It's the rare filmmaker who drops Schrodinger's Cat into everyday conversation. But Mike Cahill, the director and co-writer of the new science-fiction movie "Another Earth," has an affinity for the obscure.
Walking the halls of Griffith Observatory on a recent weekday evening, he enthusiastically cited the scientific paradox — a riddle of sorts related to quantum mechanics — to explain a theme in his movie. Then, upon catching sight of one exhibit, he slapped his hands to his face with giddy delight.
"I can't believe it!" he exclaimed, running over to the exhibit about superior conjunction, an astronomical principle that explains how two proximate planets orbit each other while separated by a sun. He then launched into an impromptu demonstration, asking several people to stand in for the planets. "This is totally the movie."
That movie, which opens this weekend in Los Angeles after a, well, stellar run at the Sundance and Los Angeles Film Festivals, is an intimate human drama with a cosmic overlay. The gifted teen Rhoda (played by Brit Marling, who co-wrote the script) is bound for MIT when, driving one night, she is distracted by the sight of a newly discovered parallel planet called Earth 2. She slams into another car, killing a man's wife and his two young children.
After four years in jail, Rhoda returns to her hometown, guilt-ridden and with few prospects. Seeking redemption, she strikes up a relationship with the widower (William Mapother), who doesn't realize her connection to his tragedy. Their relationship unfolds against the backdrop of Earth 2, where scientists have discovered that every human has a doppelganger, a development that suggests an alternate life for Rhoda.
Cahill, 32, who exudes the curiosity of a graduate student and the effervescence of an 11-year-old at a Harry Potter convention, has come to the observatory with Marling. It's a bookend experience of sorts: Before shooting their movie, the pair visited the observatory in search of inspiration amid the displays of stars and planets. They also raided the gift shop for props: A replica of an astronaut's orange jumpsuit, for instance, became a key costume element.
As they reach the gift shop, Marling gets excited. "This is totally the cube we used in the movie," she said, picking up a foldable object that shows different planets. Then her voice falls. "It was such a significant thing in my [character's] childhood. It's sad to see that it's just mass-produced." Undeterred, Cahill scoops up a few cubes and insists on buying one for everybody.
Cahill and Marling's career arc is the kind that doesn't happen much in the independent film world anymore. After meeting at Georgetown University nearly a decade ago, the duo (who once dated) worked on a documentary in Cuba before teaming up to make "Another Earth." They finessed the movie into existence with few Hollywood connections or dollars — using, for instance, Cahill's mother's house in Connecticut as a makeshift set. (The film was produced for under $500,000.)
At Sundance in January, "Another Earth" was snapped up by the distributor Fox Searchlight and became a small sensation, thanks to its clever blending of classic film drama with an air of existential mystery, not to mention a cool-looking planet that hovers over Earth in many scenes.
"The problem with so much American film is that it's either outright drama or pure fantasy," Marling, 27, said. "I think the Latin Americans know how to do it so much better. Think about 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' — there's beauty in the mundane."
It was a kind of armchair astronomy that gave rise to "Another Earth." As she struggled to make it as an actress, Marling would sometimes come home to the Silver Lake house she and Cahill shared with another aspiring director, Zal Batmanglij, to find Cahill stretched out on the floor listening to an audiobook by astronomer Richard Berendzen. She and Cahill were captivated by the locutions of the scientist, a protégé of Carl Sagan's who puts a poetic spin on astrophysical math.
The pair traveled to Washington, D.C., to see Berendzen and quizzed him for hours. Then they fashioned a script that incorporated the possibility of a nearby, human-like planet into a story of a lost young woman. "I like the simplicity of the equation: All variables remain the same except one," Cahill said. "This is a film where people live and work in a way that's consistent with reality, but then there's this warm little injection of fantasy that can reveal something about ourselves."
Berendzen, whose voice was so distinct that Cahill asked him to perform the film's voice-over, said he was struck by how much Marling and Cahill wanted to ground their story in scientific possibility. "To a lot of people, science fiction conjures up evil aliens coming to destroy the Earth," he said. "That's not what Mike and Brit wanted to do." (He said that the current research suggests that a planet whose existence parallels our own is possible, if hardly probable.)
"Another Earth" comes at an odd historical moment, as the U.S. space shuttle program is winding down and plans for the next major mission — sending humans to an asteroid — still vague. But the filmmakers said that their movie's main concerns couldn't be more timely.
"The idea of an Earth 2 is a literal manifestation of holding a mirror up to our culture," Marling said. "So many people feel disconnected in the modern world. This is a way to use astronomy to ask what it would be like if you could meet someone who already knew you, who already had the same memories as you, who already knew what moved you."