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I ORIGINS, the second feature film from writer and director Mike Cahill, tells the story of Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), a molecular biologist studying the evolution of the eye. He finds his work permeating his life after a brief encounter with an exotic young woman (Astrid Bergès- Frisbey) who slips away from him. As his research continues years later with his lab partner Karen (Brit Marling), they make a stunning scientific discovery that has far reaching implications and complicates both his scientific and spiritual beliefs. Traveling half way around the world, he risks everything he has ever known to validate his theory.
The film is written, directed and edited by Mike Cahill and stars Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Steven Yeun, Archie Panjabi, Cara Seymour, Venida Evans, William Mapother and introducing Kashish.
In a recent press conference we had the opportunity to chat with Mike Cahill, stars Michael Pitt and Britt Marling to give us further insight on this thought provoking film.
What was the impetus for the film’s concept?
Cahill: This idea was floating around in my head for a decade, but it wasn’t until I met Michael (Pitt) in a general meeting in Brooklyn that the abstraction became concrete. I had a lot of research. I had researched the eye and the fact that eyes are unique. All of us, our irises are unique. I was fascinated by the idea that the eye forms in your mother’s womb and stays that way our entire life. Identical twins have different eyes. If you look at an eye, if you look at the poster, it’s aesthetically beautiful. It feels very spiritual in a way, but it also feels very scientific and feels like a nebula in space. But again, it wasn’t until our general meeting and I had the opportunity to meet Michael… I had admired him from far away as an artist for all the choices he makes. Whenever he’s in a film, I’m super excited to see it because he’s surprising and bold and thoughtful in the role and in the scenes. And so we chatted artist to artist and it was in the middle of the conversation, I swept up in his sense of humor and insights into the world. In many ways, it was very similar to Ian whose purpose is the work and to capture a PhD student whose goal is discovery. Something just gelled and at that moment, I was like “Michael can I tell you a story about the eyes?”
Pitt: He explained to me this story as something he read in a science journal about duplicates coming up and I was like “Wow, this amazing. Is this true?” And he was like “No, I just made it up.” I was like who the fuck is this guy. Then two things came up… One, I wasn’t surprised. I really wanted to read up on it, but there was this weird realization, for that minute as he was informing me that I wasn’t surprised. And then at the end of the meaning, I was like if you can put the audience in the same place you just put me that they believe or want to believe it or just that suspension of disbelief, I think we can do something really cool.”
The film involves this leap of faith, how receptive are audiences to this leap of faith?
Cahill: Throughout history, science and spirituality have collided. This is not a new thing.
Pitt: It used to be dangerous to discover new things. You could be burned at the stake.
Cahill: But I had this feeling that science and spirituality don’t have to be at odds with each other. There is an experiment that Ian Gray does in the film with Karen based on a real experiment, which is modifying worms that have two senses, smell and touch, and modifying them to have vision. Scientists can do that in a lab today. When I learned about that, it blew my mind. It shed a lot a light on how science and spirituality are right on the same plane and that they don’t have to be colliding with one another. The idea that if this worm all of the sudden has access to another world that we knew is there. It’s right there and we know that sound and light are indirectly influencing the worm. The light and the sun are warming an apple and the worm can smell that and through metaphor, you understand how five senses are by no means the limit. That’s too much hubris to say we’re the top this sensorial, perception species. So it follows that there must be more domains.
The concepts of your films are based on these scientific “what ifs…” But these are really just jumping off points for you to tell real character dramas. As a storyteller, how do your characters grow out of the science fiction concept?
Cahill: For me as a writer, concept comes first and then the imperative story within that concept emerges. With Another Earth, string theory and the concept of the multiverse and a duplicate earth and who needs to meet themself the most? And so that’s where the character emerges. With this it’s iris biometrics, the iris returning… Whose story do we need to tell within that paradigm? And so really, again, all this science stuff is just this texture, but the story is about this man who loves deeply and loses that love and then loves again in a totally new and different way and coming to terms with that loss and the different types of love. Which you could tell without science fiction at all, but that just makes it cooler.
Michael (Pitt) can you talk about the way you’ve chosen your roles?
Pitt: What I’m trying to do right now in my career… I’ve been able to work very closely with amazing directors who have taken me under their wing. They’ve had huge resumes and have changed cinema and I’m really trying to be active in working with the new generation of filmmakers, Mike being one of them. Putting what I’ve learned into that and supporting that. Also, being more active in not sitting around and waiting for the projects to come because if you are selective, it can be… Before I did Boardwalk Empire, I just made a film with Michael Haneke who is an amazing director, the most intellectual director I’ve worked with… Some of his films are really hard to watch, it isn’t a pleasant experience. But working with him, this guy is operating on a fucking level it’s unprecedented. After having that experience, it kinda messed with my head a little bit. I’m not gonna work on something unless creatively it interests me and I’m not gonna go backwards after having that experience. And I didn’t work for three years and I was gonna have to move out of my house and then luckily Scorcese gave me that project (Boardwalk Empire). And what was amazing about meeting him, he saw my choices.
Playing aside the lead, what was Karen’s goal in this scientific pursuit she embarks on with Ian?
Marling: A couple of things, I think she’s looking for love and connection, but doesn’t know it. She’s the kind of person who thinks that she’s never going to be understood. No ones ever going to get her ideas or what she’s doing in the lab, so she’s sort of become very private and internal. She meets Michael’s character, Ian, it’s like “Woah,” here’s somebody where we can go toe-to-toe on the ideas and we see each other and it opens her perspective in a way. In terms of the work itself, she’s obsessed with wanting to know. I mean, at one point she says she made a discovery that isolates the gene that causes calyx in mice. Devoting yourself all day everyday to just discovering that takes hard work somebody’s gotta do it. That’s why you’re so admiring of these scientists because they have these lives of total anonymity for the large part; most people can’t even understand what they’re doing. But I think she’s dedicated to the discovery, of course, when she meets Ian’s character it’s like off to the races.