How’s this for a mind-blowing scenario: A person, here on Earth, gets the chance to meet and converse with his or herself, a second physical version who looks exactly the same yet has followed a different path in his or her respective life. If ever given such an opportunity, what’s the first thing you’d say? Make sure that You Two hasn’t experienced the same drunken, regrettable hook-ups? Bicker over who deserves the credit for such good looks (Represent, narcissists!)? Or trade war stories in hopes of deciding who’s had the better life?
For first-time feature filmmaker Mike Cahill, confronting one’s self is prime territory for redemption, an unconventional way to right past wrongs. Such a fascinating idea is at the center of Cahill’s debut, Another Earth (opening today in limited theatrical release), a character-driven mash-up of ambitious science fiction and minimalist drama.
Starring co-writer Brit Marling, who gives a raw, breakthrough performance, Another Earth focuses on a 21-year-old woman who lives with deep regret; four years prior to the film’s time-frame, she killed two-thirds of a family in a drunk driving accident. At the same time, a duplicate of our planet, dubbed Earth II, sits high in the sky, prompting scientific debates, philosophical inquiries, and an opportunist millionaire to organize an essay-writing contest, the winner of which will be sent to Earth II. Marling’s character, Rhoda, enters, hoping to start anew on Earth II and meet her other self, who, presumably, has reached her potential without having ever committed vehicular homicide.
Another Earth treats its sci-fi as more of a backbone than a crutch, paying more attention to Rhoda’s budding friendship/romance with the surviving driver of her fatal wreck, yet the film’s intricate concepts (executed on a shoestring budget, mind you) push Cahill’s work beyond just another independent romance flick. With the enormous Captain America: The First Avenger and the glossier Friends With Benefits hitting big screens this weekend, Another Earth is the thought-provoking alternative.
Complex spoke with Cahill about the film’s narrative complexities, why his versions of doppelgangers are far less scary than popular culture’s usual interpretations, and how big-budgeted, CGI-powered movies have altered the viewers’ collective perception of science fiction.
Complex: Another Earth recently screened as part of this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, which seems like an ideal place for the film’s sci-fi elements to receive attention. How have the more genre-specific fans reacted to the film so far?
Mike Cahill: With some of the genre people, they kind of hold us to the logical breaks that we do, like with gravitational pull, for example. And it’s interesting, because the hardcore sci-fi people, like the people who love 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Solaris, have responded very positively.
It’s funny, I’m a big sci-fi geek myself; for me, when we were writing the scripts, the elements of making it very, very believable were there, and there was even a scene where water was getting sucked out and these cherry blossoms were floating because of the gravitational pull. [Laughs.] I shot that, but we made the film for, like, $12, so ultimately it looked pretty hokey. I ended up cutting it out; hopefully, audiences will suture that all together and go with the metaphor, more than anything.
When did you and Brit Marling first sit down to write the script?
It was probably about two years ago. I had made this video art piece where I had interviewed myself—I sat down across from another version of myself. And then we were meditating on that idea of, What would it be like to confront another version of you? We were more interested in the emotionality of the idea.
There’s this deep, human, primal yearning to not be alone, or to connect, and, in some ways, a person who has had all of your life history and experiences and knows your deepest fears and desires, that person would probably have the most empathy for you; that connection would be the strongest, even though you wouldn’t have that much to talk about. [Laughs.] Because you know everything about each other. I think it’s more the emotion of feeling OK—feeling like you are connected, in a way.
So we were interested in that idea, and then we extrapolated that concept so that all three billion of us could imagine it; hence, we had another Earth up in the sky.
Did the notion of a second earth arise quickly, or did it take some time for the idea to form into something sci-fi?
That came very much at the beginning, as well. Once we had that concept, of the other Earth and how everybody living up there is also living down here, then we threw around ideas of what would be the most interesting story to tell within it. There are so many stories to tell; we could do a whole television series about this, honestly, following around a different character and their own process of meeting themselves, like a narcissist confronting his or herself, or a self-loather, or a hitman. There are all of these peculiar stories available, but we thought the one that was most interesting was to tell the story of a girl who’s seeking forgiveness and, ultimately, redemption.
That felt like the person who most needed to meet herself, and have that other person take them off the hook, in a sense. And we wanted to show that, which is what we do in the final shot. But I wanted to cut it before there was any… I thought if I held the film’s final shot, it wouldn’t work. I didn’t want there to be any dialogue exchanged between the two.
Since you brought it up, I do want to talk about the ending a little bit, without giving too much away. It’s a very ambiguous final image, one that works incredibly well and sends viewer out with tons of heavy questions. Why was it so important, for you, to nail that ambiguity?
It’s kind of a “feel” thing. For me, movies that are ambiguous but within very specific constraints are the strongest. It’s not so hard to follow; you can suture an idea there. That’s the best kind of movie-going experience; it’s almost like the filmmaker is building a bridge across a river, and they’re laying brick by brick by brick, but it’s too much spoon-feeding if they cross the river completely, and you need the audience to build a couple bricks themselves and connect that bridge.
That participation, and connect of one’s self on screen, is really important. In the film’s final shot, when Brit turns [and sees herself], I didn’t want to show a reverse shot; we never cut back to her eyes, or her reaction, because all of the sudden she passes that off back to us, the audience, and what’s on our face at that moment is essentially what’s on her face. So, the audience is never wrong; the feeling that you have in that moment is the feeling that she has. Hopefully, at least. [Laughs.] If it all works as I intended.
That’s my favorite kind of film-going experience, personally, so I was humbly trying to contribute my own version of that. It’s interesting, I’ve seen the movie about 400 times, and Brit’s performance in that last moment always hits me so powerfully. It’s something that takes your breath away.
When we were making this film, it was very much something that we were making for ourselves and that we’d just show to our friends. It was an artistic experiment to see if we could move each other, our five closest friends. The fact that it got into Sundance was mind-blowing for us, and then the fact that it received a standing ovation, sold to Fox Searchlight, and won two awards… It’s the dream that we didn’t really allow ourselves to dream. It’s been way, overly amazing, and completely unexpected. It’s been incredible, man. Not to mention, a little weird. [Laughs.]
What I found really interesting about Another Earth is how you approached the concept of doppelgangers. Usually, when you see or read stories about second versions of people in TV, movies, or books, it’s a darker subject. The second person signals some kind of doom, or is out to kill the other.
It’s usually much darker, yeah. That’s true.
For example, there’s a great Twilight Zone episode called “Mirror Image” that’s all about malevolent doppelgangers, and it’s one that has always freaked me out. What made you want to take a more optimistic and sentimental approach to the concept?
I’ve seen that Twilight Zone episode, actually, and, yeah, it’s pretty great. The original idea of a doppelganger, as I understand it, was that someone was going down a country road in a carriage and they saw their doppelganger, and it was a bad omen—one of them was going to die. It’s interesting, Krzystof Kieslowski made a film called The Double Life Of Veronique, where the woman has a doppelganger; Veronica lives in Poland, and Veronique lives in Paris, and they see each other once. Then, eventually, one of them dies.
I wanted to take the opposite approach because, again, towards that primal yearning to connect, I feel that to know that your soul is not alone would be incredibly satisfying. And, also, the notion of seeing another version of yourself, someone who perhaps went on a different, more ideal path than you, someone who may not have gotten in a car accident and instead went off to school for four years, not prison… If you were to confront that ideal version of you, and you were the one whose life took a radical shift, is it so obvious, which one of you has had the more profound life? Or is the stronger person now? It’s not.
So it’s a dual thing. It’s the connection of not being alone, and also kind of feeling like you’re OK—that this version of you is alright. Ultimately, the movie is very emotional; it’s trying to work on these subconscious, primal desires. At least that’s what we were trying to do.
The film is very steeped in astrophysics, particularly the work of Dr. Richard Berendzen, who’s featured prominently in the movie. It’s all very interesting. Where does your interest in that field come from?
I’ve been obsessed with both science fiction and astrophysics for a long time. I love Carl Sagan, and the cosmos, and Isaac Asimov. Dr. Richard Berendzen, specifically, has all of these amazing books about the cosmos, and he worked with Asimov and Sagan. I just love his voice; I was listening to an audio-book of his voice, on tape, while driving around Los Angeles at one point, and what he does is he can somehow talk about the complexities of the cosmos in a very emotional, narrative way for the ley-person to really feel it. And that’s something I wanted to capture in the film—that accessible presentation of these complex ideas.
Those elements are in the film’s story, but they’re used pretty sparingly; it’s much more about the characters, not these grand ideas about the cosmos.
Yeah, if you too far then it doesn’t work. Directing is such a balancing act. There was so much more science in the film originally, about the dual ellipses, the multi-verse, and how this other planet was migrating closer to ours. There was all of that stuff in it, and the initial cut was two hours and forty minutes long. [Laughs.] So you can imagine that movie. I realized, though, that science stuff is cool for me but it’s not emotional, so I cut it out in order to make the film 90 minutes and centered on the emotional aspects.
There are drawbacks to that, though. Once you do that, then you really rely on the audience to make the leaps, but at least it makes it tighter emotionally.
On the same token, the film’s sci-fi elements are present throughout, but they’re not overdone in any way. The world that exists within the movie is fully aware of, and invested in, this second Earth hovering above their own, but the movie itself never becomes solely about that paranoia and/or excitement, which I found pretty interesting. For example, there’s a super-quick shot of a guy walking down the street wearing a green alien mask, which reminds the viewer about the underlying sci-fi but doesn’t veer the story off-course.
Right, right. That’s your greatest gift as a filmmaker—one image can act as an entryway into a representation of a whole cultural movement. And it’s great for a renegade, independent filmmaker who’s working without a huge budget, which describes me while making this film to the tee. [Laughs.] You can suggest things without having to hammer over the viewers’ heads.
One of the film’s totally genre-heavy scenes that I especially dug was the “first contact” sequence, where the family is watching a newswoman speak to her other self, via microphone from Earth II; her other version’s voice is distorted, and it’s this really well-done bit of tension, mystery, and creepiness rolled into one.
We based that scene off of the moon landing, actually. Originally, it was inspired by how people watched the moon landing; the everyman and every-woman watched that on television, and there were all these stories floating around of people walking out onto their front porches and staring at the moon. And I wanted to use that point-of-view; when we wrote that scene, it was kind of like a Blade Runner moment: “What is the memory that you have, that no one else has, but that I have?” It worked when we wrote it in the script, it worked in rehearsals, and it works so well in the film because Diane [Ciesla], the lady who plays newscaster, used such an interesting delivery. It’s unusual and powerful.
Another really unique and interesting scene involves the “John” character playing music with only a violin stick and a saw. That combination creates this vintage, old-school sci-fi music feel, like something out of The Outer Limits, and it works quite well.
I saw this… Wow, I saw. [Laughs.] Sorry about that. I was in a subway in New York City, and there was this street-performer woman playing a saw, and I was completely taken by the sound, for a couple of reasons. One, it was sort of a hat-tip to old sci-fi, like you pointed out; also, it sounded haunting and melancholic, like there’s an angle trying to reach up out of the ground—it was beautiful. I wanted to modernize that old-school sci-fi sound.
I also liked the idea that it’s a saw, which is a very aggressive instrument. John’s character, you never know if he’s going to snap at any moment; he’s volatile, and that’s where a lot of the tension comes from. To play a saw, which is so broken and beautiful and fragile, yet is something you can cut somebody’s head off with, I like that juxtaposition of ideas.
The film itself is one big juxtaposition, pairing some really clever and intriguing science fiction ideas with a much simpler struggle between two troubled characters. Yet, much of the press surrounding Another Earth has been focusing on the sci-fi aspects. Does that bother you at all, that the emphasis on its genre elements has shrouded the dramatic sides?
I’m totally cool with that, actually. I love sci-fi; I’m a huge sci-fi fan, and the film has science fiction elements. If you go back and watch the old Twilight Zone episodes, there are no special effects—it’s all about the ideas. Nowadays, some people may say, “Oh, it’s not really sci-fi, because it has drama and romance in it,” and, yes, it is a drama, and it is a romance.
Our common understanding of sci-fi has been so altered by the birth of CG and visual effects; now, you would assume that it needs massive visual effects to be, by definition, sci-fi. But, at its root, science fiction is just reality with a twist, and that twist allows us to understand something more about being human. I think Another Earth harkens back to the old science fiction that I love, so I’m cool with the media’s emphasis on that.
You could subtract the sci-fi elements from the movie and it’d still work as a drama, I think. The sci-fi just allows us to get another perspective on their interior world. Science fiction allows you to zoom in and get an even closer view of the entire world. So take the character’s internal person and make her another physical person entirely brings us closer to understanding her emotionally.