/Film Interview: 'I Origins' Director Mike Cahill Talks Post Credit Ramifications, Follow Ups And Religious Philosophy

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.

Yeah, totally. 

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."

Oh wow.

And I was like "What the hell does that mean?"

How old were you roughly?

I was like 21. Now I'm 35.

Okay.

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.

Oh wow.

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?

Yeah.

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.

I Origins

/Film: Sure. I wanna get back to a little bit of that, but jumping ahead to the super duper spoilers. As much as I like the movie, the end credits scene, the coda, it was insane. It blew my mind.

Mike Cahill: Oh cool.

Can you talk about the fact you basically came up with, even though it's not true, a scientific way to almost prove there's a higher power. Talk about the development of that scene with the famous people and the fact the good lives are being reincarnated and the bad ones have not. [Note: Read a better explanation of this here.]

Ah... That's so sharp of you. Right, the bad ones are not. I, for, well that was a thing, they're not not reincarnated.

Yeah, well you don't know for sure, but there's no matches on Hitler, but there could be.

Yes, there could be. So...

But the way I read it was, if you lived a good life, maybe you came back in the system. If you lead a bad life, you did not come back.

You were probably a fly.

Yeah.

Or you did not come back. Well, I mean, one thing to kind of throw, one variable to throw in there is that the Earth has seven billion people and we've realistically scanned maybe 300 million eyes. So that's a small...what is that... that's like one 16th of the world? I can't do math.

I understand what you mean.

So there's potential that Hitler lives, you know, on a raft on a floating island in some wherever.

Right, it's not definitive, but...

It's not definitive.

But your movie, the idea of it is...

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I just didn't wanna have to deal with like picking a place where he would be for example or whatever. But that's a whole 'nother movie that I wanna make. And it's called I. This is I Origins. This has such an unusual title, right? And a lot of people are like are literally like this is grammatically confusing. It's like "What the hell is going on there?" And the thing about me is I'm so literal when it comes to titles. Another Earth is about another Earth. Boxers and the Ballerina is about boxer and a ballerina. I Origins is the origin story for I. And I is another movie that I wrote and sold to Fox Searchlight when Another Earth came out. It takes place 20 years in the future. Basically the coda is the beginning of that film.

Okay.

We didn't make it. We were developing it and I couldn't crack it. There were some aspects of the story that I just couldn't crack it yet. And so before making a movie that was gonna be not so good, not to say that this one is. This one is just a modest little movie or whatever. It's our tiny little baby. But I was so eager to make something and I had this rich back story for I. So we made Origins first. As a very small like super low budget movie for a million bucks.

So I would be...

I would take place in the future.

And it's a result of that scene? 

Exactly.

Asking "What are the implications if everybody ever might have been reincarnated?"

Right. When a baby is born in this world. Once this discovery sort of gets out into the world, here are the implications. Number one, very wealthy people start leaving their fortunes to their future selves. Not just their kids.

Oh interesting.

Right? So you can inherit... you can grow up in the middle of like poverty stricken wherever, scan your eyes and find out you were, you know, this dot com millionaire who left this fortune to you. Also there are people who find out they that were not so good and have to deal with that. And that's where emotionally it's interesting to me. 'Cause it's like I like sci-fi for the purpose of getting at something human. And if you find out you were a bad dude, what do you do? And that's a metaphor for our own suppressed pasts that we don't wanna deal with, right?

Sure.

Like "That's not me. I have nothing to do with that." And yet that may influence us subconsciously, our behavior. So we don't have free will until we acknowledge it.

Is that idea something that you're still trying to crack then?

I've got a lot further to cracking it right now. And so Searchlight's really excited about it. So we just kind of have to, you know, if people like this movie, we're gonna...

Make the movie, yeah, sure. 

If three people see it, then, you know.

Yeah, it's gonna be an issue.

Then 'cause it's a bigger budget anyways, yeah.

Okay, and is that sort of why you put it at the very end? Because, I mean, 90 percent of my theater walked out and missed it. But I guess it's such a great scene but it's also a different movie, like you said. This movie's about Ian's closure with Sophie.

Right, that's why I wanted to put it way at the end.

So you're okay if people miss it.

MIKE: Yeah, I'm totally cool. Like we were having this debate with Searchlight 'cause they were like, "You know, you wanna move it forward so that people don't miss it?" Here's my rationale, it's like you could put it earlier, but then that feels like the end of the movie and the movie felt like it was over when he walks out the door.

Yeah, sure.

Like emotionally that's felt right and then I could have even put it after the cards, you know? But then still I was like, "You know what? It's a little bonus if someone sticks around to see who was the grip for this scene or whatever." You know, if you stick around for the thing, like there's a little bonus. And if you miss it, no biggie.

Yeah, okay. I have so much more, but we gotta get wrapped up in a couple minutes here. These days it seems like filmmakers like yourself who make really awesome small budget movies are getting sucked up by Hollywood for the huge movies. You know, there's Gareth Edwards, Josh Trank, Colin Trevorrow.

Yeah.

Is that something that A, interests you and B, do you think it's even possible like to go from a movie like this to a 200 million dollar Star Wars movie or something like that?

Aw man, that's a really tough question. Those guys are all brilliant. I've met Gareth. Colin and I, we met. Those guys, you know, they're like really talented, talented filmmakers. And I think they're gonna make brilliant Star Wars movies. And Jurassic Park movies. And those 200 million dollar movies. And I'm gonna be the first person watching those movies. I get a pinge of sadness to think that I'm gonna miss some of their original work for the next six years. But I expect they're gonna pick up a whole ton of tricks and techniques and things to apply to their original work. I would be beyond honored if someone even started a conversation with me about doing something like that. And I would entertain it certainly, but I'm not calling my agents being like "Yo, can you try and hook me up with these meetings?" I like doing my thing. Whatever that may be. These existential, philosophical things.

I would like the scale to get a little bit bigger in terms of visual spectacle and stuff like that. I'm intrigued by that. And I think that's really great. Like I wrote a alien movie, a very grounded movie about extraterrestrials based on spore theory and how, the idea that the Earth is not the originator of life 'cause 4.5 billion years ago where we traced the beginnings of R and A.D. and a carbon based life, was also same time period where the Earth was collided with so many meteorites. And the idea is that there was this other super Earth in the Milky Way that originated life say six billion years ago or five billion years ago. And it collided with another planet and those microorganisms spread throughout the galaxy and therefore on all these Earth like planets, which we just discovered in the last since Another Earth came out which is kind of crazy, the Kepler Space Project discovered all these other Earths. You could imagine life carbon based reptilian and mammalian life forms evolving throughout our galaxy. I'm interested in that and that's expensive. But I have a story that's very much my kind of story or like it kind of deals with themes that I'm interested in. And uses that as the playpen. And I would like someone to pay for that.

And then I like you said.

And then I, right, is that like, you know, it's philosophical sci-fi.

Right, which I love and I think our readers love. 

I Origins is now in theaters.