Mike Cahill’s second feature, I Origins, opened in the US at the weekend through Fox Searchlight and thus far has followed the same pattern as Another Earth: Sundance premiere (2014), Sloan Prize for its depiction of science and/or a scientist as a major character and distribution through Searchlight. He’s back, winning prizes again and ready to mesmerise viewers with a whole new story.
Michael Pitt plays Dr Ian Gray, a molecular biologist obsessed with eyes who falls for Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) whom he eventually loses. Years later he and his lab partner Karen (Brit Marling) make an extraordinary breakthrough that challenges his belief in empirical evidence and spirituality.
Cahill talks to Jeremy Kay about sightless worms, dinosaur prints and why scientists are hip.
I Origins is your second movie and both have won the Sloan Prize. Congrats!
I didn’t even know you could win it twice. It was unexpected because nobody had ever done it before. It’s so much money. Crazy.
Your movies address science in a way rarely experienced in cinema and fuse a deep bedrock of understanding with very human stories. Where did the fascination with science come from?
I’m not a trained scientist but my family is comprised of many scientists. My two older brothers are scientists: one’s a neuroscientist and one is a molecular biologist and they’re the coolest people I know.
Is knowing them what influenced the way you portray Ian as a sort of hipster boffin?
I hang with these guys and their friends. They’re three-dimensional characters and so different from the cliché that’s often portrayed about scientists in movies. I wanted to make a movie that captures the spirit and truth of what it’s like to be a Ph.D student whose goal isn’t financial but to break new ground.
But the work is everything. The sense of exploration in the movie is powerful.
Oh yes. When Brit’s character says she’s discovered something and she knew she was the only person who had made this discovery… that’s what’s exciting to a lot of these people.
What gave you the idea about exploring the way eyes work?
I was on holiday with my wife in the Brijuni Islands in Croatia (on the Adriatic Sea) and there were these Roman ruins next to this dinosaur footprint. I asked myself how come the Romans hadn’t seen the significance of this because paleontology only sprung into existence in the last few centuries. So it got me thinking about what might be our dinosaur footprint – the thing that’s there but we haven’t figured out yet.
Eyes are ripe with metaphor. The most important thing of the movie for me is the movie represents my questioning and exploring of science and spirituality. The scene where Sofi [played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey] comes to the lab and uses it to explain what she believes [is significant.] She talks about worms and says they cannot know about light, although it can [affect them] and if you give something that has two senses three senses, it logically follows that five senses are by no means the limit of one’s potential for senses.
That gives Ian food for thought. He has come to view Sofi as being like a child because she believes in the seemingly unprovable and yet her words are profound. Ultimately her enduring essence and Karen’s scientific discovery sets Ian on a road to a stunning revelation.
The metaphysical is beyond science and scientific method and it may indirectly affect us – that’s why we have religious narratives. In a way that’s the key to the whole shebang…I can talk about this until 6 in the morning and my friend Mark Duplass said anything you can talk about until 6 in the morning is what you should make a movie about.
What are you working on next?
I’ve written the script for a movie about extra-terrestrials. But it’s going to be very grounded. I’ve been fascinated by the spore theory and the idea that these seeds to life came from other parts of the universe.