“I Origins,” the second feature film from writer and director Mike Cahill, tells the story of Dr. Ian Gray (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 (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.
We had the opportunity to sit down with the cast. Read our roundtable interviews below:
Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges-Frisbey
Michael from what I understand your brother is a scientist?
Michael: The director’s brother is a scientist, who I met, Hue, he’s actually got two brothers who are scientists and I met one of them, I met Hue, who I kind of based my character on I have to say and it’s sort of amazing how he had science in his family, because he was sort of able to 1) he’s got good short hand, he’s got a good general understanding of science in many different fields which obviously is really helpful in a film like this, but also we were also able to set up some time for me and Brit to go to the John’s Hopkins Medical Research Lab in Baltimore.
Astrid: Some of the shots in the film were actually shot in that, doing those rehearsals.
Michael: We went there to workshop it, to write stuff, and to observe them and you know, the cool thing about Mike is that he brought a camera and so we started messing around with it, and shooting things, a lot of it is in the film.
It’s like gorilla shooting.
Michael: That’s where cinema is going, if you don’t understand that, I know for me, one of the reasons I wanted to work with him is that he understands how the cameras work, he understand how to edit. In this day and age you edit anywhere, you edit in your house, the way these cameras are working now, they are not film cameras, if you know how to turn it on, it’s industry standard, you can project it and half the time it looks a lot better if you don’t light it. So these are things he understands, it’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with him just out of frustration from working with people who are shooting films now on digital cameras like they are film cameras, you know which is not, use a film camera. Be part of the new wave, be part of what’s interesting about these cameras and you know now you can do a take that’s like 40 minutes.
Astrid: It’s how you can make a film like this with such a small budget.
Michael: Yeah it’s also how you screw your actors. (laughter)
Do you think the technology has finally caught up to doing things this way, people have been trying to do it for years.
Michael: We’ve reached that point. We’re here. We are a long way from “The Celebration.” Have you ever seen “The Celebration,” it’s called “Festen,” it’s with Thomas Vinterberg. That was the first film that was done on DV video. And if you haven’t seen that film I’d suggest it because it will blow your mind. But that was the first one that was a huge success, but right now, that’s the moment because back then you were shooting a video and you blow it up to film and it looks like crap. Now with these new cameras it looks really good.
Yeah this movie looked incredible. Astrid, I understand that you were busy at the time and you were reluctant to take it on until you read the script, correct?
Astrid: No it was not like I was busy, I was actually going on some vacations.
Michael: She was in the mountains, she was literally in the mountains standing next to a mountain goat and getting a call. (laughter)
Astrid: It was then I was not really expecting something from the US … and I receive the script a little bit and I was like I’ll read it, I won’t like it anyways. At least you can leave with your mind clear. So I open it and after 5 pages I was like “oh my god what is that,” and I couldn’t keep my eyes off the script and called my agent right away and I met Mike the following day on Skype and we spent 2 hours and a half talking on Skype. And I was like “Okay, I’m leaving tomorrow and I won’t be like reachable and do you need anything?” Do you need me to put myself on tape, anything? … Then we were already talking about scheduling and we felt like an immediate connection and it.
Michael: I feel responsible for this.
You guys knew each other before right?
Michael: Not really, I had met Astrid in London. I was visiting Steven Graham, who is a great actor, and I met Astrid for like a couple minutes and I was really taken be her, and I was actually taken by her eyes and her eyes really stuck in my head. And that’s was it, it was a very quick meeting. And me and Mike were work-shopping the script and it came down to casting and every girl wanted to do this role. Me and Mike were getting calls from everywhere. Mike wasn’t so happy with the people. I wasn’t so happy with what we were getting and kind of in the back of my mind I was thinking, Astrid would be perfect for this, like perfect. But I was like not trying to push too much with Mike because you never know, but I was really surprised to hear, I could tell from the first Skype meeting that you talked to him that, she was going to get it.
Were you aware that you have such special eyes?
Astrid: There’s the art in the films and I remember reading the lines and asking myself what do those eyes look like and then I remember I was like really in the middle of the desert and they were asking to put myself on tape or do an audition through Skype. And guys I have to drive 10 miles to talk to you on the phone, there is no wi-fi anywhere, I cannot send you anything … And finally I sent a picture of my eyes to someone and he was like, “oh my god, you have the same thing that Sofi has,” so that makes him even more happy. But it’s also a pleasure and an uncomfortable position to be in, where people trusted you, talking about Michael and Mike, it’s something that is feeling good, you feel free and you feel that people are not judging and you feel happy, there’s an intuition, but in the same time it makes you even nervous because you don’t want to disappoint people who trusted you like this, make it different to trust you because you were not able to come and put yourself on tape.
Mike is a very good director, he brought a lot of stuff out of you right?
Michael: The first thing he said to me is that “I am the puppet master, you are the puppet.” (laughter) Yes that’s the first thing he said and then he said “Whatever I write is the Bible and you have to say it exactly that way.” It was a nightmare. Nah I’m just kidding. He’s super super open, which usually in from what I’ve run in, I’ve been doing film for a while, in my experience you run into two kinds of directors. One where they are so loose, that you question their vision and the other where they are so precise that they lose sight of their vision. And what’s amazing about Mike is that, being very young in his career, this is his second film, is that he understands, he’s got a very clear vision and he wants his actors to explore within those compounds. And that’s something that I’ve experience with Berlucchi, that I’ve experience with Gus Van Sant, but with younger film makers, it takes a while to get that and he kind of instinctually knows it and I can tell that pretty soon, right off the bat that he was operating on a really advanced level in my opinion.
Astrid: Well reading the script you can tell that how construct the script and the science part, he knew very well what he was doing, but at the same time doing sci-fi but talking about normal people, life situations. So he was inviting us to do not cut the life and just let the life exist in a very construct and science environment. And the story and film asked this and especially in Sofi’s and Ian’s relationship, we needed that, there were no facts. And then after that with Karen, there’s more built relationship with facts. But with Sofi we had to be more more-
Astrid: We just sort of invented physically and romantically and organically this relationship and if we just did say that it would have been impossible.
Yeah I think that comes across really well in the scenes that show the relationship more than the science.
Michael: Yeah we were very happy when he came on … We shot so much amazing stuff that I was so happy that my job was not to edit this film, because there was just a lot of amazing stuff. And there was a lot of stuff with Steven and we used to joke that there’s a whole movie with just Sofi, there’s a whole movie that’s just Steven.
I would watch those movies.
Michael: That’s a compliment but I think it also really speaks to the characters and also the performances.
What I thought was amazing was between you two when you ran into Sofi again on the train, without using dialogue, I thought that was ingenious. Look it here, you don’t have to speak, nothing has to be actually said here.
Astrid: It’s funny because someone brought that scene before, usually you have written scenes and you have like science scene. And in this case, well not very often I don’t know you’ve had a lot more films than me, but in this scene it, I’ve felt the dialogue where and don’t be said.
Michael: Yeah that was a suggestion I made to Mike because we had work-shopped that scene and it was something that, it’s a testament to him as a director that he tried this, and then he got so into it. He had wrote this great scene and my suggestion was okay let’s learn this scene. Let’s learn all the lines and when we’re there let’s just not say them. This is cinema, this is something you can do and can’t do in a play and it’s all about the eyes. It’s a really powerful scene.
Well I was wondering about, because its science and faith, where do you stand on that, do you tend towards more to the other?
Michael: Well I have no fucking clue. (laughter) I don’t, I don’t put up a wall between those two things. I don’t if that’s weird, but did I mention that book, there’s book that the Dalai Lama wrote, and he’s a scientist and he wrote that, we were reading a lot and he explains it well. He loves science, is a science nerd, but he’s also a Buddhist and he’s not threatened by science. And I think that a lot of people in any religion can learn a lot from that book. And that’s where I stand, I think they can co live.
Astrid: Well to me science is like a religion, a different religion. And we live in a world that today, that we need to have every religion together living in harmony. And science which is a side religion why it would not co-exist with different religions. Like if you talk to a scientist it’s like talking to a priest, and it’s the way to practice his religion, so how not thinking this way why can’t it co-exist with different religions. That just appeared to me right now.
Mike Cahill also shared his thoughts on the film.
I wanted to ask about your brother, now he is a scientist, did you take a lot from him, or did you just grow up with the idea that science was in the mind or did you grab from him?
Mike: I have always admired scientists, and I admire my brothers. My brother Hue invited us to the laboratory to see his experiments and to actually introduce Michael and Brit to the other scientists there to a scientist named Max and a scientist named Phil at John’s Hopkins and these guys were so cool and generous with their time. You know you can see the influence or the affect that it had on Brit and Michael and how wonderful they are as actors because I remember Michael saying to Phil “Just do what you do, extract the DNA, do the pipetting, I’m just going to watch.” And because there is just a method to it and a manner to it and they would just soak in all this. And I thought you know what? There are not many films that depict scientists how they are and I think it’s my duty or my job or pleasure to capture the spirit of being a PhD students and pursuing that discovery right. I want to get it right. So this movie is our attempt to do that.
So are eyes something you look at when you meet people.
Mike: Yes, you have very nice eyes. I think that it’s something that we always do. I think it’s weird that as a child, children always know to look at the eyes, instead of the mouth or shoulders, we look, we know that the sense of self, the source of identity, is somewhere here, intuitively we know that. I think throughout culture, the history of civilization, the eye has held mystical, powerful, source of story, that old cliché that eyes are the window to the soul somehow survived for centuries and centuries and centuries. I was once on an island in Croatia, called Brijuni, with my wife, there were these beautiful ancient Roman ruins on the beach. And on the water there are these rocks that are covered in dinosaur footprints. It’s a really cool site because there are tourists taking pictures of the ruins and tourists taking pictures of the dinosaur footprints and it occurred to me that that civilization has risen and fallen and never discovered dinosaurs and yet their children played in the puddles of the dinosaur foot prints. And so their whole existence came and when that was right in front of them, they didn’t figure it out what it was, I wanted to see, I wanted to tell a story about what was our dinosaur foot prints. What are our dinosaur foot prints? What is right in front of our faces, right here or there, that we just don’t realize its significance and that just when I thought of the eyes.
There’s that scene in the movie where Michael Pitt is looking for Astrid and you show the National Geographic photo and I thought that was just inspirational.
Mike: Yeah so Steve McCurry, a photographer for National Geographic took that photo for the June 1987 issue, I think. He snapped that photo in a refugee camp and met that girl for 30 seconds and she was off and he didn’t know her name, her story or anything like that. And yet every day he would get letters, who was this girl, who was this girl? Because it became a super iconic photograph and started a movement and I think about 17 years later he started on a mission to try and find her and the only thing he had, you know the girl’s face had changed in 17 years, but the only thing that didn’t change was her eyes. Our eyes form when we are in our mother’s womb and they stay the same our entire lives, until our death. Our irises are unchanging. So they went to the boarder of Afghanistan and Pakistan and brought an iris biometric scientist to help aid in their quest to find her and they eventually found her and they have the exact same eyes. So that was very inspirational to me and I thought, you know as an artist, how can I change this? What if you try to find someone through their eyes and what if they were completely different? What if they had died and someone else had their eyes? Would there be a connection? Could there be a connection? And with today’s technology, prior to now we could never do a search, but now there is a database with hundreds of millions of eyes out there. So you know?
The scenes in India, you follow this young actress, her name is Kashish. How did you go around finding her and how was it working with this actress who had no academic training?
Mike: We found her, Kashish, through this casting director Dilip Shankar, who casted “Life of Pi,” and he’s a very beautiful human being, a very spiritual human being, full of light as a human. And he saw many many young aspiring actor children for the part and he presented me, when I was in New York and he was in New Delhi, he would send me audition tapes online and the challenge I gave to him, and I don’t know if he had this challenge, was to cast someone who felt like Sofi. Not a look-alike but a feel-alike. You know when you meet a person and you go “oh gosh you remind me of someone … you don’t look like them but you remind me of them.” That’s something that’s very difficult to articulate but it’s something that we had. So I was like Dilip can you cast that, can you do that? So along comes Kashish, who was still at this Salaam Baalak School, Trust NGO, based in New Delhi, she’s an orphan in real life, but she’s well taken care of at this place, we made a big donation to the place as well in her honor. So she comes along and she gets in front of a camera and the camera disappears, she has no self-consciousness, she becomes the character. The character is nothing like Kashish. The funny thing is that when you hit cut, pop she comes right back to life. Really it’s amazing. Kashish ready, action! And I had to teach her action and cut, so much fun. And it’s also Michael, he just intuitively had such a great interaction with her they foraged a trust. We spent a few days just hanging out, spending time together and she’s just naturally talented.
How old was she when she was shooting?
Mike: She was like 7 or 8, I think.
I was just taken away when I saw her on screen.
Mike: Yeah yeah she’s a special one. We were just in touch we her, she was very happy. It was so sweet, she would come to set dressed in this pretty pink dress with the sunglasses and we’d have to dirty her up. This just feels weird. She’s so special.
I think what was really interesting in the film was that it was the idea that the eyes reincarnating. I think if it was a more typical sci-fi movie, like that, I think you would be following the other scientists. How much of it was your choice to follow the team that was not tracking all these famous people?
Mike: Yeah that’s such a great question. Well, I wanted to tell a love story and the movie is a love story. And the movie is about two different kinds of love. The love Ian has with Sofi and the love that Ian has with Karen. And they are very very different in the fabric of those romances. One’s sort of like an exploding firework and the other is sort of like a mountain, you know, and they are both valid. And I think that love is a universal thing, we all experience it, heartbreak and romance and this and I wanted to capture this epic sci-fi concept, but keep it in this very intimate, relatable story. But the sequel will follow the other scientists probably.
There was so much spirituality in the film and your brother is a scientist, has that been something you have discussed?
Mike: The key is the scene that I think is most enlightening for me is the scene with the worms. When Sofi comes into the laboratory and she says how many senses do these worms have, and he says 2. Touch and smell, which is true. And you give them sight, which is true – scientists modify worms to have sight. So she uses what he is doing in a laboratory and she uses the logic of that, the logic behind that to say hey who’s to say that 5 senses is the limit, who’s to say, ergo, if we have 5 senses and we modify this one that has 2 to have 3, who’s to say that we have 5 can now have 6 and that’s where the word metaphysics come into play. Metaphysics is beyond the physical, and metaphysics is the realm of the spiritual. I think that science and spirituality can really be nice bed fellows if they wanted to be because of that fact. Anything beyond our tangible, touchable, seems to be another realm and that’s very very scientifically explainable. There’s a very good book called “Flatlands”, where a line on a 2 dimensional plane falls in love with a 3 dimensional sphere and I loved this book when I was a kid because it totally erupted in my mind this sense of dimensions and how that works and how would a fourt dimension look like and feel. There are things beyond our imagination that are limited because of our sensorial perceptions. Touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing. And they say that there are certain cows that may have a sense that we don’t have that’s a magnetic sense. Cows can detect, it’s as if they are compasses, they can detect the poles, what way is north just from their brains. It’s like north, move, move south.
“I Origins” is now playing.