Interview: Director Mike Cahill, Actor Michael Pitt on ‘I Origins’

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CHICAGO – The debate between science and intelligent design (God) will go on as long as man evolves and searches for answers. A new and provocative film, “I Origins,” takes on the challenge of the debate through storytelling, and features hot actor Michael Pitt (“Boardwalk Empire”), directed by Mike Cahill (“Another Earth”).

Mike Cahill also teams again up with actress Brit Marling, who plays a research co-worker to Pitt’s main scientist character. Her last collaboration with Cahill, “Another Earth” – Marling also co-wrote the script – also investigated the concept of scientific certainly when faced with the mystery of an expansive and perplexing universe. In “I Origins,” the examination of the unique nature of the eye is explored, especially within its definition as a “window to the soul.”

Michael Pitt, Mike Cahill
Mike Cahill (center) and Michael Pitt Set Up a Camera for ‘I Origins’
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Michael Pitt is as memorable at times as James Dean, and leaves a mark that is his own on any role he encounters. Pitt is from working class roots, and got into the acting business with little formal training. His breakthrough came on the TV series “Dawson’s Creek” in 1999, and he made a notable film debut in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001). He has worked with directors as diverse as M. Night Shyamalan (“The Village”), Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Dreamers”), Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”) and Martin Scorsese (“Boardwalk Empire”). He was unforgettable as a Kurt Cobain-type character in director Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days.”

Mike Cahill and Michael Pitt spoke to, during a promotional tour for their film in Chicago. Their insights to the subject matter of “I Origins” clarified their passion for the unusual project. Mike, what fascinates you about our duality – both the experiences that are absorbed in our cells based on the time and place of our birth and the unique make up of our cellular structure. How did you want those two elements to come together in ‘I Origins’?

Mike Cahill: The question of where our molecules end and where our consciousness begins – and how they connect – is one of those questions that have existed since we’ve understood there are atoms, the smallest bit of who we are. The question of identity really fascinates me, because there are many things we can point to as a source for identity. Is it memories? And if you lose them, do you cease to become yourself? What is our being? It’s not our body, if we were just our heads we’d still be ourselves. I wanted in ‘I Origins’ to have a scientist grapple with a question that in its solution could also have an metaphysical component.

Michael Pitt: One thing I think is interesting about this film, it begins the conversation about that metaphysical realm. When we hang out after some of these screenings, we see people talking about this film, and tackling some taboo subjects – it can be a heated conversation. What I loved about this film is not necessarily what the filmmaker thinks about the issue personally, it’s more about inspiring a conversation, and thinking about the film after experiencing it. Michael, what aspect of your curiosity was best suited in connecting to Ian Gray? Which subject in your schooling did you want to know the most about, for example, and did that fuel the character development of Gray?

Pitt: I’m a son of an auto mechanic, from a working class family and my oldest sister was the academic in our house. It was understood by me that the focus on education, in a family where resources for education were limited, went towards my sister. But I remember around 12 years old, I had a brilliant teacher, and she was explaining Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species,’ and I couldn’t wait to get to class.

One of the things that I’m really interested in, is that it’s okay to be into this scientific research, because it’s truly amazing. Scientists do get laid. [laughs] It’s a testament to Mike Cahill that he humanized scientists, took away the stigma of the white lab coats and the social awkwardness. That was definitely something that Mike wanted to portray, and the conversations that we had regarding the character were specifically about that.

Brit Marling, Mike Cahill
Brit Marling and Mike Cahill on Set in ‘I Origins’
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures Mike, why do you think that some people’s eyes are more entrancing than others, now that you’ve gone through the research of this film? And how does it move beyond just sexual attraction, in you opinion?

Cahill: If you look at all eyes very closely, they are all magnificent. We take eyes for granted, sometimes not even knowing the color of our love one’s eyes. But beyond color, there are those unique cracks and crevices, an entrance into another realm. If you look at the poster for ‘I Origins,’ it looks like a supernova or nebula, hundreds of light years away from earth.

Going beyond the sexual attraction, I was trying to create a possible explanation to that feeling that all of us have had, looking for the first time into someone’s eyes and gaining a sense of warmth and familiarity, while with others that doesn’t happen. And why does that happen? Why does it feel like something beyond this moment? For example, when I first looked into the eyes of the woman who would become my wife, it felt like I knew her for ten centuries. Why is that? Michael, since you’re playing this character over a number of years, what specific aspects of his personality did you want to evolve the most, considering the experiences he had gone through?

Pitt: I loved playing this character, and I focused on his becoming an adult. In that process, there are times when you need to protect yourself or someone else. There are certain incidences that you have to live with, and it can be a very powerful thing when you experience that in other humans. Mike, God versus science is very much an intense debate at the present time. What do you think the mythos and ceremony of religion tells us about the fear and rejection of scientific discoveries, even as it disproves the ethos of religion?

Cahill: Since the dawn of civilization we’ve been asking questions, and we’ve been trying to get answers to these questions, to gain a sense of peace. If you look at the global population of seven billion people, you see that there are five or six religions that are very different from one another. They are cultural, tradition and they all say that there is more to life than what we are confronted with, the solid matter of ‘tables and chairs’ as I like to define it.

In looking at the history of scientific development, going back to when Galileo was pointing his telescope towards the sky, those were very provocative times. They were entrenched in doctrine that held the theological ground, and answered those questions in a peaceful manner. Once the scientific method took hold as a tool for exploring the natural world, of course it created agitation. How do you create a compromise between the spiritual and science in ‘I Origins’?

Cahill: In this film, we try to propose the notion that these two realms exist. There is the metaphysical, which is the domain of spirituality. And there is the physical realm, which are the ‘tables and chairs,’ and the molecules and atoms in which a hypothesis can be tested and proved. These two realms can be comfortable bedfellows, they are not at odds at all. Michael, you have been lucky enough to experience a variety of directing styles, include the great Bertolucci. What type of research do you do specifically about the director as a person when you sign on to be in their film?

Pitt: It’s about whenever I use my head, I screw up [laughs]. Whenever I go on with my gut, 98% of the time I’m correct. Mike, I have a great admiration for Brit Marling as an artist. In your long collaboration with her, what still surprises you about her ability to bring a piece of performance that you’ve written to another level of interpretation?

Michael Pitt, Mike Cahill
Michael Pitt and Mike Cahill in Chicago, July 14, 2014
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Cahill: It’s hard to put into words the thrill I have, when I see her bring to life my words on a page. It’s stunning. In a way, I want to think of more challenges for her, that are more difficult, just to see how she does it. It’s like she’s a ballplayer, and you can throw her a flaming, twirling curve ball and she still smacks it out of the park. As much as I expect it, knowing how talented she is, I’m still surprised to see it happen. Michael, I thought your performance in ‘Last Days’ was both harrowing and heroic. What do you understand about that type of human energy that allowed you to understand the journey and end of Kurt Cobain?

Pitt: Gus Van Sant [the writer/director] and I talked about the project for a long time. There was a lot of thought behind what was going on in Cobain’s mind. I learned from watching him. When I thought of him I also thought of the late actor River Phoenix. I once saw an interview with him, and he was a pure artist with a lot of unhappiness. With Cobain it was a similar thing, I think essentially that he was an artist that was being exploited and misunderstood.

He was coming from a place in which he doing obscure music that wasn’t necessarily popular, and was an outcast his entire life. I felt that, because I’ve been an outcast since I was a kid. There were some amazing things that I’ve learned from that outcast perspective, it’s not always a bad thing. But in Kurt’s case, if you sprinkle in a lot of fame and the exploitation of money, he didn’t take the time to understand how it relates to his life. Throw in some drug use, and it can be a recipe for disaster. How does being an actor make the search for life’s answers that much more difficult or easy? Or do you think any profession or life path can provide what people need in their search for purpose?

Pitt: One thing I love about being an actor is that I believe if I’m doing it right, I get to fully contemplate the human condition and human nature, and that’s amazing to make that my job. But I also believe that no matter what you do, you can achieve that. Mike, you have expressed a great admiration for the director Krzysztof Kieslowski. What life lessons do we find in his films, and how do our lives orient themselves in line with his unique philosophy?

Cahill: I really admire him as a filmmaker, his films are among my favorite films. He has a way of communicating ideas very effectively and dramatically, without having to explain them. It is through his films that there are certain emotions that can’t be articulated through a series of words, they have to be visually expressed. It was through his work that I discovered what cinema was as an art form, a vessel to deliver those unique emotions.

There is a moment at the end of ‘Red’ [1994] in which you see the actress Iréne Jacob on a TV screen, which mirrors the exact composition as a previous photograph seen throughout the film. And something about that singular image blew my mind, because I realized that there is way more to life than ‘tables and chairs.’

“I Origins” continues its limited release in Chicago on July 25th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Steven Yuen and Astrid Bergés-Frisbey. Written and directed by Mike Cahill. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2014 Patrick McDonald,

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