Another Earth is a new independent science fiction film with its heart set on the artful and minimal potential of the genre. Created with a small budget and an even smaller crew, Another Earth is the latest buzz film to come from the same tree of mind-bending movies like Primer.
This story, written by director Cahill and star Brit Marling, is about two human beings who are unexpectedly brought together on the night a second Earth is discovered.
I sat down with director Mike Cahill in a roundtable interview to discuss the philosophies behind the film, how to capture a $6,000 shot for $500, and more.
Another Earth opened in Chicago on July 29, 2011, and is expanding to other cities throughout the summer.
Another Earth reminds audiences that are different forms of science fiction out there.
It's a literature of ideas, that's where it originated from. The notion of how it's developed into purely spectacle, and there are some phenomenal films like District 9, which deals with social issues but does it through science fiction, and Moon, and Solaris, and 2001. There are great, great science fiction films still being made, and I think there's room for very low budget film that are thinking man's films, and science fiction films that are entertaining and open. I think it allows the mind to open up. And look at humanity from a different angle. And that's what science fiction can best do for us.
I understand you two had a very collaborative process. And I was wondering with this process if it affected how the film was made. Do you believe in pre-production? Or was it kind of like pre-production was right during production?
I would have loved to have more pre-production for sure. But the way the process unfolded for this film was very organic. I knew that I could do the visual effects, which was a major and important piece of the puzzle. And Brit was going to act, I was going to direct. We had this story, we developed this story. And unlike the typical Hollywood route where you try to package a film and get the stars attached and the money, I said to Brit, "Let's just start. Let's just be brave. Let's fly to my mom's house, and we'll just start." We were shooting things and also trying to keep the ball rolling at the same time. The dominos were not in place yet. We just began, and some people might say that we were having belief in us. And others might say it was self deception. Whatever you call it. It was absolutely essential. If you stop and think about it, it's like looking down when you're crossing a tightrope. You'll freak out, and you'll fall. But if you just confidently walk forward, maybe it can happen.
You started out just working with basic elements. Can you tell us about the really no-budget cuts you took?
For the crash scene, it was really important that it was visualized. I didn't want to make a thing where they're driving, cut to black, and you hear the noise. I didn't want to make that film. I wanted to see [the moment], and no less I wanted to do it with a bird's eye crane shot and the perspective of the other Earth. I wanted that perspective that they were looking down at us, and we were looking down at them.
The constraints are a great gift to an artist. You think to yourself, "We don't have a budget, but somehow I'm going to find a clever way to do this." I thought about it, and I had a bit of knowledge of visual effects, so I thought, "Okay, I can do some compositing and some rotoscoping to make this work." So what I did is that I went to this junkyard and found two cars that looked like they had been smashed into each other. Just randomly in the junkyard. One was a BMW that had been smashed up in the front, and one was an SUV that had been smashed up in the front in the corner. And those two pieces looked like they smashed into each other. And I talked to the two junkyard guys, and I asked if I could borrow the cars, I'd bring them back, and they were like, "Yeah, that's fine." They even towed 'em for us; they got really into the idea of the movie.
So then I found those cars operational. The SUV from Rent Direct for $40 a day, you can rent junkers, and a BMW, a friend of ours had the same exact car. I have the before and the after. Now I just need the impact shot. I wanted it to be a crane shot, but we didn't have a crane. So I went to Hertz, and got a cherry picker, a window washing cherry picker, which are a little shaky, but my best friend from growing up operated it. He figured out how to make it go smooth, and I was operating the camera. And that cost $75 to rent for a day. And we needed a street. So we needed a four lane highway and an intersection to conduct a car crash. A friend of mine, a police officer, the best man at his wedding was the traffic coordinator of all West Haven, CT. So he's like, "Let me call in a favor for you." this would have cost $60,000 alone just to call off the streets. He did it for free. We gave the cop a little bonus for hanging out with us. But they literally closed it down for eight hours for us.
Now we have the street, and we have the cars, and the crane, and what have we spent? About $300. So the bird's eye shot, I wanted to have the actors William and Megan so that we could see their lips, so we shot it through the sunroof. They're interacting. The idea for the shot is that I wanted it to be continuous, so that it would add suspense. I wanted to see it, shot, with the actors alive. My brother saw it and asked me, "Did you kill William?" And I was like, "Great, that's exactly what I want." So we shot them with the dialogue and the ADR, because the crane was loud, and then when we got the top I locked off the camera, and I had Brit's car drive in at two miles an hour, and just tap the bumper, so we could see how the light cascaded with William's car. He removed his car, and I had her drive full speed through, in the same motion, and then I just shot just the background plate of the street. And I shot this in a large format so I could zoom in and play with the material. For the impact shot, we had glass and smoke, and we could keep it in a single shot, and the whole thing cost less than $500 to do. And that is the gift of the constraint of a budget. It was exhilarating. But it's so much hustling and it's so much work.
Science fiction fans want the whole puzzle laid out. I myself was thinking, "What would happen when he goes to the other Earth?" I started thinking about a novel continuation of this family.
The difference between art and the didactic lesson from a teacher is that a teacher will say, "This is this and this." They'll explain everything on the nose so that you understand it. And art differs in that we build a bridge together. I'll build a bridge this far across. And the audience will build a bridge on the other side, and we'll meet somewhere together, and we'll have this exchange, and project ourselves on the screen. In the final moment, there's that time when she rubs her hand on the side of the house. That simple shot is a very sensual shot in a very way that opens up our minds in a feel aspect, even that nail in there, a part of our touch sensation lights up, our connection with her is not just as a protagonist, but as a tactile connection. We go further into who she is. And then she turns and sees ... spoiler alert ... and I didn't want to show her reaction. Her reaction is our reaction. Our projection of ourselves in there is what matters. We can take nine steps forward as the filmmakers, and it's nice for the audience to make that one step forward. For me, as a filmgoer, I think that's what I love the most.
... This movie is poetry more than anything. During one draft of the script we had more exposition about the science fiction. The superior conjunction, how the planet was on the other side of the other planet, how they were dual ellipses, how during four periods of the year it was close enough for space travel. There was all this exposition, and I thought it was interesting, and then I thought, "Well, let me ask that, and trust the audience that we can make this leap together, that the purpose of this really for poetry sake. Let's just hope that works." With all of the actors I explained mathematically how it works, I was such a geek about it. I went over it with an astrophysicist, who was like, "Eh, it wouldn't exactly happen like that, but if you're creating those rules and the logic to it, we'll go with that." And the notion of parallel universes, and the multiverse. Those are real things where theoretical physics suggest its how the universe work. But it's all for metaphor. There's so much artistic license.
Are you primarily a science person?
I'm huge into science. I get my sources from everything. I'm a huge fan of science fiction, I'm also a huge fan of Krzysztof Kieslowski. He somehow talks about the divine in a very realistic way, and it's very physical. It's touching upon a higher level plane with a twist. Like, The Double Life of Veronique is about two women with the same soul, or doppelgangers, or somehow they're connected. But the movie is very set in reality, and doesn't have any spectacle. In this case, we do have the spectacle of the other earth, and that's it. How do you define science fiction? Is it purely the spectacle that makes it science fiction? Kieslowski's films qualify as science fiction, or is it magical realism? So I derive a lot of influence from him. Especially the idea that we as humans have this primal yearning to not be alone, to connect. To find a double version of yourself, who has lived through the same experiences. You don't need to have a relationship with other version of you, but you can just look in that person's eyes and say, "You're okay." That's all that you need. Something like that is deeply emotionally rewarding, I think, as a human.
I was wondering if you could talk about the saw piece in the film.
It came together organically. When you're creating something, you approach it from multiple angles simultaneously. And the saw, I was in the subway in New York City and I heard this sound, creeping through the hallways of the underground. It sounded like an angel dying. I was right in the middle of writing the project, and I thought it was cool because it was a hat-tip to the theremin, the science fiction sound, and I wanted to give a suggestion to that. And I also loved the idea that the saw is an aggressive instrument - you could chop someone's head off with it if you wanted to - and William typically plays these characters that are intimidating on screen, and you fear them. To put a saw into this man's hands, who is going from darkness to this light and levity that he achieves in his arc, is wonderful because it's so delicate. It ups the tension ever so delicately. He's moving towards the light, and we have this angelic sound that's haunting and other worldly. Yet it is a saw. If their relationship falters, that is still a saw.