With a parallel world that first comes into human perception at the exact moment that a young woman causes a horrible tragedy for a family, Another Earth, co-written by director Mike Cahill and actress Brit Marling was a recent smash at the Sundance Film Festival and was put into limited release by Fox Searchlight on July 22.
In this exclusive interview, the director waxes on the abstract nature of his first feature.
Below the Line: What was the earliest incarnation of this project?
Mike Cahill: I wrote a short story about another earth and figured out how to composite another earth into the sky. Then, Brit and I started to develop these characters together. Our intention was to do this and ask no permission from anyone. We were fortunate enough to have producers get involved. She was going to act, I was going to direct, and we were to make it.
BTL: Can you describe your process of developing this story with your co-writer who was the film’s star?
Cahill: As co-writers, we worked for about six months developing the characters and their backstories. We would crack the story. We would hash it out. We created the story in a few stages. The antagonism is guilt. Society punishes her with prison, but that doesn’t expunge her guilt. Ultimately, it’s a confrontation of the self. If that person were different and we all have this idealized journey, what if something drastic changes that pathway and we go somewhere else? What if someone else went on that idealized journey? If those two people could look at one another, who would have the more idealized life? It’s very hard to have a completely original idea, but the originality comes through the juxtaposition of two ideas. This human drama in this huge sci-fi backdrop was really appealing to me.
BTL: Did you go into this project with the idea of the intense human drama of the young woman and her trying to redeem herself after a tragedy, or did you first approach it with the idea of a parallel world to earth existing in our environs?
Cahill: There are two very major elements to the story – the macro story – the other earth, and the human drama embedded in that. What came first was a duplicate concept. What would it be like to meet yourself? What would that interaction be like? All of our relationships are interpersonal. We have this relationship with ourselves that is internal. What emotions would come about from that? I was inspired by the Double Life of Veronique about this girl with a doppelganger. We try to fight this notion that we are born alone and die alone. We wanted to do that with a mirror earth with all 6.3 billion of us inhabiting it. Then Brit and I spoke about what the best story is to tell within that. What if the person needs to forgive themselves?
BTL: You put your audience in a strange situation knowing that this lead character who caused a terrible tragedy for a family is secretly forming a relationship with one of her surviving victims.
Cahill: That relationship can exist and be beautiful if there was no past. It works in the present. All secrets have an expiration date. As a viewer, I am happy but angry at her for this complicated feeling. It’s so awful if you take it in the context. Micro-movement vs. macro context. It’s a setting more than anything. I wanted it tonally to reflect her inner world. The loneliness of it as she walks to her work [in her victim’s house]. [The second earth] gets closer. It has to exist. Something about it allows the audience to participate more and imagine themselves in it more.
BTL: What was the experience of working with William Mapother, who is a veteran actor, whereas this was your first feature?
Cahill: When we met with William, I conducted extensive rehearsals. He chimed in with things that his character might say. The tricky balance was how many times she can visit him before their relationship would evolve. We worked that out with William. We brought William in to fine tune it.
BTL: You set up the second earth in an interesting manner by suggesting that it’s close to our earth but not a threat to us. It’s science fiction, but you seem to have respect for the science in this relatively smaller project.
Cahill: It’s a little newsreel that says that there’s no threat of collision. I consulted with astrophysicists. I tried to keep as much science as free ideas.
Scott Essman can be reached at [email protected].