Director Mike Cahill's feature debut—which he co-wrote with It-girl star Brit Marling—finds beauty in regret, almost shunning its science fiction mantle.
Note: This interview was originally posted on the filmwax blog.
With Another Earth, Mike Cahill has made his first feature film, from a script he co-wrote with one of the movie’s lead actors—Brit Marling—with whom he previously collaborated on some short film projects. The film tells the story of Rhoda Williams (Marling), a brilliant young woman who causes a car accident with tragic results on the evening it is announced that a second "mirror" Earth has been discovered. After she is released from prison, Rhoda moves back to her family's home and gets a job as a janitor in a local school. Feeling wayward, she enters a write-in contest that is sending the winners to the other planet. Meanwhile, she attempts to reconcile what she has done with the surviving member of the car accident, a composer (William Mapother, Lost) who has sealed himself off since losing his family.
Another Earth is as beautiful and wistful a piece of cinema as you’re likely to see this year. The film has its share of pain and regret, but like the enormous blue crystalline orb that hangs in the sky for much of the movie, there’s also as much beauty and hope.
I ran into Cahill a month ago, just before a screening of the film in Brooklyn. When he learned that I was having trouble talking my way into the sold-out show, he was excited to pull an extra ticket out of his wallet and hand it to me. In keeping, when I e-mailed him a couple of days ago for an interview, he didn’t hesitate to accept.
Filmwax: My predictions are very good for the film. I think it’s the right film at the right time. Not sure what that’ll mean for you from a business standpoint, but I think a lot of people are going to be turned on by Another Earth. I think it’s going to be a hit.
Mike Cahill: Thank you for saying that. I really appreciate it. I feel good. There’s a lot of good energy around this movie. A lot of good will. The response has been really kind. The Q&As have been really amazing all around the country.
Filmwax: When you’re at those events, does it feel like you’re preaching to the choir a little bit?
Mike Cahill:No, not really. Someone told me that if you do a lot of Q&As, you’re going to get a lot of the same questions, that it’s going to feel repetitive. It actually hasn’t at all. New things always seem to come up, new dialogues unfold. It all seems really organic.
Filmwax: Do you consider Another Earth a science fiction film?
Mike Cahill: I get this question a lot. Science fiction is basically the literature of ideas. It existed before film. What is science fiction as we know of it today? Today’s science fiction is mostly about the spectacle, just because anything’s possible with CGI and all the things we can do. And I think some of that is great. District 9 was brilliant, for example. I think there can be spectacle and at the same time deal with what it is to be human.
Another Earth is really just a drama, and then there’s this element of science fiction. A lot of other science fiction films have multiple variables. This film has one variable. But, at its heart, it’s old school, hard core. It twists reality to learn something about humanity.
Filmwax: Are you getting tired or nervous about the question?
Mike Cahill: No, I like the dialogue. The super hardcore science fiction fans really dig it. The folks from the middle ground take a lot of issue with certain things: things like gravitation pull, the orbit, things of that nature. In the end, I decided to let things just serve as metaphors and let the audience suture these two things together. I focused on the emotional.
Filmwax: I think it’s true that the science fiction films that resonate the most are those with a very simple idea behind them.
Mike Cahill: Another good example is La Jetée, the short film that Twelve Monkeys was based on. It was sort of experimental. You can find it online. It’s all about ideas and has nothing to do with spectacle. The whole movie consists of still black and white images, for the most part, yet it is one of the most thought-provoking films. Most hardcore science fiction fans love that film. I love that film. You should totally see it. And Twelve Monkeys, another one of my favorite films, is based on that idea, but of course it was made in Hollywood by Terry Gilliam. But you can see that it was based on a very simple premise.
Filmwax: This is in no way meant to “dis” the fanboy population, but this movie really seems more geared to the indie crowd, the arthouse crowd, though there’s just enough in there for the fanboy element. Here’s a story about redemption and second chances. The science fiction almost, I say almost, feels beside the point.
Mike Cahill: It could easily have been a film without the second Earth. It could’ve just been a drama between this young woman and the man whose family she destroyed. And that could’ve worked. But I wanted to use this other Earth, and all the potential it brings up and for all the questions it might evoke. When you put another earth up in the sky, it forces the characters to deal with their internal struggle. When there’s literally a second self out there, there’s no hiding.
Filmwax: I also thought equally as compelling was Rhoda’s relationship with Purdeep.
Mike Cahill:It was deeply felt. And he was the character who reveals something about her. The idea was that Purdeep had gone through something similar in his past. And we don’t even need to know exactly what it is. But they have this connection because they both have been through something and carry it around with them. As the movie progresses and the idea of this other Earth exists, there’s the possibility that you’re up there and that you might have to confront yourself, that’s too hard for him to bear. And so he literally goes through this obliteration of his senses. He wants to eliminate any possibility of confronting himself.
Yet, Rhoda… there’s this scene once she’s inside John’s house under false pretenses. She realizes that this probably wasn’t a good idea, that it’s dangerous, and she attempts to leave. She surreptitiously makes her way to the back door, and just at that moment she sees her reflection in the window. It’s sort of an homage to The Double Life of Veronique. She sees herself, and the poetry of that moment is that if she goes out that door her life is going to be something different. If she stays she might make John’s life better. So she turns around and stays. She chooses to deal with the struggle, while Purdeep can’t handle it.
Filmwax: You mentioned The Double Life of Veronique. Was that an influence on this film?
Mike Cahill:It was a huge influence. I loved that film. Krzysztof Kieslowski is one of my favorite filmmakers. He tackles the magical within the mundane. His films are considered metaphysical because they deal with the big questions of life, yet he does it in such an emotional, truthful way. It feels like he’s touching upon something divine.
Filmwax: I think it’s about time to see that movie again.
Mike Cahill: It’s one of my favorite films of all time. I was in New York for a random visit some time ago, and there was a screening of it at Lincoln Center. I was so psyched, and I walked all across Manhattan to sit in a theater alone with a bunch of strangers. It was so powerful. I was in seventh heaven.
Filmwax: The ending of Another Earth is perfect. It’s one of those absolutely correct endings. Nothing else would’ve been more truthful.
Mike Cahill: Well, thank you. It’s funny, we approached the story quite linearly, in terms of what was going to happen next. So when we got to the climactic moment, we weren’t sure how we were going to end it until we got to the end. We didn’t conceive of the ending first; we conceived of the concept first. We decided to move along with those characters in sequence just as the viewer would be watching it. We kept asking each other: What is going to happen next?
There were a few different ways to go... When we came up with the ending, we were so excited we were jumping up and down.
Filmwax: Well, we’re not doing any spoiler alerts here. We’ve said enough. The ending is gratifying. It’s rare to go and see a movie, like Planet of the Apes, where the ending really plays with your mind, but is so absolutely truthful.
Mike Cahill: Yes! That’s a great reference. That last moment. It was “Oh my God!” Brilliant.
Adam Schartoff is a contributor to a number of publications and websites on the subject of film. He is also the founder and programmer for filmwax, a film series based in Brooklyn. The series showcases independent film and creates a forum where film lovers and filmmakers can engage. Interested? Contact Adam directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.