Another Earth is an intimate personal drama enclosed inside a vast, metaphorical science-fiction shell. A mirror image of our planet is located in the sky. Two broken-down people imagine what it would mean for another version of themselves to exist in the universe. What would be different?
Working with a small budget, writer / director / cinematographer / editor Mike Cahill balances the natural with the otherworldly in this stylish and striking debut. The film has made a splash at Sundance and elsewhere on the festival circuit, including at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, where I had a chance to talk with Cahill. He shares a bit of insight on the power of science-fiction, establishing the film’s visual tone and the creative freedom of the independent filmmaker.
Another Earth opens in limited release next Friday, July 22nd.
Want to hear more about Another Earth? Listen to my podcast about the film here.
Film Capsule: Which came first, the sci-fi premise of the film or the relationship between the main characters, and how did they collide?
Mike Cahill: It started from a simple idea: what would it be like to meet yourself? Would you like that person, dislike that person, what would you say to that person? Then came the other Earth, extrapolating this simple idea so that everyone on the planet could ponder this same question. And then finally came the idea of the down-to-earth drama of John and Rhoda, outsiders who would have compelling issues to take up with their doppelganger counterparts.
FC: Did working with this sci-fi premise allow you to explore more about these characters?
MC: Completely. What I love about sci-fi is that it allows for the impossible metaphor to explore aspects of the human condition.
FC: Are you worried about people label the film as sci-fi? Does that tag bother you?
MC: I don’t mind the sci-fi tag, but it is probably more accurate to call it speculative fiction, or as I used to pitch it, a minimalist sci-fi, complex romantic, existential drama… but sci-fi works too. I found a lot of inspiration from the films of Krzysztof Kieślowski, especially The Double Life of Véronique and the Three Colors Trilogy. His films are tagged as metaphysical. That tag works too.
FC: You began by shooting for 10 days, to prove to yourself that you could make Another Earth. Which scenes did you shoot first, and how did you see the experiment as the start of the whole movie?
MC: Yeah, actually I shot the last scene in the movie on the first day. I don’t want to give away what happens, but it just so happened that the morning of the first day of shooting there was a magical ethereal fog over New Haven, which was covered in snow, and it was the ultimate right vibe for that final scene. So we just went for it. It was a inspiring way to start and I wanted to establish the tone and aesthetic that the world of this film was going to take place in.
FC: The moment when the two earths speak to each other is a very powerful scene. Were you aiming to create a strong set piece for that moment?
MC: That scene worked particularly well in the script and during rehearsal readings. It created a mystery and magic just as ink on page. It was inspired by the experience that most of the world had when we landed on the moon. Most people weren’t on the lunar craft, as Hollywood would portray, but rather they watched it on TV. Many people instinctively walked out to their front porches and stared at the moon, despite not being able to see the craft. It was more about imagining the importance and power of that moment viewed from afar. I wanted to capture a similar feeling that the everyman experienced that night.
FC: The end of the film definitely gets people talking. Without asking you for an explanation, do you consider some of the elements of the film to be taken more metaphorically than literally?
MC: Absolutely. Allowing the metaphor to wash over you is the key to this film. My goal, if I did my job well, was to have the viewer go along with the metaphor and ultimately feel something breathless, magical and human in that last moment.
FC: You mentioned drawing influence from The Double Life of Véronique. I noticed it particularly in the camera’s ability to capture otherworldly elements, things that are not quite real like mirrors or reflections. As a cinematographer, how did you conceive of the look of the film?
MC: Mirrors and reflections in film can be overdone, but if used sparingly and purposefully they can have a sublime effect. [I tried to make them] subtle enough to avoid overkill, but present enough so that a keen viewer may experience those layers. [The film’s look is] naturalistic, but with a textured and tonally-controlled reality. I think there is magic in the mundane, like the moment where Rhoda is in the attic in her bath towel staring at specs of dust illuminated by the light. It’s such a natural, straight-up, dusty, real-life shot, but for me it somehow captures the idea of the entire cosmos.
FC: The look of the first ten minutes is very different from the rest of the film, as well as the style of music and editing. How did you approach those scenes differently from the rest of the film? Did you intend to use two different styles?
MC: I’m glad you noticed this. I wanted to jump right into the film in medias res: pumping, pulsating, vibrant colors, rhythm. Character POV is very important to me, and the aesthetic of the film sprung from Rhoda’s POV. The first ten minutes look and feel different because her life is very different. She is alive and full of hope and youth. We are in her character’s world, which dramatically changes ten minutes in, from vibrant reds to cool subdued blues. That shift was meant to be sharp. And then, gradually as the relationship drama blossoms, the blues and darker tones start to warm up towards the end. It’s all a reflection of Rhoda’s POV.
FC: You’re also wrote, shot and edited the film. How do all those different jobs fit together for you?
MC: A director on a small film or a large film will most likely be very involved in all those disciplines: determining the look, determining the pacing, determining the shot choices, etc. Back in the day, technology required intense specialization in each field, but since I grew up in a time where cameras and editing machines were ubiquitous, I taught myself each one of the crafts. A basic knowledge of all the various crafts that come together to make a film can, especially on a film of this modest scale, help streamline the process and contain it into one artistic brushstroke.
FC: You have a lot of editing credits to your name. What have you learned about directing by working as an editor?
MC: A director has to conceive of and execute a vision. This means setting a tone, creating a visual style, choosing the shots, directing actors to find authenticity (according to your established tone) and a million other things. As an editor, you learn how all the elements that are captured on set come together in the end. Armed with this knowledge, you can visualize how things will cut together, what is working, what needs tweaking, etc.
FC: How do you decide to allocate your money on a low-budget movie? Do you say, “I want this crane shot, so I have to give up that other visual effect”?
MC: Watch Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions. Budget restraints, or any obstructions for that matter, are a gift to an artist and the creative process.
FC: What projects will you be working on next?
MC: A film on reincarnation and another about a fashion designer who lives at the bottom of the sea. Oh yes, the fun continues…