/Film Interview: ‘I Origins’ Director Mike Cahill Talks Post Credit Ramifications, Follow Ups and Religious Philosophy
Posted on Saturday, August 2nd, 2014 by Germain Lussier
Normally when discussing a movie, you don’t get to have a conversation about how science can potentially explain religion and the impact that has on the world. But not every movie discussion is with director Mike Cahill about his new movie, I Origins. The film is now in theaters and if you like intellectual sci-fi, you should check it out. It’s an engaging, mysterious love story that evolves over the course of its run time to be about the entire nature of life itself. Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire), Brit Marling (The East), Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (Pirates of the Caribbean 4) star in the film.
This is Cahill’s second feature. Much as in his first one, Another Earth, Cahill takes a mind-blowing sci-fi conceit and filters it through a human story. This time it’s about a scientist who, while doing research about iris recognition, falls in love with a girl because of her eyes. But it’s about much more than that.
In person, Cahill is engaging, eloquent and easy to talk to. He has big ideas about his films, not just their content but their presentation and marketing too. In our interview with him (which we’ve highlighted twice already) we talk a little about the spoiler-filled marketing for the film before getting deep into a conversation about the implications of the film’s scientific and religious philosophy, how the magnificent end credits scene leads into a potential sequel, the real science that went into writing. and finally the new Hollywood model of taking filmmakers like Cahill, and giving them massive blockbusters.
This whole interview is filled with major spoilers for I Origins. Be cautious.
/Film: I have been avoiding all spoilers and trailer since Sundance and I’m so glad I did.
Mike Cahill: It was weird ’cause we Searchlight was, I was very involved in the process. They’re very inclusive with all the marketing material. They’re very, very cool like that. And my wife designed the poster basically, which is kind of badass. I mean, we have a really bold poster. But when we first put together the trailer and I was like, “You know, this gives away so much of the film. Maybe we shouldn’t give so much of the film away.” And we had these long debates. And then we started testing it in different ways. And we sort of did our due diligence. We made a trailer that didn’t give anything away. And it didn’t really inspire one to wanna go see the movie. So I was like “Gosh, I don’t know how you guys do this job. It’s so hard.”
Yeah, I know, totally. I was talking to Nicholas Stoller about Neighbors and he said you don’t wanna spoil the jokes, but research says people laugh harder the second time.
Oh that’s brilliant.
But I guess if it gets them in the theater, that’s really what matters. Okay, there’s some super spoiler stuff I wanna talk about, but to start it off…
That’s cool. “On the topic of spoilers.” It’s fine. I’m totally down with it. I actually I find that viewing it on a second time is better anyway, you know.
The purpose of the film is not plot, it’s the emotional transmission and the ideas, yeah.
Absolutely. But before I do that though I do wanna know, I read that the first idea for the film came from something you read about Iris recognition. Is that where the first idea for the whole movie came about?
You won’t believe this probably, but I’ll tell you it anyways. I used to live in Laurel Canyon. A long, long time ago when Brit [Marling], Zal [Batmanglij] and I were little kids and we moved out here. And I had a dream and I remember waking up from that dream and I needed to write down one sentence and that sentence was “The eyes of dead or the eyes of the dead return in newborns.”
And I was like “What the hell does that mean?”
How old were you roughly?
I was like 21. Now I’m 35.
And, you know, I was interested in the eyes and I’m interested in a lot of things. I like to read a lot about science. And iris biometrics became sort of interesting to me. After I used to work at National Geographic. And that famous Afghan girl and the story about the photographer who took her photograph and she became that famous iconic photograph and then he found her 17 years later and he found her through her eyes. Using iris biometrics. I was like “What?” And I learned that the eye is the only organ that does not change your entire life. It doesn’t grow and does not change. A baby’s eyes when it’s one month old and when it’s 100 years old are exactly the same pattern and size and shape. And then eyes have been sort of interesting and written about heavily from all different angles throughout history whether that’s poetic, scientific, religious, what have you. So I felt like this is a great canvas or topic to tell a story about the diminished fear of death and the diminished pain in grief.
Interesting. Yes, which totally makes sense. So then so it didn’t always have the religious angle? I mean, that sort of has religious implications, but they’re sort of subtextual. I mean, the movie as it goes along becomes more about that. When did you sort of decide to give it the more religious context?
Well the movie doesn’t use any religious words. Like the word “reincarnation” is not in the movie at all. And that was very purposeful. If you do like Apple F to the script, it’s just not there.
It’s not anywhere. There’s that one moment where Karen says “soul” and Ian jumps on her for it. Like “Is my wife really using the word soul?” And —
A for afterlife.
And A for afterlife, yeah. Well the thing is all that shit has so, all that terminology is so, has so much baggage. Right?
Even afterlife, reincarnation, like there’s so much historical, traditional, a lot of blood spilled and a lot of people who hold on to the semantics of it all. The word of it all. I wanted to somehow try and create a movie that used science or the language of science to look at phenomenon that, you know, maybe called one thing or the other, but not using any of those words and sayings
These things are actually not lore, you know. It’s there. And it was the scene in which Sophie talks about the worms having two senses and being modified to have three senses. That’s a real experiment. All the science in the movie is real. That’s all based on real stuff. Iris biometrics, India being the national program, that’s real. Color blind mice being modified to have color vision is real. Worms having two senses modified to have three is real.
It was that one that blew my mind and said “Okay, now I get it.”I totally see how the puzzle works and the paradigm. Like science and spirituality, how they work together. Which is worms have two senses, smell and touch. The notion of light is completely unknowable. They can’t even process it. But it certainly fucking exists. We know that and so does sound and so does taste. And if we can, by that logic, it’s so blatantly obvious the metaphor that five senses is not the fucking limit. Like why? It’s so arbitrary. And so “spiritual,” throw away the word spiritual ’cause that’s like so baggage filled. But the thing that seems magic and whatever is just something operating invisible to our sensorial perceptive plane that totally exists. Of course it exists. There’s no question it exists. And it is somehow, indirectly, affecting the plane of perception that we can see.
So that’s where coincidences and “Oh my gosh, I feel like I’ve known you since forever” come into play and all these like weird metaphysical things start interacting. ‘Cause just like that worm who’s can smell and is trying to smell a nice apple that’s rotting, that apple is rotting because the sun’s light is making it rot. Right? So that sun’s light operating on a plane that that worm doesn’t know is influencing something that that worm can interact with. Mother fucker, boom.
Yeah, that’s a huge idea.
I mean, it’s dense, but it also is so freeing when you just kind of run through the logic of that. Like “All right, science, spirituality or whatever you wanna call it, you guys can be friends. You’re not on the same plane.” Science is the scientific method about things we can test in the real natural world. And, you know, the metaphysical is beyond physics.
On the second page, Cahill discusses the end credits coda of the film, the sequel I and his big budget alien movie idea.