Writer-director Mike Cahill and writer-actress Brit Marling, who collaborated on the Sundance favorite “Another Earth” (picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight), were classmates at Georgetown University, but they weren’t film majors. Both studied Economics.
“I never thought filmmaking could be my job,” Cahill explained in a recent Dallas interview. “It was my hobby—an expensive hobby, since I was young. But there are no artists in my family—my family is scientists, and lawyers and doctors, and so it wasn’t necessarily an obvious career path to pursue the arts. But it was an obsessive hobby. And Brit and I met at Georgetown studying Economics, but we were making lots of short films in our spare time. And when I graduated I was working at National Geographic, and I started doing a lot of documentaries. And Brit and I worked on many documentaries. And about two years ago we were like, ‘Okay, let’s make a fiction film. Let’s make a fiction feature—let’s just do it. We have enough experience. We’ll write a story that she will act in and I will direct. We’ll go back to my mom’s house in Connecticut, get free locations and free food. And so we wrote this project, and were fortunate enough to meet these producers from Artists Public Domain, which is a not-for-profit that helps young artists make their first movie.”
Georgetown, Marling explained, didn’t have a film school. “There was an arts hallway, where there were, like, three arts classrooms—one was a darkroom, one was a sculpture room, and one was a painting room. It wasn’t really a school for the arts. But I think that was also a real gift for us, in that we were lucky to be going into college at a time…when the technology was making it possible to just pick up a camera and make a movie—which is something Mike really taught me, to just begin. I also think it’s useful to have a broader liberal arts education, because that’s the substance you’re drawing from. I think that having studied philosophy or physics or literature, all of these things make their way into the work you’re going to make. Some of my friends went to drama school—I was doing a lot of theatre in high school—but I always felt that I needed to know more about just being a human being, and all the ideas out there, so you could bring that to your work as an actor, or a writer, or a director.”
“Another Earth” is a tale of redemption, set against a science-fiction premise about the discovery of a new planet that replicates our own. The two lead characters are Rhoda, a young woman recently released from prison after serving time for a car crash in which a pregnant woman and her young son were killed. Seeking forgiveness from Burroughs (William Mapother), the woman’s husband and a Yale music professor who’s become a grief-filled recluse, she takes a job as his maid, and their relationship gradually blossoms.
What element of the script came first? “It was the premise that came first,” Cahill said. “We were interested in from an emotional standpoint, what it would be like to meet yourself. And that confrontation with the self…fulfills the weird primal desire we have to connect, I think. We’ve very much alone in life, born alone, going through life looking out our two eyes in a singular perspective. No matter how many people we’re close to, we are very much experiencing it alone. And we thought, if you could see another version of yourself, that person you could connect with in such a deep way, it would have the greatest amount of empathy. And so we came up with that larger idea about a duplicate earth, and all 6.3 billion of us having a doppelganger. And then we asked, who needs to meet themselves the most? And we came up with this story of someone who needs forgiveness, who needs to forgive themselves and is seeking redemption. So first came the big concept, and then it was the characters. From there the story unfolded very organically, and we wrote in sequence, always asking, ‘What’s going to happen next?’
“There are all these different ways it could have unfolded, and when we came to this [final] conclusion, we were thrilled. It was like the Rubik’s Cube clicked into place. That was about four months of just brainstorming…and then after that, for two months we just burned through the final draft.”
Marling, who knew from the start she would play Rhoda, was asked if she had any fears about writing such a complex character she’d later be expected to bring to life. “The challenge is that you want to make yourself very nervous,” she replied. “If you’re too comfortable, then you know you’re not doing a very good job. You want to feel you’re biting off a lot more than you can chew. That’s the only time you ever really grow.”
She added that Cahill’s decision to film the scenes between Rhoda and Burroughs in sequence was also an immense help: “From an acting perspective it was such a gift—Mike is incredibly sensitive to performance. Mike was really adamant that he wanted this movie to feel real, because the premise is so fantastical, and he wanted the performances to feel real and he wanted this relationship to feel real. So he built everything around being able to shoot the sequences between William and me in sequence, which was a tremendous gift to an actor. You’re so lucky when your director protects you like that.”
Choosing the right person to play Burroughs had been a difficult process, Cahill recalled: “It was challenging finding an actor to play him. We had these great casting directors, and they were presenting a lot of different leads, and no one was exactly right. So I decided just to start making the movie without casting the lead, because it felt like we had to keep going. So we shot the scenes with Rhoda and her family, and Rhoda in the school. We shot a lot of the movie without the male lead cast. And it was over the summer that they said, ‘Have you ever thought of William Mapother?’ And I loved his work in ‘In the Bedroom’—such an incredible performance, such a fully realized character. He had exactly the right qualities for John—this sensitivity, this intelligence, this ability to be a composer. He also had an intensity on screen, and the characters he’s played have been…scary guys. I thought that was wonderful, because here we can create this very tense, dynamic relationship, because he comes to the screen with that energy. And yet underneath it there’s this warmth and this lightness. And through their exchanges and the blossoming of their relationship we could take piece by piece that exterior shell away and reveal this interior. It would be magical, and yet it would still be volatile and dangerous. We sent him the script, he read it and called me and we talked for two hours. He asked me how I would do this and do that, and at the end he said, ‘I’m in.’”
When asked whether, given their rising careers, it was the right choice to have majored in Economics at a school without a film school, Marling laughed. “We can totally ascertain the opportunity costs of not having made this film,” she said. It was very high.” And she added, “We encourage all aspiring filmmakers to study Economics.”