First-time feature filmmaker Mike Cahill seemingly came out of nowhere with his assured, heartfelt debut Another Earth. His one previous filmmaking credit was as co-director on the 2004 documentary Boxers And Ballerinas, about four young Cubans—two boxers and two ballerinas, two in Cuba, and two in Miami. His co-director and co-writer on that project, his friend Brit Marling, returns in Another Earth as his co-writer and star. She plays Rhoda, a brainy MIT student whose life is wrecked in a car accident the same night a second Earth is discovered orbiting the sun, complete with a population that might exactly mirror ours. As Rhoda considers the possibility that there’s another version of her on the other Earth—possibly one who made different, less destructive choices—she launches a tentative relationship with John, the driver of the other car, played by Lost’s William Mapother. The premise is notionally science fiction, but the story plays out as an indie drama that explores metaphysical questions somberly, gently, and with deep intensity. Cahill recently sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss making a film with no storyboards, no distribution plan, no budget, and no leading man, but plenty of thoughts on what it would be like to meet yourself.
The A.V. Club: Is it true that this movie started with a compositing experiment, and the story came later?
Mike Cahill: Oh, totally. I was playing around on Final Cut Pro and making video art. I did one piece where I interviewed myself. I sat down, then another me sat down, and we started having this in-depth conversation. Then I did this other piece where I put another Earth in the sky and had this motion-tracking kind of shot. Then I realized that, “Okay, with just this camera and this computer, I can do the effects,” so I was like, “Brit, we can make this entire movie. We don’t need any money, and we can just start.” It was sort of naïve, or self-deception of belief, whatever you want to call it, but it got us enough energy fuel to make the story. So we wrote a whole story revolving around this duplicate Earth in the sky, what it would be like to meet yourself, and what if everybody could meet themselves?
AVC: So you and Brit were friends beforehand?
MC: We were friends for many years. We went to school together at Georgetown. There was another friend of us, Zal [Batmanglij]. All three of us kind of had a film group. Zal and I both directed our first feature films this year, co-wrote them with Brit, Brit stars in both of them, both went to Sundance, and they both sold to Fox Searchlight. And this is like, 10 years after we all met each other, so it was a very weird moment.
AVC: Was it assumed from the beginning that she was going to star in Another Earth?
MC: We wrote it as something for her to star in. Actually, Brit and I talked about making three short films, one called “How I Learned To Levitate,” one called “Stillbirth,” and one called “Another Earth,” and there were three short stories. And the idea, it was sort of an art project where we were going to write three female protagonists that were very different from each other, as an acting challenge for Brit. “Another Earth” seemed the most developed and the most interesting, so from the very beginning, she was going to star in it and I was going to direct it.
AVC: How did the story develop out of the initial idea of people meeting themselves?
MC: We joked around for a while about what would be the most interesting story to tell. If we were going to zoom in on an outsider’s story, we’re not going to be like, a $100 million Hollywood movie with rocket ships blasting, and nuclear missiles, and all that stuff, so we were like, “Let’s tell an outsider’s story where this is happening in the background,” and then so many stories came up. We were throwing around ideas, like, “What about a narcissist who falls in love with himself? Are they gay, or are they just together?” We joked around, like “What about a hit man?” and then we got sort of serious, and we were like, “The person who really needs to meet himself the most, or the story that we can draw the most completely, is the story of someone seeking redemption, who needs forgiveness from herself, who needs to let herself off the hook.” So after we had the larger concept, we chose to tell this story. There were many other stories floating around, but this one seemed to be the most compelling.
AVC: As you say, it isn’t full of lasers and robots and explosions. Are you worried about it finding an audience, what with people’s preconceptions of what science fiction is in American cinema?
MC: The spectacle, or the big, high Hollywood concepts, are always a lure to me. I often find myself going to those films because I love how the spectacle opens the imagination and allows imagination to soar. But more often than not, the movies that leave me satisfied are the indies or foreign dramas where the choices are not always between right and wrong, but are between wrong and more-wrong, or right and less-right. They’re more challenging questions, where you might be able to judge the protagonists, like, “Are you sure you really want to do that?” Which is much more real-life. So those more-real nuanced stories are the ones that leave you like, [deep breath] “This is what it means to be human, and I feel you, and this is hard.” If there are people who feel like that, like hopefully there’ll be an audience.
AVC: You’ve said Krzysztof Kieslowski was a big influence. How did that come out in this film?
MC: When I was at Georgetown, I watched all of his films. There’s something very sensual about his films. There’s something I love about his metaphysical stories. Stories that are set in reality, these are real people going about their day-to-day lives, but there’s something magical underneath it. I hadn’t seen many films like that before, so then I was eating up all his films. There was another film by Julian Schnabel called Basquiat, which really inspired me, and I was like, “I wanna be a filmmaker after watching that. I want to be an artist, and I want to be a filmmaker, and I want to make movies like this.” It’s such freedom, like a confident hand, the stroke of an artist who’s like, “Let’s put a surfer in the sky, and who cares?” But Kieslowski really moved me a great deal, because I felt like there was some magic in real life, and I feel like there is magic in real life because of synchronicity and weird connections. Like, how can you somehow weave that into an emotional drama, and also make people believe in something magical?
AVC: Were you taking cues from Kieslowski in terms of the tone as well as the contents?
MC: Oh for sure, in little things. Obviously, you get your references from all over the place. I didn’t go to film school, and I read a lot, and I made a lot of films, so I got my hands dirty. Visually, in The Double Life Of Véronique, there’s the composition—there are a lot of reflections in the film, and we use that subtly every now and then. Little choices, like one when Rhoda goes into John’s house for the first time and thinks it’s a bad idea, and she wants to leave, and she’s trying to work her way over to the side door. She finally gets to the side door, and she catches a subtle image of her reflection in the door window, and she has to make a choice, like, “If I go out this door, I have to confront this person. But if I turn around, maybe I can make this man’s life better.” So little, subtle hat tips to people who inspired me in the film.
AVC: Do you have any theories about what it would be like for you to meet yourself? How you’d react?
AVC: But wouldn’t seeing yourself externalized just make you feel more alone? Because even with yourself, you wouldn’t have perfect communication. Either you’d say and do the exact same things, which wouldn’t be very satisfying, or you wouldn’t—which would point out that they really aren’t the same person.
MC: I think on the level of secrecy—if we have secrets we don’t tell anybody, or things that have happened in our lives that we really keep shielded, and therapists don’t know about it, lovers don’t know about it, just yourself, and you keep them bottled up—if you saw another version of yourself who had those same experiences, I think it would just be a glance, and you could say, “Hey, you’re okay” to each other, and “You’re okay,” and that’s enough. And you wouldn’t have to have a relationship and spend all this time together—just that feeling would be really nice.
AVC: You keep the other Earth very mysterious. Even by the end of the film, we know almost nothing about what’s going on there. Why did you choose to leave it that way?
MC: It’s meant to be the context. You can set a movie in Chicago, or you can set it in the bottom of the ocean, or in a world where there’s an Earth in the background. The movie is a drama, basically, and you could take all that background away, and it’s still this story between these two people. But having it there informs the interior of Rhoda’s universe, and the questions she’s asking about being alone, or not being alone. The questions about fate or choice, like, “Was this all determined?” “Could there have been another possibility?” It’s the tone within which the story unfolds, or it’s the basket that we put the cherries of the story inside of. The background informs the big questions, but the micro-movements of the story are inside the story. Is it necessary to have it? Not necessarily, but it does bring us to a higher level by making literal—visual and literal—the idea of meeting oneself, or confronting oneself, or forgiving oneself. And you can really ponder those questions.
AVC: You said you didn’t go to film school. What did you study at Georgetown?
MC: I studied economics with a minor in government, or a minor in English. [Laughs.]
AVC: Why economics? You’ve said that as far back as age 10, you were fascinated by film, and thought you wanted to be a filmmaker.
MC: I never thought filmmaking could be a serious job. It was like a hobby, so I pursued it like crazy as a hobby. I bought my first camera for a hundred bucks at a pawnshop when I was in school. It was my first grown-up camera, not a Fisher-Price camera. And I was making things in all my free time, trying to put together videos. I taught myself how to edit, and I got my hands on Adobe Premiere, just trying to play with all this material. But economics… I actually started pre-med. My family’s a bunch of doctors, my older brother and my next-older brother are brain surgeons, genius guys, and I kind of went into that, and I did that for about a month or two weeks and quit. [Laughs.] And switched to econ. Because I was taking an econ class, and it wasn’t too difficult, so I was like, “All right, I can do that, and it won’t waste too much of my time, and I can do this.”
I actually really enjoyed economics. I thought it was an interesting way to think. It gives you an interesting way to think about problems in the world, and opportunity cost and efficiency. And a lot of those things apply to storytelling, in a way. Anyway, when I graduated, my brother bought me a suit to go and do investment-banking interviews. I did one interview, and it was the worst interview of my life. [Laughs.] I probably had long hair then, too, and they were like, “So, what will you bring to our firm?” and I was like, “Uhhh, a lot of creativity, maybe?” and it was like, “What am I doing here?” And then I got lucky. I got an internship at National Geographic my senior year, and then over the course of that semester, I turned that into a job, and when it was my job, I pitched a show. And then very quickly at National Geographic, I was traveling around the world. Like, within three months of working there, I was traveling around the world filming sharks and turtles, and I was like, “Okay, filmmaking can be my job.”
AVC: Is that where you learned how to handle a camera, how to do setups, be aware of lighting, that kind of thing?
MC: That is definitely part of it. I mean, I kept trying to figure it out, and I kept pretending I knew what I was doing. [Laughs.] I just approached it like, “Sure, sure. I can do this,” and I remember when Geographic was like, “So, do you want to film sharks? Can you swim with sharks, are you cool with that?” I was like, “Yeah, yeah of course,” I’m thinking, “This is fucking frightening.” [Laughs.] But I was just like, “Yes,” and then trying to figure out as we went. And I remember at Geographic, I had only learned on Adobe Premiere, and they were like, “You know, we’re cutting on Avid, and a little bit of Final Cut,” and I was like, “Yeah, I know how to use those. Of course.”
AVC: What did you shoot Another Earth with?
MC: We shot it with a Sony EX3. It’s a high-definition video camera.
AVC: How did you come to that particular camera?
MC: My friend Jimmy had it, that’s basically it. [Laughs.] My friend Jimmy was like, “I’ve got a camera, you want to borrow it?” and I was like, “Yes.” It’s a great camera; it shoots 1080p, which holds up on a hundred-foot screen. We transferred it to film eventually, but I was like, “All right, I have a camera. We’re going to go back to where I grew up, in New Haven. We’re going to use my mom’s house”—Rhoda’s house is my mom’s house. My mom’s a high-school teacher, so we used her high school. A friend of mine was a cop, so he closed down a four-lane stretch of highway for free. It was a lot of friends and family coming together and doing favors, and that’s how we could do it for our $5 movie.
AVC: What was the actual budget for this?
MC: It was under $100,000 for the whole thing.
AVC: Was William Mapother also a friend? How did he get involved?
MC: Brit, myself, Brit’s younger sister, and my friend Phaedon [Papadopoulos], the four of us started making this thing, and we shot for like, 10 days. Then we met this guy Hunter Gray, who is a producer, and they decided to give us money and production support, and then we got a casting director. They showed me a lot of male leads, and I was kind of picky: I didn’t like this person, I didn’t like that person, they weren’t right for the part. So I just shot half the film without the male part. I was like, “Don’t worry, guys, I’ll figure it out eventually, we’ll just keep seeing people. Let’s shoot.” And after the summer, after I had shot all the scenes with the family and everyone else, they met William. He was traveling around New York meeting different casting directors he hadn’t met, and they asked me if I could send him a script, and I was like, “Yeah, I love his work in In The Bedroom.” And we talked on the phone for two hours, and he was like, “I’m in.” It’s funny, we walked through the entire script in that first conversation—he was like, “How would you do this? Okay. How would you do this? How would you do this? Okay, I’m in.”
AVC: Do you think he was feeling you out as a first-time director?
MC: I’m sure he was, yeah, totally. But I was like, “I would do this like this!” I was pretending to know what the hell I was doing.
AVC: You said in an earlier interview that you’re more of a doer than a planner, and it does sound like you jumped into this before everything was in place. How much was the script in a finalized state when you started, or your storyboards?
MC: The script was pretty solid. Brit and I worked on it for like, six months. It was not in Final Draft at first—it was a script written out on Microsoft Word, which is funny. But we transferred it into Final Draft, and it was a 90-page solid draft. We did do rehearsals with William, and we tweaked little bits and parts when he fully imagined his character and said, “Oh, maybe I should say this, or maybe I should say that.” We worked all that out. Other than that, I didn’t really storyboard the film or shot-list it. I shot the film, and I edited the film, and I directed the film, and co-wrote the film, so basically, we would walk into a room, and because of the modest, small budget, and not too many people to communicate to—like, I didn’t have to convey how I wanted a scene to be shot to a cinematographer, I just had to convey it to myself. We could just show up and do it, I guess. It was a mixture, like half-planning and half-preparedness. I did a lot of documentary work, so I was used to getting into a situation and figuring things out while I was there, so that gave me a great deal of freedom. Some of the more elaborate scenes, I shot-listed out beforehand, and knew precisely what I wanted to do, because there was a lot of planning that had to go into those.
AVC: IMDB has your only other directorial credit as a documentary called Boxers And Ballerinas. Did you work on other documentaries in a directorial capacity?
MC: There’s one called The Pocket that I made when I was 17, and it’s about D.C. go-go music. And Ian MacKaye of Fugazi was in it, which was pretty badass, because he doesn’t really do interviews. Me and my friend Nick were these 17-year-old kids, and he was like, “Yeah, I’ll do an interview for you guys!” but he wouldn’t do it for Rolling Stone, and we were like, “This is pretty cool!” It was a very DIY type of doc feature. Other than that, I’ve directed a bunch of shows for TV, like True Life. In some weird way, I feel like everything was preparation, and this is my first fictional feature film. When I first got into film at Georgetown, I would make short fictional films with Brit, and she would star in them, and I would direct them with a friend of mine, and then we did like eight years of doc stuff, and I was like, “All right, let’s do some fiction.”
AVC: What other useful things did you learn working on docs?
MC: [Warning: Significant Another Earth spoilers in this response. —ed.] One thing that I learned, which is weird to even think about, is that human reactions, authentic human reactions, are sometimes a lot more unusual than what people write. Often, I think your first pass at writing something is to write the cliché, and you have to look at it and say, “Wait a minute. Humans are kind of weird. Sometimes when you think they’re going to cry, they actually laugh out loud. Or if you think they’re going to be silent, they’re screaming or puking. The ways humans react to things are so layered in complex subtext, and you find that authenticity when you’re filming a doc, because people are just doing their thing, and they are real people in real circumstances. I thought that was hugely insightful just in terms of the writing process. Like, Rhoda makes love to John, and then she pukes, which William at first was like, “My female friends are going to think it’s really weird that this young starlet makes love to me, and then throws up on a train.” I was like, “Trust me. [Laughs.] That’s how she’s going to react.” But then on top of that, I gained a lot of confidence working with the camera, and constructing a scene, and I felt like if you were interviewing someone in here, and I had to come in and make a scene out of it, I could just walk in and figure something interesting out on the fly. Maybe it’s not the most amazing thing, but I feel a bit more confident that I can capture something special and spontaneous.
AVC: The film comes across as very controlled for something that was shot with an on-the-fly mentality. Did you shoot much more than you used? Are you a “Let’s do 20 takes” kind of guy?
MC: Twenty takes was probably the max, but sometimes we’d do it in four takes, three takes. As a director approaching a fictional film, I wanted to establish parameters within which the film falls, aesthetically and tonally. If I were to describe it, I’d say it was poetic realism. So it’s got to feel like real life, but with a certain poetry. So there are a couple of artistic flourishes of slow motion and focusing on the light. But it’s poetic realism, and once establishing that sort of parameters, it’s not a [Jean-Pierre] Jeunet film, it’s not fantastical. It’s like, here are the walls within which we can play. There’s freedom in there, but there’s also rhythm you want to create. You want the feeling of the film to follow the point of view of Rhoda, for where she is in the story. So the beginning’s very energetic, pulsing music, the only time you see red in the film, and it’s fast-paced, and then we cut to after the accident.
The accident was like, “I want to do a bird’s-eye shot, almost like the POV of the other earth looking down.” That was really important to me. And I wanted to do a shot that was continuous, so you could see them talking in the car, then rise up, then [slaps his hands together] boom. Which has suspense and surprise. My brother watched that scene, and he was like, “How did you do that? Is William okay?” I was like, “Yessssssss!” [Laughs.] And he was like, “Did you have animatronic people moving?” And I was like, “No. Tricks.” So I didn’t want to cut to a two-frame shot of the car crashing. Or, worse, cut to black before it happened, then fade in. Once those parameters are established, it plays based on where you are in the story. So after the accident, the shots were wider, emphasizing the loneliness, the colors were bluer and grayer. And as it starts to warm up, as the relationship starts to blossom, we start to warm up. And that, combined with a bit of zooms and things—maybe I went a little too far, but the idea was to give it a sense of realism. “This is actually really happening.” Like, a Dogme 95 cinema camera could lift up and see another Earth, and then be like, “Wait a second, is it really up there or is it not?” That sense of the magic in the mundane was really what I wanted to go for.
AVC: You said earlier that you shot the film in chunks, entirely out of order, and without storyboarding. How did you keep track of all these process and mood aspects as you were shooting?
MC: I have some sort of weird, OCD visual brain. Right now, I can tell you every single shot of the movie, the first one, the second one, the third one, the fourth one, all the way through to the end. Everything that happens, it’s all in there, and I don’t know why. I was fortunate enough that at least the major stories—there’s the story of John and Rhoda, the story of the family, and the story of the janitor. Those elements that are woven together in the final thing, those were pretty much shot in order, especially the relationship stuff with John. I was also fortunate enough with the car crash. Originally, when we scheduled it, we had the car crash last, and I was like, “Please, please, please, let’s do the car crash first. Because in all the scenes where Rhoda and John interact, I want Rhoda to have that image in her mind. I want Brit to have that image in her mind, even if it’s the back of her mind. I want her to have seen the pool of blood and the gore.” And even the day we were shooting it, I asked Brit to stay in. We got a little motel room, and I was like, “Just stay in the motel room, and we’re going to set everything up. I don’t want to you see anything until we start.” Then I blindfolded her and brought her into the smashed-up car. Everyone was gored up—it was kind of fun, actually doing it. Even though it’s gruesome in the movie, it’s kind of fun to shoot. So everyone’s in position, and then I take the blindfold off Brit and rolled camera, and was like, “Action.” So she’s seeing it all for the first time, which is awesome. And that, we did on the first day we had William. Brit is such a phenomenal actress that she could create those images in her head, but I thought it was nice that we could give her those images.
AVC: What’s next for you?
MC: So many cool things. It’s crazy. All of this has been so insane. When we were making this movie, we were going to show it to our 10 friends, and that was it. This is not the dream we allowed ourselves to dream, because we just didn’t think all of this would happen. But now all these opportunities are here. I’ve written another script that’s all about reincarnation and the future. It’s really exciting. It’s a big concept, but a human drama inside of it. Brit has a part in it. We’re going to continue collaborating. She has plenty of projects lined up. I think every film I ever want to make will try to approach the question of what it means to be human in some way. I’m trying to figure out why we’re here, at least for me.
AVC: Do you think you got closer to answering that question with this film, or are you just posing the question for people to consider?
MC: It doesn’t offer a didactic answer, an answer that’s literal. But I think it offers something emotional. Which hopefully gets us closer to it, but it’s still infinitely far away.