A year ago Brit Marling was just another aspiring Los Angeles-based actress and filmmaker with visions of cinematic grandeur. Flash-forward 12 months and the 27-year-old is living the Sundance dream as a promising multi-hyphenate talent whose breakout film, Another Earth, is invading art-house cinemas across the country and whose blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty has yielded glossy magazine spreads far and wide.
And, unlike many a Sundance-hyped starlet, the buzz seems justified: Another Earth — which Marling produced and co-wrote (with director Mike Cahill), and which took home multiple prizes at Sundance — is a unique hybrid of subtle melodrama and refreshingly CGI-free science fiction that is as thought-provoking as it is emotionally involving. (Marling also stars in and helped write another well-received 2011 Sundance film, Sound of My Voice, which, like Another Earth, was picked up by Fox Searchlight.)
The contemplative, often poetic Another Earth centers on Rhoda (Marling), a gifted student whose dream of attending M.I.T. is shattered when she crashes her car into a family of three at a stoplight, killing a pregnant woman and her young child. The accident occurs the same night a new planet dubbed Earth 2, which might contain duplicate versions of everyone on Earth, is discovered.
Flash-forward four years and Rhoda emerges from prison emotionally dazed and distant but nevertheless intent to somehow make amends with John (William Mapother), the now-broken man she made a widower. The duo forms an unlikely relationship — which works despite its implausibility due to the fearless, believable efforts of the actors — while Rhoda simultaneously dreams of starting her life over on Earth 2; she enters a contest to win a spot as a passenger on the first spacecraft to travel to the new planet. (Read Ella Taylor's review of Another Earth here.)
CityBeat recently phoned Marling, an uncommonly grounded actress who has a degree in economics from Georgetown and a disarmingly inviting speaking voice, to discuss Another Earth's genre-juggling approach, the state of independent film and her ability to block out the Sundance buzz.
CityBeat: The idea that we could have a duplicate version of ourselves on another plant is an intriguing one. Why where you interested in exploring that?
Brit Marling: I guess Mike (Cahill) and I were really interested in the idea of the doppelganger. There is something interesting about that on a primal level. I think that’s occurred to everyone before at some point. That’s why it’s in so many films and TV shows. There’s just a lot of references to this idea of a double or a duplicate version of yourself, an alternate outcome of your life.
So we were really interested in that idea, and we thought, “What if you could take that experience and give it to everybody; what if everybody who was on Earth 1 was also on Earth 2 and everybody could face the possibility of confronting or talking to themselves.” That’s sort of the seed of the story, and from there we kind of backtracked our way into like, “What is one human story we could tell?’ and came up with the idea of Rhoda and this girl who becomes connected to this man through this tragic accident.
CB: A lot of people who hear the premise think it’s going to be more of a traditional, kind of heightened, science-fiction film, but it’s actually a very intimate, tension-laced drama. How did you approach the genre elements of the story?
BM: I think we always wanted to tell a story where if you took away the sci-fi element of it there would still be a substantive romantic thriller beneath it. The sci-fi really just enhances and I guess creates original juxtapositions and forces the characters into making choices that we haven’t seen before. I think part of what happens is that we all consume so many stories now, and there are so many films and TV shows, that our story intelligence is very high. What’s cool about sci-fi is that you can come at a human drama that you’ve seen before from a fresh perspective and hopefully find something there that the laws of physics or the laws of this universe as we currently understand them don’t allow for it.
I think 12 Monkeys is an amazing film. The ending of it, what it’s getting at when this 8-year-old boy is watching an older version of himself die, that’s a very just human moment that’s grappling with mortality and the end of innocence. But because you’re using this sci-fi premise you’re able to push it to an extreme and hopefully just reveal something about the human condition that would be harder to see without the sci-fi.
CB: Do you think the budgetary restraints actually helped you? The mistake many bigger budget films make is that they just go overboard with too many effects, which often takes the audience out of the film, doesn’t allow them to relate to it because the suspension of disbelief is broken, whereas here the fantastical elements are presented in a much more organic way.
BM: Gosh, I love the way you just said that. I completely agree. CGI and special effects have become so all-powerful, and you can do anything if you have the money to do it. But it a little bit takes away from the audience’s imagination to build a bridge and meet the filmmakers halfway. And that’s part of the beauty of watching a film in the cinema — it’s that you put some of yourself into it, and there is this I guess tacit agreement between you and the filmmaker that you’re going to let go of reality as you know it and surrender to this new reality.
I agree with you. I think it’s hard to do in a lot of these movies lately, because there is so much spectacle there’s no way for you to enter it emotionally with your humanity. I think budget constraints can actually be a good thing in that way in that if your story is ambitious you have to be really creative with how you’re going to show it. In this story it’s like instead of seeing thousands of people in the streets with signs saying, “The end of the world is coming or whatever,” you instead see Rhoda walking through a vacant lot and somebody has left a huge message on the ground meant to be able to be viewed from the other Earth, and so you’re looking for other ways to show the impact of things without having lots of people or lots of CGI. Hopefully that grounds the story in a kind of realism that makes you believe that this is actually possible.
CB: I’m curious about how being an actress informed the writing and vice versa.
BM: What’s great about it is that by the time you start acting, by the time you take off your writer's hat and put on your acting hat, you have done quite a bit of the work already because you’ve been in this story daydreaming from multiple characters' perspectives about why things do or don’t happen. That’s a great thing, and it’s also great to write because you get to find the character that is really a stretch for you or is like dramatically different from your own life experience and from who you are and how you behave and the way you think about and feel about things. I don’t like to take things on that don’t make me feel a little bit nervous. I think that nervousness is a good sign — you’re not quite sure how you’re going to wrap yourself around this human being, or how you’re going to find these things, and I always felt really challenged by Rhoda, because what has happened to her is so catastrophic and the experience of being in prison for four years.
And acting informs writing. It’s pretty awesome, because as an actor you’re so used to your identity being irrelevant. You’re used to dissolving who you are and being, “OK, now I’m 50 and a man and I have children. Now I’m 14 and a girl and I’ve never kissed anyone before.” You’re constantly taking on things that are other than you. I think that really helps in the writing because you don’t feel any barriers to writing the characters. You can write John just as well as you can write Rhoda because you’re not intimidated by what is other than you.
CB: During the production worked with an entity called Artists Public Domain, which I wasn’t familiar with previously. How did you hook up them?
BM: The company’s mission statement is basically to sort of finance and get behind first-time filmmakers or young filmmakers first works and sort of give them micro-budgets to realize their visions. Hunter Gray is an amazing producer and really passionate about finding these artists. We got really lucky. We had just started making the film and some of it had come together and we showed some footage to them along with the script, and Hunter was like, “Yeah, let’s make this movie.” We were really fortunate to get to work with him on it.
CB: And beyond that you’ve kind of had this blessed route to distribution, which is interesting in that it’s becoming harder and harder for smaller films to actually make their way to the marketplace.
BM: It’s funny — when we were making this we really had no idea where it would go. We were making it mostly for each other. We were thinking about how many people we could squeeze into our living room to watch this movie when we finished it. That was really our ambition for it — to just try to make something. We really thought of it kind of as an experiment, so it was totally shocking for it to get into Sundance. And then beyond even the realm of our fantasies and dreams for (Fox) Searchlight to pick it up and bring it into the world.
You’re right, it is more difficult (to get distributed). At Sundance this year, I don’t know, I had a lot of hope because a lot of micro-budgeted films were shown and people responded to them really well and they were picked up and they’re coming out in theaters this summer and fall and winter. I think it’s because something is shifting in the story ideas coming out of independent cinema. They’re more ambitious. They have higher concepts or they’re pushing things in some way where they know that they’re not going to let budgetary concerns constrain the scope of the imagination in the writing.
I think Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols' festival-circuit-approved drama that comes out later this year) was really like that. I mean there are all kinds of epic things happening in this movie. You just don’t feel that the filmmakers are being like, “Well, I know I’m making an independent movie, and I’m a first- or second-time director, and I’m using some unknown actors.” You don’t envision them sitting at their laptops being like, “Well, I have to write something that I just have to shoot in my apartment here with like, you know, a couple people I know.” You really feel that the storytelling has gotten stronger and more adventurous.
I actually think it may be the beginning of a pretty incredible time for independent film. Just from what I saw at Sundance and the fearlessness of the programmers in programming films that were truly outsider works — like not phony independent, but genuinely outside-the-system films being made and that are now all entering the mainstream. I feel pretty excited and hopeful for these movies.
CB: After the success at Sundance, you’ve kind of become the buzz actress of the moment. How do you think that attention will impact you going forward?
BM: What’s funny about the buzz is that at the end of the day you’re still on set and in front of another human being trying to tell the truth, and that is the most daunting thing of all. It is so daunting that it erases any buzz that might be happening around me. You can’t even hear it from that space.
Or when you’re in front of your laptop and that cursor is just like flashing at you and you’re trying to think of something worth saying. You’re still at the end of the day trying to incrementally get better at this craft that interests you and that moves you. It’s so deeply challenging that it kind of makes all the rest of it melt away.
ANOTHER EARTH opens Aug. 19 at Esquire Theatre.