Mike Cahill & Brit Marling Explore Another Earth

It was at Georgetown University where Brit Marling, Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij met. Marling and Cahill were studying economics; Batmanglij archeology. But all three were drawn to the performing arts, with Brit eventually taking on theater arts as a second major and the men exploring different aspects of filmmaking.

Flash forward about ten years. After several short films, an acclaimed documentary (Boxers and Ballerinas) and work for National Geographic Films, the trio has two films on their way to theaters, both distributed by Fox Searchlight, home to such successful indies as Slumdog Millionaire and Juno.

Down the road in the fall will be Sound of My Voice, directed and co-written by Batmanglij, and starring (and co-written by) Marling as an alleged time traveler who starts a cult in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley that attracts the attention of two documentary filmmakers.

But first up is Another Earth, directed and co-written by Cahill and again starring (and co-written by) Marling who plays Rhoda Williams, a high school student involved in a tragic accident that occurs at the same time another planet—the spitting image of Earth—is  discovered in the solar system. The two events eventually align, as Rhoda attempts to change her life and that of John Burroughs (William Mapother), a composer and music professor whose life has been greatly impacted by the accident.

(To tell any more about this haunting film’s plot would require a SPOILER warning. While we tried to avoid giving any details away, the interviews here do allude to specifics that occur in Another Earth, so be forewarned.)

Cahill and Marling recently visited Philadelphia, where they fielded questions about their burgeoning careers, no doubt helped by the impressive sendoffs they received at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where both Another Earth and Sound of My Voice made major waves.

Cahill, now a Brooklyn resident, is an amiable fellow sporting a beard and long hair. He seemed genuinely jazzed about the attention his multi-layered feature film debut has received. He’s working on several future projects now, including a film on reincarnation.

MovieFanFare: Were you a fan of science-fiction films coming into Another Earth?

Mike Cahill: I am a big fan of thinking man’s science fiction films, but more of a fan of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique. It had a profound, huge effect on me. It was about a girl who had a doppelganger and a duplicate soul. There’s this primal yearning that we have to not be alone in the world, although we see the world through our own perspective, through our own eyeballs. It’s like a fantasy to have a connected soul and we wanted to take that idea and extrapolate it so that everyone in the world can experience it, so all 6.3 billion of us are duplicated. So you can sit down in front of yourself and confront yourself.

MFF: The film has a very striking look, with dark colors and handheld camerawork.

MC: I wanted to approach it like cinema verite and employ the syntax of realism, which is Dogme 95 camerawork. The aesthetic choices in the tone derive from Rhoda’s point of view. During the rest of the film, the shots are wider, and we emphasize the loneliness of her character. I used colder colors, blues and grays, as two characters begin to blossom towards the end of the film.

MFF: Did the low budget dictate the way you shot the film, or the fact you directed it, shot it and edited it all yourself?

MC: I did them as a necessity. It was a guerilla low budget film when we started. Then producers came aboard, but it was still tight. In retrospect, it feels like an artistic brushstroke for the film. I like to touch the camera. I like to have the film’s aspects—rhythm and pacing—created through editing, seeking out authenticity, dialing forward and backward the performances based on where we are in story.

MFF: Can you tell us about the schedule and the particulars in how Another Earth was shot?

MC: We started with me and Brit writing the script. We shot for eight days at my mom’s house, which is (the character) Rhoda’s house in the film. We came up with an aesthetic tone and shot different scenes from the film. We set it up like dominoes. In a production you set up the dominoes—the script, the producers, the money, the cast—then you push the dominoes and watch them go and you have a final film at the end. For me, we had two or three dominoes and said let’s push the first one and hope we can run fast enough so we can insert the rest of the dominoes by the time we get there. So we shot like half the movie without (lead actor) William Mapother. Without the male lead cast in the film, we shot a chunk of eight days. Then producers got involved. They gave us a micro-budget but enough to keep going. We got a casting director.  We shot over a course of a year in chunks. Like ten days there, fifteen days there, ten days there—over the period of a year. So you see actually all the seasons in the film.

MFF: Can you talk about the writing of the script with Brit Marling?

MC: Before we were on the set, we just had writers’ hats on. We worked out all the Rubik’s Cubes of the story, and wove together this macro-science/spectacle backdrop with this micro-tender/complex human drama. So we would work out all the details of that, and that was an exhilarating six months. But then when we went to shoot, we would take those hats off, and take our places where I was the director and she’s an actor. What’s great about Brit is that she did six months of homework on that character, so she knew Rhoda so deeply and so profoundly—if you would ask her ‘what did Rhoda do on her seventh birthday,’ even though it’s not in the film, she would know, because that’s how deeply she focuses on building her character. She brought so much to the table, it was a pleasure. For 20 minutes of the film there’s no dialogue. It just reads on her face, and she carries every beat in the scene and in the sequences. It’s done just so precisely you get it just a look or glance.

MFF: What was the starting off point for the idea behind Another Earth?

MC: It started with a bigger concept: What would it be like to meet yourself? I did a video art project where I meet myself. Then we expanded it.

MFF: It’s a simple concept, but many questions can be raised from that.

MC: Yes. Like: Who needs to meet themselves most?  Should it be a narcissist who makes out with himself? Or people who are fighting? All these stories can evolve, 6.3 billion stories really.

MFF: And then there’s the idea of Another Earth involving Rhoda’s character?

MC: What about someone who needs to forgive themselves, someone who had done something really bad and is seeking redemption and can only find it within?  It was the larger idea first, then the smaller idea.

MFF: And where did you get the idea for having an alternative Earth?

MC: It was inspired by the moon landing. If Hollywood approached it, the focus would be on a rocket blasting away and special effects and all that. But the regular person experiences this by watching it on TV. People would watch the landing and walk out onto their front porch and they would stare out at the sky and the moon and feel a connection. We wanted to tell a story like that, the Everyman and Everywoman who have to keep going about with their lives, with this as a backdrop to let them reflect on the meaning of their lives.

MFF: Another Earth has an intriguing ending, which caused a stir during a recent screening. Is there a definitive meaning of it?

MC: There is a definitive idea, because Brit and I came up with it as writers. But I don’t want to say what it is, because it has opened the door to a wider interpretation, which is fun. I don’t want to steal that from audiences. I can tell you that, in the text of the film, there’s enough to understand what the final moments really mean.

In keeping with the theme of Another Earth, here is Brit Marling with her alternative take on acting in and working on Another Earth. Blonde, girl-next-door beautiful and fiercely intelligent, Marling was the “It” Girl of Sundance in 2011 with screenwriting and lead acting credits in Another Earth and Sound Of My Voice. Currently residing in Los Angeles, the actress recently completed a role in Arbitrage with Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth and appeared in an episode of the sitcom Community. She appears genuinely enthused about talking about Another Earth in Philadelphia, just around the corner from where some of the key scenes from 12 Monkeys, one of her favorite films, were shot.

Movie FanFare: What prompted you to act and write screenplays?

Brit Marling: I’m an actor who decided the quickest way to act was to learn to write. The problem with acting has always been having to wait to be cast as something. A painter doesn’t have to wait to practice their craft. All they have to do is lock themselves in a room. Writing is great because you get to create the kind of characters that would be a push for you. I’m very different from Rhoda (the character she plays in Another Earth). You get to find pieces of your humanness you didn’t know were there before.

MFF: What was the biggest challenge of the film for you?

BM: The biggest challenge was that this terrible accident happens in the beginning. The toughest thing was to not show the character wallowing in this unbearable grief and self-pity. I didn’t want Rhoda to be this way. I was looking for her grieving to be active. I didn’t want her to be a victim of what happened to her, but I wanted her actively trying to do something to change her situation and make good of what is going to happen. There are so many moments in the film where you see her unraveling and sort of say, “I can’t bear the weight of this.” To try to find ways to make her a warrior against this, that is challenging.

MFF: Can you talk about your co-star, William Mapother?

BM: William becomes so committed. We did rehearsals beforehand and we would set up four-hour rehearsals when he was off from Lost and he did them, after he worked on Lost for eight hours! He thinks everything through.

MFF: What made you want to mix writing and acting?

BM: I took the starving artist thing seriously. I was a double economics-theater arts major. I saw a movie that Mike made with Zal and I was so moved by the film. Mike does everything: story, shoots it, edits it.  It’s an amazing thing to meet someone early on you want to work with. It’s like bandmates finding each other. I felt that about Mike and Zal, both of them. It was like this is what I want to do for a living. The question was how do you do it?

MFF: Well, how did you?

BM: I started going out on auditions, and realized pretty quickly as a non-SAG actress in your early twenties who has never done anything ever before, that nobody is going to cast you. Why would they take the risk? Like the stories you read for are movies I would never go see, I’d never want my children to go see, and never have anyone else you know go see them, so why would you spend a year of your life working on them, when time is so precious?  Why would you even give a month of your life up for that?  I realized that if I wanted to act, I was going to have to write. So we started writing together.

MFF: Are there any movies that have influenced you either as an actor or writer?

BM: The actress in Lust/Caution (Wei Teng) comes to mind. The most impressive are those that use an absence of performance. You never catch them acting. They are just being. Vanessa Redgrave always sucks me into the illusion. The performances in There Will Be Blood. On a writing level, I love 12 Monkeys and movies that are really entertaining and leave you with something. You walk away with something when you leave. You are not just distracted or plugged into the system. Those are films I love to watch and films I want to be involved with.

MFF: What’s your approach to acting? You are in practically every scene in Another Earth and the film rests on you and your performance.

BM: Uh-oh. Well, I see two schools of acting. One is facileness—people who have the gift for playing pretend and make believe, and have a gift for showing up on the spot, and have no problem worrying about whether they are giving a good performance. They have no ego. They feel that “People love me.” That’s a gift in itself. But the performances I respond to the most are where there’s real artistry and how thoroughly the person has lived in the character. If the illusion is so complete then they have found the truth, not of what you think in that moment. That’s where the insight comes from. I sense that’s Anthony Hopkins. That’s what really grabs me.

MFF: The ending of Another Earth has caused much discussion. Mike Cahill has told us where he stands on it. How about you?

BM: Well, I hope you don’t give away the ending.

MFF: Never.

BM: That’s good. Well, his take on it is coming from his point of view and I am coming from an actress’s point of view, so we will even have different interpretations of everything happening in the film on some level. That is my favorite part of filmmaking, when you trust the audience’s imagination. 12 Monkeys does that so well. It points to something you can’t totally understand and it fills you with a sense of wonder at all that is happening. That is what I like to see. We’re trying to make those movies too—movies that have you fight at the car ride coming home from the theater and during dinner.