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Mike Cahill & Michael Pitt draw us in with I Origins

Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges-Frisbey in Mike Cahill's I Origins
Michael Pitt and Astrid Berges-Frisbey in Mike Cahill's I Origins
Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

We were first introduced to the beautiful storytelling of director Mike Cahill via 2011’s Sundance success story Another Earth. A film that managed to be part drama, part science fiction and part fantasy, it tugged our heartstrings, endeared us to its characters, and ultimately hinted at what we might have to look forward to from this new filmmaker.

I Origins will be released in Toronto tomorrow, and this second offering from Cahill certainly does not disappoint. Starring Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire, Seven Psychopaths), Brit Marling (Another Earth, The East) and Astrid Berges-Frisbey (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Angels of Sex), the film tells the story of Dr. Ian Gray (Pitt), a molecular biologist out to disprove the existence of God through his study of the eye. His life is turned upside down when he meets and falls for the mysterious Sofi (Berges-Frisbey), a woman who challenges everything his scientific mind stands for. Events both in the lab and at home force him to reexamine his beliefs and Cahill uses Gray’s story to put a haunting spin on the age-old dilemma of science versus faith.

Mike Cahill and Michael Pitt were both in Toronto recently to talk about the film – the story, its characters and its…well, origins.

“The ideas and the concepts in the film had been sort of mulling around in my mind for many, many, years,” says Cahill. “It wasn't until I had this wonderful, fortuitous general meeting with Michael (Pitt) in Brooklyn that it all became concrete. We just came together, artist-to-artist, to chat, really. It was in the meeting that I was like, ‘Oh, I got this one idea’, and told him about (it). It was really his encouragement, interest, that set on fire my desire to turn it into something. It was after that meeting that I wrote the script with the optimism and excitement that, maybe, I would be able to work with who I think is one of the greatest actors of our generation.”

For his part, Pitt is just as much a fan of Cahill.

“I don't see people making the types of films that he's making, especially in sci-fi,” he says. “I do look at it as a science fiction film. I think it's many things – I think it's a thriller, I think it's a love story.

“The sci-fi genre has become about special effects, and millions and millions of dollars. I think that what really interested me when I saw Another Earth was that it was a very complex thing that he was attempting to do – and succeeding in doing – without the bells and the whistles. That speaks to someone's talent.”

Most recently seen drinking the tears of children in NBC’s Hannibal, Pitt is known for his somewhat off-the-wall characters. But he seemed to find just as much enjoyment delving into the role of Ian as someone like Mason Verger.

“Generally when I'm picking my movies or TV roles, most of the time I'm looking for what hasn't been done, and something that would be surprising,” he says. “What I really do hope is that I inspire people to take risks, and to do things that push the envelope…to be secure making those decisions and be secure in doing things that are different. Maybe the hardest thing in the world to do is to do things that most people aren't doing. Some of the greatest people, greatest scientists, greatest artists, greatest politicians are the people that do exactly that.”

Cahill and Pitt clearly enjoyed an excellent working relationship whereby the director had enough trust in his lead actor to allow him to develop his own character.

“Ron Howard actually said something in an interview that stuck out to me, maybe before I really understood what it meant. He said that some of the best actors are writers to the core. They might never put a pen to the paper, or ever touch a typewriter, but innately, they are writers. You are writing your story. In fact, you can really make that character three-dimensional. If you're doing that, then the whole thing is just going to be a greater experience. Directors that see that, and aren't intimidated by that, are usually more secure in their talents in my experiences. Mike sees that. Mike wants that from his actors.”

And Mike got it with Pitt.

“That ability to create a character from scratch, from a few different words on a page, and turn it into something that is real is one of the greatest privileges to witness, and to be able to capture, and put in a film,” says Cahill.

Cahill’s films are not pushy or overbearing. They don’t ram theories down your throat, but rather present a hypothesis and let their audience do the thinking and interpretation. So how does that go over in his type of industry?

“Well, I've been fortunate now that this is my second film that Fox Searchlight's releasing,” he says. “I think, as a studio, they're really supportive of artists. The films are not very expensive and they're very supportive of pursuing art for art's sake. They really celebrate filmmakers and it's great. We made this as an independent film.

“I haven't felt the sort of pressures to make (a message) obvious,” he continues. “To not give the answer is more akin to the authentic experience we have as humans. It would be a lie if at the end of the film we were to say, ‘Alright, everybody, this is the truth. Ready? Get out your pens...’ This more captures the human endeavour in the pursuit of the answers to the questions.”

I Origins will be released in Toronto July 25 and will run at Cineplex Odeon Varsity and VIP Cinemas. It is rated 14A for sexual content and coarse language.