This year’s Sundance Film Festival offered a lot of pleasant surprises but one of the movies that really blew people away was a tiny-budgeted indie drama with a science fiction premise that introduced us to filmmakers Mike Cahill and Brit Marling called Another Earth.
Marling stars in the movie as Rhoda Williams, a young woman jailed after a drunk driving accident that kills the wife and son of composer John Burroughs (William Mapother from “Lost”). After she’s released, she tries to get her life back together but in an attempt to get closure, she approaches the sullen John pretending to be a maid service, and the two of them get closer with him unaware she was driving the car that killed his family. At the same time, an identical earth has been discovered floating in space and when communication is opened with the planetary doppelganger, it’s discovered that “Earth 2” is inhabited by identical versions of everyone on our earth, opening all sorts of possibilities for both Rhoda and John.
Marling didn’t just star in the movie but she also co-wrote and produced it with Cahill, who shot and edited the movie himself, making the production a simple two-person operation that’s nearly unheard of even in this day and age. There’s actually a third component to this team, Zal Batmanglij, whose movie Sound of My Voice Marling co-wrote and appeared in; it also premiered at Sundance and will be released by Fox Searchlight later this year. (By pure coincidence, Fox Searchlight is releasing another Sundance favorite Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was produced by another “film collective,” the guys of Borderline Productions.)
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to Cahill and Marling a few weeks back, but something unfortunate happened during this interview as halfway through the interview, we looked down and saw our recorder flashing “Battery Low” and it had stopped, so we lost a good four or five minutes of the interview sadly at a time when things were really rolling in a good way. Hopefully the rest of the interview makes up for it.
ComingSoon.net: It was interesting to see the buzz for both your movies building over the course of that first week of Sundance. Most of the journalists who go there don’t really know what to expect from some of the smaller movies, and this is one of the ones that really exploded after its premiere. It must be wild to have two movies you co-wrote at Sundance.
Brit Marling: I think it was just like a happy accident. We got really lucky. The three of us had been making movies together for a long time. In fact, Mike and Zal made a film. When I was a freshman at Georgetown, there was a film festival, and it was beautiful, lyrical, interesting and substantiative film, it blew everybody else out of the water. It won first place and Mike and Zal got on stage to accept the award, and I was just like (in a dreamy voice) “Who are these two guys?” I was smitten.
Mike Cahill: And we were like, “Who is that girl?” and it all worked out.
CS: So Georgetown is the connection where you all met? You don’t usually hear about a lot of filmmakers coming out of Georgetown, so was it just a coincidence that you gravitated to each other?
Cahill: Yeah, we kind of found each other I think. There was a small community of film-loving/goers at Georgetown. It’s predominantly known for politics and business and international relations, this school, but it’s growing over the years. It’s becoming more and more film-friendly, I think they have a big digital art and film lab, but at the time while I was there–because I’m a bit older than her, I graduated when she was a freshman–there was one computer that had editing (software) Premiere on it. That’s where I learned how to edit in the basement of the library on the editing machine.
Marling: It’s so funny for me to think of you learning those things, because I feel like you were born with that. It’s such a weird thing to say but Mike can do everything, so it’s funny to think of… it’s just amazing. (Laughs)
CS: How did this particular movie come about? Did one of you just throw out the idea and you decided to roll with it?
Cahill: It was a process that unfolded together. It’s hard to even know where it originated from, but we talked about the larger concept first, the concept of the other earth, the macro story, and that stemmed from the single idea, “What would it be like to meet yourself.” We were meditating on the notion that all our relationships are inter-personal except the one we have with our self. We have this running monologue inside our mind, which is definitely a relationship that we have but it’s internal, and we toyed with the idea of what would it be like if that were externalized, like a doppelganger, but instead of having a single doppelganger, what if the entire world had that possibility and what if you could imagine yourself, what would you feel? So we had this concept of another earth, and even started figuring out how to do the visual FX for it, just simple things like, “Okay, we’re approaching this film, it’s a no-budget or modest budget. It’s a very small film. What can we do with our resources and still make something special?” So once we figured out how to do those kinds of things, we thought, “Okay, we can tell this story. What story should we tell? What’s the drama that we should embed in this backdrop that’s the most meaningful?” As we discussed it, we thought, “Okay, you can tell the story of a narcissist who meets themselves. You can tell a story of a self-loather meeting themselves. You can tell the story of a gangster who meets themself.” There are so many different stories that can unfold, but we thought, “Who most needs to confront themselves?” and the story of Rhoda Williams, this young bright girl who does this horrific act and really her antagonism is the guilt for it. Society punishes her with prison; it doesn’t alleviate the guilt. Then she goes on this mission to try and fight the guilt, and ultimately, she needs to forgive herself, and so the whole movie meditates on that idea.
CS: And the irony is that you don’t actually have anyone meeting themselves in the movie, even though you set up the potential and possibilities of that.
Marling: That’s such an interesting thing to say, because I think it’s often more about the contemplation of something than it is the thing directly. Sometimes I think what happens in the movies that try to deal with metaphysics or talk about the universe or the unknown, they try to look at it too directly, and looking at it directly is like looking into the sun. It blinds you, you can’t see anything, but if you look slightly to the right or slightly to the left, you can maybe catch a bit of the mystery of what it means to be alive and the mystery of these cosmos. I think the movie is using this epic conceit but it’s never taking it literally. The moment that you translate it to a literal thing, you lose the imagination’s ability to conceive of all of these things and emotionally feel these things. I think we always thought about it more as a way for suggesting mystery rather than trying to nail it to the wall.
Cahill: Exactly. I think that’s totally accurate.
CS: Do either of you read comic books? I’m sure someone must have told you about the whole DC Universe Earth 2 thing…
Cahill: I just started hearing about this, yeah. They have another earth.
CS: Right, and I wondered about that because if you read comic books and you see this movie, you’ll immediately think, “Oh, Earth 2″…
Marling: I didn’t know about that.
Cahill: I didn’t know about that either.
CS: You’d have to be a real comic book geek to know that they have different versions of the same heroes…
Marling: Oh, that’s interesting. (Pretty sure she’s just humoring us.)
Cahill: Are they alternate versions of the same people there?
CS: Yeah, that was their way of rebooting the heroes in the ’60s because they said that the versions that were around in the ’40s were on another earth. I was curious whether either of you had heard about that.
Cahill: Do people see that as a save like, “Okay, there’s another earth…”?
CS: It is what it is.
Cahill: Got it.
Marling: We also didn’t know about all of Brian Green’s theories about another earth. He wrote this book called “The Hidden Realities of the Universe,” and he talked about multiverse theory, which is the idea that because there are a finite number of particles, if you shuffle that deck infinitely, you’re bound to repeat the same order of cards or particles, so you could have a duplicate earth. We didn’t know about that when we were writing this, and then afterwards, somebody sent us a review of the book, and we were like, “Oh, my gosh! There’s a physics and mathematical founding for this totally ”
Cahill: Technically, the two universes wouldn’t be able to be visible to one another, the two earths, but a little twist in our artistic license.
Marling: Our license of fiction.
CS: I assumed one or both of you had some sort of physics background while I was watching the movie. The narration was clearly from someone who knows his stuff, so did you just do a lot of research beforehand?
Cahill: There was a great deal of research, and there’s this fantastic astrophysicist named Dr. Richard Berendzen, the head of NASA space…
And this is when our batteries died, which was a real shame, because they had some great things to say about how they met with Berendzen and talked to him about the concept of there being another earth with identical humans on it. Brit talked about how the scientist was able to explain concepts of astrophysics in an emotional way that could be understood by laymen and they simply recorded their conversation and used some of it as narration for some of the more haunting scenes of the film. We also started talking about her co-star William Mapother and why he was such an interesting choice for the role of John, being that he hadn’t really done anything like that role previously. That’s when we realized our batteries had mysteriously died and sadly, the flow of the interview was quickly killed as we scrambled to get new batteries and continue on.
We rejoin the interview in progress…
Cahill: So for William, part of his attraction to the role and part of the reason I really wanted him to play the part was because this is an unusual role for him. He typically goes from dark to darker–and I say that tongue in cheek but that’s true–and here’s a role where he goes from dark to lighter. One of the beautiful things about William as a person, he has this warmth and this brightness that I was so excited to see it go there. When he and Brit play off each other, through these brilliant performances, they draw that out of one another. To see him go from this particularly intimidating character to someone who gradually achieves joy through this woman, but it’s complicated joy. It’s a joy that only exists if you do not acknowledge the past. It’s a joy that only exists in this present moment with no history and that’s where it gets complicated. The moment they make love, it’s so scary and complicated because you can see that it’s taking the present to the highest level but with the acknowledgement of the past, it’s the lowest level, it’s the worst and she wrestles with that. It’s like falling deeper into the rabbit hole.
CS: What were the logistics of shooting this movie because it was obviously low budget and you had to add a lot of FX later. How long did it take you to shoot all the stuff in the house?
Marling: We got luck about the house part because our friend James, that was his space in upstate New York and it was cool because it was very removed from everything. There was no cell phone reception there, so we just went up there with maybe a crew of 12 people, shot for 15 days and we were just sequestered there in this little town called Bovina in the middle of the Catskill Mountains. We couldn’t call anybody, so there was no talking to anybody from home.
Cahill: It was kind of like summer camp for moviemaking.
Marling: And we all bunked up at this inn together and Phaedon (Papadopoulos), the associate producer, would make breakfast every morning around this farmhouse table, and all 12 of us would come and eat food and then we’d leave all the dishes and then I’d come in and spend all day cleaning up the dishes from the cast and crew. That’s the kind of handmade love that’s in this movie.
CS: You both have so many roles in this movie which isn’t very common, so does that mean it takes longer once you’re done shooting to do all the post-production?
Marling: It did take longer, yeah, definitely… (laughs) But there’s something cool about that, because this story evolved. It began as one thing and even by the end, it was something else.
Cahill: It was tighter.
Marling: Tighter and more beautiful. It is the most beautiful thing to collaborate with someone on something so deeply, because like we began the conversation, a lot of the story came from the feeling of being alienated in the world and wanting yourself. We can’t have that but I feel like I have the next best thing in that I got very lucky in my life to meet an artist who moved me so deeply and then get to make art with that person. It’s one of the most rare extraordinary beautiful things that can happen to you. It is the most beautiful thing. I feel lucky for it.
CS: Usually, a movie might have a separate writer and director or a writer/director and then there’s collaboration with the actor but never something this close where it’s literally two people from beginning to end. I know with “Sound of My Voice,” you have a similar thing going with Zol. It’s very uncommon to have that once, let alone twice.
Marling: I guess it is uncommon, but I think we’ve all been making films in this way for so long, and I think also as an actor, you feel really lucky to trust someone so deeply. I trust Mike with my life, so that’s amazing, because that’s just the depth of our friendship, but then also as a performer, I know his genius as an artist and a filmmaker so deeply. I have witnessed it for so much of my life in everything he’s ever made, every piece of video art, every painting, that as a performer, you just get to surrender to that and I feel completely safe. I know when we got on set that Mike’s confidence comes from a place that’s the truth. He just has a vision and knows what he’s making and then you as a performer get to surrender to that and live in his point of view of the world for a while. It’s a beautiful thing and it’s hard to find that. It’s extremely rare and I feel really lucky for it.
CS: One of the controversial things about the movie is the way it ends leaving things open-ended. I know you’ve talked about doing “Sound of My Voice” as part of a trilogy, so is this a world you’d want to revisit as well?
Cahill: We’re going to do “Another Earth Part Deux.”
Marling: “Another Another Earth.”
Cahill: It’s one of those things where – I don’t want to give away the last scene, but I hope it’s something that allows people to tell their own stories personally, too. It creates a mirror for all of us hopefully. I think there are possibilities of other stories to be told within this paradigm, but I also think those stories can also be made from the audiences, something that springs up from… maybe in the morning when you’re looking at yourself in the mirror brushing your teeth, maybe you’ll feel that same sort of impulse, like “What would it really be like to confront myself?”
CS: So there’s temptation but you’d rather go do other things. Are there other things you’re working on together that you’ll want to start doing?
Cahill: Yeah, yeah. We’re going to collaborate for sure on many different things.
Marling: Yeah. (giggles mysteriously)
Another Earth opens on Friday in select cities.