Mike Cahill and Brit Marling took the scenic route to Park City this past January, where their feature debut, the indie/sci-fi mash-up Another Earth, beguiled audiences and was awarded with the appropriately nerdy-sounding Alfred P. Sloan Prize for films with science or technology themes.
Even independent film has developed traditional channels, and expensive marquee film schools and hothouse grant programs such as those offered by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute are two of them. But while their fellow debut filmmakers at this year's festival were putting together reels for admissions committees, Cahill was studying economics and Marling was on her way to becoming an investment banking analyst at Goldman Sachs. Sitting across from them during a recent press day for their film in a swishy Soho hotel in New York City and contemplating the film's doppelganger premise, I wondered what they might say to their student selves.
Friends since Marling admired one of Cahill's early art videos almost ten years ago, the two worked on the script for Another Earth for six months in 2009, camped out in Cahill's Los Angeles home. Cahill, who realised before he graduated that economics was not his career of choice, hit the road with his Hi8 camera after college, eventually becoming a staff cinematographer for National Geographic. It took a couple of years for Marling to discover that the acting she did in high school might have more than an extracurricular value in her life.
“I was out in LA and looking around at things to read for, being a young, unknown girl in LA,” Marling, whose flowing blonde hair belies her patrician good looks, said during a recent conversation. “And they were looking not so good! So I was like, 'I think I might have to learn to write, otherwise I might need to pick a different profession.' It's just hard to find your way in. And Mike wanted to direct a fiction feature and we wanted to do something together, so we started to try to teach ourselves to be filmmakers, in order to do the things we really wanted to do.”
The beginning of that learning curve involved the 2004 documentary Boxers and Ballerinas, a story of the conflict between the United States and Cuba told through the development of four young athletes in both countries. The prolonged shooting schedule proved rewarding for the co-directors, but Marling found the non-fiction format constricting. “We were having all of these experiences,” Marling says of their time in Cuba, “and we wanted to give them to people but we weren't very good at narrative yet. We were obsessed with the images we were capturing and the poetry of the filmmaking but I think a lot of the things we were feeling got sort of—maybe not lost in translation, but not clearly articulated. We learned that the real power in communicating comes from getting really good at story structure, so that you can smuggle these things that you're thinking and feeling across.”
Elisions and elliptical storytelling mark Another Earth, the story of a young woman (Marling) trying to make reparations with the victim of an accident (William Mapother) she caused, as the discovery of a second planet uncannily like our own plays out behind them. The backgrounding of such a provocative premise was a matter of balance for the pair. Cahill says they began with a fundamental idea: What would it be like to meet yourself? And what kind of person might need such a meeting most?
Working with a budget of less than $200,000 and inspired by the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski (especially The Double Life of Veronique), as the director Cahill had to keep one eye on how many of their fantastical ideas they could actually shoot. “There were ambitions that we had in that direction,” Cahill said, mentioning an articulation of the second Earth's gravitational pull and an earthquake that didn't quite pan out, “but for a film this small we had to hope that by weaving in enough of the context the audience can allow the sleight of hand to happen and see [the conceit] as a metaphor, see that there's something else that we're driving towards and this whole construct is almost like a fairy tale, or an allegory.”
As a writer who was also starring in the film as a guilt-ridden young woman, Marling had to keep her approach to the story grounded in its emotional truths, especially during the large portions of the film where her character doesn't speak. “That was intense,” Marling said. “Because I kept thinking as we were doing it, how is this going to sustain itself? I also was really concerned about the idea of Rhoda falling into self-pity, which is the most isolating emotion when you're watching a movie—someone pities themself? You just shut down. I wanted to find a way to make her strong, a warrior soldiering against her own grief and confusion, rather than being passive to it. So I tried to find ways to do that even in the silence, to not be broken by the weight of her experience but push back against it.”
Granted the relative luxury of rehearsal time—which Marling and Mapother used to develop the quiet but comfortable rapport two lonely people can share—and shooting in chronological order, Marling's first experience with movie acting will prove tough to beat, though after her breakout reception at Sundance (where she also starred as a cult leader in The Sound of My Voice), she is determined to try. “I can't imagine anything else to do with myself,” she said, describing the experience of connecting with an audience as “the opposite of the alienation” that Another Earth examines. Cahill is already at work on his second feature, which will also star Marling. “It's very much top secret right now,” Cahill said, before spilling that it will be “another paradigm shift movie” that deals with reincarnation, which is proven scientifically true, and takes place in the future.
With a bigger budget and an obvious unlimited store of energy and imagination, the Cahill on this Earth has proven himself one to watch. And what would he say to his potential double out there in the multiverse? “I just re-watched 8 ½,” he said, by way of an answer. “And the thing that I took away that I never caught before is there's this line when [Marcello Mastroianni] is tearing down the big spacecraft thing, and his friend says to him, 'It's better to destroy than to create something meaningless.' I thought that was so f***ing powerful.”