Mike Cahill on ‘Another Earth’

The director of the low-budget sci-fi sensation talks about the film's strange similarities to Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, its quirky score, and The Wu-Tang Clan.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

The indie darling Another Earth is making its home video debut this week, with a DVD and Blu-Ray release. Another Earth is a quiet and moody independent drama about a young woman named Rhoda (Brit Marling) who accidentally kills a woman and a child in a drunken car wreck just as she's poised to go to college. When she's released from prison four years later, a mysterious planet appears in the sky that looks and behaves just like Earth. Over the course of the film, we learn that this other Earth also contains doubles of each of us. Rhoda desperately wants to flee to this other Earth to see if her parallel self is, perhaps, in a better place than she is. Rhoda also begins a dodgy relationship with the survivor of her accident, the now-embittered musician John (William Mapother), who doesn't know who she is.

Another Earth is soulful, moving and eerie, and was made with a surprisingly low budget. I sat down with the film's writer/director Mike Cahill recently to discuss the film's origins, how it relates to magical realism, and its extensive use of music.


CraveOnline: MY first question is pertinent. I just watched Another Earth’ the other day. It's a film about a young woman who has an emotional parallel with a newly discovered planet in the solar system. I was wondering if you had any plans to sue or to beat up Lars Von Trier for stealing your idea for his Melancholia.

Mike Cahill: [laughter] I couldn't actually believe when I heard he was making that film. But I've seen it recently now. I saw it in London a few weeks ago and I loved it. I mean, it's very different. I mean Lars Von Trier, I'm a huge fan of his; I love his work. But while he uses a planet as a metaphor for depression, we used a planet as a metaphor for another chance. Y'know, kinda darker than our movie. But it kind of blew my mind when I heard he was making that film. But no lawsuits. No lawsuits. Nothing but good vibes from me.


I really liked Another Earth.’ I was especially touched by your use of music. How much of the music did you have a personal hand in, and how much of it was delegated to music supervisors?

Oh, I was completely involved. The guys who made the music, who go by the name Fall on Your Sword, I met them through Tyler Brodie who executive produced the movie. He also runs a record company called DSA who have, like LCD Soundsystem and all these very, very cool bands. He was like “You should meet my friend!” They're two British cats who live in Brooklyn. They live right next to me, and their studio is right next to me. So we met up, and I brought them a locked picture – that's just like a picture with locks (?) – and they watched it, even though it had some temp music in it. But they watched it, they were moved by it, and they got on board. We talked about different sorts of sounds for John [played by William Mapother], we talked about sounds or melodies for Rhoda [played by Brit Marling] and a lot of, like, theoretical stuff. They're geniuses. I gave them a lot of freedom to go into the depths of their musical talent. They pulled out all these strange instruments, like a waterphone.


What's a waterphone?

It looks like a medieval weapon, actually. It's a big bubble with spikes coming out of it. It looks like a mini bong, kind of. And it make really ethereal, haunting sounds. Oh yeah! And there was the saw! [There is a scene in the movie where Mapother plays a musical saw.] I was in the subway in New York City, and I heard this woman playing the saw. I was so moved by it. I has this broken, ethereal, kind of dying vibe to it. And it also reminded me of old science fiction, like The Twilight Zone, that sound, that saw sound. I walked up to her and said “I love your music!” so she came from the subway up to our set, and trained William [Mapother] how to play the saw.  His character is a composer; I wanted him to play a unique instrument. So she trained him to play the saw. Even though he's from Kentucky, and everyone there already knows how to play the saw. But he didn't [laugh].


I was looking up your filmography, and I learned that you have previously done work on the Leonard Cohen documentary I'm Your Man,’ and you also made a film about The Police. I was wondering how much the film was informed by the music.

Well there was also a saw in the Leonard Cohen documentary! It was so touching. Leonard Cohen is such a genius. And a poet. I've always been obsessed with music in general. And for this movie I wanted to create something very specific. The aesthetic of the film is kind of a gritty, real-life vibe meeting a science-y poetry kind of thing. So I wanted the music to have that science-y, kind of electronic vibe. Y'know, colder. And then the warmth of this raw, human grittiness. What Fall on Your Sword did was make this electronic-sounding music using real instruments. They made their own samples and looped them. I mean, the opening track comes in powerfully, hitting you hard. And it's electronic, but it's still organic. And that kind of fit what I was trying to do with the aesthetic of the film. It worked really nicely. It complemented.


It was really fantastic.

You gotta get the soundtrack, man! I got one in my car. I play it real loud.


This is a really moody music. You've already mentioned the poetry of it. Were you interested in making a science fiction story using poetry, or was it more an approach of natural realism?

I was a little drawn to both. Y'know, it's kind of a hybrid. In between. I think of the metaphysical movies of Krzysztof Kieslowski, who makes these poetic movies that you could, y'know, sort of call science fiction. Like The Double Life of Veronique, or the Three Colors trilogy. They have this sort of ethereal poetry to it, and it's taking about something like this [giggling] in the science fiction spirit. But, y'know, really, really grounded in reality. I like that hybrid. I dunno. You don't see it that often. There is a bit of a trend in lo-fi sci-fi where one takes a very Hollywood high concept, like a concept you'd see being made of a hundred million dollars, and make it in sort of an indie outsider way. I love that. I love that mash-up. That combination of the two. The high concept, and the gritty, complex, independent mind. Where the choices are merely between good and evil, but a bit more complex. Like Rhoda. Her choices are kind of tricky. Should she lie to this guy? Her lying is bad, but she's also trying to improve his life, which is good. So all of a sudden we have some complexity there. When she makes love to him, well, all of a sudden you're having sex with the man whose wife you killed. That is so wrong on so many levels. But it's right on so many levels. In the bubbles they live in, it's beautiful. I like the kind of choices that you find more in independent drama. But then throw in the second Earth, and then let the imagination to run wild. I like that. I like that combo.


How did you go about casting Brit Marling? She was terrific. I got the sense that she was a friend of yours.

Heh. Yeah, she was a friend of mine. This was her first movie, actually. We've been friends for years. We went to Georgetown together. She was a freshman when I was a senior. We started making short films together, and video art pieces together. And we worked on a bunch of documentaries together. So I've known her as a creative collaborator for years, and she's one of my best friends in the world. And we were like [laughing] “Let's make this movie!” We had this certain concept that we wrote. And we said “Let's make this movie! We don't need any permission! No one has to say 'yes,' we won't have to present it to anyone and ask 'will you please give us three million dollars to make the film?' Y'know we have a nice camera, we can go back to my hometown where I grew up, and we can get all our locations for free. We'll have our friends act in it, I'll shoot it, direct it and edit it. And we'll have a movie!” And we kinda started to ragtag it with a crew of four. Her little sister, her, me, and my friend Liang. And we just started making the movie like that.

Somewhere near the beginning of the process, I went out one night to New York, like ten days after shooting, and met this guy Hunter Gray. MY friends said Hunter was a producer of movies. I was introduced to him: “Hey, this is Mike, he's making a movie; this weird science fiction thing,” and he said “What's that?,” and I told him, and… My attitude was a bold “Hey! We're making this movie!” It was kind of naïve now that I think about it. But I guess you need a little bit of self-obsession. And then he dug it, I met with his producing partners. And showed 'em stuff that I was already making. At the end of that meeting they were like “You guys want money?” And we're like [smug] “Suuuure!” And the rest, y'know, is us working together.


What was the first record you bought with your own money?

The first record? Oh my God. I listened to a lot of hip-hop when I was a kid. I guess the first CD I ever bought was Enter the 36 Chambers by The Wu-Tang Clan! [laugh] I can't believe it! I remember “Method Man” and all that stuff. And then Weezer. I think I bought them together. The Blue Album and Enter the 36 Chambers by The Wu-Tang Clan. I know they're totally different.