UTG INTERVIEW: Michael Pitt And Mike Cahill Talk ‘I Origins’ and Sci-Fi

Pitt Cahill

Mike Cahill, the director of Another Earth, has returned with another high-concept story in I Origins. His new film, on the surface, is about the blurring lines between faith and science, but deep down, it’s a film about obsession.

Check out the synopsis (per FOX Searchlight) here: I Origins, the second feature film from writer and director Mike Cahill, tells the story of Dr. Ian Gray (Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Pitt), a molecular biologist studying the evolution of the eye. He finds his work permeating his life after a brief encounter with an exotic young woman (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) who slips away from him. As his research continues years later with his lab partner Karen (The East’s Brit Marling), they make a stunning scientific discovery that has far reaching implications and complicates both his scientific and spiritual beliefs. Traveling half way around the world, he risks everything he has ever known to validate his theory.

UTG got to sit down with Cahill and I Origin’s star, Michael Pitt, to discuss how the film was made, the inspiration behind it, and Cahill’s love for sci-fi concepts. Check it out below!

What was your inspiration for I Origins?

Cahill: The inspiration came from a June 1985 cover of National Geographic magazine. The cover was an Afghan girl photographed by Steve McCurry. If you have ever seen that very iconic photograph, you will see these stunning green eyes. What was interesting was Steve didn’t know the girl’s name; she just came in to a refugee camp in Pakistan. He took her photo and off she ran. That photo turned out to be super famous, and for years he would get letters asking, “who is this person?” He didn’t know her name; she didn’t sign a release form. 17 years later, they went to try and track the girl down but they didn’t know what she would look like. The one thing that they did know was what her eyes looked like.

That’s when I started to learn about iris biometrics and the fact that everyone’s eyes are unique. You can get a photograph from an iris scan, which are basically the cracks and crevices of the eye. You can extract that photo from a camera and get a unique social security-esque number, which is 12 digits, and your eyes stay the same for your whole entire life. So they went on this expedition to go find her. A lot of women were potential candidates with these piercing green eyes and they had a biometrics company scan the eyes to prove if they were a match or not. I thought it was so interesting to look for someone based on his or her eyes. I thought of, “what if, after we die, our eyes come back in newborns?” If you present that very simple data to a scientist who has more atheistic tendencies, how would they grapple with that? Especially if that person were somebody that they loved.

To Pitt: How does something like I Origins get pitched to you?

Money, fame [laughter]. I met Mike in Brooklyn, we both live there. We met on a general meeting and I was really taken by him. He had about 5 or 6 projects in his head. I’ve been really blessed to work with some very great filmmakers and I’ve realized that great filmmakers have about the same number of ideas in their head. With the idea of I Origins, I could see that Mike had the whole film in his head. At that point, there wasn’t a script, but everything was there and it was a matter of him putting everything on paper. When we were talking, I told him that the idea behind I Origins was really interesting to me. I told him that he should try and put some time into it when he got the chance. Two and a half weeks later, he sent me the first draft of the script. We changed nuances, dialogue, and whom we wanted to work with but that script was pretty much it. Mike was really gracious about letting me develop a character. Film making at its core is a collaborative art form. Some people get that and some people don’t. Mike is able to really grab the gems from everyone who is talented but also is able to keep his focus on the vision he has for the film. Not everyone can do that.

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With Another Earth, you shot the film mostly on handheld cameras. What was your experience with the new equipment you used?

Cahill: We still have a lot of handheld shots in I Origins but they are a lot more stabilized. I was going for a sort of poetic realism and using handhelds makes you feel that a film is kind of vérité and observational. I worked with this great cinematographer, Markus Förderer. I saw one of his films in Switzerland and I tracked him down. I could feel that we were in sync with one another. We were lucky to be shooting this film with two cameras simultaneously at all times. We used two RED cameras: an EPIC and a SCARLETT. I would operate one while Markus shot on the other. Shooting simultaneously allowed us to catch some really wonderful gems and freedom when it comes to blocking. You can cut them together too while shooting simultaneously. We shot on location at all of these great places but I wanted to find some new boundaries and land in terms of technique/aesthetics. The film even has a double vertigo shot. This is the first time for a movie to use this robotic techno-crane where you can key frame all of the positions of the camera in movement. This allowed us to accomplish doing a 180-degree turn and a vertigo shot out of the room in one continuous move. We also experimented with compositional déjà vu by recreating the hallway in India while still in the original apartment building in New York. Another Earth was shot on the Sony EX3. You can shoot 1080p on that camera but I shot 720. I remember when I sold it to FOX, they asked, “Is there any way you can make the picture better?” [laughter] With I Origins, we shot in 4K, which is kind of like [makes mind-blowing gesture]. There are so many visual effect shots that are invisible in the film. We had over 200 visual effects shots in the film. All the iris images that got superimposed on the girl were visual effects.

Pitt: For me, that’s the best way to use visual effects. Using them in that subtle kind of way. Mike was using current and state of the art equipment but I would never think this film would look dated. That’s the hardest thing with visual effects. You get this new gear and very often, the filmmakers will exploit it, and five years later it wouldn’t be that cool-looking anymore. To use visual effects seamlessly is a very precise thing. Putting Astrid’s eyes in Kashish’s (the small girl Pitt’s character finds in India) head is really complicated. To be honest, when Mike was obsessing about that facet throughout the project, there were times when I said to myself, “is this going to work?” But it did, he really pulled it off.

Cahill: Yeah because it’s not a digital effect, it’s more organic. We shot Astrid in the same conditions with the same camera as Kashish and just plucked them out.

Why do you think that these large-scope sci-fi backgrounds are a good backdrop for a small and more intimate story?

Cahill: Do you ever watch one of those big sci-fi movies and it’s the main army general or hero archetype? I’m always wondering what everyone else is doing. They eat, sleep, shower, use the toilet, and there’s this other paradigm now. In these more intimate stories, you can touch upon something universal like loss and wanting somebody back.

Pitt: The reason I can watch Blade Runner is that it’s aesthetically amazing but it’s the character work, too. It’s not all about the aesthetics with that film. I feel that that is where it is going right now with visual effects, all about the aesthetics. With new movies, everything kind of looks like a video game and where they fall short is with that character work. With Blade Runner, the performances are so acute. The great idea with wanting to be human and “what is humanity?” The aesthetics is more of a backdrop in service of that idea. It seems that now it’s aesthetics first and characters second. To me, films like that won’t last and will just outdate themselves.

Interview written and conducted by: Sam Cohen – (Follow him on Twitter)
Check out the trailer for I Origins below and come back soon for our review of the film on UTG!

Feature photo credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Sam Cohen

Sam Cohen is that guy you can't have a conversation with without bringing up Michael Mann. He is also incapable of separating himself from his teenage angst (looking at you, Yellowcard). Read on as he tries to formulate words about movies!
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