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.]