BY GENE TRIPLETT
Like a hurricane.
That’s how Brit Marling describes the screenwriting experience she shared with director Mike Cahill that created “Another Earth,” an independent film that uses a fantastic science fiction premise to tell a story of tragedy, a dangerous love affair, self-confrontation, redemption and forgiveness.
“We found that we really had to try and become writers in order to do the things we really wanted to do,” Marling said in a recent phone interview. “I think when you’re setting out to make a movie there’s almost like this climate. I think of it a little bit like the way that certain things come together to form a hurricane. It’s all swirling around, and it’s like this calm center.
“There were a lot of things in the ether at the time, and we were listening to Dr. Richard Berendzen on tape. His work was so inspiring, because he talks about the cosmos in a sort of everybody’s-around-the-fire storytelling way. So that moved us.”
Berendzen, a Walters, OK-born scientist and former teaching assistant to Carl Sagan, is a proponent of the scientific search for extraterrestrial life. He’s also the narrator of what Marling describes as “a metaphysical romantic thriller.”
Cahill’s feature film directorial debut — winner of the 2011 Sundance Alfred P. Sloan Prize and Special Jury Prize — tells the story of Rhoda Williams (Marling), a brilliant young woman whose dreams of becoming an astrophysicist are ended when she causes a terrible accident that takes the lives of renowned composer John Burroughs’ (William Mapother) wife and son.
The tragedy coincides with the mysterious appearance of a planet that seems to mirror Earth, looming larger than the moon in the night sky. Scientists speculate this eerie “Earth 2” may harbor a reality parallel to our own, populated by other versions of ourselves.
For Rhoda, the mirror planet may hold her last hope at atoning for the tragedy she has caused, and she finds herself at the front door of the man whose life she has irrevocably changed. Not realizing who Rhoda is, John takes her in as a maid and ultimately as a lover, igniting an affair that can only end in disaster — until Rhoda gets a chance to travel to Earth 2.
“There’s something about science fiction or fantasy, or reality with a twist, that allows us to zoom in on what it means to be human,” Cahill said in a separate phone interview. “The movie couldn’t exist without that other earth, and the struggle that Rhoda goes through would remain internal. And yet with the externalizing of the other earth, with the possibility of confronting oneself, all of a sudden those emotions which exist in her mind, the possibility of having it be interpersonal, becomes very real.
“And so, the way it zooms in on the question of forgiveness and self-forgiveness, we couldn’t have done without science fiction,” he said.
Not a straight path
Both Cahill and Marling came to feature filmmaking in unconventional ways. Both had been economics majors at Georgetown University, at different times. Cahill had moved on to become a producer, cinematographer and editor at National Geographic, and when he returned to Georgetown for a film festival, he met Marling and was taken by her passion for film.
Soon they were working together on documentaries, including “Boxers and Ballerinas,” a film about U.S.-Cuban relations as seen through the eyes of four youths — a boxer and a ballerina from Miami, Fla., and a boxer and a ballerina from Havana.
But both Marling and Cahill had dreamed of careers in acting and feature filmmaking, respectively, since they were kids.
“It was in my blood a little bit, I mean in the sense that when I was a kid I used to love acting,” Chicago native Marling said. “I loved theater and I used to make up plays and dances and charge my neighbors a lot of money to come to the performances, which was, I guess, the early economics major in there somewhere.”
Marling said she opted for economics and liberal arts studies over drama because she felt she hadn’t lived enough of life to be able to tell stories of substance. But after a summer of interning at a bank, she decided she was wasting time that could be better spent pursuing her real passion. Although she graduated valedictorian from Georgetown, her real education would come from working with Cahill.
Similarly, Cahill, a New Haven, Conn. native, started experimenting with filmmaking at age 6 when his mother gave him a Fisher-Price PixelVision camcorder. He began as a pre-med and economics major at Georgetown to please his family, but soon resumed pursuit of his filmmaking dreams.
When Cahill and Marling began developing their first feature film together, they approached it in much the same way they’d gone at making documentaries. Marling calls it “renegade style.”
“We borrowed a friend’s camera,” recalls Marling, who also served as co-producer. “We went to Mike’s mom’s house in Connecticut because we could shoot there for free and the snow was good production value and we just started shooting. And as we started shooting we were showing footage to a friend of ours and he said, ‘Oh, I think you should meet these guys that sometimes give a little financing to films.’ And then (producer) Hunter Gray and Artists Public Domain got involved … It was sort of like a rolling snowball that gathered more mass as it went.
“But I think the trick of it is just to begin. I think that people are waiting for somebody to give them money or permission to do a project. I think we sort of tricked the system a bit by not waiting for anybody. Like, we’re making this movie and it’s like a train that leaves the station and everybody else has to either get on or be left behind. And sometimes you have to trick yourself ultimately into making something.”
Measure of success
Industry insiders are betting “Another Earth” will turn the trick of making Marling a major star. Meanwhile, Marling is co-producer, co-writer and star of yet another film with an element of the fantastic, “Sound of My Voice.” Writing with another first-time feature director, Zal Batmanglij, Marling plays the leader of a cult that’s infiltrated by a documentary-making couple bent on exposing her as a fraud.
“I’m an actor who writes,” Marling said. “I really just love acting. I find it’s so hard. I’m overwhelmed by the challenge of it, because every time you do it, no matter how many years you’ve been doing it, in one moment if you tell a lie, you’re back to zero. With no amount of practice or skill can you escape the possibility of being dishonest and flunking.”
But with “Another Earth,” early reviews have given Marling high marks for writing and acting out certain truths about the human condition.
“I think some of us are really hard on ourselves and we’re our own worst enemies, and we’re critical of ourselves and we judge ourselves very deeply,” she said of the movie’s message. “I think it would be nice if people sort of left the theater and next time they caught their reflection in the mirror, they gave themselves a bit of a break. I think that would be the nicest thing on the personal side.
“And on the larger side I think it would be great if people were inspired to be connected to the night sky again. I think it’s sad that we’ve just lost our shuttle program. I think it’s really a symptom of something wrong in our culture. Like everything has become so about the surface of things. I think that exploration is so important, us reaching out and asking the big questions, trying to understand who we are and what we’re doing here, and our place in the cosmos.
“I think it would be a terrible thing if we stopped really asking those questions. And so I hope the movie inspires people to do that.”