I Origins, which opens this week, is another piece of smart sci-fi from Another Earth director Mike Cahill. It stars Michael Pitt — an actor possessed of considerable if quiet magnetism — as a scientist who is seeking to disprove the creationist argument that the human eye is too complex a thing to have evolved. I liked it.
Matthew Lickona: What was the origin of I Origins?
Mike Cahill: It came to me in a dream I had about 12 years ago. I woke up and wrote down one sentence: “The eyes of dead people come back in newborns.” I don’t know why I dreamt that, and I didn’t know it was going to be anything until my fateful meeting in Brooklyn with Michael Pitt.
ML: So it was an image before it was a concept.
MC: Yes, exactly. Our job as artists is to sort of extrapolate that abstraction into something that’s a narrative.
ML: Tell me more about that meeting with Michael Pitt.
MC: We share the same agency, and I jumped at the chance to meet him. He’s an artist who makes bold and surprising and interesting choices. If I ever see his name on a film, I want to watch it. We both live in Brooklyn, and we met at The Rabbit Hole on Bedford Avenue. It was two artists coming together to just chat, and we really connected. Right in the middle of the conversation, it dawned on me that I had this 15-page treatment, and I thought he’d be brilliant. So I told him the story, very casually, and he said, “If you spend some time on that, it could be really interesting.” A few weeks later, I sent him a script, and we started working together.
ML: Did you pitch this as a sci-fi film?
MC: I would say that it’s sci-fi where your brain is doing all the work of imagining. It harkens back to the early days of sci-fi, Tartakovskyesque sci-fi. Speculative fiction where the sense of wonder is conjured by the ideas and not by the visual effects budget.
ML: How would you say that Ian changes over the course of the film? At one point, he answers the question, “What do you believe in?” by saying, “I believe in evidence.”
MC: We tried to set up an arc and a character where the expression of that kind of change would not happen through words. There’s an event that takes place, but it’s not something that you can quantify, just like love is not something you can quantify numerically. It’s something you can bear witness to and recognize. Ian has experienced love throughout his life as a scientist and as a human, and this whole story is about the two different types of love that he experiences.
ML: I liked Karen’s oblique approach to the Big Moment, the way she hinted at the possibility through the words she came up with to associate with the letters Ian was saying during the experiment.
MC: It’s a way for Ian and Karen to connect: It’s you and me up against this massive existential question. We might be standing on an edge and we might be about to go flying off of it, so let’s hold hands and go. I had a version of the film where I cut the scene, but I realized that we needed it, even though it was fucking complicated to pull off.
ML: How so?
MC: The role of Karen is really challenging. She has to make the pursuit of knowledge incredibly seductive, and also she represents stability. It’s a different type of relationship than the one Ian has with Sofi, though it’s valid and beautiful in its own right. She values the big picture over soap opera petty jealousy. It’s not that she doesn’t have those feelings; she just puts knowledge and discovery above them because she thinks they’re bigger than those feelings.
There’s that beautiful moment where she says, “Go to India,” and he says, “You’re so stubborn,” and they kiss. You know he’s going to go, and when she hugs him, there’s that one little tear. You know she’s being bigger than herself.
Matthew Lickona: Why was your character Ian initially attracted to Sofi?
Michael Pitt: They’re completely different people, and that can be very attractive. I think she challenged something in him. I based the character, loosely, on Richard Dawkins. He was essentially, probably definitely, an atheist. But he did have this weird burning sense in him that he didn’t talk about with many people. I think she affected him so strongly because she saw this kind of sixth sense in him; he couldn’t hide it from her.
ML: What made him think he could build a marriage on that?
MP: For me, a very enjoyable part of the movie was seeing these young kids essentially running to City Hall to get married. It’s just young, dumb love at its core. I don’t think he was thinking it all the way through, and that’s also what was charming about it.
ML: Is that also what contributes to his saying to Karen later that he was afraid of living the rest of his life with Sofi because she was such a child?
MP: I think that came out of two things. One, it was a very awkward situation. [Ian had been enjoying an erotic reminiscence about Sofi.] But I don’t think he was saying it just to make Karen feel better. I think it was the truth. I think Ian realized that Sofi wasn’t going to support him in his research. I think that was a red flag, because that was his life’s passion, and he needed a partner in that.
ML: I enjoyed your portrayal of a crusading atheist as tender and warmhearted. Even in his TV appearance, he’s not playing pundit. He’s saying, “I hope people will engage with what I’m saying.” It was refreshing.
MP: I think Dawkins gets really mischievous; he wants to provoke the debate. I think it comes from his love of education and his pursuit of truth. He sees religion and creationists being really active in trying to hold science back, and I think that’s very provoking and aggressive, and he responds to that. Certainly a lot of people think he goes too far, and that he might get more traction if he was less aggressive. Maybe Ian realizes that.
ML: You’ve said that part of the reason you took this project was that you wanted to work with someone younger. What does a young director like Mike Cahill bring to a project?
MP: One way I pick my projects is by trying to do things that are different. I get really bored with seeing the same stories, the same ideas, over and over again. I saw Another Earth, and then I met Mike, and now I’ve made this film.
I’ve been very blessed to work with amazing directors in my career, but they’ve all had huge bodies of work by the time I’ve worked with them. Something I’ve learned from those older gentlemen is that it’s all about voice. If you have a voice, that’s what lasts. These guys go on to have long careers because no one else can do what they do the way that they do it. And I don’t think anyone could argue with the claim that Cahill has a very strong, fresh voice, whether they’re into his films or not. I want to be active in supporting new filmmakers, and I just don’t see anyone making sci-fi films like this.