Before he was a filmmaker, Mike Cahill was an economics student. But before that he was studying biology. He got into med school at Georgetown, but stopped soon into his freshman year.
“My professor convinced me to stop,” Cahill recalls. He remembers bothering the big class with basic questions about electrons and other things he couldn’t get past. “I kept bringing this stuff up, to the point where the professor asked to see me after class. He said, ‘I don’t know if you can do 14 years of this if you can’t get past the first week’s lesson.’ He was very polite about it.”
Cahill switched majors but wound up making films. But these films have mostly been about science. His breakthrough was 2011’s “Another Earth,” in which a drama played out while an alternate dimension of our planet materialized near our orbit. His follow-up is “I Origins,” which hunkers down with molecular biologists (“Earth”’s Brit Marling and Michael Pitt) whose research into the human eye produces fantastical results.
For Cahill, it’s a chance to right some wrongs about scientists. “I thought scientists had not been accurately portrayed,” says Cahill, whose older brother is a molecular biologist. “Scientists are three-dimensional people who have sex and go out to bars and have fun and are interesting, poetic, passionate people who just happen to be obsessed with discovery. I think they’re the most fascinating people in the world.”
He’s loved scientists since he was young. “The sum total of all human knowledge, everything we know, is expanding every day. And that’s because of the force that is scientific discovery,” he says. “In the Middle Ages, how much we know contracted, unfortunately. But it expanded again, and that’s because of scientists.”
For this film Cahill found himself intrigued by the science of the eye. “Everyone’s iris is unique. Even identical twins have different eyes. Your eyes are an internal organ visible from the outside,” he explains. Cahill says he’s been following technology, first proposed in 1987 that could possibly replace identifying people with fingerprints with using the eye. “It’s more powerful than a fingerprint in terms of unique identifiers.”
The discoveries in the second half of “I Origins” take it more towards a supernatural or spiritual realm. When the theory is pitched to him that the film can still be read as resolutely scientific, he says, “I’m glad you said that. It’s not like spirituality has won over scientists at all. They just become nice little bedfellows. Science and spirituality live on two sides of a battlefield. Even today what can be taught in schools is still debated. But I don’t think they have to be in opposition.”
“I Origins” also reunites him with Marling, who only cowrote (with him) and starred in “Another Earth.” He wrote the part of Karen for her. “It’s what you want out of creative collaborations,” he says of their teamwork. “I hope it lasts forever. We’re part of the same tribe. And now Michael [Pitt] is part of that too. I always want to make movies with them.”
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