This Friday will see the release of I Origins, the second film from writer/director Mike Cahill (Another Earth). The film stars Michael Pitt as Ian Gray, a molecular biologist who believes that the eyes are the mirror to soullessness. A data driven man, Gray hypothesizes that if he is able to create a seeing eyeball in a lab from scratch, this could scientifically disprove creationism once and for all.
I Origins elaborates on themes Cahill touched on his first film, Another Earth, and shows a progression from a promising freshman effort to a confident sophomore outing. This also represents a welcomed return to the big screen for Michael Pitt, who has been making his contribution to the new golden age of television with shows like Boardwalk Empire and Hannibal for the past few years.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with both Cahill and Pitt in Toronto earlier this month.
How long had you been working on this idea before you went into production?
Mike Cahill: The ideas and concept of the film have been mulling around my mind for many, many years, maybe 12 years, but it wasn’t until I had this wonderful fortuitous general meeting with Michael in Brooklyn that it all became concrete. We had a meeting where we just came together, artist to artist, to chat really, and it was in the meeting that I was like ‘oh I have this one idea’ and then told him about this concept of eyes returning and this character of Ian Gray, a scientist. It was really Michael’s encouragement, or interest, that set on fire my desire to turn it into something. So it was after that meeting that I wrote the script with the optimism and excitement that maybe I’d be able to work with who I think is one of the greatest actors of our generation.
With your films, particularly this one, you’re not obvious with what you’re trying to say, do you ever get any pressure from the studios to appeal to a wider audience?
MC: I’ve been fortunate, this is my second film that Fox Searchlight is releasing, I think as a studio they’re really supportive of artists. The films are not very expensive, they’re very supportive of pursuing art for art’s sake and they really celebrate filmmakers and auteurs there. It’s really great, we made this as an independent film. I haven’t felt the pressures to make it obvious. That is life, to not give the answer is more akin to the authentic experience we have as humans. It would be a lie if at the end of the film we were to say ‘alright everybody, this is the truth. Ready? Get out your pens…” This more captures the human endeavour in pursuit of the answers to the questions, and also the truth of the fact that we, probably all of us, when we’re on our deathbed will be like (snaps fingers) “aw man, we were this close but we don’t have it.” Hopefully there’s something else we can find joy in.
Michael Pitt: When you give the answer, you kind of stifle the viewer’s complexity, their own mind. It’s the same thing with Hitchcock, I think that was one big lesson you can learn from him, is not showing certain scenes. What you don’t show will manifest itself in minds of the viewer and what they can manifest in their own mind is going to be greater than what you can show them. I think that posing the question then asking for the answer allows you to use your mind.
Michael, what drew you to this role?
MP: My only interest is in doing things that are different in cinema or in anything, that’s basically what I’m interested in. One of the things that drew me to this was certainly the director, I don’t see people making the types of films that he’s making, especially in sci-fi. I do look at it as a science fiction film. I think it’s many things; I think it’s a thriller, I think it’s a love story. The sci-fi genre has become about special effects and millions and millions of dollars, what interested me when I saw Another Earth was that it was a very complex thing that he was attempting to do and succeeding without the bells and the whistles. That speaks to someone’s talent. So, generally when I’m picking my movies, or TV roles or whatever, most of the time I’m looking for what hasn’t been done and something that would be surprising. When they called me for Hannibal and said this character cuts off his own face and feeds it to the dogs, I was like sign me up. What I really hope is that I inspire people to take risks and to do things that push the envelope. To be secure in making those decisions and being secure in doing things that are different is maybe the hardest thing in the world to do. Some of the greatest people, greatest scientists, greatest artists, greatest politicians, are the people that do exactly that.
You had an executive producer credit role on this film, and a writing credit on an upcoming film, is it becoming more important for you to have more control over the projects you’re in?
MP: It’s less about control, it’s more just about getting credit. It’s more about reaching a stage in my career now where I’m getting credit for those things. Ron Howard said something in an interview that stuck out to me, maybe before I really understood what it meant. He said that some of the best actors are writers to the core. They might never put pen to paper or touch a typewriter, but innately they are writers, you are writing your story. It sort of goes without saying with some directors that I’ve worked with that that is part of your job. They’re looking at the whole blue print and they want to keep this whole thing on track, and you’re one character in that, you can really make that character three dimensional and if you’re doing that then the whole thing is going to be a greater experience. Directors that see that and aren’t intimidated by that are usually more secure in their talents, from my experiences. Mike sees that, Mike wants that from his actors. Someone like Gus Van Sant wants that from his actors.
MC: Michael, from the moment I met him, then when we started workshopping, he dove so deep into this character. We had a really great opportunity to go spend some time with some scientists at John Hopkins, the molecular biologists, and I got to witness him. The process was amazing, how he would sponge up everything that they were doing. How they were speaking, the mannerisms in which they would handle the various experiments. One time he asked Phil Smallwood, who’s a brilliant scientist, he said can you just extract DNA and don’t mind me, I’m just going to watch you do the most mundane thing that you do every day for seven hours. Michael would just take it all in and when he would do it, it was like that essence was captured somehow and that ability to create a character from scratch, or from a few words on a page, to turn that into something that is real is one of the greatest privileges to witness and to be able to capture and put into a film.
MP: The other thing that was really amazing, was Mike was really open to camera testing, to workshopping, and it feels good to be on the cutting edge of what filmmaking is going to become. We’re in a different time. We’re in time where you can shoot video on phones, a young kid can run an editing program, we’re in a very accessible time. To work in that way and not to pretend that that doesn’t exist and just continue in the same patterns of how we make films is very exciting to me.
I remember being very impressed by your performance on Law and Order: SUV in 2002, has your process changed since then?
MP: I remember doing that, and that in particular was really simple in fact, because on television you fall into a formula and the actors that do it fall into a formula or the people there don’t have the power to say be more free. All I did in that instance was do nothing and just act and just be. When you do that, the other actors around, whether it’s their decision or not, a lot of times it’s not their decision, are putting on a schtick or a way of acting and it makes what you do very obvious. When you look at Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, you see a performance that’s good today, and it’s not dated, at all. Everyone around is like (exaggerated gangster voice) “what’re you a wise guy?”, everyone else has got this way, there’s a way to do Shakespeare and that becomes part of it. If you can get to a point where you’re brave enough and also crazy enough where you can try to break those things down, once people start to understand it, I believe they love it.
Where did the idea of the repetitive elevens in the film come from?
MC: Ian’s character is one who is a scientist who believes in data and coincidences don’t fit into the playbook for a scientist. It seemed like the one thing he would not do is follow a series of repeating elevens, and especially to do that early on in the story seemed counter his character, but that was actually really important to reveal the three dimensionality of his character. 95% of his being was like “I’m not getting on that bus, I’m not following a weird string of symbols or numerology” but 5% of him overrode and brought him on that bus. Again, credit to his (Pitt’s) brilliant ability and performance, that unfolds authentically, it doesn’t ring out as false.
MP: It wasn’t easy either, we discussed that a lot. It was something within my character that was really hard for me to grapple with.
MC: Because it goes against the bulk of his being, yet for me it was important to have that crack, almost like string on a suit that if you start pulling you’ll unravel the entire thing and he was afraid to do that. Sofi points that out, you have this ability, but you’re afraid to confront it, ultimately he will confront it. So that was a way to show the string, and the way he rationalizes it, as a scientist, is by saying 4.5 billion years ago the greatest coincidence of all happened which was that RNA and DNA forged life in the primordial soup. We’re products of coincidence in a way, so that’s him taking this metaphysical, spiritual thing and trying to rationalize it in a way that his character might do.
Do you have plans for a sequel?
MC: If the opportunity arrises there’s more material. Definitely the same characters would have echoes or perhaps be in there.