I Origins: Passion, Atheism and Kaleidoscope Eyes
Writer & Director Mike Cahill envisions new dimensions.
By Shanee Edwards.
I Origins writer/director Mike Cahill has a truly unique vision as a filmmaker. You may remember his last film, Another Earth that won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. His latest film continues his own personal journey to explore the complicated relationship between science and spirituality.
In the film I Origins, molecular biologist Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), works with his lab assistant, Karen (Brit Marling), to prove eyesight evolved naturally through genetic mutations in the hopes of quashing the Creationists who insist the eye is too complex to have evolved without an Intelligent Designer. What Ian is unable to see through his microscope is how a passionate romance with Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a young woman with kaleidoscope eyes, will forever change his scientific perspective.
In person, 35-year-old Mike Cahill is hipster-handsome with long, russet-colored Samson hair that touches the middle of his back. Before I could begin asking him questions, the playful filmmaker asked me to check out a particular bowl that was sitting on the coffee table. “It’s really trippy,” he said, egging me on. As I lifted the empty silver metallic bowl and peered into it, I discovered my own image, inverted and distorted as if I was looking into a funhouse mirror for adults. Referring to the bowl he said, “That’s the premise for holograms, I think,” making it clear that Cahill is constantly searching for alternative perspectives, both in the larger world and within the smaller objects around him.
I Origins is a film that begins as a scientific experiment and does a 180-degree turn into a spiritual, heart-stopping story that ends up as a para-evolutionary quandary. It asks the question: Can the study of human evolution provide evidence of the soul? While the Cahill doesn’t have the answer, he’s optimistic.
“I have this suspicion that’s there’s more to life than just tables and chairs and I wanted to use science as a way to explain the metaphysical, that’s sort of the key to the movie.”
He says he remembers clearly where he was when he began writing the screenplay.
“I was coming back from a wedding in Maine and stopped in Massachusetts at the Emerson Inn, which is interesting because Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in reincarnation.
“I wrote the scene where Sophi comes into the laboratory and talks about how the worms have two senses. But in a real-life scientific experiment – and I’ve seen it – scientists can modify worms that only have smell and touch, to give them vision. That alone is utterly mind-blowing.”
Cahill grows animated, “Think about that…there’s a species who had their perception of the world completely opened up to a whole other realm that was there, all along. We knew about light. We know about sound.” Cahill snapped his fingers several times for effect, “This was a realm that was all around this species [the worm] but it didn’t have access to it until they mutated the gene. It would take a lot of hubris to say five senses are all there are. Of course there’s six, of course there’s seven. Of course there’s domain. Certain dogs and cows have a magnetic sense, they know where the poles are. We don’t have that sense at all. Who knows how they experience that realm?”
I Origins is thought and sensory provoking, indeed – whether you believe in the spiritual realm or not, science does present its own shocking possibilities.
“I think about how a worm can’t perceive the light of the sun. That dimension that we don’t have access to is indirectly affecting the dimensions that we do have access to…” Cahill trails off, knowing that his ideas are complicated and heady.
“It’s dense, I know,” he adds and explains his admiration for the filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski.
“Kieslowski was able to capture the narrative behind the mundane. The metaphysical. That there was a hand at work or a thing at work behind the things that are tactile. I intuitively feel that is true and Sophi’s speech in the laboratory was the most effective analogy I could come up with to try and explain that.”
Cahill says the character of Dr. Ian Gray is loosely based on the hardcore atheist, Richard Dawkins.
“Dawkins is a great evolutionary biologist who thinks religion is dangerous. He has a lot of Twitter followers. I really like listening to and reading his work, I find it inspiring and very compelling. I showed Michael [Pitt] some of Dawkins’ videos to help instruct him as to where Ian is coming from.
“As a writer, hopefully, you want to show a character who changes over the course of the film — an arc, a character change earned through some sort of drama, something challenging to get to that place. So we thought that if Dawkins was presented with this discovery, I mean, how do you turn Dawkins? How do you arc him? It’s kind of impossible. So that’s the challenge we set out for ourselves.”
I asked Cahill how focused he is on structure when he sits down to write a screenplay. He said he’s always aware of it in the back of his mind, the act structure and what he calls the “mathematics of it.” But he doesn’t pay attention to it while he’s writing.
“Because I write, direct and edit, I can kind of clean up after myself when I do the editing, I can really shape it. The structure for me becomes most relevant in the editing process.”
Cahill’s writing technique is admittedly freeform. “I don’t write in Final Draft. In Microsoft Word, I write a first-person account from the point of view of the protagonist. Saying, ‘I did this, I did that.’ I write the whole thing unformatted, dialogue with the characters names, I just know who’s talking to who, who’s saying what and I get through the whole thing that way first.”
About his rewriting process, Cahill said, “I like to read with my actors. We sit down at a big table, get coffee, everyone smokes cigarettes, chit-chatting. I record the reading and listen to it – no one is performing at this point, they’re just reading the words – and I become hyper aware of what is bad in the writing, what’s inauthentic. What sounds false – not performance-wise, just writing-wise. And then I do a whole new draft after that.”
I asked Cahill how he knows when his own screenplay is finished. He looked up sheepishly and said, “When the movie opens,” and he laughed. “It changes up to the very last second. I changed things in the sound mix. I was rewriting scenes the night before we were shooting them, which is not the nicest thing to do to your actors.”
Cahill says he suddenly got inspired in India and rewrote the scene where Ian and Priya (Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife) are sitting by the beautiful old monument in Old Delhi. “I totally had an epiphany of what they should talk about there. I wrote like two pages of dialogue the night before, and I was like, ‘I’m so sorry guys’ and Michael [Pitt] was like, ‘Seriously?’ cause he’s so hard working, but he performed it so brilliantly, and so did she.”
So the question I’m sure everyone who’s seen the film is dying to know, were Astrid Berger-Frisbey’s multicolored, speckled eyes real or was she wearing contacts?
“Those were Astrid’s real eyes. She has sectoral heterochomatic eyes, which means multiple colors in one eye.”
Talk about excellent casting. Cahill claims finding the Spanish-French actress was a series of “wonderful, fortuitous, amazing events. Michael Pitt recommended her. I checked out her work and was looking at her eyes, but really I was so taken by her performance in these French films and one Spanish film. I set up a Skype call and we chit-chatted and I cast her from that, no audition. And then after the call, I said, ‘Can you send me a close up picture of your eyes?’ She took her phone, snapped some photos and forwarded them to me. I looked at them and I was like, ‘Yesssssss!’
For the little Indian girl, Salomina (Kashish) however, Cahill was forced to rely on digital effects.
In terms of advice for screenwriters, Cahill said, “Write a lot. You’re going to write a lot of stuff that never gets made,” adding that he wrote the original story for I Origins 12 years ago and never knew if he was going to make it. Lucky for us, he did.
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