It is only July and 2014 is already a fantastic year for movies. Mike Cahill’s (Another Earth) sci-fi thriller, I Origins, is another film to add to my “best of the year” list. I Origins is my favorite kind of movie, original, thrilling, beautifully shot, and mind-blowing. The film follows Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), a microbiologist that studies the genetics and evolution of eyes. After meeting a masked woman at a party, which ends in the two going their separate ways, events in Ian’s life (especially the woman’s beautiful, distinct eyes) bring the two together again. While the two fall quickly into love, the mysterious woman, Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), is a lot different from Ian; she has a deep spirituality, whereas Ian is a non-believer, who trusts scientific fact and is actually trying to prove the existence of evolution. It isn’t until a tragic event changes Ian’s life that he starts to realize his beliefs may not be so black and white. The eyes may actually be windows into the soul, a key to proving there is something bigger than all of us.
For only his second film, Cahill again proves he is one of the most innovative writer-directors working today, and one to definitely keep on your radar. Walking out of one of his films, you realize you have just experienced something special, something that you want to research online the second you get home and discuss with anyone that also saw the film. Cahill pours his heart and soul into the work and it shows, both through his incredibly interesting screenplays and the phenomenal actors (including Brit Marling, one of my absolute favorites) he hires to bring the script to life. It’s easy to see why great actors like Michael Pitt sign on to work with Cahill; they realize they are getting to work on the first films of a brilliant up-and-coming director.
Obviously, I am a huge fan of Mike Cahill’s work, so it was really exciting to get to talk to him and star Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire, The Dreamers) about the incredible I Origins. Both men were equally excited to talk about the movie, which always makes for a fantastic interview! After toasting to the film, we discussed visual effects, the numerous Easter eggs Cahill sprinkled into each scene, the casting process, and much more! Check out the interview below and make sure you go see I Origins in theaters this Friday!
[This movie is best seen when you know very little. Potential spoilers below.]
Lauren Bradshaw: Some of my favorite parts about [I Origins] were the little Easter eggs in it, especially the National Geographic girl with the bright green eyes. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about including that [in the film] and if there were any other Easter eggs we might not have picked up on?
Mike Cahill: That was kind of a hat tip to a story that was very inspirational for writing this film, and that’s the story about Sharbat Gula. She was photographed as a young girl, by Steve McCurry, on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He didn’t know that was her name and he snapped this photograph of this young girl and then off she went playing with her friends. A few months later, the photograph became famous worldwide. It wasn’t until seven years later that he mounted this expedition to try to find her again and he found her [by] bringing a iris biometrics scientist [in] to scan all the potential candidates’ eyes.
Lauren B.: That’s interesting!
Mike Cahill: And that’s when I learned that the eyes are unique– that they’re like a fingerprint.
Lauren B.: Through that story specifically?
Mike Cahill: Through that specific story. That’s the first time I had heard about iris biometrics and I was like ‘What does that mean?’ and I learned that it was more powerful than a fingerprint– that it was something that formed in your mother’s womb and stayed the same your whole life. So, it became really inspirational for writing the story, obviously, which is about a scientist who finds someone he loved through the eye. That was one Easter egg in it. There’s one that’s really great that’s really subtle that nobody knows. [Referring to a test in the film] To get 44% correct out of 25 questions, you know how many she got right? Eleven.
Lauren B.: Oh, like the elevens in this movie. That’s interesting…
Mike Cahill: Only super math nerds get that one. There are some subtle things like when Sofi and Ian first sit down in the diner, he asks about her parents and she dodges the question. She sort of dodges it with a smile but it’s suggestive that sometimes we smile when were hurting or it’s like a defense mechanism and Ian clocks this. You see him note that and then later when she shows the photographs of her grandmother, it’s a color photograph and she’s older. You see a photograph of her parents and it’s a black and white and she’s a baby and it’s suggested or at least subtextually– nothing over the head– that something happened to her parents. She lost her parents perhaps at a young age and the same fate has befallen Salomina in India as well. It’s his intercession in her life… even searching for her alone brings her out of the status of being a “street kid” and presumably, they’re gonna adopt her or she’s gonna be saved. However one imagines but you know she’s going to be taken care of. That’s another thing that’s kinda subtle in there that you can pull out after watching the movie several times.
Lauren B.: And Michael, what about you? Did you do any little Easter eggs with your character that you can think of? Any little ticks or something that people might not at first pick up on?
Michael Pitt:I think when you’re doing a character, you’re always gonna do things like that. One of the things that I tried to do with this character was sort of implant this spiritual side of him that is something that he is suppressing. So, the idea was to play someone who was so…What he was saying– his philosophy- was so against [spirituality] but inside, there’s a little piece of him where he has this spiritual, psychic metaphysical area that he basically hides… almost like someone who sings in the shower. Someone who never sings in front of anyone but if they’re alone and they’re in the shower, they’ll go into–
Mike Cahill: Queen or something like that.
Michael Pitt: Or like a Bette Midler song. (laughter)
Lauren B.: “The Wind Beneath My Wings?”
Michael Pitt: Which is what I do when no one’s looking. [laughter]
Lauren Veneziani (DCFilmGirl.com): I like what you say in your interviews how whenever you’re looking for your next project or character, you’re always looking to do something different. You don’t ever want to do the same thing. This character is different from anything you’ve done in your past roles. What type of research did you do to play the scientist/biologist character?
Michael Pitt: I did…something that Mike turned me onto early when we started discussing this, there’s a scientist named Richard Dawkins… He’s got hundreds of lectures and debates online. I really got into listening and watching those debates by Dawkins and it became this kind of thing to get me into character so all through the shooting and yeah, all through the shooting I would wake up to that…
John Hanlon (JohnHanlonReviews.com): There’s a story in the film about the Dalai Lama saying he would change his beliefs if science proved otherwise. When you think about the beliefs you hold dear– whether they be political, religious or personal– what would make you change them?
Mike Cahill: Love.
John Hanlon: Love?
Mike Cahill: Love, definitely. This is something I think Michael said unless I said it (laughter)…which is that it’s a really hard thing to do–to imagine changing your beliefs based on love and then losing that person who guided you through that change. Oh gosh. Isn’t it a horrible thought? It’s so sad. Then you find yourself in a really unusual situation because now you are changed fundamentally and yet the ground or the bridge that carried you there… there’s no bridge back. That’s a sort of powerful sentiment that we tried to capture in this film.
John Hanlon: But in the movie he doesn’t change his beliefs for his fiance?
Mike Cahill: No, but she recognizes something in him, right? She’s like ‘you have it but you’re scared of it. You are a mutant. (laughter) I’m not the only one.’ That sense that when she comes into the laboratory and she talks about worms that have two senses and how his work is opening up a third sense that they have no access to. It’s a moment where Sofi reveals a great deal of wisdom where– I think she gets to him right there because she’s using his work as an analogy for her point of view. There’s no denying the metaphysical realm beyond the physical realm because it’s… who who does his work would say five senses are the limit? And if there’s more, that means there’s a whole world that we don’t have access to and we clumsy humans call that “spiritual” because we don’t know how to articulate it better because we don’t have the articulation process. Just like a worm can’t describe light to another worm.
John Hanlon: What about you, Michael?
Michael Pitt: What’s the question?
John Hanlon: About changing your beliefs.
Michael Pitt: That’s a tough act to follow. Love is…Something other than love? I totally agree with what Mike is saying and it’s kind’ve– in a way, it’s kind of what the film’s about. What the film does. When we were developing this character, I was always, and I hope I was right, I was always urging Mike when we would talk about the character, for us to go even further with the ideas away from that. The idea was hopefully that at the moment. At that moment at the end when you do see something in him, that it would just be a release. It would be a release for not only the character, but for the people watching and it’s done really eloquently. The way he directed it, the things that he said to me on that day, the way it was covered, and the way that it was edited was not overly dramatic but super super dramatic, which is very difficult.
John Hanlon: What did he say to you on that day?
Michael Pitt: He was like ‘don’t do that thing with your nose?’ (laughter)
Mike Cahill: Actually, it was his suggestion. Credit where credit’s due. I learned so much on this project from working with someone who’s worked with so many great directors. Michael’s an asset… I’m a sponge for information and one of the infinite number of things that I learned from him was that you really connect with a character quite deeply if they’re looking just a hair off the camera. Not directly off the camera but just a hair [off] so when you do shot-reverse-shot, there’s an angle of degrees… like if you’re more here [motions with his hand], it’s a wider angle of them not looking at the camera. The closer you get to the other subject, the more they’re almost looking in the camera and what’s amazing about this character that he created was that he arrives at the arc being changed, if you will, without saying a word. It’s all just in his face. It’s just in that one shot. It’s in that shot you know his world’s been shaken and I have to say that was- I didn’t tell him anything. He told me what we should do and I was like, ‘that’s a good idea. Let’s do it.’
Lauren V.: [To Michael Pitt] Without giving anything away, when you’re doing your arc… I thought the whole movie was great but in that one moment, I feel like your character did change.
Mike Cahill: Great.
Michael Pitt: A lot of it though can have to do with when you’re trying to do something like that… the editing. It may seem strange because it’s a very technical thing trying to grasp something that’s maybe not technical… but someone else editing it or directing it would see a person staring– just doing nothing. The moment on which he holds on and the moment in which he leaves can change everything.
Mike Cahill: And then he picks her up. I got choked up.
Michael Pitt:I really got choked up. I actually broke character like I got really choked up by that.
Lauren B.: She lived in India, right? She was actually a “street kid”, if you want to call them that.
Mike Cahill: Well, she’s an orphan and she’s at an orphanage. She doesn’t live on the street. She’s really well taken care of by beautiful, wonderful people who run this facility.
Michael Pitt:It’s a great facility.
Mike Cahill: It’s like a grade school… like a boarding school for kids.
Michael Pitt:But it is an orphanage.
Mike Cahill: It is an orphanage in India. I don’t know all the details but a lot of the kids in the orphanage have parents but they live in the countryside and they send them to the city to have a better life. These facilities will teach them how to speak English. They’ll give them an education, feed them, house them, a social environment for them to thrive. So Kashish, she’s just brilliant. I should show you a picture of her outside of the film cause she’s so- She would come to set in a pink [outfit]. She’s nothing like she is in the movie. She is acting.
Michael Pitt: What was amazing was the dress… she would get very dressed up to come to set.
Lauren V.: Like a girly girl. [Cahill shows the photo on his phone of Kashish in her pink dress].
Lauren B.: Oh my gosh. That’s so cute.
Mike Cahill: She’d come like like blinged out with her glasses.
Lauren V.: She was so cute.
Michael Pitt: I got her those glasses.
Mike Cahill: Oh really? (laughter)
Michael Pitt: It was heartbreaking when you find out there’s a couple dresses that all the girls share. When they get to go somewhere, they get to wear them.
Lauren B.: Did you cast the Sofi role and the Salomina role based on their eyes or was it just the actors first?
Mike Cahill: Oh we tricked you. [It’s a] visual effect. Even in that picture, she doesn’t have those eyes. This was kind of a candid photograph.
Lauren B.: She didn’t have light eyes either?
Mike Cahill: No, she has very dark brown eyes…. Those (in the poster) were Astrid’s [who plays Sofi] real eyes. She has central heterochromatic eyes in real life, which is rare and beautiful, and it was challenging to get that. It was one of those things that going from script to screen and visualizing the ideas, that was challenging and it was fraught with a lot of trial and error. We tried contact lenses. We went to this company called Hand-painted Contact Lenses and made these contacts that cost a few hundred dollars and they looked ridiculous. We shot it in 4K, which is a really big frame, and you could just tell that they’re contact lenses. I was trying to figure out how we’re gonna achieve this. I didn’t just want them to look alike. I wanted them to be the exact same eyes with the same two dots right there… Because even if you don’t know it- the specificity of it as an audience– you will intuit that they’re the same. So, we had to sort of invent a visual effect technique to get this to work because eyes are the hardest things to do in visual effects. They look silly if you do it poorly. Not only silly, if you get it even close to reality and it’s digital, we get unconsciously angry at movies that do that or trigger something inside of us called the “uncanny valley”. What we did was, we took Astrid’s real eyes, filmed them with the same camera that we filmed Kashish with and then we frame-by-frame cropped out Sofi’s eyes and then motion-tracked them to her face, so the pupils even dilate, which is a lot of work. I didn’t do it.
Michael Pitt: It’s a lot of work but… I think it’s pretty seamless. That’s the most difficult thing to do with digital effects…
Mike Cahill: It is a digital effect because we’re doing it on a computer, but the substance of the eye is the organic thing. It’s like Astrid’s real eyes.
Michael Pitt: Sort of like when [George] Lucas. There was Lord of the Rings, right, and Lucas was putting out Star Wars at the same time. One of the things that Lord of the Rings did that Lucas didn’t do was they incorporated a real actor and then put the digital effects into that actor’s performance, whereas Lucas– there was nothing there… In my opinion, the way they did it in Lord of the Rings was a success because people feel it. They feel it. Your audience is smart. They’re really smart.
Lauren V.: Michael Pitt, you have a lot of fans on Twitter.
Michael Pitt: I do?
Lauren V.: Yeah. I said I was interviewing you today and I received about fifteen @ replies.
Michael Pitt: Is that good?
Lauren V.: Yep. [laughter]
Michael Pitt: Well, let’s talk to them!
Lauren V.: This is a message from them. This is @michaelpittfans and @margopacanowski and she wants to know how do you prepare for romantic scenes in movies? Is there anything specific that you do to prepare yourself for those scenes?
Michael Pitt: Yeah, I make sure that I put on some nice shoes. Now that I’m getting older, I make a little bit of an effort. Girls like that… [laughter] Pour them some champagne. It’s actually an interesting question because it can be really awkward. It can be a really, really awkward thing. I think that what’s important is that you’re really open and I think it’s important to not jump in too quick and sort of get the vibe of the person and really be gracious with the person but I don’t know.
Lauren V.: That was just one of the questions that they had. They also wanted to know. Are you finished filming Criminal Activities? They wanted to know how it was working with John Travolta and filming that movie and what your looking forward for your fans to see for that movie.
Michael Pitt: I loved working with John Travolta. That’s a very different movie but I would– I do want to say that in a lot of ways, I Origins in a lot of ways [is] talking about how you prepare a relationship that has a lot to do with chemistry. I Origins, in a way, is a little bit of a retrospective. That’s what we’re doing with Brit Marling and Astrid so I would definitely say what’s her name?
Lauren V.: This is @michaelpittfans.
Michael Pitt: @MichaelPittFans. But who?
Lauren V.: This is an actual account dedicated to you.
Michael Pitt: Wow.
Lauren V.: They would love for you to get on Twitter but that’s another story. They wanted to know about the new movie. I think they’ve actually already seen this one.
Michael Pitt: They have? Wow. That’s crazy. The other movie’s kinda like a fun caper movie but working with John Travolta was– I’ve got to say– a pleasant surprise. He was actually really, really, inspiring. Really gracious.
Lauren V.: And would you ever work with Mike Cahill again cause they said that you make a great team?
Michael Pitt: Yeah. (laughter) I do think that we’re gonna work together and I do think– I don’t want to jinx anything but I kinda have the feeling that this is just the beginning of some really amazing work that we’re gonna do together. We have a shorthand now and we really get along. I think we really complement each other’s strengths and we really fill in the blanks for each other’s weaknesses and that’s kind of the best working relationship. Just wait. That’s what I would say.
John Hanlon: Michael, you said last night that after you play a role, you’re trying to shed aspects of the role. Can you both talk about shedding aspects of this movie cause it’s a very personal movie and then you’re moving onto you next project so you both let go of the film and the role?
Michael Pitt: (joking) I was in full depression because I wouldn’t see Brit [Marling] or Astrid any more. [laughter]
John Hanlon: Like how do you shed aspects of a role?
Michael Pitt: It sounds like a really kind of mystical thing, like maybe a flaky thing. It’s not something that early on in my career I ever thought about, but I do think that there are technical aspects to your talent and then there’s these other things that are more intuitive and maybe more difficult to explain. I feel like I have those two aspects. There’s the technical one, which is about repetition and is really important. Then there’s this other one that’s tapping into something… and I think that that is usually– when I go there, that’s usually… the directors that I work with are like ‘do that again’. But, I do think that that could be a dangerous place to [go]. You need to shed some of those things. What I like to do is cut my hair and go to a beach. That’s the best case scenario. You can grab someone you love and just get on a plane and go somewhere. Just change your environment.
John Hanlon:What about you? Letting go of a movie when it’s all done.
Mike Cahill: I’m learning constantly and I’m very ambitious, hopefully in a healthy way. There will be themes and things that stay with me, because there are things that I’m wrestling with existentially just being a human. I get inspired by new things so I take the themes with me and I try to push the craft further the next time around.