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Interview with Actor Michael Pitt and Director Mike Cahill for I Origins

Fox Searchlight: Director Mike Cahill and Actor Michael Pitt for "I Origins"I Origins is a film that asks a lot of questions for people who want to go see it. Some of those questions are based in fact, but many of them come from the mind of Mike Cahill. He wrote and directed this film and has made something that will catch the attention of people interested in this stuff. While listening to both he and Michael Pitt, the lead actor in the film, I was able to get a feel for what inspired the film and how it all began to take shape.

One thing that I asked him about was the origins of the ideas within the film. His answer shows how the minds of filmmakers can work. As you will see in his response, it started off with a little inspiration from something big that happened in the 1980’s.

Mike Cahill: It came from a 1985 cover of National Geographic Magazine featuring an Afghan girl in the photograph taken by Steve McCurry. If you’ve ever seen that photograph, it’s a very iconic photograph, because she has these stunning green eyes. It’s the feature most prominent about the picture. And what was interesting was that Steve the photographer didn’t know her name or anything. She came in, she was in a refugee camp in Pakistan, snapped the photograph and off she ran to go play with her friends or whatever. And that photo turned out to be super famous, and for years and years and years, he’d get letters saying who is this person, who is this person? He didn’t know her name, she didn’t sign a release form. So seventeen years later, they went to try to track her down, but they didn’t know what she looked like. The one thing that they did know is what her eyes were like, because of those piercing green eyes. And that’s when I started to learn about Iris Biometrics and that this is a real thing: That everybody’s eyes are unique, that from a photograph you can get an iris scan which is basically the cracks and crevices. You can extract those from photographs and get a unique, it looks like a social security number, it’s twelve digits. Your eyes stay the same your whole, entire life. And they mounted this expedition to try to find her and a bunch of different women were potential candidates that had these piercing green eyes and said “I think that might have been me.” And they had a biometrics company scan the eyes and wasn’t her, it wasn’t the next one or the next one until they found Sharbat Gula. And I started think that was interesting to look for someone based on their eyes and what if after we died, our eyes come back in newborns? And if you present that very simple data to a scientist who has more atheistic tendencies, how would they grapple with that? Especially if that person was someone they loved.

Something else that has to be interesting to many people would be how an actor becomes involved in a project. That’s one of the things that Michael Pitt spoke about. What I found out wasn’t only about how he got involved with the project. I also found out that he was an essential element to the films very existence after he met Cahill for the first time.

Michael Pitt: I met Mike (Cahill) in Brooklyn. We both live in Brooklyn. And I kind of met him on a general meeting and I was really taken by him. He had about five or six projects in his head. I’ve been really blessed to work with some great filmmakers and learn from them. A couple of things that I picked up is that they all have about five or six in their head for projects. For whatever reason there’s a spark, then they go down that road and take that project. He talked to me about I Origins, the idea of I Origins. I could see that he had the whole movie in his head. At that point, there wasn’t a script, but everything was there. It was just a matter of him putting it down on paper. Then I just casually said as we were talking “That particular project was really interesting to me. You should put some time into it when you get the chance.” Then like two and a half weeks later, he sent me the first draft of the script. That script was pretty much the script. We changed things like nuances, we worked with dialog, we worked with the actors and he was really gracious about like letting me develop a character. Filmmaking at its core is a collaborative art form. Some people get that, some people don’t. Mike is able to really grab the gems from everyone who’s super talented, but then is also able to really keep a focus on what his vision is. That’s a hard thing to do. Not everyone has that.

Cahill also managed to talk a bit about his use of cameras in this film when comparing it to his debut narrative piece as a director that preceded it. That and how he and the cinematographer worked on the shots is an interesting look into how creative people can get when making films.

Cahill: We still have a lot of handheld shots, but they’re a little more stabilized in this. I was going for sort of poetic realism. Handheld makes it feel like its vérité, it’s got this “alive” feeling to it. I worked with this great cinematographer, Markus Forderer and I saw a film that he shot when I was in Switzerland and I tracked him down. I could feel like we were in sync. And we were lucky to shoot this film with two cameras simultaneously through most of it: Two Reds and Epic and a Scarlett. I would operate one while he would operate the other. It was amazing, because it allowed us to catch really wonderful gems and gave us freedom when it came to blocking and those sort of things, because you can cut them together.

As you’ll see in his comment below, Cahill believes that small science fiction films make for great storytelling. In a way, you can say that he’s definitely right. His view of the genre and what goes on within it is one that lends itself to films like Another Earth and I, Origins.

Cahill: You know sometimes when you watch those big sci-fi movies and you think like “Oh, it’s is the Army general,” and I always think about what everybody else is doing. Everybody else is doing something. They eat, sleep, shower, use the toilet and there’s like this other paradigm now. I think also in the intimate stories, you can touch upon something universal like loss, like wanting somebody back.

In closing, I’ll look at Michael Pitt’s view on film today and where it’s headed. I have to say that I actually agree with him about this. More and more films are moving to what it is that he speaks of and it’s not a very good sign for the future of filmmaking. Hopefully, there will be enough guys out there still willing to take risks and build compelling movies built around the substance of its characters and stories.

Pitt: The reason I can watch Bladerunner, aesthetically it’s amazing, but it’s the character work. It’s not just the aesthetics, and I feel like that’s where it’s going right now. It’s just about everything kind of looking like a video game. Where they fall short is the character work. When you watch something like Bladerunner, it’s so acute, the performances and wanting to be human. And what is humanity? That’s not the backdrop. Actually, the aesthetics are the backdrop. Nowadays, it seems like they come up with the aesthetic idea first and the backdrop to that is whatever’s going on with the characters. To me, films don’t last like that. You’ll see it as time goes on. It won’t last. It’ll just outdate itself.

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