Cahill was the youngest field producer, editor and cinematographer for National Geographic Television and Film, and worked as an editor on the films Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man and Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, as well as various television shows and music videos.
Cahill’s first feature film as director and screenwriter is Another Earth which he cowrote with Marling, who also plays the lead role. This acclaimed and thought-provoking movie focuses on two individuals whose lives are torn apart following an accident on the night a parallel Earth is first seen in the sky. We had the opportunity to sit down with Mike to talk about the movie, the science of parallel worlds and the complexities of making a low-budget indie film.
HeyUGuys: How did you develop the idea for Another Earth?
Mike Cahill: That’s a funny story, because usually I don’t go into that much history, but I’ll tell you: when Brit and I came up with the idea we wrote three short films; one was called ‘How I Learned To Levitate,’ one was called ‘Still Birth,’ and one was called ‘Another Earth,’ and they were meant to be three 30 minute pieces that together would serve as a triptych – it was a 90 minute piece. I would direct all three and Brit would play the lead character in each one, and we wanted to design the characters to be so radically different from one another and yet the stories be intertwined in this sort of metaphysical, fantastical way; they’re all sort of metaphysical metaphors but Another Earth, we started working on that one first and it just mushroomed and became this bigger cohesive full thing.
The idea of parallel worlds has been a recurring theme in science-fiction for many years. Why do you think this concept has such enduring appeal?
It’s the big question since the dawn of time, which is who are we and why are we here and I think we want to know, and I think we want to imagine alternate possibilities. It allows the imagination to imagine something that went a different way, there’s the confrontation of self – like when you separate yourself from yourself what occurs is a judgement. You can judge that person, or that society, that group. And I think we’ve just been fascinated by it, but what’s weirder than just the fiction about it is the truth about it – the multiverse and the parallel universe and how leading scientists like Brian Green today are saying if you do the math there has to be a multiverse, there has to be another earth, there has to be an infinite number of other earths, an infinite number of other universes.
Another Earth marks your first foray into fiction. Did you previous experience working on documentaries influence your approach to the movie in any way?
It was an interesting transition because a lot of the techniques from documentaries kind of spilled over into this fictional film. The one new element is that we could use fantasy and we can control where the story goes which is exciting, but the sense of shooting on the fly, capturing things in the moment … you know, on a documentary when you’re filming and people are being real you feel the truth of them being real and, like, humans are so strange; we don’t actually do the cliche choices always, and that sort of signifies something that’s human. And so there’s a bit of that understanding that goes into making fictional films – when you’re writing, for example, your first idea is usually the cliche one so you’re allowed to have the first idea, acknowledge it, and then throw it away. And the second one is probably pretty cliche too, and it’s not until you arrive on your third or fourth where you’re like, ‘OK this is human.’ For example [in Another Earth] she makes love to this man which is probably kind of wrong or whatnot, and then she’s in the train and what does she do? She pukes. It’s aggressive, it’s strange, it’s like the strange choices that real humans in authentic situations really make, so that I think was born from the transition from documentary to fiction.
You filmed the movie on a very small budget?
Yeah, super low budget.
How difficult was it to make an independent film such as this?
It was a bit of a struggle. I mean, it was a bunch of friends, we went back to where I grew up in New Haven Connecticut and borrowed my mum’s house and her car and my friend’s houses and a friend of mine was a police officer who closed down a four-lane city street for us for free; it was a lot of favours from friends and family which is cool because making a movie … if you make a movie in Hollywood everyone sorta knows the drill, like if you’re gonna shoot in someone’s house they expect, y’know, $20,000 location fee or whatever, but making a movie outside of the Hollywood system with a bunch of friends everyone’s excited and having fun. A ‘we’re making a movie!’ kind of vibe which was beautiful, so there was a great deal of energy to it, and yeah our finances were super-limited, like maxing out credit cards and trying to figure things out, but in a way that restriction gave birth to very creative ways to figure out how to do things. Like the car crash, which we did for next to no money at all; very, very, very cheap. As I said the police officer gave us the place and we got cars from a junkyard. It was very renegade guerrilla style and yet we made something that’s a single shot, bird’s eye view from the point of view of the other Earth rising up [then] impact! You feel it when it happens, and if we had millions and millions of dollars it would’ve been different, y’know?
Did the film’s science-fiction twist prove an additional complication when filming an independent movie?
Well, I love sci-fi, and I love stories that are metaphysical; I love poetry, I love metaphor, I love unleashing the imagination in a way. And so science-fiction that actually is restrained in what it shows, like instead of showing a crazy visual effect and blood and guts, instead of showing it’s more of a tease. I think science-fiction can be done at a lower budget and still invoke the power of the imagination; it wasn’t exactly intimidating. And we didn’t have any aspirations with the film – we were going to show it to our 10 best mates hanging out at the house, have some beers and we’re like ‘here’s our little movie that we made!’ and so now what’s happened with the film is it’s been a roller coaster of excitement. But, y’know, wow, we didn’t expect any of it. We were just trying to make something that we dug.
You’d worked with Brit Marling before – how did that collaboration come about?
Yes, many times. We went to school together in Georgetown and became very close friends there and collaborated on many many different projects and documentaries. And then at some point she really wanted to act and I really wanted to direct fiction so we were like ‘alright let’s just do this together!’ and we were gonna do those three and then we just ended up making Another Earth.
William Mapother plays John – how did he get involved with the film?
Well we started shooting the film with no money at first, Brit and I, and friends, and then I met these producers that have this company called Artists Public Domain based out of New York City, run by Hunter Gray and Tyler Brodie and Paul Mezey. This company supports artists and small budget films, gives them enough money and production support to make it. So we started off with nothing, met these guys, they dug what we were doing and financed it with just a little bit of money, but way more than we had. And then we got a casting director and he was presenting all these different people who could play John but I didn’t like anybody, or I was sort of picky, I don’t know. There’s a very specific energy that John needs to have, and so we just began shooting the film. I was like ‘well, we’ll find him when we find him, let’s just start working.’ And then around the summer I guess William met with our casting directors, just a casual general meeting and then they called me and they were like ‘have you ever thought about William Mapother for the role?’ And I loved his work in In the Bedroom; he’s in this movie called In the Bedroom by Todd Fields, he plays the ex-boyfriend, a very intense character, and I love him in Lost as well. He has this intense screen energy and yet this intelligence and yet underneath all of that fear-invoking vibe he’s got this gentle beautiful heart, and it felt just so right for the role. I was like ‘yeah, he’ll be amazing!’ and they sent him the script and we got on the phone and he dug it and he was like ‘this is an interesting character arc for me to play that I haven’t done before,’ and we talked for a while and he got onboard.
You mentioned about other people getting involved in the production. What did it feel like to have more people come onboard when you’d initially started the project with just a handful of friends?
What it feels like is a snowball going down a mountain; it’s like, you’re making the snowball but you’re hoping that you’re going to get people onboard. Or it’s like a train and you’re like ‘OK the train’s going, let’s get everybody to jump onboard’ so when you meet up with talented people, thoughtful talented people who are aligned in the sense that they feel passionate about the story or the project and they want to see the best thing get made it’s like ‘c’mon let’s get an energy vibe and connect on something and get onboard and let’s make this!’ And I think, y’know, we started as two people, then we had our friend Liang and we were shooting with three and then we had five, then we had 10, then we had 12, and by the end we had … it was still pretty small at the end of the day but it didn’t feel like losing control, it felt like it was an awesome party of celebration for the passion, because ultimately I have to see the thing from beginning to end to make sure it’s what I’m trying to make but you need the support of your friends and people who you trust.
The movie opens with Rhoda being responsible for this terrible accident. Did you ever feel as if you were running the risk of the audience not sympathising or identifying with the character?
Absolutely. Yes. She does something sort of horrific and it’s easy to imagine her becoming an unsympathetic character, but there’s a very careful and subtle choice that Brit is actually responsible for which is this: if she had self-pity afterwards we would distance ourselves from her. And I think what she does is she has no self-pity, she has no ‘woe is me, life sucks because of all these things that happened, and it was the fault of the drinking, or no I blame it on the other Earth or I blame it on…’ she doesn’t, she’s the protagonist, the antagonism is her guilt and she carries that guilt 100 percent herself almost like a warrior, like a heroic champion, a hero against the antagonism of guilt. And because she shows not one shred of self-pity I think we connect with her in a way, or we admire her, or we see, well fuck this thing happened to you but the way you’re going about dealing with it is noble and even though she lies to him like ‘oh, I’m cleaning house,’ she goes with the intention of apologising but she ends up sort of chickening out. But I don’t know if she chickens out as much as, like, maybe there’s a better way to make this man’s life better? Maybe it’s selfish to just ask for an apology like ‘hey, sorry I killed your family – do you forgive me?’ you know? Maybe there’s something selfish about that and, ‘hey, he doesn’t know who I am, he’s all alone here and a wreck, maybe I can just clean his life up a bit?’ And so there’s this weighing of choices that she makes without self-pity that makes her, I think, pretty likable. But it was very dangerous; she makes choices that can easily make her snap back into unsympathetic territory, like making love to this man. It’s twisted, it’s a choice that’s like, half of you is thinking why are you doing this and then half of you is thinking well of course she should be doing this, there’s love, it’s beautiful, and who can judge her best than another version of her, I guess. I love that stuff though, that sort of nuance of performance is amazing.
The narrator played by scientist Dr. Richard Berendzen plays an important part in the film. How did he come to be involved?
I was obsessed with him just as a fan. He has audiobooks that I would listen to in my car in Los Angeles; I’m such a nerd, actually – instead of bumping music in my car I’m bumping the physics of space in the car and completely enthralled as I’m sitting in traffic, and Dr. Richard Berendzen narrates the work himself. I admired his voice and the way he creates an emotional narrative about the cosmos which is numbers, math, physics, and yet he tells it in such a poetic way. As we were developing the idea for the film I was listening to it and I thought I should try and meet this guy, like he’s probably some dude who lives somewhere, maybe I can say hello and tell him about the project and maybe he’ll be interested in helping out. And so I found a friend who knew a friend who had his email address or something like that and I wrote him this impassioned email and we met for lunch. He was at first worried it wasn’t going to be scientific enough and he was, like, it’s not scientifically valid what you’re doing although I can see the inspirations in the multiverse and whatnot, but ultimately he saw the purpose was for metaphor – to understand what it would be like to confront oneself, and then he got onboard. He’s such a cool cat and I would interview him for his scenes in the movie – we filmed him for four interviews for several hours each time and for me it was just awesome; I just got to sit down and ask him every question like totally not having anything to do with the movie! I’m like ‘alright so explain how this works – how does space travel really work? How does a pulsar really work or what is…’ and he would just talk for hours and hours and we just took the bits that fit with the emotional landscape of where Rhoda’s character was.
Berendzen’s voice is very distinctive; when I saw the film my first thought was that you’d got Leonard Nimoy to play the narrator.
That’s so interesting that you say that because there’s these choices that I think maybe subconsciously – if I were to say it’s conscious now it’s like constructing a narrative after the fact which is probably not very fair – and I think it’s subconscious at the time but there’s all these influences, and I’m sure the Leonard Nimoy, like, vibe was definitely there. Same thing with the saw – we have a saw that’s used in the film – but it’s also a hat-tip to old-school sci-fi, which is like the sound of a theremin and there’s that vibe that you’re somehow drawn to within the genre or whatever, but wanting to do it with a twist like in a modernized indie way.
The saw plays an important role in a scene between Rhoda and John – did William Mapother actually learn to play it?
He did learn how to play! There’s this woman who plays – her name’s Natalia Paruz and I met her in the subway. She was playing in the subway in New York City and we got in touch and she came – she’s a brilliant saw player – and she trained William how to play the saw! William will be the first to admit he’s not the most musically gifted, but man he hits every single note. Any seasoned saw player would be like ‘he’s playing it right.’ If we played the raw sound captured in the moment it didn’t exactly sound like the recording that we have on top of it, but he did learn how to play it, he learned how to hit the notes and he’s a champion, I’m so proud of him for doing that. It was fun.
Going back to Richard Berendzen’s role, how important was it to you that the science be as authentic as possible?
It was definitely a balance. At first in the script we tried to keep a lot of the science in there, in the realms of our fantasy which is a duplicate Earth. We wanted to keep it at least remotely scientifically authentic, but there was a lot more exposition in the film originally, like how this other planet moved out from behind the sun, what is superior conjunction, how there’s two orbits and how it’s not colliding with ours yet it’s getting closer and closer, and all this was in the assembly edit and I was like, y’know what, anything that’s not emotional I have to cut because it’s just too long; I can geek out about it, like I dig it, like it’s interesting, but it kind of feels like a lesson and not a dramatic story, so I had to cut a lot of that stuff out. But ultimately the movie’s a metaphor, so you want the audience to believe it’s authentic or at least they can get onboard with what’s happening in the film and then after that its poetry more than it is science.
You took the film to Sundance where you won both the Alfred P. Sloan Award and the Special Jury Prize. What was that like?
Sundance was one of the most amazing experiences ever. I think what they’re doing is really, really important and I think this year in particular the programmers – Trevor Grough and John Cooper – they programmed it not based off celebrity, they really did the hard work of going through 10,000 movies and picked 16 movies for competition. And you see these films – I’ve seen most of them now at this point – they’re just such interesting, thoughtful, cool, like new storytelling, and there’s this really cool voice to independent cinema that’s happening now and I think places like Sundance which support that and foster that are so, so important.