I Origins’ Mike Cahill on making sci-fi with a soul

Another Earth and I Origins director Mike Cahill on spiritual sci-fi and why scientists are just like us

Michael Pitt and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey in I Origins
Michael Pitt and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey in I Origins

Writer-director Mike Cahill delivered one of the most impressive indie sci-fis in recent memory with the affecting, haunting Another Earth, and now he’s back with I Origins.

The film stars Michael Pitt as Ian, a scientist doing research on the human eye who falls in love with Sofi (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey), who holds the belief that there is a power that we can’t see. As his research progresses, Ian is suddenly confronted by the possibility that there might be more truth to the notion of the soul that he ever thought possible.

SciFiNow spoke to Cahill about why spiritual sci-fi, why scientists are just like you and me, and why religion and confronting a rational mind with the irrational.

There are some spoilers so watch out for the flag…

I Origins is actually the prequel to an as-yet unmade film. What was the initial idea that created the world of this film?

The initial idea was thinking about a paradigm in which when a baby is born, we know who it was in its past. Reincarnation’s true, and really wealthy people leaving their fortunes to their future selves and parents wanting to know who their kids are and some people not wanting to know who their kids were, and all the baggage that comes along if you’re someone that was really bad.

That was really, really exciting and I wrote a script called I. And there was some challenges with making it, we never went into production, we were still sort of figuring out how to do it and several months went by in that process and I had a lot of expensive backstory written already, like the origin story of how that paradigm came to be. And that’s why the title is like a literal riff of that, it’s why we have such a strange title! I Origins is the origin story of I.

So the theme of science versus faith came in with I Origins?

Yeah, that came in more with it being a prequel. But that was an idea, it’s something that I’ve…I can see how it came to be that science and spirituality have been at odds, ever since telescopes were invented, because science sort of threatened the standpoint of religion. And it’s just the way the story has been constructed of our history and our civilisation and religion that’s led it to be that way but I don’t think they have to be at odds.

I imagine it’s pretty hard to make a spiritual sci-fi that doesn’t directly invoke any particular religion or deity!

Yeah! We tried very hard to look at spiritual concepts through the lens of science, our protagonists are scientists, and they talk in scientific terms. [Karen, Brit Marling’s character] says, “If the cellular structure in the eye is reoccurring from person to person, the eye is connected to the brain and some sort of cellular structure within the brain might be reoccurring.” The brain is this terrain that we know very, very little about and it’s interesting just to hear scientists grapple with evidence, or pieces of evidence, that may suggest something that we would call a soul, right? I love that, that’s exciting to me. How does the rational evidence based scientific testing mind grapple with such an anomaly?

Speaking of the science, I loved that their life in the lab is so warm, they’re funny and they’re relatable.

Oh yeah, completely, even warm in terms of colour palette. So often laboratories in movies are portrayed as blue and cold.  My DP my and I talked about it, lighting the lab to be luscious and get this warm sunlight and feel like home and cosy because this is a space that is like home to these guys. Scientists are not these stiff sort of unsocial or un-relatable people, they’re just people, it’s a job that they do, it’s something that they’re passionate about, but they have a pint after work! And have sex and are normal; life is life. And so making it relatable felt like it was making it more true to life, making it more authentic as opposed to making it inauthentic.

Mike Cahill on the set of I Origins
Mike Cahill on the set of I Origins

Another Earth did a something similar in terms of using a sci-fi concept as a jumping off point to explore a personal and emotional story. Is that something that you’re drawn to as a filmmaker?

Yeah, definitely. Science fiction without the heartbeat or without the human emotional aspect is just cool. And cool is compelling enough sometimes but it’s not the whole picture for me. So combining the sense of wonder that’s triggered from a science fiction fantastical idea is really exciting and it definitely satisfies one part of the brain but it’s not the complete picture. For me the most exciting thing is combining that sense of wonder of a possibility of a new paradigm explored through a sci-fi concept and putting relatable humans in that context and drawing a very intimate and personal story. Some of the great works of the past did that very well, Solaris being one of them.

I wanted to ask about New York in the film. It’s beautifully shot; how important was it to you to have that as the setting for the first half?

it was very important for a lot of reasons. One I live there, I know New York, I think a lot of this work is done in New York. You can also live in New York and do this kind of job and also go to those kinds of parties! You can have any life that you choose to, and it can be one that is anti-numbing, completely engaged, with meaning and then also completely wild and debaucherous and fun! And that could be a stage of life. Later on they move out and they live in Greenwich in the suburbs and it’s a little bit cosier and not so wild. But also I wanted the movie to feel global so going from New York to Delhi, India in the third act felt like we were getting a nice two sides of the earth.

What was the experience of shooting in India like?

It was amazing. I had written all the scenes that take place in Delhi before I had ever been to India. And one of my producing partners was like “So, you’ve been to India, right?” “No, actually, I know what it’s like because I’ve seen documentaries and I’ve done a lot of research…” and he was like “We need to get on a plane and go to India, like, tomorrow.” We started shooting January 28th and sometime around January 4th we hopped on a plane and flew to India for three days location scouted and we were working with a production team there but it was just important to be there.

Michael Pitt and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey in I Origins
Michael Pitt and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey in I Origins

Michael Pitt’s a producer on the film; when did he become involved?

He got involved right at the very beginning. There was no script before I met him. We met very casually in Brooklyn, we have the same agency that represents both of us and so we got kind of hooked up to meet. I’d always admired his work for many, many years, and so we sat down but he didn’t have a project and I didn’t have a project that we were presenting to one another. We really hit it off immediately and I was so struck by his intelligence and I had been struck by his craft and he approaches his roles and how bold his choices are. And casually through the conversation that lasted for several hours I told him about a whole number of projects that I’d been working on, and at any given time I have about 15 projects sitting on my computer wanting to get made. I told him about the eyes and Sofi and the eyes coming back and he was like “This is amazing, this would be a great film’ and like literally I was like “Alright, I’ll write a script!” Because I had a treatment for it and then two weeks later I sent him the script and he was like “Let’s go.”

It’s a great transformation that he pulls off in the film’s second half, that time jump feels very nicely played.

Yeah, it has a different shape and a different feeling to it. That was important because I feel like I’ve experienced that; life gives you different stages and there are different types of love in life, there are different environments that you find yourself in in life and they feel different and the texture is different and yet they’re a cohesive life. Somehow to try and show that in an organic way was important to me.

[SPOILERS]

There’s a tremendous performance from Brit Marling as his lab partner Karen. Was that written with her in mind?

I did write that with her in mind. I thought that role was really deceptively tricky to pull off, especially really nuanced and subtle. And it’s not as obvious as it might seem on paper: the girl who was the second choice who’s like interested in science who becomes the wife and then is jealous, there’s actually a lot more subtlety to it which is, she is second choice but first choice all along, she’s someone who feels the vulnerability of jealousy but puts that lower down on her priority scale. So you have to see it but you have to see the holding it back, the suppression of it. And she’s not the sort of character, the wife character that pushes her man to do this, or don’t do this or whatever, she’s more like this, there’s a term called the grey eminence. In a way she is like the hand behind us all, she’s like the puppet master in a way. And it’s vital and I know that from working with Brit before and knowing her so well, like I knew she has extreme talent and capabilities that I knew giving her such a complex role she would get it. And she would give that shading and nuance to the character that it required.

[SPOILERS END]

She’s got these little moments that just add a lot to the character.

Right, right, exactly. And she carries those in a believable way, right? Like, “When I’m lying in bed at night I’m the only person in the world that knows it’s true.” She kind of distils down the science to its purest without the wanting to be a celebrated person who discovers something, like her thrill is in being the person who’s on the cutting edge of human knowledge. And there’s something visceral about that which is really kind of exciting.

Brit Marling and Michael Pitt in I Origins
Brit Marling and Michael Pitt in I Origins

Do you think you’ll continue to make these kind of soulful science fiction films?

It’s certainly a space that I’m interested in, and I can say that because I have three full scripts written sitting on my computer that I’m figuring out how to get made next in addition to Origins and Another Earth I can see my own themes. I’m starting to get a picture of what I’m interested in, if I were naïve after I made one movie I’m starting to grow less naïve after two movies, if I can see all the big picture, I’m starting to be like “Ah, now I get myself a little bit!”

I’m interested in identity, I’m interested in who we are, what makes up the self, I’m interested in dealing with loss and constructing a narrative through science that performs a similar job that religion has done. Religion has often offered narratives that offer comfort, has created narratives to offer comfort to people, with the existential heaviness of actually living, right? And that’s like what it’s done and in a way I think what’s exciting about science is that science can actually do the same exact thing, you can do the same exact thing, you can offer a narrative that provides comfort and peace and that’s really exciting to me.

Did the success of Another Earth make it easier to get I Origins made?

Definitely, it did. We weren’t dealing with a huge budget so that probably helped but certainly that there were some people who appreciated Another Earth, it made it easier to sort of raise a little bit of money to make the next one. I’ve been fortunate to have people who support, are patrons of the arts, I guess, and I have been making small personal movies, that have an epic ambitious scope and theme but they’re not necessarily the most easily-marketable films, and they don’t reach the widest stretch of audience but they are economically sound for how small they are. And I’ve been lucky that people have believed in me.

Indie sci-fi seems like a very ambitious place to be!

Yeah, and movies in general. The whole industry’s shifting massively, what makes something economical sound is changing.

So is I the next film for you?

That is definitely on the slate. I may make an alien abduction movie first. Which is really badass!

Can you tell us anything about that?

I can tell you that I wrote it and it’s along the same themes that I’m interested in! Identity, questions of the self, dealing with loss, using science. But it’s a huge budget! So I hope someone’s going to give me the money to do it, basically, but it’s still in the beginning stages and there seems to be more than a few people who are really interested in it.

I Origins is released in UK cinemas 26 September. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.