Spinning Platters Interviews: Brit Marling and Mike Cahill on “Another Earth”

by Jason LeRoy on July 27, 2011

When Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij were students at Georgetown, they co-directed a film and entered it in the campus film festival. The film won a prize, and they were invited onstage for a Q&A. From the stage, they noticed a “little waify blonde girl” jump up in the front row and start what became a full-audience standing ovation. “Who was that?” Batmanglij said to Cahill later. “There was something about her. Did you see her?” The young woman in question was Brit Marling, a fellow Georgetown student who was studying economics. She soon approached the student filmmakers and expressed her desire to collaborate with them. The trio began working on a series of shorts, and eventually moved to Los Angeles to live together while banging out scripts and hoping for the opportunity to show others their work.

Fast forward to January 2011: Cahill and Batmanglij have each directed a film, both co-written with and starring Marling, and both have been accepted to the Sundance Film Festival. Cahill’s film, Another Earth, premiered to a standing ovation, and went on to win the 2011 Alfred P. Sloan Prize for feature films focusing on science or technology. Another Earth and Batmanglij’s film, The Sound of My Voice, would both be picked up by Fox Searchlight. And now Cahill and Marling are touring the country speaking at their own Q&A’s to promote Another Earth, which opens on July 29. Spinning Platters recently jumped into this whirlwind of standing ovations and film festival prizes to speak individually with Marling and Cahill about the marvelous insanity of the last seven months.

Brit Marling and William Mapother in ANOTHER EARTH

Another Earth is a moody, powerful character-based drama set against a backdrop of philosophical sci-fi. Marling stars as Rhoda, a gravely silent and withdrawn young woman who has just been released from prison after serving several years for a DUI that destroyed the family of John (William Mapother), a renowned composer and music professor. Taking a job as a janitor at the high school at which she was once a promising student, Rhoda begins seeking out ways to connect with John and somehow atone for her sins. Meanwhile, Earth has been rocked by the revelation of a twin Earth that is orbiting ever closer to our own. And on this Earth, there are parallel versions of each and every one of us. For Rhoda and John, this represents the hope that maybe their twin selves haven’t made the same mistakes and experienced the same losses.

For such a heavy film, Marling and Cahill simply could not be more affably effervescent in person. If the job of actors and filmmakers on the publicity trail is to remain fresh while endearing themselves to journalists, then these two should teach a master class, because I was fully prepared to take a bullet for each of them by the time we’d finished our interviews. But this shouldn’t suggest they were being false. They’re just genuinely good and generous people, as those who’ve attended their myriad Q&A’s will attest. First up, we spoke with Brit Marling.

Brit Marling in ANOTHER EARTH

You recently Tweeted, “love to feel everything is unfamiliar. AE press tour = a lot of that”

[laughs]

So how’s that been going for you?

It’s been great! The thing that blows my mind the most about it is you’d think that after a while, your sense would get a bit deadened to it. But the audiences always think and feel something different, the Q&A’s are never the same! People do sometimes come across the same questions, but the vibe is always different and people’s interpretation of the film are different, so I think that really keeps you going. You always think the film is what you intended, then you realize that it doesn’t belong to Mike or to I. It is now everyone else’s feelings and interpretations of it. And it’s cool to hear it.

Could you talk a bit about your relationship with William Mapother, and what it was like developing the sense of trust as actors to go to such dark places together?

The trust thing is so important. I think the thing that makes you trust your fellow actor the most is when you can feel the amount of homework they’ve done before arriving to set, and you can tell they’ve felt and thought everything through to such a degree that what they are bringing is their truth. And then you just react to that. There’s a great surrender there, because you don’t ever intellectualize things and become analytical, like, “Well, I don’t know if John would do that.” You are just in the present moment, living and breathing everything with this person John. William disappears and Brit disappears and you can just be these people for a while, which is totally intoxicating. [laughs]

Is it strange at all to look around and think, “Well, I guess I’m an actor now!” I know it was fairly recent in terms of a career development. And now you’re known as an actor.

Wow, that is such a sensitive thing to say, and it’s so true! It’s like, are you something until somebody watches it and tells you… Like, are you a writer until you publish your first piece and readers read it? Until they read it, are you really a writer? I totally love what you just asked, because I felt like for so long, when people would ask me at parties or whatever, “What do you do?” And I’d say, “I’m an actor.” And they’d say, “Oh cool, what have you been in?” And I’d be like, “Well, nothing.” And they’d be like, “…oh.” And I’d say, “But I hope something, sometime, someday!”

It’s so hard, in your twenties especially, when you’re struggling to figure out your identity and who you are… I feel like the biggest part of that is how you make your living, not financially, but what are the collection of your days about? What do you do all day? It’s pretty cool to get to do the work you want to do and then have an audience watch it, and be like, “I’m an actor.” [laughs] I mean, I have a long way to go to be a really good one, but I am an actor, and that’s a really nice feeling.

A big part of your story that’s been focused on in the press is that you started writing roles for yourself because you didn’t want to do the slasher movies and sex comedies that were being offered to you.

Yeah.

And I think it’s really interesting that your story is getting out in the same year as Bridesmaids, which is another example of women writing great roles for themselves as an alternative to just playing the same roles over and over. Did you get to see Bridesmaids?

[slaps couch] Yes, and I flipped out about it! I went crazy when I walked out of the theater! I was like, “This is the most progressive comedy ever made!” Like, it’s written by women, it’s starring women, there’s a male and female audience and everyone loves it… I read a review at some point that was like, “This is a really exciting turn for female comedies,” and I was like, are you kidding me? This is great comedy, period. Like, you don’t need to attach a gender to it.

I was so excited by that film because sometimes in comedy, it seems like women can be funny but only insofar as they’re also sexy and cute, and that’s ridiculous. I recognized those women in their extremes: their desperation, the disgust they provoke, the realness of the relationships. I recognized that best friendship [between Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph]. The love between them was so real, it wasn’t cheap or maudlin. I just think that movie is so amazing, and you’re right, it’s exciting that women are writing more things. Because we’re going to see more version of women that are closer to the ones we recognize in our lives, and I think that’s been missing.

Speaking of comedy, you did an episode of Community. What was that like?

Oh my god I loved it! I hope I get to do a lot more comedy, because it’s so fun. The stakes are so high in your mind, and as the actor, you basically get to lose yourself to this sense of desperation. Like, everything is so important [when you’re] inside of it,  none of it is funny, but when other people watch it later that desperation becomes really hilarious. I loved doing it, and I love Community. I think just as a show, it’s really bold. The writers just go wherever their imaginations are taking them.

I can’t believe it got snubbed by the Emmys again.

I know.

So, have you finished shooting your next project, Arbitrage [a financial thriller co-starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Roth]?

Yes, I finished a few weeks ago.

What was it like working on a movie where you weren’t also one of the filmmakers?

It was blissful! I was thinking as I was leaving the set, “This is awesome because I don’t need to worry about how we’re going to get the money to do the sound mix! That is totally not my job!” It was really liberating. I only really started writing in order to act, so it’s nice to be able to focus on the thing that you love to do the most, because you could focus endlessly on that and never find enough time.

The film is about a hedge fund manager, and I know you have a background in economics. Did that help draw you to this project?

It was a great script, kind of a Faustian thriller, and I loved that it was a father-daughter story where you would more typically see a father-son relationship. Because [Gere’s character] has this very successful hedge fund, and he’s grooming his daughter [Marling] to take over. It was just a great thriller, you didn’t see where it was going to go, and the relationships in it just felt really honest to me. All the female characters in it were really interesting.

One of which is played by Susan Sarandon.

She was amazing! So amazing. She’s just…beautiful. Like, she has this incredible energy about her, and an effortlessness to the way that she is in the moment. It was really inspiring to work with her.

So, is it weird that your friendships with Mike and Zal are now suddenly this public thing being used to sell and market movies? Like, last year you were just friends who lived together, and now the details of your friendships are in press notes. Is that strange?

[quietly] You are the most amazing person I’ve encountered…

[blushes, stammers]

No, for real. I don’t know how you’re thinking of these things. It’s blowing my mind.

[blushing harder] It’s just what I’m wondering.

It is such a good thing to say. That is really weird! It’s really super-weird, like you’re saying. We were all just trying to do our thing and encourage one another and figure out a way to survive – whether or not we could make this work and whether or not we could become good at the things we were trying to do. And it’s so private, that world, because the three of us were just living together, writing scripts, showing each other work, getting rid of the bad stuff, trying to make better stuff…it’s so personal! [laughs]

And then I think the fact that both films got into Sundance kind of created this obvious story about it. I wonder what it would have been like if the films had been made in different times and entered the world at different times. Would that story have ever come together? But it is strange, because it makes public something that is actually very private and personal, but you can’t deny the public nature of it. It is what it is, it’s the truth, it is what happened. But it is odd. [long pause] It is odd, but at the same time, throughout this whole thing, I’m like on my knees in shock. The sheer luckiness of it is a bit overwhelming.

It’s a bit like walking under a window and a well-timed flowerpot hitting you – but in the reverse of that! It’s like you’re walking under a window and some, like, magic feather dust happens to waft over you. The good fortune part of it almost breaks your heart a little bit, because it seems unfair. You know that there are so many talented people whose work has to wait longer to enter the world, or never enters the world because you give up at some point and do something else. And it isn’t about lack of ability, it’s just about did the opportunity arise?

[quietly] I just keep thinking like, “Okay, you have to make good on it. You have to get better at what you do. You have to work harder than you’ve ever worked before. Try to be more true. Try not to lie. Try to be better in the moment. Try to be better at telling stories. Tell stories that are more meaningful and more entertaining. [pause] That’s what I’ve been thinking lately.

Well, I think our time is up.

Thank you for being so thoughtful.

[blushes, stammers]

*****

And now, our conversation with director Mike Cahill:

 

Brit Marling and Mike Cahill

Have you been surprised by the audience reactions you’ve encountered on the Q&A trail?

The Q&A’s have been absolutely incredible. You’d think it would get repetitive, but it doesn’t. There’s so many new things that come up from each one.  The thing that surprises me the most is when people are in tears – I guess happy tears? – and they want to embrace… I don’t think we thought that that sort of emotional connection could happen. To see that has been a very powerful and moving experience. I guess some people have been through certain circumstances and feel really connected to it. But it’s interesting to hear different interpretations of it.

The process of art-making is fascinating. It’s like building a bridge where you as the filmmakers build a certain amount, and then the audience builds a certain amount, and the meeting place in between is where the real art-making happens: the dialogue, the projection of the person viewing it of themselves onto the screen… And so I guess the movie allows for that to take place, which is really cool. It’s been an amazing four months.

Can you think of a specific moment when you first realized the movie would have this kind of momentum?

Well, we [screened in competition] at Sundance, which was so thrilling because there were, like, 16 films in competition. And we screened really late in the game. Most films screen Thursday through Sunday, and we were screening on Monday. So it as kinda like, “Oh, there’s that other tiny little movie…” But we didn’t care, we were so thrilled just to be there! I remember the first screening was at this theater with, like, 1,200 seats. We played the movie, and there were literal gasps in the audience. And I sat through that whole screening because I wanted to see it on such a big screen, and then when I came out on stage they gave us a standing ovation! And I was like, “Whaaaat is going on?” [laughs] It was a beautiful and very memorable moment, and also very chilling.

I asked Brit if it’s weird to have this friendship between the three of you, which has been private, suddenly become public through the marketing of these films.

The part that’s wonderful and kind of dream-like about it is that the three of us were making things back in the day. Zal and I would co-direct short films that Brit would star in. And now I’ve directed my first feature, and Zal has directed his first feature, they both star Brit, they both got into Sundance, they both sold to Fox Searchlight… In some ways, I think doing it alone might be really isolating, especially around friends in the artistic community. To have one person have this experience, to do this whole rollercoaster ride alone might be really isolating. And what’s beautiful is the three of us have one another to share notes and talk about what’s it’s like. So the friendship being public is kinda beautiful. We do really support one another, and we have such a deep friendship. It’s strong. So it’s nice to be in the situation together.

Do you remember your initial impressions of Brit when she first introduced herself to you guys?

I remember that moment. We screened at a festival at Georgetown, and Zal and I won an award. We sat down to do a Q&A and Brit led the standing ovation herself! And it was like this little waify blonde girl, and the rest of the crowd got up, and I remember Zal was like, “Who is that?” It’s like, “There was something about her! Did you see her?” Brit is so generous and so kind and so giving, and such a good person, and I think we all connected on that. And we very quickly realized that she had serious, formidable talent as an actor, as a writer, as an artist, just in general. And our creative collaboration just began.

Could you talk about casting the role of John, which ultimately went to William Mapother?

I was very particular about it. I’d seen lots of leading guys who were talented, and yet didn’t have the right combination of elements. I met William through our casting director late in the process, we’d actually already begun filming. And we didn’t have a John yet, so I was like, “Well, let’s just shoot the stuff with Brit by herself!” I’d known William’s work from In the Bedroom and Lost. And in In the Bedroom in particular, he delivers such a fully realized character. What I loved is he has this gravitas and intensity and volatility that can be threatening, and I wanted to harness that energy. But he also has this intelligence, and this lightness underneath which isn’t immediately apparent. The way he opens up is gorgeous. It was a gift to work with such talented actors.

Moving back in your career a bit, you also worked on Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, correct?

Yeah, I was the editor on it! It was amazing. I worked with the director and got to meet Leonard a bunch of times. He was really inspiring. The artist’s life to me is really inspiring, and no one does it better than him. He’s so beautiful and so generous and so gifted and hardworking. He’s like, “If you want to be a writer, you have to wake up every morning and write. And some days nothing flows out, but you sharpen your pencils and through that, you will achieve something.” The notion of the artist’s life has always been fascinating to me. To live in a world of ideas as your profession just seems so compelling.

Did you consciously emulate that during your life with Brit and Zal in LA?

Yes. Just waking up every morning and writing and writing and writing. We’ve written so many scripts and ate through so many scriptwriting books. Zal went to film school, I didn’t, but I kinda feel like I went through my own film school – ten years of working on TV shows and documentaries, working on this, working on that, writing writing writing and trying to push it along until you build up the muscles and the confidence to finally go for it. With this film, I was like, “We can do this film without any permission. We don’t need money, we don’t need anything. We can just do it.”

You and Brit previously collaborated on the documentary Boxers and Ballerinas. Are you still in touch with any of the subjects?

Through Facebook you can stay in touch, so it’s casual like that. [laughs] It was interesting because Boxers and Ballerinas is so different from Another Earth in many ways. I didn’t see any parallels in them at all. Then someone said to me the other day, “You know, they’re very similar.” And I was like, “What?” And she said, “You tell the story of a boxer and a ballerina in Havana and a boxer and a ballerina in Miami, and it’s like parallel lives, what if your life had gone a different way,” and I was like…

Mind blown.

Mind blown! I was like, “Oh…my…God!” I never thought of that! [laughs] I guess you realize after you keep doing things that there are certain themes you just revolve around subconsciously.

Have you gotten many hard sci-fi questions about the astrophysics of Another Earth?

We did a great deal of research on it. There’s the notion of the multiverse, there’s the notion of superior conjunction; how would the dynamics of the elliptical orbits work? A lot of that went into an earlier version of the script, but it felt a bit expositional, and it was a little too much. There wasn’t the emotionality of the actual human drama. So we eliminated a lot of it and just tried to be suggestive without making it seem like a science class movie. But whenever anyone is curious, I always map out exactly the dynamics of how it works, and why [the second earth] is moving closer and closer throughout the film. Because it’s obviously moving closer for poetic metaphor, but there is a dynamic to the elliptical orbit. If you take two elliptical orbits and superimpose one up and down and one side to side, there’s four points during the year where they’re very close and travel to the other one is possible. I consulted with astrophysicists and they were like, “You’re bending a lot of rules here, but as long as you keep your rules consistent, we’ll go along with it.” [laughs]

So if anyone asks, you’ve done the research.

It’ll be on the DVD! [laughs] That’s right, I gotta make sure it’s on the DVD. One of the biggest things people say is that this huge mass would affect our tides and cause earthquakes and gravitational pull would be affected. And it’s so sad, because it was in the script and we did shoot it, but it was so hokey on our budget… [laughs] We were by the seaside and the earth was up above, and the blossoms were falling from a tree, and because of the other earth they started to hover, and it was a moment of particularly levity for Rhoda because things were beginning to blossom. It really reflected the interior world, which is what I wanted throughout the whole film. So we shot it – this is so embarrassing – we tied the blossoms to little fishing string, which took six hours. And she walks through it, and…it looked so cheesy! [laughs] And I was like, “Alright, let’s just trust our audience that they’re suture this together, because this is going on the editing room floor.”

So that was your Ed Wood moment?

[laughs] Exactly!

At this point in the process, when you’ve been through so many Q&A’s and heard so many interpretations of the film, is there still a specific message you’d like people to take away from it, or has it become completely open-ended for you?

There is one specific thing. We follow Rhoda as the protagonist of the story, but it’s set against the backdrop of a duplicate earth where all 6.3 billion of us are. That means that everyone in the audience is there too. And it allows the imagination to run free, to imagine oneself having to confront another version of themselves. It’s not something didactic that I want them to take away, but I would hope that after seeing the film, the next morning…well, this is a secret hope, I would never actually tell someone this. Although I’m telling you. [laughs] But if you look in the mirror the next morning and see yourself, I hope you might actually say, “Hey, this person is okay.” Like, you’re okay. And that feeling of hope would be wonderful.

Another Earth opens in San Francisco on Friday, July 29.

Read Also:

Previous post:

Next post: