I make no secret about the fact that I admire the films of the creative collective made up of Brit Marling, Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, who, in various combinations of the last few years, have been responsible for making ANOTHER EARTH, SOUND OF MY VOICE, THE EAST and the new work I ORIGINS. With the exception of THE EAST, these movies all have their roots in science fiction, but without the usual tropes of the genre. Instead, these filmmakers tell big-idea stories using the intimate films that get to the heart of the characters as they search for some kind of greater meaning. And these films often have two things at play in them: what happens in the movie and what it’s really about. I’m making it sound more complicated than it is, and the resulting works are highly watchable and entertaining.
The other thing these films have in common is that they were all borne out of conversation—not necessarily talks about plot but more about ambitious thought processes that are meant to be the beginning point of discussions among audience members after the film is done. And once these initial conversations among the creative team are done, the script writing then begins.
With I ORIGINS, actor Michael Pitt (BULLY, THE DREAMERS, FUNNY GAMES, “Boardwalk Empire,” and most recently a downright giddy guest spot on “Hannibal”) was brought in quite early in the process and was a big part of the talks that paved the way for the story of a atheist scientific researcher who is trying to prove that sight is the product of evolution and not intelligent design, thus disproving the existence of God. But in the process, he falls in love and discovers a phenomenon that might challenge his very core beliefs about God and other spiritual intangibles. The film maps out a work for this character in which he might have to find out if there’s a way that his scientific world can co-exist with proof that a spiritual world exists that cannot be explained by science.
Cahill and Pitt were in Chicago recently, and we sat down to briefly discuss I ORIGINS and the process that led to it coming to life. The interview took place the morning after I moderated a post-screening Q&A with the pair the previous night. Both conversations were lively, intriguing, revealing, and it’s nice to really dive into a film’s creation like this. Please enjoy my talk with Mike Cahill and Michael Pitt…
Mike Cahill: Yo, Steve. What’s up, man? How are you, dude?
Capone: Very good.
MC: Last night was awesome, by the way.
Capone: Good I’m glad you dug it. I meant to ask you last night, Michael, when we were talking about how far in advance of actually shooting this that you were involved in the discussions with Mike. Have you ever been that involved in a film’s development the way that you were with this film? Or was that a new experience for you?
Michael Pitt: Yeah. For instance, LAST DAYS I was involved in everything for years, for like three years.
Capone: Has that become your preferred method putting a film together?
MP: I think with the right type of actor—and I think that I’m that type of actor—you can develop a short hand with the director. If the two artists vibe, I think you can ultimately get a much better outcome. I know that Scorsese and Bob De Niro worked closely with each other, and those lines sometimes were blurred. You don’t do that with every actor. But I think if the director thinks that he’s going to get a better performance, I think that yeah that works best. It’s also more fun. Mike’s been really gracious about showing me cuts and stuff like that. But it’s fun. It’s more fun.
MC: Yeah, it’s involved. It’s engaged.
Capone: And you feel like you’re invested in it when you are at it from like the germ basically.
MP: Yeah, I try to feel as invested in all my work.
MC: Yeah, I suspect you’re invested in everything.
MP: Yeah, in all my films. But definitely, just this tour alone, we are touring this movie. I ORGINS definitely has got a special place for me. And it has a lot to do with Cahill, and it has a lot to do with the other actors and also being involved from the beginning. I find that like when you’re making these small movies, very often you have people coming in, and they’re doing their work, and money is not in the forefront of why they’re doing the movie. In the end, I think most artists they just want to be involved, and they want to make good work. Very often, I see directors completely take advantage of that in a not so pure way. The great thing about Mike Cahill is that he understands that, and he really, really respects that, and it makes it really easy being an actor to be happy with someone like that.
Capone: I’ve seen almost everything you have done from way back. In fact, I even noticed that tonight at like 3am USA network is playing your “Law & Order: SVU,”
MP: Wow, that’s pretty dope.
Capone: But my point is, I don’t think you can ever be accused of repeating yourself in the roles that you pick. There’s not a Michael Pitt type of role.
MP: Thank you.
Capone: Is that something you deliberately seek out? Do you get bored easy?
MP: Absolutely. I hear actors talking about and complaining abut, “Well they just want me to do this one thing.” And they get insecure and think they’ll never work again, and the truth is that it is really hard. Anything good is hard. I’m happy to hear you say that, because my hope is that it inspires people, and also it makes it easier for actors to make interesting choices, because there have been actors before me who have made it easier for me.
Capone: You’re also an actor that with each new film I think, “Okay now, I know what he’s capable of. Now I’ve seen his limits.” And then I see the next thing, and I’m like, “Oh, wait. That’s what he’s capable of.” Because like I see you in “Hannibal,” and I’m asking myself “Where did this come from?” I’ve never seen you do anything like that before, and it’s so much fun.
MP: Theater. It all comes from theater. It’s a very cliché thing to say, but there’s a lot of things that I’m sort of keeping in my hand. You don’t wanto show everything. But yeah. Really, it comes from theater technique.
Capone: Mike, you’ve said meeting Michael wasn’t about any specific project; it was just a meeting. Have you ever had meetings like that with actors in which you didn't click, and you thought, “I don’t think there’s enough here”?
MP: [laughs] How is he going to answer that?
Capone: I’m not asking you for names.
MC: “Well, this one time…” [laughs]
Capone: I’m wondering if you have a sense before you even agree to it that you think you’re going to have something with somebody.
MP: That’s a good question.
MC: That is a really interesting question. I’ve had a few exciting meetings, interesting meetings with great actors, and I think that’s a very inspiring thing. I see something happens inside me when I meet with an actor, because my brain starts turning, and I start thinking of what kind of movie, if I were to participate in the creation of a movie with this talented person, could we make, and you decide if you can go. I leapt at the opportunity with Michael. But I’m a person whose wheels are turning very often in my head. I have multiple projects in my head. I like to believe I live in a world of rich ideas, so usually I try to think of what I’ve never seen that actor in. But it was only with Michael that that feeling of the urgency of now, and the excitement of “This is very possible right now if we move right now” that I just didn’t want that to pass. I didn’t want it to be like one of those fun, “Yeah, here’s a great conversation. Catch you down the road” things.
Capone: During that meeting at some point did you say “I’ve got this idea. What do you think of that? Where do you think we could go with that?”?
MC: Well I remember I told him the idea, and he said, “Is this real?” And I said, “Yes.” And then I said, “No.”
MC: And then he said, “You know what? If it were real, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
MP: Yeah, when that happened, actually this really, really amazing thing happened, because he explained it, he pitched it to me as this scientific thing that really happened, like a thread in the science world.
MC: As in, kids were being born with the exact iris patterns of people who had died. And there were 70 duplicates that we had known of.
MP: And what was so interesting about that, what happened there was it was blowing my mind, but I wasn’t surprised, man. I really wasn’t surprised.
MC: It was like “Oh, that's how the paradigm’s going to shift.”
MP: And I remember saying after that, after I got over the fact that he tricked me, we started talking about it more, and I was like if we could make a film and put people in a similar state to the one I was in, if you can do that to an audience, it could be a pretty amazing film. Because you realize a couple of things with that. I realized that he was tapping into maybe an unconscious want, a desire that I didn’t even know was there.
MC: Yeah, totally. Wow. It’s interesting you say that, because that’s the heart that moves me or motivates me in writing are those paradigm-shifting things that get to very universal wants. We don’t want die traditionally. In the ether, I think there are these common desires we have just on the state of being human.
Capone: Both of your films are about these literally earth-shattering events or discoveries that will force us to change the way that we think if it really happened, but it wouldn’t necessarily change our lives.
MC: Day to day. Yeah! We still eat, shit, and shower. You have to go about your life. It’s just there’s a new framing. It’s as if there’s a new framing on relationships and sense of identity.
Capone: The science in the film and the jargon, it make the film seem so authentic. Most big-budget science fiction films wouldn’t bother bombarding us with that language, but it makes a big difference. And I think most of it probably is real.
MC: It is. All those experiments are real experiments. Modifying color blind mice to see color i’s a real experiment. Modifying worms that only have two senses to have vision is a real experiment. The PAX6 gene is a real first gene in a cascade that triggers an eyeball in an organism. That research really excites me, that information really excites me, and I don't think we need to be afraid of it. When one experiences a film, you’re experiencing it on multiple levels—an emotional level, an intellectual level, a visual level. And as long as you’re participating in one part of that level, the rest is just more bits of information. ?
Capone: It’s not like you’re asking us to pass a test on it.
MC: Yeah, yeah, exactly. But capturing that authenticity, and even more than just the jargon, what I really wanted to capture that I have not seen on film very often, and I can’t think of a reference, is that spirit. Because in labs across the country and across the world, there are these young guys and girls that really care about discovery. They are passionate about discovery.
MP: Sometimes they’re not even young.
MC: Yeah, sometimes they’re old. True.
MP: There are older people that have been able to hold on to that.
MC: Yeah, they’ve been embedded in it there for years.
MP: It’s such a beautiful thing.
MC: That spirit is alive in the laboratory. Capturing that feeling of making a discovery, even if it is mundane, which Britt’s character says, “When I was lying in bed, I was the only person that knew it was true.” And that sentiment is exciting, because it’s not materialism, it’s not money, it’s not the strange hierarchy of priorities that somehow permeates our culture. It’s putting learning all the way at the top. Expanding what you know, not numbing yourself to the natural world and the spiritual world, ultimately too.
Capone: There was a whole episode of the recent “Cosmos” series that dealt with that first eye popping up in nature, and how it would have just been just light sensitive at first.
MC: Yes. Someone sent me a link to that one. I love “Cosmos.” I can’t believe I missed that. What did they say about the evolution of the eye?
Capone: Well, first of all that it was evolution, that is was a response to having more exposure to light, water-based creatures coming onto land. And it just got more and more in focus.
MC: Yeah. If you think about the millions of species that existed on earth 4 billion years ago, and then one of them suddenly evolved to have a light-sensitive cell. In the land of the survival of the fittest, the one with the eyeball has got the power compared to all the other blind ones. So all of a sudden, nature shifted to where now a days 80 percent of species have vision. It’s rare to find ones that do not.
Capone: What do you want people to leave this movie thinking about?
MP: The sequel [laughs].
Capone: That next movie, that’s right. People may be shocked that you set that up.
MC: Two things come to mind. There are two like big implications that are fun to riff on or take home. You experience a movie, you experience the emotions of the movie as they’re unfolding. Maybe like weeks later, if you think about it, the fun parts that are fun to stew on later are the idea that if the narrative were true in this film, it would mean every single person on this planet is very much connected. They’re like imbedded to each other. They’re all brothers and sisters in some form or another. And that our fear of death should be diminished, should be lessened. We can still be afraid. It’s like jumping off the deep end of a cliff, but you’re going to splash in the water. You’re not going to die. So, those two things would be great. And the best take away of all is that Michael Pitt’s the best actor of this generation. They should think about that.
Capone: I was thinking about it. Thank you so much, gentlemen.