Brit Marling and Michael Pitt are tired of the usual cliches, in movies and in life, about scientists.
“There’s this idea that scientists are men and women in white lab coats with no sense of humor,” Pitt says.
“Not at all,” Marling insists. “They’re f—ing so funny.”
“People think they have no passion, that they can’t talk to you about music,” Pitt goes on.
“They have so much enthusiasm, just for the f—ing love of it,” Marling adds. “They just want to communicate their love of [science] to you, to get you to revel in that love too.”
In “I Origins” — which reunites Marling with Mike Cahill, the director of her breakthrough movie, “Another Earth” — both Marling and Pitt play molecular biologists researching the evolution of the eye. They make some shocking discoveries, one that may involve Pitt’s character’s dead ex-girlfriend (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).
As prep, Cahill took them to his brother’s friend’s lab at Johns Hopkins. “We went into the basement, with the Holocaust of mice that are down there,” recalls Marling. “It’s intense. You have to commit to days and days of really tedious, specific research and notation before you may one day come across something is the aberration of discovery.”
Marling and Pitt went on a little crash course. They would constantly read books on science. “We would pass things that we were reading onto each other. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, did you read this from [Richard] Dawkins? Did you read this part of ‘Origin of the Species?’ We just straight-up nerdy about this,” Marling remembers. “That was the fun part of doing this together.”
“Those people became my heroes,” Pitt says. “The type of research they were doing was for humanity. They could make serious money working for some pharmaceutical company. But they care about research and what they’re working on. They’re actually taking a huge pay cut to work in this lab where not everything working, some of the gear is outdated.”
Pitt even identified with them, in a sense. “They inspired me to continue what I’ve been trying to do, which is to make things I care about. That’s a crazy concept for some people,” he says. “I want to work with people like Mike [Cahill] in environments like this. That’s when I feel rich.”
There was so much that they shot for “I Origins” that Marling and Pitt claim they’re not even sure what’s in the final cut hitting theaters. They even reference a birth scene nowhere in the film. That was simply a product of Cahill’s loose, collaborative approach, where he’d allow his actors to disagree on certain parts.
“Onset you’re just playing every day,” says Marling. There’s a scene where they argue over whether Pitt’s character should go to India to look into what may be a major scientific discovery. “The early incarnations of that scene had her telling him not to go. But we realized that didn’t feel right. We were trying to tell a story about a partnership with equality. She shouldn’t say, ‘Don’t go.’ It should be the other way around.”
They would spend lots of time discussing and arguing about scenes, shooting it multiple ways. “And then someone else has to go figure that out in the editing room,” she says. “By the time someone watches the film it’s like hundreds of people’s mind and hands and imaginations have touched it and tried to refine this gem. That’s the charged part of storytelling.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge