Filmmaker Mike Cahill and Star Michael Pitt Search for Answers in I Origins, the Year’s Most Thought-Provoking Movie

A picture as intelligent and sophisticated as the offbeat new drama I Origins is a rarity in American movies, but given that this one was written and directed by Mike Cahill, who gave us 2011’s similarly thoughtful Another Earth, it’s no surprise. But his former film was merely a warm-up for his infinitely more complex new one, the story of a young scientist so certain God doesn’t exist that he works overtime in the lab to prove such.  But when he falls into passionate love with a free-spirited model who believes in the soul and all things unseen, and then later with a brainy lab assistant who shares his predilection for hard data and proof, he’s not so sure.

Yet this basic plot outline does not begin to address the mysteries of this exciting film, one that raises big questions about science and religion, love and transcendence, skepticism and faith, reincarnation and ultimately the desire to want to believe. The human capacity for change is also very much present.

I caught up with Mike Cahill and star Michael Pitt to discuss I Origins’ provocative ambitions, so memorably rendered by stars Pitt, Britt Marling and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey. It’s an uncommon movie, and among the best I’ve seen this year—narratively, thematically, visually and aurally.

I Origins is a probing film that asks, and wrestles with, big questions. Uncommon in most of today’s film narratives.

Mike Cahill: Since the dawn of civilization, we have been trying to construct narratives that make us feel peaceful. We do ask questions, but frame them in an interesting way.  It’s precise in that the audience members put themselves there, and put their beliefs on the table as well.

Michael, you’ve just now been boxing. 

Michael Pitt: I try to sweat a little bit. It’s good for the brain, I think.  I’m a little addicted to it.

MC: How long does it take you to get to sweating?

MP: If you know what you are doing, about three minutes!  I can get you drenched. I’m lazy also. I can box in a few minutes. I don’t have time to work out for an hour and a half.  Jump rope for three minutes and you will sweat. There was a lot of sweating in this movie!

The film deals with some weighty subjects—science, faith, love, death, reincarnation—but never feels heavy-handed or pretentious, I believe because we care for the characters.

MC: Great. When wishing to tackle ideas that are universal, you are dancing on the delicate edge of pretension; right on the border. I think that since Warhol, postmodernism has taken hold of the art world in painting, photography, cinema and music, and has defined a generation of hipster-ism and young people and irony and cynicism and cool, not in a 50s sense, but cool more in an ironic sense. It’s very untouchable and delicious and wonderful—and it is also a dead end.  If, as an artist, you are interested in going after something sincere and emotional…

Pitt: …it takes a lot of courage, especially in my generation and the one right behind us. It’s like, have the balls to care about something and take something seriously. At the end of the day, what are you holding onto?

MC: Yeah. It’s captured in that difficult dance that one does between sincerity and keeping it- in the scene where he says, “Have you ever met someone who fills that hole inside of you and when they are gone, you feel painfully vacant,” he’s being fucking sincere, and gets caught up in that moment and he gets knocked down.  For me, it was important that he goes there, so that we can go there.  If we just ended on that we would not have gotten away with it.  When Karen says, “Maybe the eyes really are the window the soul.” And he says, “Soul?” Like, is my wife really using the word soul?  Again, if you ever allow your characters to step over the edge into earnestness and sincerity and something that means something and opening their hearts and are vulnerable, we allow them to do it with a chain so that we can pull them back quickly.