Mike Cahill's new movie I Origins, out tomorrow, is about a molecular biologist studying the evolution of the human eye. And Cahill tells io9 he was absolutely determined to get the science right — not just having scientific advisers, but giving them headphones and planting them in front of monitors on set.
We were lucky enough to speak to Cahill on the phone for a one-on-one interview last week, and he took us inside I Origins' themes of science and spirituality — and told us about the post-credits scene you might want to stick around for. Some spoilers for I Origins below.
Probably our favorite aspect of the film was the way that the two scientist characters talk to each other, and the way it portrays life in the lab. How did you work on getting that right? Did you involve scientists in the process?
Mike Cahill: Yeah, big time. From my last movie Another Earth — which was not scientific at all, which was more poetic license running wild — I wanted to get it right this time. It was really important to me to make that which goes on in the laboratory authentic and also to capture the spirit of real scientists, because scientists are so badly misrepresented in films. They're so cliché, and they're often portrayed as lab-coat-stale, like no sense of humor, etc.
And that's just not the case. Scientists are deeply romantic, poetic, funny. Great sense of humors. My two older brothers are both molecular biologists in neuroscience, and they're the most extraordinary ordinary people I know. They're like, you have beers with them. They're funny. They're passionate about music and life. And getting that right, that spirit right, in addition to the jargon and the banter and what it's like to be a twenty-something PhD student who's bent on discovering and making a name for themselves, I wanted to see that. I wanted to revel in that. Because I think that's awesome.
So did you show it to your brothers? What did they think of the film?
Yeah, yeah, they saw it! They said it accurately captures it. They loved it. I mean, they were involved. One of my brothers was on set with us the whole time, like, making sure we didn't fuck anything up. Those weren't the only scientific advisers. We worked with iris biometric advisers from EyeLock, this great guy named Jeff Carter. We worked with scientists at Rockefeller University.
Scientists were with us the entire process of making the film. If ever a scientist were on set, I would throw headphones on them, and have them planted at the monitor, and just be like, "Are we legit? Are we legit? How can we change this dialogue? What can we do to make this more authentic? What's not reading as right?"
And there were like little things. You know, the scientists would say so many funny things. One guy was like, "You know, in movies they always hold the DNA up to the light, and they look at it, and it's like this moment." He's like, "I hate when they do that!" And then we were watching him do the DNA thing, and he didn't have really good vision, so he held it up to the light, and we were like, "Phil, you're doing what you said they don't do in movies." And he's like "Oh. Yeah. Well, don't put that in the movie, please."
So, yeah, it was really important to engage with the scientists who get it right, for me. In a way, all those experiments are legit experiments. The colorblind mice — modifying them to see color — is an experiment they did at Johns Hopkins.
Is that also true of the worm experiment, where you modify the blind worms to have vision?
The worm experiment is a real-life experiment. There's papers on it. They sort of attached light-sensitive cells to the olfactory neurotransmitters. And not only could they make worms see light, they can determine whether worms liked light or disliked light, and they made a group of worms like light, and a group of worms dislike light.
That's almost like seeing.
Yeah it's not seeing in the sense we understand seeing. It's not, like, in focus and objects, it's just lightness or darkness. But that's sort of like the simplest of eyes that exists in nature, just light-sensitive cells.
And the whole [notion that something as complex as the eye could have evolved, rather than being created by intelligent design] — the concept was something that Richard Dawkins, who's very inspirational to the movie, proposed in the eighties. There's a video, a wonderful video, where he talks about the different processes of different stages of eye evolution. And nowadays it's actually possible to genetically make those stages, and so that's kind of what Ian was after.
So that notion of proving that the eye could have evolved, rather than being intelligently designed, is key to the movie's theme of science versus spirituality. What interested you about exploring the conflict between the two?
Well, I'm interested [in it.] Since the dawn of the scientific revolution, those two have been battling it out, and have been the cause of great debate, and wars and deaths. And ever since Galileo pointed his telescope up at the sky we've had some problems, reconciling scientific narratives with religious narratives. And even today, with debates about what should be taught in school, that question of what is scientific domain, what is spiritual domain has really been fiery.
And I wanted to make a movie that in some ways reconciled the two, or suggested that that they could be very comfy bedfellows, in the sense that science and scientific method is the domain of the physical world, that which is quantifiable, that's perceivable by our senses or enhanced senses such as gamma rays or infrared. And the spiritual is the metaphysical.
It's sort of captured in the scene where Sophie talks about modifying worms that have two senses to have a third, to have vision. Which [as we mentioned already is a real experiment that has been done.]
The idea of, like, worms with two senses having a third, by that logic it follows that humans with five senses, five senses are not the limit and there could be realms that are completely imperceptible to us like light on worms, and therefore that metaphysical is the realm of the spiritual, and it may poke its head into our physical realm here and there, and we can try and construct narratives however we do that as humans, but at least they don't have to be at war. They're on two different domains.
Do you think we could possibly have stories about science where that doesn't even come up? Do think we could have more stories where that isn't even an issue?
I mean, I think so. Certain people profit from that debate existing, I guess. But I think it makes perfect sense that they're on different levels. There's a great book called Flatland by Edwin Abbot, that I was inspired by. It's about the two-dimensional line that falls in love with…or meets a three-dimensional sphere and yet, and they meet on a plane, and the line's perception of the sphere is just of another line that grows and shortens and gets longer as the sphere goes up and down on the plane and that sphere can depart from the plane and land on another part of the plane. And to the line's perception, or from the line's point of view it appears as if that sphere has teleported.
And you extrapolate that, okay, we're in three dimensions and this is how we can start to process the fourth dimension. And those kind of things are provocative for the mind experiments. I don't doubt that they have real practical relevance to the way we live. Like we are living a version of perception. And what we do is create narratives to be comfortable with that version of our perception.
Meanwhile, the theme of eyes and identity, does that just come from the notion that people use a retina as a unique identifier and so it's just something that's unique about every person? Where did you originally get into that idea from?
First of all, it's not the retina, it's the iris. They do retina scans, too, but the iris is the color part. Iris scanning is not uncommon. It's not super-popular, but it's existed since 1987, and it goes around the world. You can go through it faster at the airport, and get your iris scanned. The interesting thing is that it is unique to every person. Even identical twins have different iris patterns. And no two people have the same iris pattern. It's a really effective way to ID a person. It forms when you're in your mother's womb. It stays the same your entire life. The eye is the only part of the body that does not grow or change, the iris. And you can't scuff it up, because it's an internal organ that's visible from the outside. Unlike a fingerprint you can't mess it up, and you always have it with you.
And as babies or toddlers, we instinctively know to look into another person's eyes as their source of identity. We know that their being is somewhere there, as opposed to their mouth, or their hair, or their legs, or whatever. So all of that was instructive in terms of inspiring the movie. In terms of trying to create a new narrative. That makes us feel kind of peaceful about these things. The existential things, like death. Like, here's a narrative that makes us feel diminished fear of death, which is what religion is doing, also.
A lot of people would portray widespread iris-scanning and logging as being kind of dystopian because it's pervasive surveillance, and people tracking our every move through these unique identifiers. Did you consider highlighting the dystopian side of that more? Because it's actually portrayed as being mostly a good thing in the movie.
I mean, it has been represented in that way. Minority Report certainly captures a certain thing with iris scanning technology that exists. That stuff, the way that you can scan an eye from across the room, in Minority Report, that exists today. And I've seen it work. It's so crazy and powerful. But for our purposes it wasn't about the dystopic, 1984, Orwellian, Big Brother-esque thing. We're exploring something different. I mean, it could have those kind of ramifications, especially in a sequel, you know, and if you stayed post-credits there's a little teaser that alludes to that, about the world about to get darker.
Why did you want to include a post-credits scene that points to a larger storyline?
Because there's a sequel in the works. It's not scripted. We're not in production yet, but we set up at Fox Searchlight.