We speak to Mike Cahill, the director of sci-fi indie Another Earth
Mike Cahill’s feature film debut, Another Earth , may have its foot planted firmly in the low-budget indie camp, but that doesn’t mean it holds back on the high concept sci-fi. Based around the idea of a second identical Earth inexplicably appearing in the sky, it explores the idea of doppelgangers and parallel universes. But its main focus is much, much smaller as two broken people linked by a tragic car crash (Brit Marling’s Rhoda and William Mapother’s John) find each other in unlikely circumstances. Ahead of its release this Friday, we spoke to director Mike Cahill...
Did you start out with the idea of the other Earth story or did that follow from the human drama?
Mike Cahill: It started off with the idea of the other Earth – the idea of what it would be like to meet oneself. Not what you would say, but what you would feel emotionally. And if you sat across from another version of you, would you like that person? And then we wanted all 6.3 billion people on the planet to have that same imagination, so we created that Earth up in the sky. And then we came up with the human drama. We thought the person that most needed to meet themselves was someone who was having a hard time forgiving themselves.
I’ve been fascinated by the idea of doppelgangers for years and years. There is something about a doppelganger or seeing another version of oneself; it somehow gets to this very, very primal subconscious question of identity, to take a look at oneself from outside oneself.
You had to make the film on a tiny budget…
Not very much at all, I’d say! We had the catering budget for a Harry Potter film for one day.
But you’ve got some big ideas in there. Did you have to pare anything back to fit it in the budget?
Paring back is not the right word. It’s more that budget is a constraint. Sometimes budget, time, location, whatever, forces the imagination to think of clever ways to execute your ideas, so in a way it’s a gift. Everybody needs their antagonist, and your constraint is your antagonist. So maybe - if I had had more money – I would have done some scenes where the ocean gets sucked out because of the tides, but for the most part I made the movie I wanted to make.
Would it have been radically different if you had a 100 million-dollar budget?
I’d spend 99 million dollars on like having a helicopter carry us to the set and then 1 million dollars making the film! [laugs] And then made it a little glossier. I mean, again I think sometimes these big CG movies focus on the wrong thing. They focus primarily on the spectacle. And spectacle is great, but on the list of priorities I appreciate from films, it’s lower than an emotional, impactful story or character arc.
Did you see the film as a chance to show the world what you could do as a filmmaker?
I wasn’t thinking externally so much about how we would present it to the world. Originally we were doing it as an exercise for ourselves. We were planning on showing it to our closest friends and that was it. You have aspirations of showing it to the greater audience but I don’t think we exactly allowed ourselves to dream that big a dream.
The car crash set piece is a focal point of the first act. Was that a challenge to set up?
That was the least expensive car crash in the history of cinema [laughs]! I went to a junkyard and I found two cars that looked like they’d smashed into each other, even though they hadn’t. And the guys at the junkyard were very kind and let us borrowed the two cars. Then friend of mine had a BMW, the SUV we found at a Rent-a-Wreck, and a friend of mine was a police officer who closed down the road... I rented a cherry picker window washer from Hertz for $75 to do the birds eye shot. I made a car crash for $200!
You mention your police officer friend closing the road. Was it a case of calling in a lot of favours in your home town?
Yeah, it was calling in lots of favours. We shot all these scenes in summer when it was supposed to be winter, with the ground covered with snow, so I had one of my best friends, who had a pick-up truck, drive around to hockey rinks and shovel snow from them. It's guerrilla filmmaking, you do what you've got to do to get things done.
How did you get William [creepy Ethan in Lost ] involved? Did you have to work quite hard to find someone who had that chemistry with Brit – who co-wrote the movie with you?
Absolutely. I was very, very picky about the main actor. I saw many great actors, many talented actors. For me I was looking for a very specific energy. And William has this incredibly intimidating screen energy. In person he’s delightful but on screen the roles that he plays are one that imbues fear in the people around him, from Lost or In The Bedroom , where he’s phenomenal. So I kind of held out on the main actor and we began shooting prior to having a male lead. And then in the summertime our casting director had met with William and suggested him and I knew he had the right sort of energy, so we sent him the script, got on the phone, talked for a couple of hours, met in a deli and he signed on. I was like, “There is one other detail… This is my first film and we don’t have any money, are you still interested?” He still said yes. He was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful collaborator.
Did you have to work on the chemistry between them?
We did about two weeks of rehearsal but their chemistry was quite natural. It’s an interesting chemistry because it’s fraught with tension. I know Brit’s energy. We’ve been friends for a very long time, and we’ve made many short films and I know William’s work very well, so I had a sense that there would be a tension there. And then we spent time working through all the scenes at William’s house in Los Angeles. So there was some dialling of the little dials of relationship stuff. But it worked out.
How did you come to collaborate with Dr Richard Berendzen, the Nasa scientist who advised on the technical side of the movie and provided the unusual narration?
I was a huge fan. I was listening to his books on tape – he narrates them – and I wanted to find him to meet him to research the idea a bit. I was also really enamoured with his voice. It’s beautiful and powerful, like Darth Vader meets God. I wrote him a very passionate email, said, “You don't know me but I’m making a film, maybe we can meet and talk about it?” And he was so gracious from the first moment – we met for lunch, I told him the story and he helped guide us into a place that is scientifically sound. The premise is built on the idea of the multiverse but we bend the rules of logic a bit for the purpose of metaphor.
Did you script his narration?
No, it wasn’t scripted, apart from the broken mirror theory – that was scripted. Other than that I went to visit him in Washington, DC with a camera and I interviewed him like the geek that I am. I just asked him every question. That was a very documentary aspect of the film. I just picked and chose over eight hours of interviews.
Another Earth is in cinemas from Friday 9 December.