Secrets of Another Earth, the Science Fiction Movie that Rocked Sundance

Chances are, you've been hearing about Another Earth for months. It's the science fiction film with the tiny budget that wowed Sundance and won the Sloane Award. It's the introspective movie with a huge concept. It's a triumph of storytelling over razzle-dazzle.

And now it's finally here. Another Earth hits theaters in New York and L.A. this Friday, and expands to more cities a week later. But what's it all about, and why does it need to be science fiction? We were lucky enough to sit down with the movie's director and star, one-on-one, to find out all the secrets of Another Earth.

Minor spoilers ahead...

Secrets of Another Earth, the Science Fiction Movie that Rocked SundanceS

In Another Earth, a new planet appears in our skies, and eventually it becomes clear that this is a duplicate of our own world — possibly with copies of all of us on it. Rhoda Williams, a young woman who killed a mother and child in a drunk driving accident, dreams of going to this other Earth and meeting another version of herself. Meanwhile, she befriends the husband of the woman she killed, by pretending to be there to clean his house.

It's simultaneously a huge concept, and a very small story. So how did this film come about?

Another Earth was very much a DIY project on the part of Brit Marling and Mike Cahill. They started out with a single image, which wound up being the very end of the movie, and then worked their way backwards into a film about a second Earth appearing in our skies.

Marling and Cahill wrote the screenplay together, with Marling as the film's star and Cahill as the director. They were determined to do the film without any outside financing, because they didn't want to have to answer to financial backers. They wanted to be able to make the movie "without asking for permission" to make artistic choices, says Cahill.

Secrets of Another Earth, the Science Fiction Movie that Rocked SundanceS

The movie's budget was so low, Marling had to touch up the makeup for her costar, Lost's William Mapother, herself, in between takes. And a crucial question was whether they could afford to pull off the movie's one big special effect: the vision of a second Earth hovering in the sky. Cahill says he created it himself, using basic motion tracking and CG compositing.

Why does it have to be science fiction?

Most of the movie's story could happen without there being another planet in the sky — you could tell the story of a girl who has a traffic accident and befriends the other survivor, without a science fiction element. But Cahill says that the other Earth is essential for a couple of reasons:

Secrets of Another Earth, the Science Fiction Movie that Rocked SundanceS

1) It's a metaphor for Rhoda's internal state. The other Earth is "kind of this externalization of the interior world of Rhoda," says Cahill. "She can deal with those ideas of the confrontation of the self just by looking in the mirror, but I felt like there was something very powerful about really externalizing it," by creating a situation where there really is another version of all of us.

The other Earth gets closer and closer as the movie goes on, and at the same time the "macro story" of the other Earth becomes more and more important to the film's plot. This is mimicking the way in which Rhoda's story gets bigger and bigger. The movie builds "brick to brick to brick" to achieve the final moment, and the science fiction element is part of that. The movie might work as a straight-up drama without this other Earth, but it would lack the "sense of wonder, and the externalization of the concept," says Cahill.

And the image of the other Earth provokes a primal reaction in people, says Marling. "We all feel something about looking back at the Earth." She feels strongly that spectacle should always have an emotional context — stuff blowing up for its own sake isn't that interesting. "It's a lot cooler when things are blowing up, and they have a lot of emotional impact." The reason this movie is the way it is isn't just the limited budget, but the desire to tell a personal story.

2) The other Earth literally allows the possibility of meeting yourself. Cahill sees the science fiction conceit in the film as a way of exploring "the inner world of who we are, and what it means to be human." Rhoda's desire to become an astronaut and explore this other Earth is a metaphor for exploring your own inner self.

"I love high concepts for their ability to let the imagination run wild," Cahill says. Everybody in the audience can think about what it would be like to meet yourself. The film asks, "What if you could look at yourself objectively, and what emotions would occur because of that?" And in this movie, it becomes a metaphor for forgiving yourself for your mistakes.

Dopplegangers can be our friends

Secrets of Another Earth, the Science Fiction Movie that Rocked SundanceS

Another Earth deliberately turns the usual idea of doppelgangers on its head. Says Cahill:

The doppelganger was introduced into culture with Goethe, I think, and the idea was it was a bad omen if you were to see your doppelganger. For me, I pushed completely the opposite [idea]. I think we, as humans, have this despearate yearning to connect, and we are so alone, no matter how many people we know, our close friends or whatever, we are ultimately alone. And I think there's a yearning to not be alone. And so to confront someone who has your shared history and all your secrets... I think there would be the greatest amount of empathy.

Rhoda needs forgiveness, and she needs to "let herself off the hook," says Cahill.

In pop culture, when you meet your doppelganger, "you see each other, and then one of them has to die, and so it turns into an action adventure movie in which one of them has to kill the other," says Marling. Another Earth "was never going to be a movie about an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers-style" confrontation, she adds.

Marling says the time we're living in is so alienating and lonely. "We're so connected by emails and skype and text, we're more connected than ever before, "but at the same time, there's something lonely about it." All of us carry secrets that we don't share with anyone, because we're "afraid of being judged, or not loved." And Rhoda has a huge secret, and the only person she could ever really share it with is herself.

What's the scientific explanation of this other Earth?

One of the things that bugged me about Another Earth is the fact that there are talking heads on television discussing this newly arrived planet, but very little information on how it got here and how it's traveling.

Secrets of Another Earth, the Science Fiction Movie that Rocked SundanceS

Cahill says that the screenplay included reams of information about the science, and he interviewed a ton of scientists including astrophysicist Richard Berenson, to make sure it was accurate. But in the end, "it felt a little expositional. It felt like a science lesson." The true purpose of the other world is to be a "poetic metaphor," and so a lengthy explanation of it seemed superfluous.

So what is the explanation of this other Earth showing up? Basically, it's the multiverse, and the idea that string theory suggests there are infinite other universes in which every outcome that could have happened has happened. Says Cahill:

We took that notion, and we bent it a little bit, but the idea would be that another version of our [Earth] somehow went through a wormhole and somehow ended up on the opposite side of our sun. And that's called superior conjunction. We don't know, we don't have good photographic evidence, of what lies behind our sun... We took that notion that the multiverse somehow jacked into our world — they collided — which takes a leap of faith, that's not scientifically probable. And it ended up behind our sun.

Secrets of Another Earth, the Science Fiction Movie that Rocked SundanceS

The alignment of the planets, which is coming up soon, shifts the other Earth's orbit slightly, by about 15 degrees, "and now it's visible in the night sky as a tiny blue dot," says Cahill. "And as the years progress, their orbit is such that it's not overlapping to ours, it's actually at an angle to ours. It moves closer to ours, but without the threat of collision. I'm a geek, I love that stuff, so I explained it to everyone on set, it's in the script [and] I shot a bunch of stuff explaining," but in the end, that part had to go.

The first cut of the movie was two hours and 40 minutes, and the scientific discussions lacked the emotional intensity of the rest of the film. But all that stuff will be on the DVD, Cahill promises.

So why doesn't the other Earth affect our tides and stuff?

"It would have been cool to have a shot where the water gets sucked out" of the ocean, says Cahill. Or some other natural disasters resulting from the other Earth coming too close. But "this movie was made at a microbudget, and as a director you have to make choices first and foremost for the authenticity."

He did try to address the gravitational effects of the other Earth, though. Says Cahill:

We had a major scene where that is displayed and we shot it, but because we had such a modest budget, it looked a little bit hokey and took me out of the scene... the particular thing we shot is she was by the water, and she's walking by these cherry blossoms, and the other Earth is very close, so much so that the gravitational pull starts to shift and these cherry blossoms begin to hover in the air. And it was supposed to reflect her interior world — this levity she was feeling, this lightness in her step. It took about six hours to set up, tying all these little blossoms to fishing string. And it looked so cheesy that I was like, 'Okay, let's just trust our audience to suture these things together.'"

Having a moment like that which fails to work "takes all your attention away," says Cahill, "and hopefully at this point the audience and filmmakers are having a dialogue of trust."

Bringing an emotional intensity to the story

Marling co-wrote the movie's script and then went on to play the main character, so she had a double investment in the emotions and the characters. When she was working on the screenplay, she says she drew on her experience as an actor, "slipping out of yourself and slipping into someone else." So while she was writing Rhoda, the protagonist, she was already falling into Rhoda's point of view. But the same was true when she was writing the other main character, John.

Secrets of Another Earth, the Science Fiction Movie that Rocked SundanceS

As an actor, "it's important not to judge your character," says Marling. "You're always inside the story and you know you are acting in certain ways, and you look for the feelings behind those actions."

According to Cahill, a big part of bringing the emotional intensity to this movie was having a lot of time to rehearse, so the scenes were really solid, almost like a stage play, by the time they shot. And the casting of William Mapother was crucial to the film's intensity — as anyone who's watched Lost knows, Mapother can be a scary man. "I chose William after seeing many actors," says Cahill. "What I loved about William is, he had an intensity and an intimidating energy on screen."

As a man who's lost everything in a car accident, John is a dark, wounded character, and Mapother "gives off a pretty scary vibe, and a gravitas and an instability, like you're really not sure if he will snap or not," says Cahill. "And yet, underneath that, he had such a warmth and such a heartbeat that was so beautiful. We talked about this in great detail: he was attracted to the character because it started in a place where he was familiar, and it kind of goes from darkness to light." And yet, because of Mapother's intense energy, even when his character is lightening up, it's still "fraught with tension."

"It's amazing when you're in a scene with an actor who is so in the story that you're pulled in with him, and I always felt that with William," says Marling. "There are moments where you, as Rhoda, are so overwhelmed by him, and you don't know what he could do. At any moment, he might snap, and who knows what he might be capable of."

Besides Mapother's intense performance and Marling's own wounded soulfulness, another source of the movie's emotional intensity is the character of Purdeep, who works with Rhoda as a high school janitor — until he does something incredibly shocking. Purdeep is "sort of the only other person in the film whom Rhoda can connect with," says Marling. Both characters have had traumatic experiences that "have made them outsiders." They both need to learn to accept and forgive themselves, and "Purdeep is someone who has the hardest time doing that."

Going to work at a high school as a janitor, Rhoda becomes a kind of alien. "She comes back to this place that should be so familiar, and she hasn't been gone that long. But it's such an alien landscape," says Marling. Rhoda is surrounded by high school students who ignore her because she's just the janitor, and she's struck by their "naievete and innocence," while she's been through this insane, life-changing experience. So she might as well be on another planet.

What's next for the film-makers?

Cahill has already written a script for another movie, this time about the concept of reincarnation, and Marling has already agreed to play a lead role in it. "I'm so hungry to work and create the things that I so desperately want to get out," he says. "It's a human drama embedded in a larger reality," much like Another Earth. "It has a high concept, and yet a human drama" at the center of it.

"It's exciting, it's so thrilling," says Cahill. "So many wonderful opportunities have arisen since Sundance. It's like a dream come true. This is what I've dreamed of doing since I was a kid."