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I, ORIGINS

About The Production
Writer and director Mike Cahill calls his second feature film, I ORIGINS, both a molecular-biology thriller and a love story.

"For generations, the eyes have been called the windows to the soul," explains Cahill. "Think about it," he says. "We each possess these magnificent artworks on the front of our face. They are all beautiful, if you look very closely at them. In 1987 a professor at Cambridge University named John Daugman gave that poetic belief a basis in science when he discovered that each human being has a unique and measurable iris pattern, not unlike a fingerprint."

From a scientific point of view, the eye is an intricate, complex machine. Says Cahill: "It has an iris, a pupil, a retina, an optic nerve, sclera and various muscles. Each has specialized functions and work together seamlessly."

Like Cahill's first film, 2011 Sundance Film Festival winner ANOTHER EARTH, I ORIGINS is a personal and unconventional exploration of the mysteries of the scientific world. To Cahill, scientists are important role models for filmmakers. "They spend their lives asking the big questions," he explains. "Why are we here? What are we made of? They explore the minutest levels of matter and they look at the biggest things, like the universe. I wish I were a scientist, but I'm a filmmaker, so I make films about scientists."

I ORIGINS' protagonist, Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt), is a molecular biologist who studies the evolution of the eye. Cahill says Gray's character is based very loosely on Richard Dawkins, the famed evolutionary biologist and atheist. "Ian is a researcher whose work leads him to question his beliefs on science and spirituality. When we first meet him, he believes in proof; he believes in data. Spirituality is guided by faith, which is the belief in something without evidence."

At a late-night party, Ian meets a mysterious masked woman with magnificent eyes, but after their brief encounter, she disappears before he can get her name. A little detective work and a series of extraordinary coincidences lead Ian back to the young woman, whose name, he discovers, is Sofi.

"The way he finds her has everything to do with her eyes," says Cahill. "It feels magical when it happens, but it involves both science and intuition. Sofi turns out to be totally different from Ian. She's a wild child, a free spirit. But opposites attract and they have an intense romance."

Since Daugman's early groundbreaking work at Cambridge, iris-recognition systems have been developed that can photograph the human eye and generate a unique 12-digit code to describe them. Once a far-fetched element in science fiction films like MINORITY REPORT, the technology is now a reality used in airports and passport facilities, by the military, and even by private corporations including Google.

"When you travel through Heathrow Airport, you can now go through the fast lane if you've had your eye scanned," says Cahill. "In some hospitals, they scan newborn babies' eyes. It's like a fingerprint, but you don't have to touch ink. Everyone has his or her own unique iris. In the film, we've taken iris-recognition a step further, which I think is pretty compelling."

The eye's complexity has sparked an impassioned debate between people with a scientific bent and those who rely more on religious faith. Richard Behe, a prominent biochemist and creationist, has argued that the eye is irreducibly complex. It is too specific in its structure to be explained by evolution and therefore is proof of intelligent design-and the existence of God. Others, including Dawkins, have proposed that a fully functioning human eye could have evolved from light sensitive cells through mutations over centuries.

"The character of Ian is trying to demonstrate real, practical examples of each stage of the eye's evolution," Cahill says. "If he can, he will have made an unprecedented discovery that he hopes will settle the argument."

I ORIGINS reteams the director with producer Hunter Gray, who produced ANOTHER EARTH along with Cahill and Marling. "This script was something Mike had been talking about for a long time," says Gray. "It's an amazing story of discovery, science and faith.

In most science fiction, there is one facet that takes a leap of faith for the audience. Mike's greatest ability is to make people wonder if there is a leap of faith, or if the world he has created is real. Once he has people hooked, his own excitement takes over and everyone becomes a believer. Throughout the filmmaking process, from pre-production to post, everyone who touched this film put their hearts into it because Mike's energy is infectious."

Producer Alex Orlovsky, Gray's partner in production company Verisimilitude, adds: "Mike has a very special gift. He takes lofty ideas and explores them through compelling, intimate human stories. The phrase 'a clear vision' is thrown around quite a bit in the film world, but I think that Mike embodies those words."

According to Orlovsky, at that point the filmmakers planned to make an ultra-low-budget movie, not unlike ANOTHER EARTH. "But as our treatment grew into a full-length screenplay, the characters gained depth and gravitas," he says. "It evolved from a micro-budget project into an appropriately ambitious second film for Mike."

"My process is to get together with the actors and read the script through," Cahill continues. "I record that and listen to it over and over to see what feels right. Then I focus in on scenes that feel false and we work on them in rehearsal."

The director points to a crucial scene early in the film in which Ian re-encounters Sofi on a train. "As I initially scripted it, there was all this dialogue. It became very clear that filming it on a real train was going to be very difficult because of the ambient noise. But working with the actors, I realized it was all subtext anyway. They didn't have to say anything. It was all, appropriately enough, in their eyes. We stripped the whole scene of words and let it play out silently."

Cahill, who produced, directed, edited and wrote ANOTHER EARTH (as well as being the cinematographer), takes on these four roles again in I ORGINS but he gives credit to producers Gray and Orlovsky for making the film possible. "Hunter and Alex are the world's best producers. To say they are passionate about the project is an understatement. They are intelligent, tireless and creatively engaged. Both of them care as much as I do about the final work and that is saying a lot. I trust them completely and I know that finding this partnership early in my career is a great fortune. They consistently make my work better."

In I ORIGINS, Cahill examines the ultimate question. "What happens after we die? That is at the heart of the film. Our main character believes in facts and data and evidence. The last thing in the world that he believes is that there is an actual soul. But he and lab partner Karen (Brit Marling) discover something that changes that."

"The movie is both a drama and a science-fiction film, but ultimately it's about love and the infinite nature of love," says Cahill. "I think audiences will take what they wish for or need from the film, but I also want the film to inspire hope and wonder. I often think that the deeper and more precisely we explore the world through science, the closer we will come to what could be understood as a spiritual narrative of life, and I hope that both sides of this are well represented in the film. I want it to inspire conversation."

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