the arts; painting, photography, music. I think that since Warhol, postmodernism has defined a generation of hipster-ism and young people and cynicism and irony and cool in an ironic sense.
It’s very untouchable and delicious and wonderful—and it’s also a dead end. If you as an artist are interested in going to something sincere, earnest, and emotional, it’s risky.
Pitt: It takes a lot of courage, especially in my generation and the generation coming up right behind us. It’s like, have the balls to care about something and take something seriously. At the end of the day, what are you holding onto?
I feel everything is about being ironic. And a lot of times when I sit face to face with an artist who is doing that, I see someone who is afraid to be real. Do you know what I mean? It’s a scary thing to put yourself on display. It’s an easy thing to say you don’t care. It’s a brave thing to say, “This is important to me.” Because people are going to challenge that. And that’s okay.
Cahill: You might have that breakthrough, where you make someone feel. It’s like gambling. You risk it to go there. It is dangerous. You’re saying, “This is meaningful, this endeavor is important.” Hopefully.
It’s captured in that difficult dance that one does. In the scene where Ian says, “Have you ever met someone who fills that hole inside of you and when they are gone, you feel painfully vacant,” and he’s being fucking sincere, and gets caught up in that moment and he gets knocked down. For me, that was important that he goes there, so that we can go there. If we just ended on that, we would not have gotten away with it.
When Karen says, “Maybe the eyes really are the window the soul.” And he says, “Soul? Is my wife really using the word ‘soul’” Again, if you ever allow your characters to step over the edge into earnestness and sincerity and something that means something and opening their hearts and are vulnerable, we allow them to do it with a chain so that we can pull them back quickly.
Pitt: With the Internet, like Twitter and Facebook, it’s about making comments, it’s all a joke, and no one is taking it seriously. And I have smart friends who are doing all of this silly stuff; making comments that don’t mean anything, and that is why they are interested—it’s stupid, or a joke.
You are spending hours of your time doing something that is kind of a silly thing that you don’t take seriously, like watching a silly reality show. I catch myself in it, too. And it becomes about watching a train wreck.
I just think that a little seriousness is in order. I don’t think you should take yourself too seriously, but I am very interested when I see someone who is passionate about an idea and is going to put themselves out there knowing that it is going to be criticized. And that’s okay.
Sarcasm and irony is best when it is intellectual. There is definitely a place for that. And a lot of stuff that I did- you can reach a dead end where it is like, “What do you believe in? What are you talking about?”
Or are you just doing it to make a point or just score cheap, easy points.
Cahill: Like that scene in Children of Men where they carry the baby out in that long shot. It’s beautiful. That’s an earnest moment in a film. It’s so easy to quip at that. But (Alfonso Cuaron) is risking to get us to feel the power of birth and newness and a new soul and what that means and how essential that is.
Ian is rational to a fault, yet still searching for something, or at least open to it. It’s fascinating to watch him balance faith and fact, spirit and science.
Cahill: I have to give it to Michael for constructing that character. Ian is a guy who believes in facts and the scientific method and testing things, and only at the end of that process will he believe in something. Yet he follows a bunch of numerical elevens to get on a bus. That doesn’t seem to make sense as a person on paper, but it somehow resonates with real life about a person who is 95% one thing and 5% something else.
In constructing that character, we talked about it a lot; how there’s something itching at him, and there’s a resistance to it, but he knows it’s there. And part of his attraction to Sofi was that she saw that, and like a string coming out of a suit, she started pulling on it and the seams started unraveling.
So that’s engaging for me—the idea of taking a Dawkins-esque, resistant person who believes that religion is dangerous and putting them in a situation where love and fate are the only things they hold onto.
Michael, how did you prepare for the role on both the scientific and spiritual sides?
Pitt: Normally I’m a big fan of researching and the throwing it away. We were talking about boxing. When you train as a boxer, you’re practicing a punch in super slow motion. And you’re getting that muscle memory, so that when you get in the ring you don’t think about it.
Acting is very similar to that—repetition, repetition. Get those things inside of you, forget about them, so that when the director pushes you into this world, you react. Hopefully you’ve done your work before. It’s usually the best when it’s second nature. It’s very time consuming.
Cahill: I got to witness Michael go through that process. We went to Johns Hopkins University and learned how to extract DNA and whatnot. There is a rhythm to it and mannerism to like pipetting saline solution, and Michael said to the real scientists, “Don’t show me how to do it, just do it and let me observe you for a while.” And he just watched and sucked it up like sponge. So all the scientists who watch the move are blown away by that mannerism.
Pitt: I’ve been blessed to be able to work closely with some great directors, but I’m now trying to actively work with filmmakers who understand where film’s going and are changing things. Mike definitely is a filmmaker like that—he’s trying to do difficult things. I don’t see that very often with new filmmakers.
Less experienced filmmakers, I find, either they get so tied to the script that they get lost and forget that cinema is about capturing the moment, or they are so loose that they have no vision. Whether Mike is aware of it or not, it’s amazing that he’s got both.
The two love stories in this film are very different. One is emotional and passionate, the other more pragmatic and mature. Did you intend the film to advocate one over the other?
Pitt: People usually think one or the other.
Cahill: It’s more revealing about yourself. Because the movie doesn’t take a side. It just presents them as two valid, beautiful types of love. And maybe it’s something that many of us potentially have experienced; those different shades.
Pitt: In my opinion is that there is someone out there with both, but it may take you forever to find them.
Cahill: My wife’s like that!