Brit Marling on I Origins and the Future of Science Fiction

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The 2011 Sundance Film Festival was a coming-out party for Brit Marling. She was the co-writer, co-producer and co-star of two excellent feature films there—one, Sound of My Voice, with her longtime friend and collaborator Zal Batmanglij, and the second, Another Earth, with her other longtime friend and collaborator, Mike Cahill. Her performance stood out in each, and in the three years that have followed, she’s starred with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon in Arbitrage, and with Robert Redford and Julie Christie in The Company You Keep. She also appeared in everything from the Terence Malick-produced The Better Angels (out this Fall) to NBC’s Community. But I believe her best performances in that time period were Batmanglij’s 2013 followup The East, and Cahill’s followup I Origins, which opens today. These three have a special thing going on. I sat down with Marling recently to talk about I Origins and her role in the history of women in science fiction.

Paste Magazine : The science-fiction films that you’ve been in are speculative fiction, in the truest sense of the term. It’s not all laser guns and aliens, like you’re Barbarella. Unless I’m missing someone, I think that you’re the first woman to come along that has made a name for herself as both an actress and a content creator in the speculative fiction genre. I’m curious to what extent that was intentional, or whether or not that was just something that you and Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij were interested in writing together?

Brit Marling: That’s a good question. I think that part of it is that we grew up together. When you grow up with someone, your interests sort of build around them. We all got into Krzysztof Kie?lowski at the same time. We all loved the idea of Kie?lowski meets… Terminator… meets 12 Monkeys meets… European art house cinema. We definitely all influenced each other, and still influence each other today. I think another part of it is that we all consumed so many stories as kids. I mean, we binge-watched TV. So, I know how the normal love triangle stories end. I know every fucking permutation of that triangle! I know all the ways that story can end. But what I don’t know is how that story will end if it involves reincarnation, if it involves a scientific discovery in a lab.

Paste : If it involves a second Earth?

Marling: Yes, exactly! Then, suddenly, you start putting these relationships under a dramatic pressure that you’ve never seen before. What does a husband and wife partnership in a lab have to deal with when a husband finds his true love during an experiment? Now I’m interested. Now I’m listening. What does that mean? I think the speculative-fiction genre just came from being a part of the times. We’re a generation that has watched so many stories. Speculative fiction is one of those frontier fields, especially concerning drama. I think that’s the only way that you’re not going to know what’s going to happen next.

Paste : It’s using speculative fiction for actual speculation. It’s not a movie about laser guns.

Marling: Yes. It’s like, why don’t you put love to the test? Why don’t you put forgiveness to the test? How does putting another planet in the sky give a film a backdrop that is going to make an audience sit up? People don’t want to watch a depressing drama where a girl runs over a guys and kills his family and then tries to apologize. I mean, that sounds like an indie film that would make me want to shoot myself in the face afterwards. Do you know what I mean?

Paste : Right.

Marling: I think there’s something really cool about marrying what we think is inherently masculine storytelling—storytelling of spectacle—with something that we think of as feminine, like drama and detail. To bring those things together is the yin-yang balance that you’re after, I think.

Paste : You’re going exactly where I wanted to go. It’s interesting that Zal and Mike are two of your most visible partners in crime. It’s fascinating because they both have a beautifully integrated level of femininity and masculinity in their characters.

Marling: Absolutely. That’s so astute.

Paste : But, how do we get those more traditionally feminine concerns, concerns, like how does this effect love, into a concept like Star Wars? Into Transformers?

Marling: Well, it used to be that everybody who was everybody was out in L.A. making movies. It was like a lemonade stand with kids making everything. When children set up a lemonade stand, it’s not really about making bank, it’s about the experience of selling lemonade. It’s almost like you’re playing, and making play money. Somehow, it has turned the other direction in L.A. recently. Now it’s all “how is Quarter 2 making more than Quarter 1?” Once you get to that place, you have to be inherently risk-averse. When you’re watching the bottom line, it gets hard, because you can’t be original anymore.

In order to really crack something wide open, you’ve got to take risks. You have to be anticipating what the audience doesn’t even know it wants yet. You’ve got to get ahead of yourself. But it’s hard to do that. It’s hard to get a committee to stamp on that. Not everyone in a room is going to get it. If you’re sitting in a room of 10 or 12, chances are that two or three people won’t understand.

I think that the next wave will be people literally making it on their own. Things like Vimeo, which is a wonderful place to find an audience. I know what you mean, though. That’s the type of movie that I want to go see. I want to see the marriage of Run Lola, Run with a big spectacle film. When was the last time you felt like someone did that successfully?

Paste : I would shift genres ever so slightly and go to the action/adventure genre for that. I’d say that Kathryn Bigelow did a great job with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Actually, that’s where the germ of this interview came about. My fellow editor Michael Burgin and I were talking about the new Star Wars films, and how when we saw the short list of who was going to direct them, there were no women on the list. But all of the guys that were getting mentioned as candidates had done something on a small scale that convinced people they were capable of directing the new Star Wars. Kathryn Bigelow did Strange Days and got it to where she could make The Hurt Locker. She knocked The Hurt Locker out of the park, so she made Zero Dark Thirty. Now is that genre starts to open to women. So, now I’m getting to my point… Mike Burgin and I want you to be the Kathryn Bigelow of science fiction.

Marling: No pressure, right!? [laughs] My god, that is a vote of confidence! You know, I am definitely interested in directing at some point. I feel that eventually, my curiosity and passion for storytelling will get to the point where it can’t help but go there. I don’t know how long this will last, but right now I’m still so challenged and inspired by the process of acting and what it asks of me. There is always a learning curve in it. No matter how many times you do it, you start from zero every time. It’s as if, as a profession, there is no experiential knowledge in it. It’s like facing an open-heart surgery without ever having picked up a scalpel. You may have read the textbook, but you’ve never had someone’s body lying in front of you that will either die or not die based on what you do. That’s what it feels like to me.

Paste : Back to one, literally.

Marling: Yes, literally… back to one! I feel very passionate about the speculative-fiction, sci-fi genre. I want to see where it can go and where it can go on a bigger level. As to when that comes along and how, that remains a mystery. Hopefully that will unravel while we’re still alive. I want to witness it and maybe even be involved.

Paste : I want to talk specifically about I Origins. I told Mike, if we talk about Another Earth, I will definitely start crying. Just to let you know… don’t worry about it… I surely will.

Marling: Do you mean that? That’s so lovely!

Paste : Yes. That movie has a very immediate emotional response for me.

Marling: Really?

Paste : The poster is actually on my wall at work. It looks down at me while I’m working all day. Your face!

Marling: Wow. That matters to me so much. You just really got me. Sometimes it’s hard to take something in, but that really moved me, what you just said.

Paste : I think that one of the things that really inspires me about that movie is that it is so incredibly tender towards its protagonist. The story wants her to get what she needs and for her to be able to get beyond her remorse.

Marling: I think it’s funny because, you’re getting me emotional about the movie too. I can feel it coming from you, and I know what you mean. It’s like we all, for some reason, carry heavy amounts of guilt, but where does that guilt come from? Why is it so oppressive? People are like Atlas with the world on their shoulders! Nobody can seem to shrug it off. It’s so courageous how she is actively trying to deal with her guilt without being passively crushed by it. There is a bit of a warrior-like quality to her. She never caves into pity, which is something that we are all easily guilty of. There are times when we all feel sorry for ourselves.

Paste : Self-pity is almost a cop-out. It’s a way out of facing the horrific things that we’ve done. It’s almost like, if I can punish myself, you can’t punish me. She is wanting to really walk full-throated into the horrific thing she has done and really face it.

Marling: Yeah. That’s exactly right. You said it so well. It’s about not sitting back and allowing things to happen to you. It’s about rising like a phoenix from the ashes.

Paste : That’s what the protagonist in I Origins does as well. He also has this horrible remorse that he actively tries to face. I think that I have the natural sort of guilt that everyone has, but remorse and regret are not keynotes of my personality. And yet, somehow, most of my favorite moves are about deep remorse and deep regret.

Marling: You know, I think that’s how people perceive me. People are probably like, “Oh, Brit… she’s really touched by things that are melancholy.” Sometimes, those types of stories appeal to me too. Maybe that’s because we stalemate those things? Watching movies is a way of letting go of things. There is a kind of catharsis in storytelling that encompasses things we can’t deal with on a day-to day basis.