Michael Pitt and Astrid Bergès-Frisbey star in I Origins.
Another Earth, winner of the Special Jury Prize and Alfred P. Sloan Award at Sundance 2011, is one of my all-time favorite films, and so when I saw that writer/director Mike Cahill would be returning to Sundance with a new film, I Origins, I put it at the top of my list. This film was, without a doubt, the highlight of my festival experience. Starring Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, and Steven Yeun, I Origins follows Ian, a molecular biologist specializing in eye evolution. Ian and his lab partner Karen are trying to find the genetic map for the eye in an attempt to disprove God. When Ian falls in love with Sofi, an ethereal model with rare and striking eyes who is guided by all things spiritual, she challenges his hard-nosed facts, but Ian remains grounded in science. Years later, when Ian stumbles upon scientific evidence he cannot ignore, he goes on a journey across the globe in pursuit of a truth that could offer a profound insight to humankind. I Origins won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at Sundance 2014, a $20,000 cash prize awarded to films that focus on science and technology as its theme.
Your film is a wonderful blend of science, spirituality, and romance. When you began to write this story, what area did you start with?
I started with the idea of a soul and if that means something. Are we just a bunch of molecules or is there a contained thing inside of us? And how we are connected with people romantically. There are different types of love in life. So they were sort of one in the same for me: love, science, and spirituality. Those three things are unbreakable in a way for me. I have been thinking about how scientists are deeply romantic. Because they study the universe, the study the human body, they study the tiniest things in the world. They are trying to find string theory whether light exists in two places at one time. You have to be romantic to do those things because you are living with a meaning of everything. And so a story about two people doing that, who become romantically connected, and then one person who is the direct opposite, and how the opposite is the same.
One of my favorite scenes in the film was when Priya mentioned the Dalai Lama quote in which he stated that if science disproved religion, he would be open to it, and then asked, “What would you do if you found proof of God?” That to me felt like the heart of the film.
Absolutely, that’s the thematic crux of the film, that scene. The Dalai Lama has an autobiography called The Universe in a Single Atom and in it he states that if science ever disproved one of tenets of the dogma he would change his beliefs. There is openness to everything and respect for science. And on the flip side, Albert Einstein, who Michael Pitt mentions in that scene, said “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws in the Universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” This film is a metaphorical meeting of those two minds.
There are so many spiritual avenues you could take. How did you end up in India?
India is amazing place. It’s a beautiful place. It’s a vibrant place. But the movie in particular, the reason why it’s so important is because, for one, technologically India has this Iris Scanning program that is nationwide. The whole movie is based on real science and they still don’t know what to think of the duplicates yet. And I just conjectured… actually I leave it open to the audience to conjecture what they will. But India is scanning one hundred million to two hundred million people every day. It’s a massive program.
And at the same time, Indians nearly take reincarnation for granted. It’s a tenet of life. It’s like the air, we breathe it … it’s something that is so deeply rooted in society, technologically and spiritually, it’s the most magnificent place for the third act to take place for this very important character that Michael Pitt’s character is trying to find. And it’s just believable that a child would have been scanned if they were living in the slums.
For both Ian’s work in the laboratory to the iris scanning, what type of research did you do?
So much research. I didn’t want to dumb it down, and I had this little secret thing up my sleeve, which is an audience following emotion, words don’t really matter. If she says something that’s impressive and he’s attracted to her, we get the attraction. And yet what she says, I wanted it to be valid. So PAX6, for example, is a gene. It is a master switch in every species that has vision, it’s the first thing that turns on before an eyeball is made. And so you can take something like eight million species and a certain percentage of them that have vision all have this gene. Scientists found this out. And so I wanted to base it in reality. I did a lot of study and talked to my brother [a molecular biologist] extensively and met with a lot of different scientists both at John Hopkins and Rockefeller University. I tried to make it bullet proof all the way through.
I have been seeing 11:11 for almost the last 20 years. (Cahill gives me the high-five) In some ways, it felt like I had a spiritual experience watching the film. I was curious for Ian, was that scene the first time that it ever happened to him?
Yes, I think so. There are some things are so hard to articulate. It’s so hard to explain to someone that thing. What is it with 11:11, when you start following 11:11 and you start seeing it everywhere? And I wanted this movie to go right full on towards the things that are difficult to explain and almost impossible to articulate. So here’s this scientist who the last thing in the world he would do is follow these coincidences. And yet, every scientist will tell you that the moment four billion years ago when there was no life and then life emerged from no life, talk about a coincidence, you know? Life is founded upon the greatest coincidence of all time where the odds are so minimal. That’s interesting to me.
For the role of Sofi, did you cast Astrid by her eyes? Obviously they were one of the most important aspects by the film.
She came late in the casting process. I was really moved by who she is, her energy and all of those things but primarily, I just knew. You know, it was one of those instant moments where you know someone is perfect for the part. It was a difficult part to cast. I saw so many talented, wonderful actresses for the part but when I met her it was like Oh, hi Sofi. We met over Skype so I asked her “Can you take a picture of your eye really close-up with your phone and send it to me?” And when she did I told her, “you have the eyes that were written for this film. ”
There were a lot of weird things that happened like that. Like the white peacock, I wrote about a white peacock being in New York, I didn’t know there was a white peacock that is in New York, living at St. John the Divine. One of the production associates Googled it because we were thinking, we’ll have to get a wrangler, and low and behold it’s just there.
Is it wild?
It’s wild, yeah! It just lives there and everyone knows about it, apparently. Actually, nobody knows about it. Actually, most people live in New York their entire lives and don’t know there’s a white peacock northwest of the park. And I didn’t know until meeting Astrid that she had the eyes that Sofi should have, sectoral heterochromia eyes, which means having multiple colors in one eye.
Did you write the part of Karen for Brit Marling?
Yes. And she was amazing. Karen is so hard. In some ways, she’s the second choice that becomes the first choice. It’s interesting. This is a total tangent, but my wife’s from Croatia and we were on this little island called Brijuni, which is a beautiful island where there are these ancient ruins that are two to three thousand years old and there was a civilization that lived there. It’s on the water, there are these rocks and there are dinosaur footprints all across them. And when I see these two things and I think, here is a civilization that has risen and fallen and their kids probably played in the puddles of those dinosaur footprints and we didn’t discover dinosaurs until way later. So it was right under their noses the entire time. And yet they rose and fell and never knew that dinosaurs ever existed.
And I thought what is the thing in our lives that is right in front of our faces, that we don’t realize, that we could as a civilization rise and fall and never know the significance of it? And I thought, the eyes.
Why is that poets—Cicero, Shakespeare, DiVinci, Walt Whitman, Emerson—why do all these people say that eyes are the windows to the soul? Why do poets believe in reincarnation, why does everyone keep coming back to that? I don’t know. There is reason and there is intuition. And intuition works in a mysterious way. And reason works through fact one, fact two, fact three, proof. Fact one, fact two, fact three, proof. You can’t discredit intuition, so what if the eyes really are the window to the soul?
The film didn’t discredit science and it didn’t discredit spirituality, but suggested they can both exist at the same time.
If I had to guess where the future is going, and I don’t know if it’s five thousand years from now or maybe one hundred years from now. But I think science and spirituality are moving forward and they are going to connect and all of a sudden prove one another. They are going to serve as scientists and spiritualists will arrive at the exact same place. Well, maybe not the exact same place, but they’ll meet somewhere—and have a cup of coffee.
The end of the film almost feels like a beginning. Are you planning on a sequel?
Absolutely. Hopefully I will do it with Fox Searchlight. It is an origin story. It’s a story that opens up a paradigm. There’s this thing called the emergence, like I was saying, non-life turning into life four million years, that’s called an emergence. And from life emerged consciousness. That was an emergence, a major step that was seventy thousand or a hundred thousand years ago. From consciousness emerged society, which is what we have today, this big societal organism. And this movie opens up a new emergence, which is, here’s a new paradigm. We are all connected. We all come back. We can track ourselves after we pass away. Through the eyes, technically we are doing it now. What Pandora’s box will open? It changes everything. And to explore the stories in that world is really exciting to me.
- Michelle Nelson
*This interview was originally published in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival section.