Mike Cahill writes and directs singular, provocative stories where science and faith combine — and sometimes clash. In “Another Earth,” Cahill’s college classmate, sometimes co-writer and friend Brit Marling starred as a girl who befriends the man whose family she accidentally killed in a car accident as a planet identical to Earth comes close enough to establish contact. In “I Origins,” Marling plays a scientist who works with her husband in seeking the origins of the development of the eye. Her husband, played by Michael Pitt, is the ultimate man of rationality until developments make him begin to suspect that there may be some things that cannot be explained by reason. He talked to me about science, art, and his own experiences with the supernatural.
Why do you think that science and poetry and art focus so much on people’s eyes?
That’s a great question because eyes are our generation our civilization’s dinosaur footprint, which is to say it is the thing that has some significance but we don’t know what it is. I was once on this Island in Brijuni, and there were these ancient Roman ruins and these dinosaur foot prints right next to them. I realized that the civilization there had risen and fallen while their kids splashed around in puddles of the dinosaur footprints and yet that civilization did not discover dinosaurs. They had mythology, they had stories of dragons, they may have had belief in mythological creatures but they didn’t actually know that two hundred and fifty million years ago, reptilian creatures evolved and then were destroyed by comets or whatever.
The greater significance was never uncovered until recently, in the 1800’s. So the eyes I feel is similar in that sense that we’ve been staring at them, wondering about the mysteries. Creationists call them “irreducibly complex.” They’re fascinating. They never change throughout your lifetime. The cells in your body are flushed every seven years or something like that. But your eyes are the same throughout your entire life, which is insane. And it gives is this magical mystical wonderful thing that we cannot completely wrap our head around but it just captivates us. Our eyes are the window to our soul.
I understand that this film is a prequel to a film that you had already written. Is that right?
Yes that’s right, that is correct. I’m going about it in the weirdest way in the history of Hollywood which is very new to me. I have only made one movie before this. I sold the script for another film to Searchlight and it was called “I.” We were working on that and figuring how to make that. In the meantime, just because I’m a creative person who gets really empty and wants to make something and not sit around, I asked Searchlight, which owned all the rights, if it was possible to make this prequel of this sort of backstory independently and they graciously gave me the freedom to do so and then they ended up buying it. So the next step is to make the sequel now, the original script.
Is that the plan?
In the ideal universe, yes. There is also a life involved.
You have a “stinger,” a surprising little scene after the credits. That’s unusual in a small-budget drama.
That’s my Marvel ending.
You seem really enthralled by the intersection of science and questions that are — at least as far as we know — beyond science?
Right. The metaphysical, the beyond the physical, beyond the testable… I am very fascinated by that, definitely.
And have you had experiences in your own life that you would consider to be kind of supernatural, outside the bounds of scientific explanation?
And do those inspire some of your stories?
A hundred percent yes. I’ve had experiences in my life particularly with finding things. Once I had a vest that was stolen and I had walked thirty blocks through DC randomly and found it again as if I was getting signals sent to my brain. It was very inexplicable… and I am very rational, scientific minded generally.
I think if you are very rational one rational conclusion is that not everything can be rationally explained.
Yeah, exactly and the key to that for me in this film was when Sofi [the model with the eyes the scientist sees on the billboard] describes the worm. Ian [the scientist] is taking a living being which has two senses and modifying it to have a third. The light which is unperceivable and inarticulable and unimaginable to worms, that light influences the world of the worm, the world that is perceivable such as they can smell so the light of the sun and the rhythm of the light of the sun influences like and apple rotting for example which a worm finds pleasing. That light is indirectly influencing the perceivable world of the worm and it’s a horribly loaded word, a spiritual realm, the metaphysical realm is actually a more appropriate word, can very much be interacting indirectly with our world. And we can’t trace things to it, we can’t things and things like co-incidences or those magical moments that you don’t have the words to describe.
Did you study scientists in their labs to get the details right?
I put a lot of research in to make the sciences as bulletproof as possible. Ian’s worm experiment is a real experiment. We also studied others like molecular biologists and neuroscientists and we were invited into a laboratory. Then I brought Michael and Britt with me and the scientists were so gracious. They explained how the experiments worked, the lingo as well as the mannerisms and just the sort of lifestyles. And for me, like I know so many scientists in my life and I admire these people and I know they have often been misrepresented in films and sort of clichéd and I find scientists to be the most exhilarating, interesting, passionate, poetic, funny people; and some of them at least, and real extraordinary and yet ordinary people. It was a really exhilarating moment for me because people who are celebrities in my mind are the scientists, the people with curiosity. We know more on Wednesday than we did on Tuesday only because of scientists. And we can take that for granted because there was the middle ages and the dark periods of civilization where we knew less on Wednesday than we did on Tuesday.
And that does not necessarily conflict with the spiritual. The Dalai Lama is very scientific. He loves science; you give him a watch, he will take it apart and try to figure out how the mechanics of it works. And he really says if there is some sort of scientific proof that challenges the tenet of his spiritual belief, he would change his spiritual belief. I put that in the movie. If you are a person of faith, science should not frighten you at all. We are working on two different realms here.