The Another Earth actor and co-writer reflects on her whirlwind year and discusses the tantalising prospect of meeting her duplicate other.
Six years ago a career in the movies was a microscopic speck on Brit Marling’s life chart. In 2005 she graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in economics, only to turn down a job offer at an investment bank after deciding that she wanted to be an actress. She had her doubts – high school acting gigs hadn't gone smoothly – but decided to swap DC for LA with director Mike Cahill in the hope of finding a toehold in the film industry.
Skip forward to summer 2010 and Another Earth, Cahill and Marling's ace indie debut, was born. Since taking Sundance by storm back in January Marling's never looked back. She spoke to LWLies from Deauville, France in September about her stellar journey so far and why she's not about to let herself get sucked into the Hollywood machine.
LWLies: Are you in Paris?
Marling: No, actually Deauville for the film festival, we just screened the film last night.
Ah, we were trying to work out the French area code... How’d it go down?
Really well actually, the ending of the movie always has some effect on people. It’s like this tangible shock, this collective breath that the audience takes. But it’s interesting for a moment there’s this kind of stillness that you feel. It’s nice to see.
Have you noticed whether or not people’s reactions differ depending on where you are?
Yeah they do. I think, um, hmm... I’m trying to think of... For instance when we showed the film at Locarno I noticed in the Q&A afterwards that people seemed more comfortable, they didn’t find the ending ambiguous, whereas I think maybe the American audience has more questions and wants to understand more concretely what has happened. I think, um, perhaps the European audience is more comfortable living with complexity or living with questions. But, I don’t know, I haven’t seen it enough here yet to know for sure.
We had an immediate reaction to that end scene that ever since we’ve been questioning. That’s the thing that works best about it, it’s so ambiguous, and yet at the same time it’s only as ambiguous as you want it to be. If that makes sense?
Absolutely. Well, Mike and I don’t think of it as being ambiguous, at least from a writing perspective. We had a very concrete understanding, certainly from an acting and a directing perspective, we knew what we thought happened, but I guess what we’ve come to realise since travelling with the film is that there seems to be all kind of interpretations and we’ve been reluctant to say what we felt because... One of the things I like in films, in fact one of the reasons why I think I’m attracted to acting and to moviemaking, is the sense of... I don’t know... the way the audience puts themselves into the film. You’re putting your own life experiences and emotions into the characters and the film becomes like a vessel for grieving and for falling in love.
You feel all these things along with the story and the characters and you’re putting a lot of the emotions of your life – the unrequited love that you had or the father that you haven’t confronted or whatever it is – and certainly with this movie I think that if there’s something within you, questions of guilt or redemption, I think the movie draws that to the surface. And so I guess for that reason we’ve sort of never talked about our interpretation of the ending and have really left it open to the audience to decide, you know, who it is that that woman is at the end. I hope that that’s okay, I don’t know... I just think that maybe nailing things down and putting things in a concrete language takes away from the sense of mystery or expansiveness that the ending has in all that it suggests, which is somehow beyond us or unknowable. Does that make sense?
Sure. Well, that’s kind of the magic of the movie; you could take so many different things from it. Did you agree beforehand with Mike that you were going to keep your interpretation of the ending a secret?
No. We assumed that everyone would just think the things we thought, and then when they didn’t we suddenly thought that it wasn’t the right thing to share. I guess I hope that the important things do come across: the story’s really about this girl going on a journey attempting to confront herself and sort of... there’s something heroic about Rhoda; she’s quiet but she’s not passive and, um, there’s something rally bold in the way that she’s attempting to deal with something that’s almost impossible to deal with, which is this crime that she commits accidentally. I think that all of those things which are the meat of the story are very translatable and maybe the ending is... you know, Mike has said before, and I think it’s very true that Rhoda’s reaction shot is never shown...
[Laughs] Yeah. He said that he did that because he felt like it was all about the audience’s reaction there. It’s not about, you know, in the end that final reverse shot belongs to the audience. And so, it’s about their expression and the feeling of the them having approached this self-confrontation that’s far more important than whatever Rhoda may be feeling or thinking.
So when we first saw the film our immediate reaction was that the girl at the end in the long coat was Rhoda Two.
But then it’s like, why is she Rhoda Two, why isn’t she Rhoda One, you know?
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah! It’s funny because when they have that conversation on the bed and William [Mapother]’s character is like, ‘Well, do you really think they call themselves Earth Two?’ I guess it says a bit about the age of narcissism, the Faustian age we’re living in which is so me, me, me, me centric. Everything is from the individual’s point of view, and I think it’s funny that we have that dynamic. But of course we would think, as audience members, that the person we’ve been following all along is the first. According to cutting edge astrophysics there are many duplications of duplications and variations of this world and of every other, so I don’t know. I guess no one could ever really a number at all.
There’s a moment where Rhoda asks John what would be the first question he would ask if he met another version of himself. What would you say if you met Brit Marling Two?
Um... Wow. I mean if she didn’t look like me, if she dressed differently and carried herself differently and had a different look in her eye, I guess I would wanna know why. I mean, I think we’re all curious as to whether there’s some kind of destiny in all this or whether it’s all chaos, you know. Like, I would wonder if she was an actor and a writer, or whether she does something completely different, you know. Is she a lawyer? Is she a doctor? Mike and I were both plagued by the question and I guess everybody is.
Is it like, if there’s something that is supposed to happen to you, if there’s something that has worked out, if in your genetic code when you’re born – the way that that a seed contains the blueprint for the tree it becomes – contains a blueprint for who you are, fundamentally, and who you will be, or is it utterly random? I guess if I encountered myself I would want to know that. I would want to know if Brit One, Brit Two, Brit Three, Brit Four... if all paths, all roads lead to being an actor, or if there are many interpretations.
What’s the first thing you’d say to your other self?
I would ask her what moves her the most.
You studied economics before going into acting...
So maybe there’s a Brit Marling out there who continued down that path...
Maybe Brit Two runs a hedge fund. [Laughs] That would be very lucrative. This is a really good question. So, I don’t know what would have happened if I had continued on that path. I guess now I would wonder what kind of person I would be, the thing that I find the most attractive about acting is that you spend every day working on your imagination and your innocence and your vulnerability. It’s the opposite of what the rest of the world is telling you to do. No one in investment banking is saying, ‘work on your innocence, work on your vulnerability and you’ll be better and mergers and acquisitions.’ You know what I mean? So there’s something very attractive about he profession to me because I think it makes me a better person. Well, not ‘better’ necessarily, but I like myself better. I think acting has made me more empathetic. I listen better, I think I connect with people more genuinely.
That’s interesting because acting and the movie business is often seen as very false by its nature.
You know I can see how it ends up there, I can, because so much of the process of just doing press for this film a lot of the experience is about the surface; what you’re wearing, how you look... I can see how it becomes distracting, the presentation and the posturing of it all. At the end of the day, no matter how big the set becomes and how much money is behind it, my job is still to, in a moment between another actor and I, imagine circumstances, attempt to tell the truth and not be fake and not lie. And that never gets any easier, and I think the actors that really move me must work tremendously hard to get deeper into that real feeling, and not the cliché and what is borrowed. I mean, I think we live so much of our lives based on what we see in film and television, that’s why women have such a hard time in the world, because there aren’t many stories with strong female protagonists. The cinema tells us how to live our lives, and as an actor you’re always trying to find what’s genuine.
Does that drive you from a writing perspective, the urge to write more truthful parts for women?
You know, I guess the truth is that when I wanted to act the things that I could read for or go out for just hurt my heart to read, and the thought of going and to do them just overwhelmed me in a negative way. So many of the parts for young girls, you’re usually passive. Things are happening to you, but you’re never driving the action of the film; you’re often being tied up or, you know, held at gunpoint or raped and someone’s saving you. All of those positions are part of life, they don’t not happen, but I couldn’t figure out how I was going to wade through that swamp and still be the same person on the other side. Or not the same person, but I thought it might change me in a way I wouldn’t like.
So I thought if I’m going to be an actor it maybe useful to try to attempt to learn how to write. Also so that you just have a little bit more of a stake in what you do. Acting is such a strange profession; I couldn’t imagine what a piano player would feel if you told them they had to wait until you gave them the piano. It’s impossible. You’re dying to practice to get better at what you do but the opportunities are so rare and they’re so out of your control. So I think writing was a way to try to make sure I practiced what I wanted to do. And then also, like you say, to try to write more good parts for women, because there aren’t as many as there are talented women to portray them.
With the awareness that you had of what types of roles are available for women in film, what made you choose acting?
I’m going to try to answer you honestly... I think what happened is, I found myself... I felt a little bit like I had been following this thing that I was supposed to d. Sometimes if you’re good at something and you know how to do something well you can end up staying on that path for too long. Studying economics and then following that natural trajectory... at some point, honestly, I just felt my mortality. I really did. I am not for forever, you know, my lifetime is just like the universe shrugging her shoulders. It’s so brief, and what am I going to do? Next to its brevity you can have so much courage because it’s so fast. And acting terrified me from the times I had done plays in high school.
But then Mike and I met at Georgetown and began making shorts films – and Zal Batmanglij who directed Sound of my Voice would also make shorts film with us – and I was attracted to the way it scared me. It required something of me that I had known intimately in childhood and since abandoned, which is this terrific sense of imagination. I think it’s a good thing to spend the rest of your life developing your imagination, something about that seemed tremendously appealing. So I never really thought about any other aspect of it. It never occurred to me that there’d be dresses involved, and heels and red carpets. Honestly, I’m completely shocked at that part of it, it seems so contradictory. But it’s okay, it’s all in good fun, I guess.
When did Another Earth come to be?
Mike and I were both in LA and I wanted to act and Mike really wanted to direct. We were both unable to figure out how to rally figure out how to begin that and make our first work, so we decide to do something together. Mike, at the time, had made a video art piece of himself interviewing himself in split-screen. And we were watching that and at the same time we were listening to Dr [Richard] Berendzen, who’s this really wonderful astrophysicist, on tape, and something about the mixture of whatever was going on at that time led to this story.
It started as just Mike and I telling it to each other out loud, you know, I would talk for a bit and then he would talk. We were doing that for a long time; telling the story back and forth and writing character profiles and trying to just really entertain one another. And then we came up with the ending and at that point we were just running around his apartment screaming. You know, a movie is such an endeavour and it takes so much time, you really have to feel like you have something amazing to share and at the point we really felt like we did.
It’s a gamble, right, because you instill so much of yourself into the story and characters, but if it doesn’t go down well in the pitch or later at the box office that might be it for you, you know?
I think we feel really fortunate that the film’s been well received so far, but I think you never really know what you’ve made until other people tell you what it is. That first screening at Sundance, nobody had seen the film, it’s not like we were having test screenings, the film was so hand-made and then all of a sudden it’s playing in front of a thousand people. And the response was overwhelming, we could never have expected that. I talked with a few people audience members afterwards and they seemed genuinely moved, and I guess that’s why you make work like this. You feel something and you’re attempting to share that with someone you’ve never met before. When it works it makes you want to keep going and try to make another one and do better.
Do you feel like you’ve answered a lot of your own questions making this film, or has it brought up fresh questions?
That’s such a good question. Wow that’s a good question. Yeah, I guess we wrestle our own demons in the making and the acting and writing of these movies. I don’t know, I mean I think that there are things in Another Earth, themes and threads, that I would maybe be interested in ongoing. I like the idea of a female protagonist and figuring out what the female journey is because I don’t think we really know. I think most of our storytelling is derived from a style of mythology that is mostly written by men. So it’s hard to really know what the female story is, women haven’t been writing it for that long. That is appealing and interesting to me, to keep attempting to figure that out and watch other female writers and directors attempt to talk about that. I like science fiction in films, actually one of my favourites is the short, La Jetée...
The Chris Marker film, absolutely amazing. It’s just come out on DVD over here for the first time, we rewatched it recently.
Oh my gosh I love that movie. I just think it’s a transcendental work, you know, and with such simple means. It’s just still images and it’s black-and-white, there’s no effects. The guy’s just lying in a hammock, wearing a blindfold, and yet you totally surrender to the magic of the story, you rally believe that he’s time travelling. I love that, I love the ending and I think our perception is so limited. As human beings we really have no idea what is going on. We used to think that the world was flat and now we know it’s round but what will we think five decades from now?
Science-fiction is cool because whatever is fiction now could be fact later. Something about it opens up your point of view, gives things some breath. I love that ending where he’s watching himself die and in that moment it’s like he’s both mortal and immortal. He’s dying but he’s watching himself die, so he’s going to live forever in some way, in some infinite loop of life and death. That movie was able to articulate something that I’ve always felt but never quite been able to say. And I think that’s the job of a good movie.
It’s interesting that you mention La Jetée because we never looked for the comparison between that and Another Earth but we can see it now.
I’m so glad you know it! Not many people have seen it, it get blank looks whenever I bring it up. I’m so glad you feel the same way about it.
The whole science fiction versus science fact thing, is Another Earth based on your own predictions? How much of it is your own truth?
Well you know what’s crazy about that is we were writing this and it was all pretty intuitive and instinctual... I mean, neither Mike or I have an astrophysics background, we’ve read a lot about it and were certainly very curious, but, you know, it was just sort of coming from some guttural place. And then long after we’d written the script when we were well into the making of the film, someone sent us a New York Times book review of this book called 'Hidden Realities' by this guy called Allen Green, this astrophysicist, who was saying that this is actually possible. He says basically that from a mathematical perspective, just to make it really cut-and-dry, there are a finite number of particles in the universe, and that’s like a deck of cards, and if you shuffle that deck infinitely you’re bound to repeat the same particle order. So there are necessarily duplicate Earths and then duplicate Earths with one variation, two variations, and three variations...
And so we were reading that and in the book he describes it like, imagine you’re sitting on the couch and eating a sandwich and someone else in another dimension is doing the exact same thing, and then one of you gets up and goes to the kitchen and one of you gets up and leaves the house. Now what happens now these realities have diverged? When we read that after making the film it was a really dumbfounding thing. There are so many potential outcomes from the same essence, so many variations from the same DNA. I guess we were both really fascinated by that, even though the idea for the film came from an instinctual place initially. Maybe art and instinct going in one direction eventually approach what science and mathematics get to going in another direction. Maybe those two things meet in some sort of circle. I’m not sure.
We’re getting deep now.
Right?! But it’s like, if there are so many versions of us what does that means for our own lives? Are they really not that essential? Are we all just part of some divine experiment that we can’t understand? It’s weird. Existence is a strange thing.