Interviews · Movies

Interview: Director Mike Cahill Discusses His Sci-Fi Drama ‘Another Earth’

Another Earth
Fox Searchlight Pictures
By  · Published on July 28th, 2011

Another Earth isn’t a sci-fi film. It’s a drama. While this idea may disappoint some of you, the sci-fi backdrop for the film is purely there for symbolism. Blending the science-fiction element with the core drama, on a structural and tonal level, must not have been an easy task.

As director and co-writer Mike Cahill discusses, it wasn’t.

It’s difficult to really talk about Another Earth fully without going into spoiler territory, so the conversation I had with Cahill was a revealing one. Once you’ve seen the film, then you’ll know why the ending can’t go un-discussed. Another Earth asks a handful of questions, and the ending raises the biggest and most divisive one.

So, of course, beware of Spoiler-y hints.

Here’s what Mike Cahill had to say about end theories, finding a cohesive structure, and the similarities between the star and co-writer Brit Marling’s other feature, Sound of My Voice:

How’s this press process going for you? Are you enjoying giving non-answers to questions about the film?

Some of them I don’t [answer]. The meaning of the ending I try to avoid, because I feel that steals a part of the experience for the audience. I find that a lot of people have different interpretations, which I encourage and think is beautiful. Like if I were watching the film, I would want that experience of getting to guess.

What’s funny about the last scene is that it would’ve been a second or first act moment in most films, and they would’ve gone from there. What made you and Brit want to end on a story of its own?

We came to that in the writing process. We wanted to focus mostly on the drama, which is the drama between Rhoda and John. We structured it as a typical, straight drama, with all the reversals and character arcs, and then embedded it in this larger science fiction concept just for metaphor. The hanging Earth in the sky is to allow reflection on these characters and the question of: What if they did something else?

I know you said you won’t comment much on the ending, but what are some interpretations you’ve heard that you find interesting?

[Pause] One that they both have the same fate. There’s one that their seeking solace in each other. There’s one that one Earth had the car accident, and the other didn’t. There’s so many different interpretations. For me, the messaging is more ‐ there is no messaging of the film. It’s not a didactic message movie. It’s suppose to carry across an emotion. What I hope does carry across is that feeling of breathless and levity in the last moment.

Have you heard the idea that it’s a dream?

I’ve heard that one, too! Yeah, she’s created the whole thing.

The last scene does feel more heightened, with how Rhoda is running her hand across the house.

There’s a sensuality to that, yeah. In terms of filmmaking, the hand touching the side of the house is something that opens up a part of our minds that remembers or knows that feeling. When you show the handing touching the side of the house on-screen, we get a little closer to her. We get more connected to her, not just because she’s the lead, but on another level. To me, that was very important for the final moment.

Rhoda mentioned early on in the film that she’d say “better luck next time” to the other Rhoda. Do you think she’d still say that by the end?

I think she finds redemption, and that she’s at peace. We have these idolized versions of ourself. You probably have an ideal of what you want when you’re 30, right? Sometimes you’re on that path moving towards that direction, but then something radically pulls you out of it. All the sudden what you wanted at 30 isn’t a possibility anymore, so you live this other life that is perhaps more difficult and harder. What if those two versions of you confronted each other? Would it be so obvious that the one who went on the idolized life was on the better path? It’s not completely true that version has had everything.

For the sci-fi element, was it a writing challenge fitting that into the structure?

It was challenging. It was definitely something we paid attention to in all the different stages. You make a film three times: you make it once when you write it, you make it another time when you’re shooting, and then you make it again in the editing room. Because there’s this macro background sci-fi conceit, which the film has to follow, we have to weave those like a quilt. We’re telling a story of these two outsiders ‐ and Hollywood would’ve told it with rocket ships blasting off and all that stuff ‐ but I wanted to tell this story of the everyman and everywoman who has to go on with life, even though this crazy discovery has occurred.

Thematically and structurally, I’d say Another Earth is very similar to Sound of My Voice. Was that written before Another Earth?

They were, kind of, happening simultaneously. Zal [Batmanglij], Brit, and I are all best friends from Georgetown and moved out to L.A. together. We’re like a brain trust, so we all help on each other’s projects. There are a great deal of overlaps, and yet there are such distinct overlaps. Brit’s performances are so phenomenal as totally different characters. It is true that there are overlaps, but there are distinctions.

Do you think that comes from just similar interests? For example, claustrophobia is a big part of both films.

Yeah. Someone said that Sound of My Voice just keeps going deeper and deeper into more claustrophobic situations, while Another Earth just keeps going more open and open. They’re moving in different directions, and yet they’re working on something subconscious and magical.

Throughout filming, were you constantly trying to find symbolism in shots?

Absolutely. As a director, one of the things you have to do is establish a visual tone, an aesthetic, and do all the shot choices. I think it makes more sense when the style evolves more from the story and the point-of-view from the character. With Another Earth, I established parameters that the film is going to take place in poetic realism; realism with poetry involved.

When it comes to the choices you’re making or what takes are working, it’s based on the authenticity to the tone you established. It was the same with the shot choices. I wanted to have a feeling of documentary-style or Dogme 95, where you lift the camera up to see the other Earth. It’s like District 9, with how you think, “Maybe that spaceship is up there.” Hopefully you think here, “Maybe this other Earth really is up in the sky.” All of the choices I made derived from the story.

Another Earth is now in limited release and expands this Friday.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.