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.