I Origins: Mike Cahill on Franchising & Masters of the Universe

I knew I was on the same wavelength as Mike Cahill. He introduced me to Brit Marling in the Sundance film Another Earth. When I saw Marling had another film at Sundance, I put Sound of My Voice on my schedule. That introduced me to the whole Georgetown trio of Marling, Cahill and Voice/The East director Zal Batmanglij. Where Another Earth was about dealing with grief and loss in the aftermath of the discovery of a parallel planet, I Origins deals with allusions to reincarnation and science, and a little grief and loss as well.

Michael Pitt plays Ian, a scientist trying to create the ocular genes in a species that does not see, as a way of proving sight can evolve. Marling plays his lab assistant testing each species against his theory. By the end, their experiment takes Ian to India. Mild allusions to light spoilers may ensue, but I’ve been careful to omit any giveaways of the film’s big secrets.

Related: Watch an Exclusive Scene from ‘I Origins’


CraveOnline: What would you have done if Searchlight didn’t pick up your second movie?

Mike Cahill: [Laughs] Probably sold it to somebody else.


That’s the simple answer.

I would’ve cried all night long for about three months. It was a dream come true that they picked it up. I was really, really, really, really, really, really lucky and I know that and I’m really indebted to them for the support and generosity they have had with my career. They look at things in the long term. They’ve been shepherding great directors and auteurs for many years, from when they were younger to older, helping build the audience for different artists to have the safety to discover their voice.


Had they expressed interest, like, “You’re going to Sundance again. We’ll take a look at your film and if all goes well we’ll work together again?”

Do you know the whole history? It’s so complicated actually. I originally sold them a movie called I which takes place 20 years in the future where reincarnation is proven true. Did you stay for the coda?


Yes, the Nick Fury scene.

The Nick Fury/Marvel scene, the $100 million movie. Actually it’s only a million dollar movie.


So this is a prequel to the first idea you wanted to do?

Exactly, this is a prequel to the first idea I wanted to do. This is the origin story for I. That’s why it has that unusual title. It’s the origin of I. So Searchlight owned I. I have a very good relationship with them obviously. We’ve been working together now for a while and they’ve been really kind to me. I just called them and said, “Hey, can I make this origin story to the thing that you guys own?” They sort of set a precedent. No studio in the history of mankind, they just gave it to me. They said sure. Like legally, they own it. Legally, they own everything but they give me permission to make it and said, “If we like it, we’ll buy it, if not, sell it to whomever and we can figure out how to [do it]. You’ll have to buy I out of turnaround at some point.” But instead they saw it, they really loved it, they offered the highest price. It was like no question we were going with them. Then they pulled the trigger on I into active development.


I love that because I’m Franchise Fred. I love sequels.

Really? Oh cool.


I was even going to suggest to you that the sequel should be II Origins where it’s the Roman numeral II.

Can I take that?


Absolutely. I would love to see that on a poster.

That would be so cool. Can I do that?


Yes, I give that to you.

You give me permission?


It’s on the record and I will even transcribe this part so there’s proof.

So it would be II Origins. A lot of people would be confused by that, but fuck it.


They did it for Men in Black II where it was MIIB. Is that Men In In Black?

But it works. That’s great.


It works for III also. It’s only IV where it won’t work.

It would just be IV, very scientific.


As Franchise Fred, I love the idea of doing a prequel to set up your own big concept.

Franchise Fred! That’s so cool.


Thank you. So I Origins is a test run for the I franchise?

That’s great. But you don’t think it should be II Evolutions, and the next one be III Horizons, or some scientific word like Vertices?


It could be, but the only reason to increase the number is if you’re using the same suffix.

I see. You’re Franchise Fred. You’ve got to consult me on this, seriously.


Please do, let’s make this happen. I remember on the Boxers & Ballerinas DVD, you told a story about shooting in some sort of crevice with the cameras and the only way to get out was you had to climb out and then Brit had to jump up to you. Did that inspire the elevator scene in I Origins?

Oh my goodness! It might have subconsciously inspired it. I never thought of that. Oh my goodness. Can I shake your hand?


We’re really getting somewhere.

We’re really good. You’re two for two. First of all, I’ve never been in an interview where someone has revealed something about my own psychology so brilliantly and succinctly as that. Maybe it did subconsciously. It certainly didn’t consciously. That’s how I remember it precisely. That’s what it was like. What was so interesting about that is that if I didn’t catch her that time, she would have fallen. There were all these rocks below, she would’ve fallen into those rocks and could’ve smashed her head and that would’ve been that. I guess often filmmakers like to tell stories where they go to where the bad thing can happen. You fantasize about oh no, this is how bad it can get and how will I deal with that afterwards. Can I create a narrative that even if the worst happens that I’ll be okay even in the worst case scenario?


Life imitates art but makes the art more dangerous.

Exactly. You’re so intuitive. It’s very impressive.


I think we’re on the same wavelength as far as philosophy and the soul. I’ll go for my third one. This is an even bigger swing, but is I Origins your Animal House? Instead of partying frat boys, they are geniuses creating the ocular gene.

[Laughs.] Yes.


I thought this is how smart people party.

Well, scientists do not get portrayed accurately in movies. They get portrayed very cliché. Very stiff often, very sort of like Beaker. The scientists that I know, and I know quite a few scientists. They’re my favorite people in the world. They can talk about music. They drink Irish Car Bombs. They like to dance. They’re passionate, poetic, wonderful people who just happen to put discovery and breaking ground higher than most other desires, like money for example or whatever. I wanted to capture the spirit, the true spirit of what it feels like to be a young PhD student hellbent on discovery. Not even making a name, but making their way through this microworld to discover something. I think Brit’s character captures that sentiment so perfectly when she says, “When you make a mundane discovery when you’re lying in bed at night, you are the only person in the world that knows. You’re on the cutting edge of human knowledge.” There’s something that’s very visceral about that sentiment and very true. I think that’s a really powerful motivator for people that do this work, so I just wanted to capture that.


Well, that went over much better than I was worried it might. Why was there no saw music in I Origins?

[Laughs] I really should have put saw music in I Origins because the Saw Lady is very active on Twitter. Any time anyone ever says they like Another Earth on Twitter, she writes them right away.


I know. I told her, “You’ve written me five times. I know your music and I know this film very well.” So now she remembers me.

That’s so funny. I thought about that at some point. Maybe it was like one night at five o’clock in the morning, I was like, “Maybe I should put some saw music in here because she does this really great PR outreach to the fans totally free of charge.” The saw was very purposeful for John’s character [in Another Earth] for two reasons. One, it was kind of “Twilight Zone”y theremin vibe. Two, because it was a saw, which is very aggressive and kind of was the instrument of John, can make this very delicate music but he could probably crush you if he wanted to, or chop you up. We have no saws.


If you get to do Masters of the Universe, will Brit play She-Ra?

[Laughs] I’m not doing Masters of the Universe.


Definitely not?

Definitely not.


Are those the kinds of big movies you got into filmmaking to do though?

No. The big movies that I got into film to do are movies that have spectacle but meaning. I don’t know if you’ve ever read that script.


The Masters script? I haven’t.

It was ultimately a story about brothers which is really kind of interesting, and brothers coming to war with one another, kind of a Cain and Abel story.


How did you end up meeting on that and even being in consideration?

Sony contacted my agents. It was my favorite toy growing up, so I was like, “Hell yeah, I’ll meet.”


Mine too!

I kinda wanted to learn about what they were doing. It’s your favorite too but you didn’t get to read the script. I did. I got a super password protected one, but I certainly wanted to engage just to see what they were going to do, but they didn’t offer it to me. They just had a conversation with me.


Well, I’ve been pitching Brit as Supergirl. That’s my mission. Zal likes that.

That’s awesome. That’s so rad. The thing is, I think there’s a place for me. I think there’s this $30 million space. This movie cost just over a million bucks. It’s a very inexpensive movie. There are these great auteur-made, like Looper, brilliant fuckin’ movie. Brilliant movie, original movie. District 9, $30 million, brilliant movie, wonderful movie. I feel like there’s a really cool space that you can play with. Studios think that’s not very much money. It’s not $200 million by any stretch of the imagination. You can do spectacle, engaging the sense of wonder in that way. I’m aiming at that for original stuff.


When the three of you were at Georgetown, was it always an equal collaboration, or would Brit gravitate more towards you or Zal?

I was always considered the most brilliant of us. [Laughs] I lost that status now. No, I’m kidding.


Even now, you and Zal are two and two with Brit movies.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, two and two. You know, we found our tribe so we helped each other out and inspire each other. I’m actually the oldest of all of us. I am kind of the wiser one I would say.


Did you graduate first?

Yeah, I graduated first. I got a job at National Geographic and I used all their gear for us to make our movies.


I Origins is six minutes shorter than it was at Sundance. That’s not insignificant. What did you take out?

Is it six? I thought it was 11 minutes shorter.


Is it that many? I looked at the Sundance program to check the running time.

I don’t know, maybe it is six minutes.


Maybe it’s 11 but there’s more credits now that Searchlight has their team.

Maybe that’s it.


11 is really significant. What did you take out?

Well, 11 is a very significant number in the movie so I wanted it to be exactly 11. At one point the running time was 111 minutes. I was like, “This is perfect.” I wonder if it’s that now. I cut out the interior of the dairy farm. When Ian says, “Can I meet Paul?” And they’re like, “Sure, come on inside and have a cup of tea.” Then they go sit inside. It’s a beautiful scene, it’s beautifully shot, the performances are really great. The problem was we get ahead of Ian. So I cut thought out, don’t need it. All of a sudden it cuts to the scene in the kitchen and you’re not ahead of him. He’s ahead of you just by a hair and then you realize. You’re a great interviewer. You see why? It just made it tighter. You don’t want to get ahead of the character.


One logistical question, does Ian just take an Indian girl off the street for his experiment at the end?

We are very cognizant of that being bad in the movie. This is creepy. There are a few ways we attempted to lessen that, which is that he’s calling Priya. They’re going to meet there together. It’s like let’s go have a meal and Priya will be here. Still, it’s very creepy. But we didn’t avoid it. Instead we dealt with it because you start thinking about that. Because you’re wheels are spinning on that and then you’re spinning on seeing Mapother by the elevator, you forget something significant.


I was wondering more if there were scenes with her parents where he explained where he was taking her, but that just made the movie too long? 

Ah, no. She was an orphan. We were in his POV so we know he’s a good dude. She’s an orphan who’s a street kid and a good person [comes along], she was in a bad situation and he had the means to help her.


Well, I’m glad we finally did a one on one. I saw Another Earth at my first Sundance and I still have a poster on my wall, so Brit is always looking over me. 

That’s so sweet. I remember when we took that. That scene where she walks out and there’s that big Earth behind her, that was not in the script. We were just driving from one location to the next and I was like, “Let’s pull over the car,” I grabbed the camera, threw it on a tripod. I’m like, “Brit, just walk out on the pier. Look at those clouds, they’re amazing. I’m going to put the Earth in the sky right there and we’ll use it somewhere.” It was perfect, so we shot that scene just randomly, totally unscheduled. Then I was like, “The lighting is so nice, I’m just going to snap some photographs.” So I just snapped that photograph. We had no press kit photographs really in our movie but we did have that one.


I’m excited to see what you do next. Even if it’s not Masters of the Universe, I sounds like Franchise Fred material.

Oh, indeed. My man! Thank you, Fred. I’m going to have to call you for consultation multiple times.


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Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.