Filmmakers Brit Marling and Mike Cahill are personable and well-spoken, exactly what you'd expect from two people riding high on generally positive response to their film, Another Earth, ever since it debuted at Sundance in January. On a recent publicity tour, they stopped in Dallas to screen the film and participate in a Q&A at the Angelika Film Center. The following morning, they appeared for interviews across the street in a conference room at an upscale hotel, surroundings in which their bright, lean, healthy, well-dressed looks fit quite well. (Credit for picture above, taken on an entirely different occasion, to Filmmaker Magazine.)
It's a far cry from the somewhat dreary environment in which Another Earth unfolds, an unkempt corner of Connecticut that reflects the downcast outlook for its two main characters, Rhoda, played by Marling, and John (William Mapother). They are two broken people united by a tragic past; as they heal, they discover more about each other than they, possibly, want to know.
The defining image of Another Earth is the "mirror planet," a world that's been hidden on the other side of the sun until recently, when mankind learned that everyone has a doppelganger living on that other Earth. Now the other Earth hangs visible in the daytime sky, a constant reminder of other possibilities. That's especially appealing to Rhoda, who caused the fatal accident that killed John's wife and child, a vital piece of information that is, initially, kept from him.
"We encourage all aspiring filmmakers to study economics."
Marling and Cahill studied economics at Georgetown University, which is where they met. Cahill says that filmmaking was always an "obsessive hobby" for him, but he never dreamed that he could make films for a living. "There are no artists in my family," he explains. "My family are scientists and lawyers. It wasn't an obvious career path, to pursue the arts."
Even as Marling and Cahill studied economics, they were making short films in their spare time. When Cahill graduated from Georgetown, he started working for National Geographic making documentaries, and made quite a few.
About two years ago, they decided to make a narrative feature, figuring that they had sufficient experience, and knew how to shoot "without permission," or guerilla style. The plan was for Marling to act and Cahill to direct. They could film at the home of Cahill's mother, which meant "free location. Free food!"
"There was an art hallway."
Marling recalls that Georgetown not only didn't have a film studies curriculum, the art "school" was limited to three classrooms. "It was not a school for the arts. But it was a gift for us. We were going to college at the time when Final Cut Pro and other pro-sumer equipment was becoming available. You could pick up a camera and just make a movie. That's what Mike taught me. Just begin."
Marling also believes that having a broader education, studying philosophy and literature and economics, benefited her as well. "Some of my friends went to drama school, but I felt I needed to know more about being a human being."
"You want to make yourself really nervous."
Asked about the challenge of writing a role that she knew she would be playing, Marling replied that that was the goal. "You want to make yourself really nervous, like you can't pull it off. If you feel too comfortable, you're not doing a good job! You want to feel like you're biting off more than you can chew. I think that's the only time you ever really grow."
As for the role of John Burroughs, the biggest challenge was finding someone who was "exactly right" in Cahill's words. That led him to start filming without the role cast. When someone suggested William Mapother, Cahill got excited, since he'd loved the actor's work in In the Bedroom. Cahill felt that the actor's intensity in a series of scary roles would fit the character perfectly. "He's coming to the screen with that energy. ... It would be magical, and yet volatile and dangerous."
It was only after Mapother accepted the role that Cahill confessed: "William, we don't have any money." Mapother replied: "That's cool."
"They were just wires that went off screen."
The budget was so low, that for one scene calling for a Nintendo Wii, the production couldn't afford to buy the gaming system. One of the crew offered to bring his own personal system, but forgot it on the day of filming. In a panic, someone ran to a store and bought all that the production could afford: two controllers. So, in a tender scene when John is teaching Rhoda how to box, Wii style, the controllers were not actually attached to anything.
For another scene, in which Rhoda is seen leaving prison, the couple simply pulled up to a prison. Marling went inside with a yoga mat, told the guards she was there to teach yoga, and then snuck back out as the guards were distracted figuring out why a woman they'd never seen before was ready to teach yoga to prisoners. Outside, Cahill remained in their car, filming her leaving prison. They finished just as sirens wailed and police cars surrounded them. Fortunately, the prison warden was a movie fan, and all turned out well.
"It was the premise that came first."
[This was in response to my question about which came first, the characters or the premise.] "We were interested from an emotional standpoint what it would be like to meet yourself," Cahill says. "Something about the confrontation of the self, bearing witness to another version of yourself, fulfilled this weird, primal desire to connect. We're very alone in this life, looking out on life from a singular perspective, through these two eyes.
"No matter how many people we're close to, we're ultimately alone, experiencing all these secret desires. If you could see another version of yourself, that person you could connect with in such a deep way that they would have the greatest amount of empathy for who are you and the choices you've even made, even if they went on a different pathway.
"We came out with that larger idea, and then we said, 'Who needs to meet themselves the most?' We came up with the idea of someone who needed to forgive themselves, who needed that redemption. From there, the story unfolded organically, as we wrote in sequence, always asking, 'What's going to happen next?'"
About that ending ...
S P O I L E R
They were thrilled with the ending they came up with; "it was like a Rubik's Cube that clicked into place," according to Cahill. "Now we have a movie."
Jokingly, I asked if there was a version where one of the characters goes into the spaceship, as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They eyes lit up simultaneously.
"Actually, there was an ending where [one of the characters] goes into the spaceship," Cahill says, and the character would have been seen floating, weightless, inside. But that would have violated something that was important [further spoiled redacted] to him, something that was vital to the integrity of the film. Also: "It would have been expensive."
"That was mine."
My final question, as the interview was breaking up: "Whose copy of The Foundation Trilogy was that?" The classic book series, by Isaac Asimov, is seen in an early scene. The scene was filmed in Cahill's childhood bedroom, and they were grabbing whatever was there to dress the set.
Another Earth expands to select cities in Canada and the U.S. tomorrow, including Montreal, Washington DC, Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, Denver, Portland, and Seattle. See Fox Searchlight link below for a complete list of cities and theaters.