"I generate constantly," says Mike Cahill, the filmmaker who put a thoughtful spin on the sci-fi genre with Another Earth three years ago and who now re-teams with star Brit Marling on the new science-themed drama I Origins. "I have this document on my computer called 'The Journal of Ideas.' Anything I ever come up with, I put it in there and when certain elements come together to give a project weight and momentum and movement, I'll explore it further. I Origins is one of those ideas I've been thinking about forever."
I Origins, opening July 18 in limited release, casts Marling and Michael Pitt as molecular biologists immersed in eye research. Pitt's character loses his French girlfriend (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) to a tragic accident, then embarks on a quest eight years later when he discovers that someone now living possesses his dead soul mate's exact iris pattern.
Cahill explains how a TED talk, National Geographic, and a phenomenon known as sectoral heterochromia helped set the table for his biometrics–meets–reincarnation storyline.
Cahill based Pitt's Ian Gray character loosely on scientist Richard Dawkins. "The scanning of the color part of your eye has been around since 1987 when he figured out the algorithm and it's been a slow-growing technology over the years. Nowadays in New York City if a person is arrested they get their eye scanned, babies in hospitals get their eyes scanned, you can go through the fast lane at the airport if you do your iris scan."
The filmmaker became further sold on the power of iris scans after checking out a TED Talk by Jeff Carter. "He talks about how fingerprints only give you so many degrees of accuracy, where as the patterns in your eyes form when you're in your mother's womb and stay the same for you for your entire life," Cahill notes. "From a technological standpoint, it's a great way to ID a person. And since the eye has also enticed poets since the dawn of civilization, it seemed like a wonderful meeting place for two of my greatest passions—science and spirituality."
Cahill grew up obsessed with National Geographic magazine. "I had all those yellow magazines in my childhood bedroom and by the luck of the universe I worked for National Geographic as my first job out of college making sea life documentaries about sharks and turtles," he says. "As a kid, I remember the June 1987 cover photograph by Steve McCurry of an Afghani girl in a refugee camp who had these stunning green eyes. It became one of the most iconic photographs in history and everybody wanted to know 'Who is this girl?'"
17 years later, photographer McCurry and his team solved the mystery. "They called the biometrics company to do an iris scan off Steve's high-res photograph to get a unique 12-digit code," says Cahill. "They searched a certain region of Pakistan where people have greeni-ish colored eyes and finally found somebody with the exact same eyes as this little girl, except now she'd grown up to become a young woman."
As he researched biometric technologies, Cahill realized the subcontinent of India provided a unique nexus between science and spirituality. "The thing that got me excited is that India is this land where the concept of reincarnation is taken for granted, and it's also the first country in the world to implement a national iris-scanning program. Citizens can open bank accounts, get welfare, vote. It helps legitimizes people as having a certain identity. Those ingredients went into the making of the film."
Cahill figured Marling and Pitt were slam dunks to play smart scientists. The tricky part came in finding an actress to portray the love interest. He picked Paris-based Bergès-Frisbey following a two-hour Skype interview from his Brooklyn home. "On top of the fact that she's a great actress, Astrid has magnificent eyes with sectoral heterochromia. That basically means she has blue and brown in the same iris. If you look at the I Origins poster, that's a super close-up of Astrid's eye."
For the film's climactic scenes, Cahill and casting director Dilip Shankar (Life of Pi) found a young Indian girl named Kahish to play the child who seems to have a connection with Ian Gray's soul mate. "We didn't want to cast someone who looks like Astrid's character," says Cahill. "We wanted to cast somebody who feels like her. Have you ever met somebody where you were like, 'Gosh, you remind me of so and so. You don't look anything like them but you've got the same vibe.' That's what we were chasing."