By Ed Symkus
More Content Now
Before directing his new film, “I Origins,” Mike Cahill had only made one other feature, the offbeat science fiction drama “Another Earth.” Before starring in “I Origins,” Michael Pitt had acted for, among others, Bernardo Bertolucci in “The Dreamers,” M. Night Shyamalan in “The Village,” and Gus Van Sant in “Last Days,” and played Jimmy Darmody on “Boardwalk Empire.” No matter. When Cahill and Pitt first met, to talk about films in general, not any specific project, they hit it off, becoming fast friends, knowing they would someday work together. The result, “I Origins,” is a film about a scientist (Pitt) caught up in some startling new discoveries who goes through some big-time emotional and spiritual changes due to his work as well as two women in his life. Cahill and Pitt were in Boston earlier this week to discuss the film and how they got involved in cinema.
Mike, you studied economics in college. How did that lead to writing and directing?
Cahill: The brief version is I fell in love with filmmaking as a young boy. When I was 6 I got a Fisher-Price PixelVision Camera, and it was my favorite thing in the world. I filmed my little brother pretending to drive my mom’s car, and then I filmed a matchbox car, then I cut them together so it would look like he was really driving. I’m sure it was pretty obvious, but when you’re a kid, it’s magical. I went to movies when I was a kid, but I stopped being interested in making them. But when I was in Georgetown, studying economics, there was one week where I saw “sex, lies, and videotape,” “Basquiat,” and Kieslowski’s “Red.” That’s when I discovered what cinema was, as an art form, as a thing that’s capable of articulating those ineffable things. And from that moment I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do.
Michael, the Internet says you knew you wanted to be an actor when you were 10. Is that true?
Pitt: No, but I was always interested in the arts. I was always painting and performing. I was a little bit of an outcast as a child. I remember my mother had this compulsive thing of if something was on sale she had to buy it. So Blockbuster was selling all of these previously viewed videos for a dollar. She would buy them, and I would binge-watch a crateful of movies. Anything, everything, good movies, bad movies, as a really young kid. I guess I was looked upon as being a kind of dreamer, kind of like in my own world. But when I started watching, it actually helped me, in life. I did a school play – I think it was “Oklahoma!” – and that’s when I got the bug.
Mike, are the three main characters in the film – Ian, Sofi, and Karen – very different from how you initially pictured them on the page?
Cahill: That’s hard to answer. I remember them only abstractly. And now when I think of Ian and Sofi and Karen, I only think of them as they are now. They certainly evolved, which is part of the process of working with actors. These actors are talented artists who built these characters from the ground up. I gave them the blueprint, and they’d fill that out and give them three-dimensionality and nuance. My brother is a molecular biologist, so we were very kindly offered entrance to spend time in the laboratory with all these great scientists. What was interesting was watching Michael and Brit (Marling, who plays his assistant Karen) watch the scientists. The scientists would show them how to do all the things, like extracting DNA. And you could see Michael taking the ephemeral mannerisms and incorporating them into the character he was building.
Michael, there were no actor credits at the beginning of the film, and I didn’t recognize you. I actually didn’t know you were in it till the end credits.
Pitt: Oh, that’s great! Thank you so much! That’s something I go after; I think that’s what it is to be an actor. I’m always trying to do something different.
Mike, there’s a major plot point that I won’t give away here, that happens about halfway through the film, and changes the whole mood of it. What kind of direction did you offer Michael to show the change in his character?
Cahill: The change happens mathematically, precisely, at the midpoint of the film. To the minute, to the second. The way Michael plays Ian after that is with such restraint and such power. And that’s all him. That’s him building his character, and me witnessing it and making sure it’s in there.
Michael, do you recall how you approached that change?
Pitt: Some time goes by, and I wanted to age the character, which is something I did physically. I tried to play him as more mature. I was also playing him as though he had decided to completely suppress this memory of his past. I think he was the type of guy who could turn it off, didn’t want to talk about it with anyone, just tried to tuck it away.
You’ve also had some success singing and playing guitar in the band Pagoda. Is that still an active project?
Pitt: I’ll play with those guys for the rest of my life. But I’m on the road all the time, so I’m gonna do some solo stuff, hopefully very soon.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Cahill, Pitt discuss origins of ‘I Origins’
By Ed Symkus