HDD's Interview with 'Another Earth' Director and Co-writer Mike Cahill

Posted Thu Jul 28, 2011 at 11:50 AM PDT by

Now in theaters with a small but expanding release is 'Another Earth,' Mike Cahill's debut feature film about mistakes and the hope of finding redemption. 'Another Earth' premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, the Special Jury Prize and was quickly acquired by Fox Searchlight.

In 'Another Earth,' Rhoda (Brit Marling), a bright teenager with a promising future, makes one bad decision that ends up taking the lives of a woman and her little boy, leaving behind a widowed and childless father. Although eventually released from prison, Rhoda has never been released from her guilt.

Just before the tragic accident, a mirror version of our planet, deemed “Earth 2,” was spotted in the night sky. On Earth 2, we all exist. The potential that there is a world identical to ours, where Rhoda didn't make that same mistake offers her hope of refuge.

After entering an essay contest that will award its winner with a free trip to Earth 2, Rhoda needs to find temporary relief while waiting to find out if she won. To relieve her troubled mind, she decides to try and correct her mistake by helping the husband and father whose life she destroyed. Keeping her identity a secret, she forms a valuable bond based in lies that helps the pull the both of them out of the depths of despair.

Mike Cahill not only directed 'Another Earth,' but he also served as co-writer and co-producer with long-time friend and star of the film, Brit Marling.

Luke Hickman - HDD: 'Another Earth' has a very interesting concept. Can you describe how it came about and who came up with the idea?

Mike Cahill: Brit and I have known each other for forever – well, since Georgetown – and … when we were at school, we made a lot of short fictional films. Then, after that, we made several documentaries. About two and a half years ago we wanted to make our first feature fiction film (laughs) and I think we were interesting in the idea – the emotional idea – of what it would be like to meet one's self. … We have all these relationships – our friends, our family – and they are external relationships where you can observe a person, judge a person … so we were curious what that would feel like if the relationship that you have with yourself became externalized, and you could see that person? … What would you feel about that person? Would you like them? Dislike them? … Hate them? And, in this movie, would you be able to forgive them? So we created this spectacle of the other Earth, this high concept where all 6.3 billion of us have the possibility or can imagine the possibility, and we told the story of a girl who is seeking redemption and ultimately needs to forgive herself. … It was a very organic writing process where the two of us wrote it together for about six months.

HDD: Now that you've done a feature and a documentary, is there one that you prefer more than the other?

Mike Cahill: They are both beautiful art forms … I think I prefer fictional films in the sense that there's a great deal of control over the storytelling. In documentaries, you don't know how it's going to unfold. With a fictional film, you can really craft something that comes from the heart. … The way movies work, pictures and sound, brick to brick to brick is laid together over a sequence of time and we're trying as an experiment to get this emotion across of empathy to the self. … I really love fiction films. I love fiction film that are fantastical too, like reality with a twist. It allows you to zoom in on the human condition in some way.

HDD: It seems like there was a pretty large amount of research went into 'Another Earth.'

Mike Cahill: Ever since I was a kid I was very much obsessed with space. I used to watch Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos' and read Asimov. There was this astrophysicist named Dr. Richard Barrinson who I really admired. He has this audiobook called 'Pulp Physics.' In his way, he was able to describe the complexity of the universe, the multiverse, the … cutting edge mathematical idea that the universe in a way that was an emotional narrative so that the layperson could really access it. I reached out to him in particular to see if he would be involved and help us, guide us, with the science. He understood that the science was the starting place. Ultimately, we were using it for metaphor – the idea of confronting one's self. Cutting edge theoretical physics seems to propose that there's a multiverse, that every possibility of us has to exist mathematically. It's interesting. We used a lot of artistic flourish and poetry in our way of approaching it. … It's interesting that in the earlier version of the script, there's a lot more of the science in the film, but I … cut a lot of it out just because it was more expositional and it felt like science class and less emotional. I like the mystery of it as it upholds. Yeah, there was a great deal of research that went into it. And I have an obsession – (laughs) – with space and the cosmos.

HDD: Was it your intention to always have Brit play the lead?

Mike Cahill: Absolutely. … The Hollywood system has very large walls around it. It's very hard to break in. She wanted to act and I wanted to direct, so we wrote this from the beginning with the intention that we were going to make it – that I was going to direct it and that she was going to star in it. We wanted to do a project where we didn't have to ask permission to make it. … That's why we wore so many hats – as producers, co-writers, director/actor, I did the cinematography and editing and a lot of the visual effects. It was our attempt at making something without having to get a ton of money. We were fortunate enough to have this wonderful company called Artists Public Domain, which is based in New York. They are this non-profit that helps finance indie films and allows them to maintain creative autonomy. They helped us to make the movie.

HDD: With the two of you playing so many different roles in the film, how does that affect post-production? Doing so much, does that always make for a longer post-production?

Mike Cahill: Our post-production was about six months, [which] is pretty typical. … We did have a lot of footage. I took about two months off - from shooting to editing - just so I could get a little distance from the material and then could see it fresh again. I had an assistant editor helping to assemble things. But, for me, it feels - a film of this modest scale – like one continuous brushstroke, the writing, direction, shooting and editing. It's a bit of a control freak thing that I have going on (laughs), but I know that big directors on massive sets are very much involved in all those aspects. So on a little movie – I even operated the camera, actually – it allows for a certain continuity. … I didn't have the opportunity to fight with an editor or … a cinematographer about how best to do something. I would just be fighting with myself (laughs).

HDD: Without spoiling the ending, do you know – do you have an exact ending? In the end, we see something that is pretty, uh, shocking – I could say. At first I thought it was just a zinger thrown in there, but the more that I thought about it, that is the meat of the story.

Mike Cahill: Exactly.

HDD: That gave me something to chew on. It's something to talk about with your friends after you see it. Do you have a definite end to that, or did you always picture it as, “That is how it is and everybody needs to make up their own mind?”

Mike Cahill: It's a little bit of both. [Brit and I] needed to have an understanding of what the ending means. We needed that just in terms … how to direct that final moment with the – eh hem, without saying too much. we needed to know so we had a very specific understanding of what happened. … A lot of people have asked us what that means exactly -

HDD: Don't tell me!

Mike Cahill: We've strayed from doing that because one of the beautiful things about the art process is there are the makers and the viewers. The real art-making comes from that combination, the dialogue between the two. It's almost as if we're building an emotional bridge across a river. As filmmakers, we lay all the bricks - but we don't want to spoon feed in the end, so we leave a few off so that the viewer has to build their own bricks to connect the bridge. For me, as a moviegoer, that's one the most exhilarating feelings in the world – to be able to project myself on screen and use my intuition and my own story to complete the film. But as makers, it's very important that we had an understanding of what we meant by it – but after [the movie] comes out, it no longer belongs to you, but the world. And that's the beautiful thing.

HDD: Was that always the way you had envisioned the ending?

Mike Cahill: It came about quite organically. We didn't conceive of the ending from the beginning. We first conceived of the … idea of this other Earth where everyone has a doppleganger, then we came up with these characters of the woman and the man and how they would come together, and then from there … we were writing very much in sequence – like “What happens next?” We got towards the ending in the writing process, Brit and I literally looked at each other and asked, “How are we going to end this? We don't know.” “How should we end it? There are so many different ways it could go.” … The possibilities were all over the place. We threw all these ideas around and then, when we clicked in to this ending, it was exhilarating. It was like the Rubik's Cube had come full circle, it came into sync. Then we held onto it. That was a four-month process. We didn't write even the final draft for four months, it was conceiving the idea, throwing it back and forth and then, after we got it, it was like two months and then we had the full script. But that moment where we cracked the story, that was exhilarating. … Once we found it, we held onto it tight.

HDD: Having played so many roles in the filmmaking process here, you have to be a tech person.

Mike Cahill: Right. (laughs)

HDD: Can you tell me what type of filming equipment you used?

Mike Cahill: Sure. I shot with a Sony EX3 – which is an HD camera that shoots in 1080p. I cut with Final Cut Pro 7 and it was great. The EX3 shoots on these cards that slide right into a Macbook Pro. It was a very streamlined process. We'd just have a laptop with us in the field, shoot, and load it up immediately. I'd even start rough cutting while I was in the field to see where we were at, what was going on, before we'd finish. … It was hardcore. And then the visual effects were done in [Adobe] After Effects.

HDD: It's awesome how far this stuff has come, isn't it?

Mike Cahill: (laughs). It's amazing how easy it is to get your hands on these things now. There was such a barrier to entry because the price was so high. … An avid costs $100,000 now – the system – and Final Cut you can get for like twelve hundred bucks. … After Effects and these cameras now are so cheap now that a 1080p camera can hold up on a 100-foot screen. We screened ['Another Earth'] at the Eccles [Theater at Sundance] and it looked gorgeous. We eventually transferred it to film – it's on Fuji Print – and it looks gorgeous. I love the aesthetic because it's so raw, in a way, and yet in that rawness is a texture and an emotion that just makes it more believable for me.

HDD: And it looks even better once the story begins to turn and the colors start popping out.

Mike Cahill: Yeah! And I wanted it to be raw. I wanted … the audience to, when they're leaving the theater, to imagine that there could be another Earth up there in the sky. Or at least when they see the moon there would be a sense of awe again. So that involves a lot of handheld camerawork. The color palette starts, in the very beginning, it's red, vibrant and it moves very fast, the music is pulsating, and it's all derived from Rhoda's P.O.V.. After the accident – which was very important for me to shoot from a bird's eye point of view, almost from the perspective of the other Earth looking down – from there on out we go to these wider, colder shots to emphasize her isolation. And as their relationship begins to blossom, the colors begin to warm up, … they begin dressing nicer, they really start to reawaken to life, these two isolated people finding each other – this joy. It's wonderful in it's bubble. … But it's all predicated on a lie. And once that bubble bursts, the fall is even steeper.

HDD: Can you tell us about your experience at Sundance?

Mike Cahill: This is my first experience at Sundance as director with a fictional film. The previous two were both documentaries. It was life-changing. It was one of the most incredible experiences ever. I thing the programmers there … are doing such a major service to independent films. … There's a class of 2011. No one was really famous or known. It was very much “outsider stories, independent films.” There was a resurgence of the art form, which was very much an honor to be part of. Every day felt like my birthday (laughs) – it was amazing!

HDD: Do you have a nice home theater?

Mike Cahill: Do I have a nice home theater? (laughs). I don't! I wish I did! What do I have? I have a Sony 46' LCD screen (laughs)! It's a Bravia, but it's not very pimped out. I feel like I'm moving around too much to even maintain it – a nice theater. But I have a 30' Mac – I have like six Macintosh computers. I'm obsessed.

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Tags: Luke Hickman, Mike Cahill (all tags)