“I Origins” director and star shrug off mixed reviews, aim for the thinking film fan

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Director Mike Cahill has spent a lot of time, the past couple of years, thinking about coincidences, “big ideas” and the human eye.

“There’s magic in real life,” the director of “Another Earth” says. “I’ve had more coincidences than any other person in history. So I sometimes wonder just how ‘real’ this ‘real world’ is.”

He’s in search of film projects “where big ideas turn up in intimate stories — this notion of what happens when you die, what our deepest fears are, losing someone you love. Embed those in a personal, intimate story, that’s kind of where I live as a filmmaker.”

And for his latest film, “I Origins” he had to find a cast with the deepest, most immersive eyes he could find.

“If you look very carefully into someone’s eyes, you can see their being, their feelings and their emotions. Great actors give you even more than that. It’s the most restrained kind of acting, doing it with just their eyes.”

Where “Another Earth” used the idea that an alternate Earth appears in the sky, freeing a guilt-stricken woman (Brit Marling) from the grief of having caused other people’s deaths because the “other her” might have not been to blame, “I Origins” explores what happens when a molecular biologist is confronted with a hint that science doesn’t explain everything. Dr. Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) whose focus is on the eye, aims to close the “loophole” that creationism exploits about the novelty in “design” of the eye, by finding an evolutionary missing link. He has success, only to wonder if the late love of his life and her unique eyes have turned up in another human being.

Cahill needed a star who could manage “the most restrained kind of acting, doing it with just their eyes. In this movie, we get the whole arc of the of the character Ian is revealed in Michael’s eyes. That’s a tremendous talent, for someone to be able to pull off showing ‘arriving’ at this, the end of his story arc, in just his eyes, without speaking a word.”

According to Pitt, that’s not just an accident of nature, that eye-empathy that some actors have and many don’t. The 33 year-old, best known for dark, twisted roles in “Boardwalk Empire” and such films as “Seven Psychopaths” and the recent “Rob the Mob” relished the chance to draw the viewer in with just his eyes. “You do have control over it…(Laurence) Olivier used to say that he would look right off the lens, and if you do that in cinema that you connected more with the audience. I absolutely believe that and I can feel it working when I’m doing it.”

Cahill cooked this tale up with specific actors and their eyes in mind. Marling, his frequent collaborator since college, has a supporting role. Astrid Berges-Frisbey plays the great love of Ian Gray’s life. Pitt and Cahill created Gray together. “This character was really his creation, based on my concept,” Cahill says. The result is a disquieting slice of romantic science fiction that collected the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, given to thought-provoking indie films that focus on science and scientists.

Critics, wrestling with the movie’s concepts and ideas, haven’t come to a consensus on the merits of “I Origins,” with the Christian Science Monitor praising its “deep-dish philosophizing” but The New York Times sniffing that “It may blow your mind, but only if you’re not in the habit of using it.”

Pitt isn’t disappointed in that reaction.

“It’s easier to make movies that don’t make a person think. But audiences are like actors, I think. They crave good material, just like I do. They get more out of it.”

Cahill, 35, makes light of the mixed reviews, saying “I believe there are movie-goers out there who like to think. And if three of them, just three, watch the movie and connect with it, than I will be happy. The best part of life is finding those like-minded individuals. And if only three ‘get it,’ those three are invited to

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