Over the last decade, major Hollywood studios have hurried to build a fleet of franchise films, push them into international waters and bet that the export to distant shores will return the fresh riches of eager moviegoers who don’t mind dubbed-over voices scattered amid triumphant, digital action scenes. Prequels and sequels rule the corporate industry, leaving it to independent filmmakers like “Another Earth” writer/director Michael Cahill to provide the original, vital ideas that refresh the medium.
With “I Origins,” a film pondering the co-existence of science and faith, Cahill continues to do just that — even if “I Origins,” which won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at Sundance, just happens to secretly be a prequel itself.
“There is a sequel to this one,” Cahill told TheWrap earlier this month in New York. “It’s actually just called ‘I.’ I originally wrote a movie called ‘I,’ and I sold it to Searchlight when ‘Another Earth’ came out. And before we made ‘I,’ we were preparing and all this stuff, but we weren’t yet ready to make it, and I had this backstory, and I said, it’s like an origin story. That movie, ‘I,’ it takes place 20 years in the future, so like 2035-2040. And it’s very expensive, and we were trying to figure out how to do it. It was challenging to try to figure it out, and the process was slow.”
Though his movies are thoughtful meditations on reality, Cahill doesn’t like to wait long to make them.
“I was getting so eager and antsy and I wanted to make something so badly, because now two years had gone by since ‘Another Earth’ and all I was doing was writing. I wanted to get into production on something,” he explained. “So I asked Searchlight if it would be alright if I did this prequel to a sequel that doesn’t exist yet, and they were so kind and so gracious.”
The catch was that Searchlight owned the rights to all prequels and sequels to the unproduced “I.” Cahill wanted the right to make what would become “I Origins” on his own, and sell it again after taking it to festivals — “super indie,” as he called it.
“It was their faith in me and it’s rare, it’s ballsy on their behalf.”
So Cahill wrote the film, teamed up with Marling once again, signed up Michael Pitt as the leading man and then went to work, filming mostly in New York City and, later on, in India.
The movie features Pitt and Marling as rigidly atheist scientists who seek to find a way to build an eye on a sightless species from scratch, thus disproving the creationist argument that the eye is too complex to not have been intelligently designed by some god figure. The movie starts as a love story and then morphs into a thriller, propelled always by the push and pull of faith and logic, with tragedy shifting world views over time.
The message is both micro and macro, aimed at the renewed war in the United States over issues like science education and contraception, as well as Cahill’s way of working out his own mixed emotions. He was raised Irish Catholic, “100 percent and confirmed,” he says laughing, but notes that if he wasn’t a filmmaker, he might be a scientist.
“Since the scientific revolution, science and spirituality have been on two sides of a battlefield, from burning astronomers at the stake to the wars over what can be taught in schools these days,” he explained. “Science and spirituality have not really gotten along so well. And I say spirituality as a placeholder for any religion, whatever it might be, something more metaphysical I guess. Every single character in this film represents a part of my mind that I feel is fully sort of engaged and represents a certain dialogue that I have in my own mind about the whole thing. I do believe that they can co-exist in a really beautiful way.”
Fox Searchlight certainly had faith in Cahill; the company ended up buying “I Origins” at Sundance three years after buying the rights the first time.