“Another Earth” concerns the story of Rhoda Williams and John Burroughs (played by Brit Marling and William Mapother, respectively). Their stories cross via a tragic accident that happens just as the world becomes aware of a new planet … which turns out to be a mirror Earth. Over the next four years as the general population prepares to communicate, and even travel, to this ‘Earth 2′, Rhoda and John must first come to terms with what’s happened in their lives before they can truly live again.

Actress/Co-Writer Brit Marling and Director/Co-Writer Mike Cahill stopped by the Hard Rock Hotel in San Diego to promote the film (in some lovely poolside cabanas on a gorgeous sunny day) and I was able to sit down with each of them to discuss the film, its origins, and what key elements of it meant to them and hopefully the audience. (Some minor spoilers may spill out, though hopefully nothing one couldn’t glean from the trailer.)

First off, I talked with Cahill, thanking him for taking the time to talk to me, congratulating him on the film (getting a high five in appreciation), and celebrating the performances he drew out of his cast.

Mike Cahill: She (Brit Marling) was incredible, yeah. She’s such a discovery. I love how so much of the film plays off of her face without any dialogue. It’s one of those challenges that most actors cannot pull off. She’s going to be a huge, huge star.

Sobering Conclusion: Like another Alfred P. Sloan winner at Sundance, “Primer”, the film deals with science fiction themes but at its core attempts to illustrate elements of the human condition. Did the film start out as a human drama that had a science fiction backdrop?

Cahill: It actually went the reverse, it started as a sci-fi backdrop. It started off with the question: What would it be like to meet yourself, emotionally? Like, what would be the emotion you’d feel confronting yourself? – taking the internal and making it external. There’s this great movie, “The Double Life of Veronique” made by Krzysztof Kieslowski … and it’s all about doppelgangers and I though that what if everybody could imagine that possibility? Would that satisfy some sort of deep, human, primal yearning to connect because this is a person with your shared history and maybe the last four years they’ve had a different trajectory – which is like this broken mirror theory.

So we approached with that emotion and then we came up with the specific human drama, we always wanted to tell a human drama, but we asked the question: Who is it that most needs to meet themselves? What kind of person, what kind of story could benefit from that kind of confrontation with the self? And we found that a woman who was seeking redemption or needed to ultimately forgive herself [made the most sense] and that’s when we constructed this story.

SC: Was the dialogue basically fixed prior to shooting, or did you have the major plot points and allow the actors to explore their situations?

Cahill: The dialogue was fixed by the time we started shooting, however I did conduct an extensive rehearsal process, especially with Brit and William (Mapother) and we tweaked some things. What was wonderful about William is that he took the role so seriously and he’s such a seasoned, strong actor and when he dug deep into the history and the humanity of his role, certain things came to light – and they were simple things but I think actually ultimately pretty effective. To give an example, the moment when he’s parked outside of her house and she comes over to see him, he asks her to come around to the other side of the car, to get out of the road – and that wasn’t in the script. It was his natural instinct to get her out of the street. I allowed room for things that were authentic to come about during shooting.

-Mike Cahill

SC: At what point did the idea of having John and Rhoda becoming romantically involved come about?

Cahill: It evolved sort of naturally as we were writing the story, when we realized here are two very isolated people; she’s isolated because of her guilt, he’s isolated because of his grief – and they don’t really interact with other people. They’re pretty much both reclusive. And when she seeks him out and they come together, that somehow their coming together is bringing them up. It’s based on a lie unfortunately, but the connection that they have is sincere and so the love that they have is sincere. And, of course, it ups the tensions because as beautiful as it may be to live with that love, it can only live in a bubble. But once the secrets of their tragic connection come out, the stakes just get tweaked higher and higher and higher.

It felt really authentic that they as characters would be drawn to one another. So that came through in the writing process and we approached it very organically where we literally established this context which is this other Earth. We came up with these characters and the event that inter-tangles their lives and then from there we walked along just as a viewer would walk, in sequence: Well what would happen next? And what would she decide then? And how would he react? So everything was set up before we had the ending, it wasn’t like we conceived of the ending from the get-go but when we uncovered this one, we were like ‘Yes!’ and we held onto it tight.

The ending, it’s a feel thing. It’s one of the interesting things about being human. Why is it supposed to end at that moment? I don’t know but it should. If it ended one second earlier, it’s off. You get a feel factor for it.

SC: I always appreciate when a film ends and it allows audiences the ambiguity to say for themselves that this is what I think is going to happen next.

Cahill: Me too. I don’t think you need to tell people. I think you need to respect your audience. When I’m in the audience, I want the filmmaker to build the bridge but not complete it, and force me to put the last 5 bricks in to connect it.

SC: So you had like 87 hats on this film, writer / producer / editor / director / cinematographer, did you also handle the camera?

Cahill: (laughs) Yeah, I was the operator too. I mean a lot of it was born out of necessity, also I’m obsessive and a control freak in many ways, which is going to be interesting moving forward, how the next project I’m going to be doing is significantly larger. In a project like this, the constraint of the budget is wonderful because you have to come up with clever ways to achieve your goals – and that’s actually a gift. For me, I love to edit, I have such a sensitivity to rhythm, I need to feel that out and I think it’s nice not to have any articulation process where there’s someone here and here and here and you’re like, ‘let me articulate very precisely this thing I’m trying to achieve’ and so it was a joy to do those things [myself], freeing in a way to do those things but also necessary for a project of this modest budget.

SC: It seemed to me that the grain choice seemed connected to the clarity of Rhoda’s emotional and conscious state, i.e. it was a “cleaner” image when she was mentally clearer. Am I reading too much into this, or was that your intent?

Cahill: Yes! Yes! Thank you! I’ve actually never sat down with someone who has gotten that so precisely! When she’s going into that moment of hypothermia, I fucking throttle the grain and I remember Fox Searchlight going ‘it’s really grainy there’ but I was like ‘that’s on purpose’, it is representing the psychological – the whole thing is aesthetic, derived from her P.O.V., where she is in the story. The first 10 minutes of the film is much more fast paced, there’s red, the colors are vibrant, the music is pulsating –

SC: Well, there’s also kind of this diffused image, because she’s drunk.

Cahill: Exactly. And then after the accident, the shots are wider emphasizing her loneliness in this big empty space. Just one speck amongst everything else. And then it’s colder and bluer and gray and as the relationship evolves, it starts to warm up and more intimacy comes through. And when she’s falling apart due to hypothermia, I wanted to hammer that, I wanted that aesthetic to be speaking directly to her point of view and I think that some directors just have their directorial stamp where it’s like, ‘this is my style’, and I think it makes more sense for the style of the film to be derived from the main character’s point of view and where they are in the story.

Movie watching is a sensual experience. If it’s working right, you should feel it, it should be opening up those parts of your mind that are sensitive to texture and touches and even in the final moment, there’s a subtle thing, but very important in terms of my filmmaking. [Towards the end], when her hand touches the side of that wall, every one of us knows what that feels like. There’s a part of our brain that understands how that feels, [which] opens up in that moment and brings us one step closer to being in her shoes in that sensual way; and when that final reveal happens, you’re much more in touch with it emotionally. At least that’s my approach, I don’t know if it works or not and you got it which is fucking rad.

SC: What was the motivation behind using multiple snap zoom-ins in some scenes?

Cahill: It’s funny, in retrospect I think I probably wouldn’t have done it as much because it’s a little disorienting but the purpose of that – In some cases it was out of necessity. For example when we’re shooting outside of the prison, we didn’t have permission to shoot the prison and so we shot it from the car, running and gunning it –

SC: Guerrilla filmmaking.

Cahill: Guerilla filmmaking at its finest – but syntactically the snap zoom, or the hand held, vérité aesthetic for me, derived from that Dogma 95 cinema, that kind of handi-cam work – even though it can be heavy handed in some points, it sells it as more real. So I stand by it even though I get a sense that I might have gone too far.

SC: Last question, what do you hope people will take away from “Another Earth”?

Cahill: There’s no lesson, it’s not didactic, it’s more hoping there’s an emotional transference – a sort of peace and hope that I’m unable to articulate in words because I don’t think language is capable of doing that and the beauty of cinema is one which somehow combines pictures and sound over a sequence of time that allows in a poetic way to give us a sense of ‘this is what it means to be human’. And I think the confrontation of self, that idea, there’s peace in that. It’s a lift up, not a lift down, it’s a lift up – and I hope that maybe 3, 4, or 5 days after watching it, someone looks at themselves in the mirror and says, ‘you know what, you’re okay’.

After once again thanking Cahill for his time and his candor, I then sat down with Brit Marling, joked admiringly about the comfort of the cabana, and got down to the questions.

Sobering Conclusion: Did you know Mike Cahill prior to working with him on the 2004 documentary “Boxers and Ballerinas”?

Brit Marling: We met in college (Georgetown). When I was a freshman, I saw a film he had made previously and I was lucky enough to get to make short films with him afterwards; and then we made a documentary and we decided that documentaries don’t leave you very much control over the narrative (laughing) so we went back to fiction.

SC: And so when did the idea for “Another Earth” come about?

Marling: Mike (Cahill) was making really beautiful video art and one of the pieces he made was of him interviewing himself and we were both excited by that. We were both really moved by the film “The Double Life of Veronique” and I think we were meditating a lot on this idea of all the ways in which your life could go, and that everyday you’re making decisions – I mean not just the big ones which are obvious but like the little ones you make every day where you’re leaving versions of yourself behind that you’ll never be and you’re becoming more and more the thing that you are. And I think we’re all haunted by what we could have been like if we had followed that person we fell in love with who got off the train, turned left instead of right, taken the crazy job offer – so I think this film was a meditation on that.

SC: You’ve had a hand in the script for a few of your other films. Is that important to you when you’re going to be up on-screen or is that the nature of the early part of your career so far?

Marling: I really started writing because I wanted to act and it’s really hard to enter this business, if not completely impossible. Especially when you’re coming at it and you haven’t been like, doing Huggies commercials since you were 2. If you didn’t start in the Huggies commercials at 2, it’s like too late for you. I really started writing because of that and as a young actress in your twenties in L.A. who’s never done anything before, the kind of parts you can go out for, for women, are appalling. I mean, they’re always being cut up by people with chainsaws, or raped, or whatever, or the sweet girlfriend of the guy who never says anything and just reinforces what he says. I just didn’t want to do any of those parts.

People would say, ‘Oh do that and that’s how you pay your dues, eventually you can be part of stories that matter’. I couldn’t think of another profession where you’re asked to like, I don’t know, surrender your morality or the way you see the world because that’s like paying your dues in order to get to a place eventually where you can do the kind of work you want to do. So I thought it would be a good thing to start writing and that was a much harder thing than I thought. Took a lot longer than I thought it might take.

SC: Sure it might take a little longer but at the same time, you have that sense of satisfaction when you get to a project like “Another Earth”, where you can say ‘This is what I want to do and I’m so glad that I took the path that I took to get to that’.

Marling: Totally.

SC: The first time Rhoda is unable to apologize to John, it’s clearly out of nerves and fear. As she begins to take on this caretaker role for John, she’s conflicted over her own motivations for keeping the truth from him; how much of her involvement is for his sake or hers and when playing that struggle on-screen, did you have an answer as to whether it was for her or for him, or did you discover that as you played it out?

Marling: I think part of it really is in the discovery of playing it out. I mean, I think there’s certain things that you know going in when you’ve spent time daydreaming on the story, you make some decisions. And of course, the truth I think of human behavior is that it’s never one thing or the other, it’s a complicated braid of the two. Like when you love someone, you in equal measure hate them, you know? I think that Rhoda is motivated by so many different things. I think part of it is that she wants to heal him in some way, part of it is that she wants to make his life bearable, part of it is that she recognizes someone who has suffered a similar grief and it makes her feel not as alone and there’s this instant natural sympathy. And so that’s there and so is the idea of, sort of an atonement, a quiet atonement, and then part of it becomes love later. And I don’t know if you can untangle that braid.

SC: No, I don’t think you can. Not in something that you’re attempting to be three dimensional.

Marling: Yeah, true that.

-Brit Marling

SC: Why the choice on the saw as John’s musical instrument? What was the rationale behind that?

Marling: Mike had heard a woman playing the saw in the subway in New York and approached her and we really liked the idea of it being an instrument that’s also a weapon because there is this weird thing in John and Rhoda’s relationship where at any moment you feel like he could discover who she is and you’re not sure exactly what he could be capable of. And there is this like, quiet rage and violence to him, and the saw seemed like the right thing. The saw also is a metaphor for something which seems, metal, unyielding metal, and then you bend it and this haunting romantic sound is coming out of this cold, sharp steel. That seems a lot like real life to me.

SC: So speaking of that love, what is it after John plays the saw for Rhoda that leads to her crossing such a significant boundary and go into a romantic relationship?

Marling: I think that part of it is that the idea of a romance has been building there and I think why the story doesn’t stay a friendship is that in friendship, you don’t necessarily have to make yourself as vulnerable and in love, there’s this real vulnerability where you’re really opening yourself up to be hurt and to feel; and I think that they both need that. Whether or not, at the end of the film, if you were going to go and do a sequel, I don’t know that there would be space for John and Rhoda to be together but I think that they both could potentially go on to truly love someone else and I think they awaken that possibility in each other. I think that if they had never met, neither one of them would have been capable of that kind of love and so I think there’s something really beautiful in that and as for why she makes that decision in that moment – I think she loses track of her sense of him as the victim of this crime and is just listening to the sound of his suffering, and his humanity, and his art, his music, and I think that really moves her; and I think she wants to get at the center of that and I think it … just happens.

SC: In her attempts to be selfless, she’s also giving herself a reason to keep going. And while it’s not fair to compare the loss between the two, both of their futures were drastically altered. Without the ability to be there for John, if she hadn’t been able to find him or if he had been dead or whatever, what do you think Rhoda would have done?

Marling: Oh wow, what an interesting question. It’s fascinating what you’re saying. I think that umm (pause) I don’t know what she would have done. There’s something about her devotion to – her obsession with cleaning, with manual labor and cleaning that seems almost like monastic like disciple, Zen-like discipline, the idea that like, every day dust will accumulate and every day you will wipe it away again. You just keep going. I think she could have gone on in that way indefinitely and I think it’s because of John and they confront each other, kind of brutally, that they are both able to in some way be relieved enough of the burden to let light and breath into their lives again and the possibility for something else.

SC: Okay, I wasn’t sure if maybe that’s why the janitor was created, who bleached his eyes and bleached his ears.

Marling: Yeah, yeah, I think he is that. He is the foil for the way in which your spirit can crumble, under the weight of that kind of guilt and he’s literally deadening his senses so as not to feel that pain and I think he is a kind of haunting forewarning of what could happen to Rhoda if she doesn’t somehow confront or deal with what life has dealt her.

SC: What does she write into the janitor’s hand? F-O-R-G- // E-T?

Marling: That was so close, forgive! It’s hard to see but you know what’s funny? Mike told me he did that on purpose. He told me, he cut it after the F-O-R so that people could interpret it as either ‘forget’ or ‘forgive’. It’s interesting that it’s either one really. She’s asking him to forgive though, ultimately, and to forgive himself … she feels the suffering so acutely because she knows it and she asks him to do the one thing she can’t do for herself.

SC: Right, and again, I think by leaving it up for the audience, it tells you more about yourself probably – which word you picked (looking sheepish because of my choice of ‘forget’).

Marling: (laughing) That’s so true, so interesting.

SC: I tried looking for a reference to the Cosmonaut story online with no luck. Was that based on a true story of Gagarin, or someone else, or was it put in there to draw the musical connection between John and Rhoda?

Marling: You know, a friend of ours told a sort of similar story and we took a lot of poetic license with it but I think that what was inspiring from the story is that there’s this sort of menacing sound and you’re stuck in space with this sound and like, how will you survive it? And I think it becomes a real metaphor for life, that your experience of life is just so much your mentality and you can choose to be annoyed by this techno music (gestures to what’s playing outside the cabana) or you can just bounce along to the beat and find a way to find the light and the humor in things. I think it’s interesting that Rhoda tells that story because that’s the very thing she’s grabbling with, is trying to take this sort of torture in her mind and turn it into something positive, something bearable.

SC: Not that it matters to how events play out, but which “Earth” do you think the story takes place on? It could be either one, there’s no reason for it to be “our Earth” versus “their Earth.

Marling: True, which points out just the deep narcissism of our culture. You think you’ve gotten over some narcissism by us no longer thinking we’re the planet at the center of the universe only to replace it with a new kind of narcissism which is like, ‘We’re Earth 1 and they’re Earth 2’. There’s endless narcissism. I don’t know, it could be happening on Earth 4 for all we know, there could be so many – Brian Green (a theoretical physicist and author) talks a lot about multiverse theory and he suggests that duplicates are possible – as are duplicates with one variation, two variations, three variations, just a myriad of possibilities for you and me having this conversation exist. And of course we can begin to approach understanding that mathematically, it’s harder to understand that in terms of our consciousness but perhaps they all exist on top of one another. Perhaps we’ll eventually be able to travel to those moments or live in all of them at once, exist on a wave of possibilities instead of collapsing on this one experience we’re having.

SC: What is it that you want people to take away from “Another Earth”? What is it you’re hoping they find after watching the film?

Marling: (pause)

SC: World Peace is not a good answer. (laughs)

Marling: (laughs) … I’m trying to answer honestly … I think it’s a really sad thing that we’ve closed the shuttle program and I think that’s a symptom of something larger that’s happening, which is that we’re not like looking outward anymore. We’ve become so deeply inward, everything in our culture is like me, me, me, me, me, me, me. I think there’s something deeply alienating and sad about that. I think people want to feel, they want to connect, they want to explore the unknown, they want to reach out for more and I hope that this movie gives them some sense of that. I hope this movie makes people demand that we continue our space travel, because it doesn’t really matter what we find in our lifetime but the search in and of itself means something and to not search … what is it about not searching that’s so –

SC: Is it like giving up?

Marling: Yeah, I think it’s going against our humanity and I think that’s what it means to be human, to question to wonder who we are and why we’re doing it and the exploration of space, the shuttle program is just a literal manifestation of that and I think we have to keep looking.

“Another Earth” opens in New York and L.A. on July 22nd, expanding to other cities the following weekend. Look for the full review on August 5th, when it opens in San Diego.