Interview: Another Earth Star Brit Marling and Director Mike Cahill

by | Jul 22nd, 2011 | 1:10AM | Filed under: Interviews, Movies

Not just one of the best science-fiction films of late, Another Earth is also one of the better films of the year so far (that doesn’t have “Tree” or “Life” in its title).

The speculative drama follows a bright young woman, Rhoda (newcomer Brit Marling), and an older composer, John (Lost and In the Bedroom‘s William Mapother), brought together by a shared past tragedy.

As the two strangers slowly come to grips with their own guilt and grief, a second Earth has appeared in the skies above ours. A mirror Earth with exactly the same land masses and city locations—and possibly the exact same people on it. Begging the question, if you could talk to your double, would you forgive yourself?

In addition to starring, Marling co-wrote Another Earth with its director Mike Cahill. At Sundance this year the young actress leapt onto Hollywood’s radar with both Another Earth and a second science-fiction film, The Sound of My Voice, which she also stars in and co-wrote with its director Zal Batmanglij. (The Sound of My Voice will be released this fall.) The convergence has made Marling an indie sensation, but it also highlights the incredible promise of these three new filmmakers.

Driven by Cahill’s clear-eyed visual confidence, anchored by Marling’s riveting performance, and using a simple-but-powerful science-fiction premise to explore themes of redemption, Another Earth is pensive, but also emotionally gripping and thought-provoking: It dabbles in heavy scientific theories, but is primarily concerned with the human heart. Much as Moon did two years ago, the low-budget, truly independent film arrives amid the usual summer overload of hype and special-effects spectacle and proceeds to quietly, powerfully get inside your head and stay there.

I and another writer sat down separately with Marling and Cahill last week in Chicago to talk about their staggeringly impressive first film.


Brit Marling

How did you meet your collaborators Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij?

Brit Marling: As a freshman at Georgetown I saw a short film that Mike and Zal co-directed at a film festival, and it was such a beautiful work—it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. So I basically followed them around campus and convinced them to let me work on a project with them. It’s like a band coming together and finding a unique sound—that is such a rare and lovely occurrence, but you certainly can’t predict it.

Where did the idea for Another Earth originate?

Marling: I love 12 Monkeys and the Chris Marker short La Jette it was based on, and I think science fiction is an interesting way to look at the same human drama that we’ve been watching forever, but from a slightly different perspective. So we wanted to create three science-fiction short films that made up a feature, and one of the ideas was the doppelganger, the idea of duplicates. The other two ideas dropped away, and we asked, “What kind of person in what situation would experience the greatest emotional release out of a self encounter?”

You know you’ve found something that you want to write about because you keep talking about it, and every day you find more things in it that intrigue you. A movie has to intrigue for a long time because it takes the writing time and the making time and the editing time and then being-introduced-to-the-world-time. So you better really want to be discussing these ideas for a while, otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s brain and heart space.

You had to really shoot this film on the cheap and sometimes on the fly.

Marling: Mike and I wanted to film Rhoda being released from prison, but we couldn’t afford a prison, so we just drove around in Mike’s moms car until we got close enough to the front entrance of one. Mike’s filming in the getaway car, and I took a yoga mat and went walking inside and up to the guards. I was like, “Hi, I’m here to teach yoga,” and while they were sorting that out, I just dropped the mat and walked back out as Mike filmed it.

By the time I got to the car the cops were coming. But we said, “We’re location scouts for a very big-budget film,” and so we ended up having tea with the warden as he was selling us on why we should shoot our big-star movie using his prison.

You’ve said you wrote these films in order to provide yourself roles that aren’t about wearing a bikini while getting chased by a guy with a chainsaw.

Marling: It’s hard to find good roles when you’re in your early 20s and you haven’t done a damn thing before. In those other roles you’re being asked to give away a piece of yourself and I didn’t want to do that. I thought, “If I want to stay a girl and be an actor, then I better learn how to write.”

Do you want to keep writing?

Marling: I do, but I think as an actor it’s much greater challenge to lose yourself in someone else’s point of view.  It gives you the greatest sense of transcending just how small and narrow you are.


Mike Cahill

Are you a science-fiction fan?

Cahill: I am. And we’re all huge fans of director Krzysztof Kieslowski—he somehow talks about the divine in a very realistic way. His The Double Life of Veronique is about two women with the same soul and is very much grounded in reality—it doesn’t have any spectacle. So how do you define science fiction? Is it purely spectacle or can it also be magical realism or the metaphysical?

I was especially inspired by the idea that we humans have this primal yearning to not be alone, to connect, and in some ways a double of yourself who’s lived all of your experiences could really connect with you. If you could just look in that other you’s eyes and say “You’re okay,” that could be deeply emotionally rewarding as a human.

What was the production process like for Another Earth?

Cahill: Very organic. Unlike the typical Hollywood route where you package the film and get the stars attached and get all the money, I was just like, “Let’s just be brave and fly to Connecticut to my mom’s house, and we’ll start and see what happens.”

Some might say that’s self-deception, but it’s absolutely essential. If you stop and think about it, it’s like looking down when you’re crossing a tightrope—you can get all freaked out and you’ll fall. But if you just confidently walk forward maybe it can happen. Passion and budget constraints are an exhilarating gift to an artist—you have to figure out a clever way to do it somehow.

You have John play the saw. How did that odd instrument get into the script?

Cahill: I was in the subway in New York City, and I heard this sound creeping through the underground hallways like an angel dying, but in a beautiful way. Putting the saw in the film was a tip of the hat to the theremin that was used so much in science fiction.

But also I loved the idea that the saw is an aggressive instrument—you could chop somebody’s head off with it. William has played these characters in Lost and In the Bedroom who are very intimidating, and you’re not sure if he’s going to snap at any moment. I wanted to put a saw and its haunting and other-worldly sounds in this man’s hands who is going from this dark scary kind of place to the light.

Some viewers come away from Another Earth—especially its powerful final shot—wanting to know exactly what happened and why.

Cahill: One draft of the script had a lot more exposition about the science behind the two Earths, and I thought, “Well, this is interesting to me and maybe to a certain group of people who want those answers,” but then I thought, “Let me just trust the audience that we can make a leap together for poetry’s sake.” In art we build a bridge together. I’ll build a bridge this far across and the audience will build a bridge this far across and we’ll meet somewhere and have something together.

Another Earth opens across the country in select theaters this weekend.

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