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.
What do you mean risky? To be sincere and open like Ian is, especially in the second half of the film?
MP: I was making more of a comment about the art world, certainly, but it’s also a generational thing right now. I guess what I feel like is that everything is just like about being ironic. And a lot of times when I sit face to face with an artist who is doing that, I see someone who is afraid to be real. Do you know what I mean? It’s an easy thing to say you don’t care. It’s a brave thing to say, “It’s important to me.” Because people are going to challenge that. And that’s okay.
MC: It’s like gambling. You risk it to go there.
MP: With the Internet, like Twitter and Facebook, it’s about making comments or a joke, and no one is taking it seriously. And I have smart friends who are doing all of that silly stuff; making comments that don’t mean anything, and that is why they are interested—it’s stupid, or a joke.
MP: Yes. But you are spending hours of your time doing something that is kind of a silly thing that you don’t take seriously, like watching a silly reality show…
Or most movies.
MP: …or a movie that has nothing. I catch myself doing it as well. And it becomes about watching a train wreck. I just think that a little seriousness is in order. I don’t think you should take yourself too seriously, but I am very interested when I see someone who is passionate about an idea and is going to put themselves out there knowing that it is going to be criticized. And that is okay. Sarcasm and irony is best when it is intellectual. There is definitely a place for that. And a lot of stuff that I did- you can reach a dead end where it is like, “What do you believe in? What are you talking about?”
MC: Like that scene in Children of Men where they carry the baby out in that long shot. That’s an earnest moment in a scene. It’s so easy to quip at that, like, “Suuuuure.” But (Alfonso Cuaron) is risking to get us to feel the power of birth and newness and a new soul and what that means, and how essential that is.
Like the film, Ian is a mysterious character. He’s rational to a fault, yet still searching for something, or at least open to it. It’s fascinating.
MC: I have to give it to Michael for constructing that character. Ian is a guy who believes in facts and the scientific method and testing things, and only at the end of that process will he believe in that. Yet he follows a bunch of numerical elevens to get on a bus. That doesn’t seem to make sense, but it somehow jibes with real life about a person who is 95% one thing and 5% something else. So in constructing that character, we talked about it a lot; how there is something itching at him, and there’s a resistance to it but he knows it’s there. And part of his attraction to Sofi was that she saw that, and like a string coming out of a suit, she started pulling on it and the seams started unraveling. So that is engaging for me—the idea of taking a resistant person who believes that religion is dangerous and then putting them in a situation where love and fate are the only things they hold onto.
Can you talk about the constructing of such a character and perhaps some of the scientific research that was done?
MP: Normally I am a big fan of researching and the throwing it away. We were talking about boxing. When you train as a boxer, you are practicing a punch super slow. And you’re getting that muscle memory so that when you get in the ring you don’t think about it. Acting is very similar to that—repetition, repetition. Get those things inside of you so that when the director pushes you into this world, you react. Hopefully you have done your work before.
MC: It’s a process and Michael and I went to Johns Hopkins University and learned how to extract DNA and whatnot. There is a rhythm to it and mannerism to it and Michael just said, “Don’t show me how to do it, just do it and let me observe you for a while.” And he just watched and sucked it up like sponge. So all the scientists who watch this are blown away.
Michael, in my view, Ian is your most mature character and performance. How would you describe Mike’s guidance?
MP: I’ve worked with some great directors, but I am now trying to actively work with filmmakers now who understand where film is going and are changing things. Mike definitely is a filmmaker like that, and one trying to do difficult things. I don’t see that very often with new filmmakers. Less experienced filmmakers, I find, ether get so tied to the script that they get lost and forget that cinema is about capturing the moment, or they are so loose that they have no vision. Whether Mike is aware of it or not, he has both.
The dual love stories in this film really affected me. One is emotional and passionate, the other more pragmatic and mature, whatever that’s worth. I almost feel like the film advocates for the latter.
MP: People usually think one or the other. We’ve had a lot of people who have felt the opposite.
MC: It’s more revealing about yourself. The movie doesn’t take a side. It just presents them as two valid, beautiful types of love. And maybe it’s something that many of us potentially have experienced; those different shades.
It made me wonder whether it is possible to have both in one person. And Michael, I believe Ian equates the Sofi love story to something that ultimately “wouldn’t have worked.”
MP: But under very specific circumstances. (laughter) But yes, my opinion is that there is someone out there with both, but it may take you forever to find it.
MC: My wife!