Reporting Jonathon Sharp
What would you say to yourself if you happened, by some fantastic device of physics, to meet your flesh-and-blood self – that is, another person who was you?
That is the question poised to the viewer by the minimalist Sci-Fi film Another Earth, and it is the same one I asked when I sat down to talk with the film’s director, Mike Cahill, and leading actress, Brit Marling.
“I’d be like: Girl, I hope whatever you are doing with your life, you are not doing it with a faint heart,” Marling said. “I hope you are trying to be unafraid and living courageously. And if you’re not, turn around, go back to your planet and try again!”
Marling is the kind of person you could fantasize traveling with in a Before Sunrise scenario. She is a woman whom girlhood has blessed with an ever-freshness. Her eyes (twin Neptunes) have a gravity that make it difficult to stop talking with her. She is intelligent, but not snide, soft-spoken but far from timid. She has poise, good humor and radiates a gentle optimism. In the movie she helped co-write, she plays a woman quite different from herself -or who she appeared to be when I met her.
In Another Earth, Marling is Rhoda Williams, a bright young woman whose future (MIT, astrophysics) is obliterated following a car accident in which she kills the wife and young son of an accomplished composer. Sober and serious after years of prison life, Rhoda tries to make a little right where she has hugely wronged by improving the life of the man whose family she stole. In the life-improvement process, however, Rhoda falls in love with the composer, who doesn’t know Rhoda’s true identity, because she was a minor at the time of the accident.
Meanwhile, quite literally in the background of this drama, another planet – one that is identical to the Earth – hangs above the horizon, bearing the possibility of life (identical life!) and adventure. Almost immediately after getting out of prison, Rhoda enters a contest to travel on the first spacecraft to the planet in an attempt to, perhaps, regain control of her life or do something significant, original and positive.
Marling carries much of the film, as Cahill says, on her face; she is the planet about which the camera orbits. In Another Earth’s breed of low budget Sci-Fi, the movie’s magic doesn’t come from exploding spaceships or indigo aliens; instead, it comes from tweaks in everyday reality that metaphorically ask some of life’s difficult questions, such as: Are we alone in the universe? Can I find or understand myself?
Self-understanding, incidentally, had quite a lot to do in the making of the Another Earth. Although she had always been interested in acting, Marling studied economics at Georgetown. But even after being offered a job by Goldman Sachs, she headed off to L.A. to pursue acting.
“I think when I went and started interning at a bank over the summer, I thought: I don’t love this,” Marling said. “There are people around me who are really great at it and love it, and I thought, I’m never going to be one of those people. So, I’d better find the thing that I love, and that turned out to be acting.”
Marling’ performance in the film is exceptional. She can be as cold and indifferent as monocle and then blossom into someone of intense, determined passion. Although her character doesn’t do much aside from talking, making a snow angel of death in a suicide attempt and quite a lot cleaning (she becomes a janitor and a maid), Marling demands attention.
Depending on the viewer, the film has different drawbacks. If you are a science geek, you will have more than a few questions about how another Earth would just suddenly appear in the sky, or about how gravity would change on Earth because of the other Earth’s existence. I count myself in this category of person, and at times these questions were considerably distracting, especially for the fact that they are never answered.
Fortunately, the film’s intensely serious tone makes them difficult to dwell on. The dramatic premise carries so much tension that the other Earth becomes an ornament of mystery, making landscapes that contain interplanetary distances above a foreground of comparatively mundane human misery. This contrast of the very small (human emotions) with the very large (the solar system) is played upon often and is what makes the movie linger in your memory.
However, the lack of diversity in the tone (the absence of humor, for instance) might be off-putting for those in the market for a summer blockbuster Friday night flick. In which case, as you may has already noticed, this isn’t your movie.
Despite these concerns of science and tonal diversity, Another Earth is certainly worth seeing. It’s simple yet profound images carry more weight than nearly all the special effects fight scenes in most Sci – Fi movies.
You can check it out on Friday, Aug. 5 at the Lagoon Cinema in Uptown.
Below is an interview with Mike Cahill (MC) and Brit Marling (BM).
Interviewer: What would you say to yourself if you happened to meet your flesh-and-blood self?
MC: I’d observe for a while, probably. I’d like watch and start to form my opinion about that person. And then I would ask him if he was making anything, if he was like an artist or musician or painter or architect. Hopefully, he is creating something, and if he made movies, I’d want to see what it is.
Interviewer: Was Science Fiction, as a genre, freeing from a writing standpoint?
BM: Sci-Fi is this great way to put characters in situations they haven’t been in before and force them to make choices that are more extreme than the choices we make in our every day life. This morning, I was like, ‘Am I going to have coffee or tea? Am I going to wear this or that?’ You know? Then it’s like: ‘Am I going to go to space or not? … So I think Sci-Fi is amazing in that I think you can put a fresh lens on humanity.
Interviewer: What was it like being on set directing your co-writer?
MC: We are such close friends. We went to school at Georgetown together, and we collaborated. It was cool. When we were writing, we were both wearing the writer’s hats. It was this very organic creative vibe, telling a story and trying to entertain one another and keep the other person on the edge of their seat … And after we finished the script, we basically just took off our writer’s hats and I put on the directing hat and she put on the acting hat, and it was great. She just spent six months working out this character, doing the homework on this character. So you could ask Brit what Rhoda did when she was 6-years-old on her birthday, and she could tell you.
Interviewer: What are some of the crazy scenarios you ran into making Another Earth on a shoestring budget?
BM: At one point, there’s that shot where Rhoda gets released from prison. We really couldn’t obviously like afford a prison. We couldn’t even afford barbed wire to make a building that was not a prison look like a prison. So we drove around in Mike’s mom’s car until we found a prison that we could get close enough to the front entrance of and Mike parked the car across the street, and I just put on the janitor uniform, walked across the street; and there was a yoga mat in the back of the car; and a I brought it in with me; and I was like, “Hey! I’m here to teach yoga!” And the guys [guards] were kind of like huh. And they were busy figuring that out, and I dropped the mat, turned around and walked out. Mike filmed the shot, and that is like Rhoda coming out of prison. And then I got in the car, and we tried to drive like really quickly away. But the cops did come. But we talked our way out of it by saying that we were location scouts for a much bigger movie.
Interviewer: What was inspiration for the movie?
BM: I think we were both really interested in Doppelgangers … There is something primal about that, and I guess the idea is to make that more visually literal. What if all 6.3 billion people could have a doppelganger? What if there could be sort of confrontation, not just on the personal level, but on the societal level, on a planetary level? It seemed interesting. And Mike started messing around with video art and started putting the other earth in the sky. And we were like, ‘Wow, that has some intense, unexplainable emotional effect. What is that?’ And things just sort of built from there.
Interviewer: What do you think those landscapes say?
BM: It’s attempting to show the alienation, the loneliness of just being one person on this planet … and the feeling at the end of that loneliness may come with finding yourself or another person who completes you.
Interviewer: What would you like to say to people who get hung up on the science of the film?
MC: I can explain why [the two earths] don’t collide. And I had that in the script. There are these dual ellipses … and the other Earth was directly behind the sun, so that’s why we never saw each other. And because of gravitational pull, their ellipse shifted, so that their ellipse and our ellipse are crossed, but they are not going to collide. I had this in the film. I’m kind of a science geek and a math nerd, and can get into that, but emotionality for me is more important that exposition. And ultimately, all that scientific explanation … had no emotional heart, so it felt like a science class a bit. It will be on the DVD extras, that’s what I’d say to them.