Though Brit Marling’s sci-fi film Another Earth was shot on the hoof and on an ultra- low budget, it has garnered awards and enabled her to keep her distance from planet Hollywood.
When you are a young, penniless filmmaker with a zeal for storytelling, you are willing to risk almost anything to get your film made. During the making of Another Earth, a drama with sci-fi elements shot for only $150,000 on a Sony EX3 camcorder, Brit Marling, 27, and her director and co-writer Mike Cahill, 31, had a scene that required filming at a prison (early in the story Marling’s character, Rhoda, is released after serving time for manslaughter). But the pair had no budget for sets or filming rights and no credentials to request a location. Instead they pulled up outside a prison in Connecticut and positioned their car – on loan for the day from Cahill’s mother – near the entrance.
Marling changed into her costume of prison-issue-style overalls in the passenger seat and, clutching a rolled-up yoga mat, went to the security desk. She told the officers she was there to teach a weekly yoga class for inmates. While confusion ensued as to who this person was and why her name was not on a list of visitors, Marling dropped the mat on the floor and walked out through the lobby of the prison. During all of this Cahill filmed from the front seat of the car through the rolled-down window. Their prison scene was in the can.
Many other scenes were shot on the hoof this way. The auditorium at a local museum was lent to the pair free of charge. They read online that if you shred nappies and add water, it looks like snow; that’s how they prepared a snow scene. The entire production was scrounged and scraped together; the editing took place in Cahill’s flat in Los Angeles. ‘I feel about this work the way a handmade quilt is made: humbly, with a lot of love and care, every stitch thought about,’ Marling says. ‘Every square of fabric was taken from something that means something to us. We worked on it with a bunch of other people and there was an intimacy, it was very beautiful.’
‘I MET TWO CREATIVE COLLABORATORS. THAT’S ABOUT AS DIFFICULT AS FINDING SOMEONE YOU WANT TO MARRY’
Another Earth is both odd and, yes, beautiful; a sci-fi concept provides the plot’s backdrop in which astrophysicists discover a mirror version of our planet a short space ride away. A competition is launched in which a member of the public can win a place on an exploratory flight to this other earth. In keeping with the tiny budget, there are no special effects other than an image of the earth superimposed on a blue sky in several scenes.
Then there is the human drama overlaid on that premise: driving home from a party one night, Rhoda crashes her car and kills a mother and her small child. Formerly a promising university student, she now retreats into herself and, on release from prison, takes menial cleaning jobs and begins slowly to atone for her crime. At the film’s heart, though, is a love story between Rhoda, tortured by guilt and desperate for redemption, and the widower of the car crash victim (played by William Mapother), who does not know when he takes her on as a cleaner that she was responsible for the deaths of his wife and child.
Another Earth won two prizes at the Sundance festival in January and was bought by Fox Searchlight for $3 million. Variety described the film as offering ‘a jagged and distinctive vision. Cosmic yet intimate, [it] makes a virtue of its limited resources, sell- ing the illusion of a groundbreaking scientific discovery just enough for audiences to accept it as a hypothetical premise; the scene that reveals the precise nature of life on Earth 2 raises serious goose bumps with little more than low-grade TV footage.’
Marling has an intellectual, East Coast beauty; although blond, she is the antithesis of the Californian Hollywood aesthetic. ‘Her face is so expressive,’ Cahill says. ‘It’s almost like a boiling teapot and you put the lid on it and just the vapours come out. It’s something so magnificent.’
Marling read economics at Georgetown University, after which she took a summer job as an analyst at Goldman Sachs. Listening to her talk, it is hard to imagine how she ended up running numbers for an investment bank. ‘The truth is,’ she says, ‘it’s very easy after university to get sucked into that world. Everybody who studied economics was going to work at a bank. Then at some point I started looking around and thinking, “Oh, my gosh, this is all arbitrary.”’
Then there was an epiphany of sorts. ‘I thought, this is wrong and maybe none of these people has a handle on how you construct a meaningful life.’ After turning down a permanent job at Goldman Sachs, Marling moved to Los Angeles and shared an apartment with her two best friends from university, Cahill and a director/writer called Zal Batmanglij. She had acted in a few plays at school, but otherwise has no formal training.
As a young actress starting out in LA, Marling says the only options open to her were auditions for roles in horror films or bad comedies. She could play either a girl in a bikini running away from a man with a chainsaw, or someone’s girlfriend. ‘Starting out, you have no experience, nobody wants you. The things you can go for are not substantive, not very well written, things that are heavy “genre”, like horror or torture porn.’
Marling was born in Chicago, where her parents were property developers. She lived a peripatetic childhood – in Illinois, Florida and all over the East Coast – which was a learning experience for her and her younger sister, she says. ‘We bounced around quite a lot when I was a kid, which I think was actually really useful. At first it’s very painful. Then you develop this survival quality, some sort of fierceness. You get used to it. It also teaches you right away the ephemeral nature of things; everything is in transit, nothing is for ever.
‘I was brought up to be very curious,’ she continues. ‘My mum always said the one thing we had unlimited access to was books: we couldn’t have anything out of a toy store but we could have anything out of a bookstore. It was more about the feeling of freedom to explore than asking questions.’
It was this curiosity, and a desire to write and then act in the kinds of roles she wanted, that led Marling to teach herself to write screenplays, buying or borrowing every book on screenwriting and poring over them. ‘The writing part of it is hard,’ she says. ‘It takes a while to learn narrative. People think it looks easy because with screenplays there is a lot of blank space on the page, but you have to do as much work as you would to write a novel. That’s what the really talented screenwriters and filmmakers know how to do: give you so much with very little.’
Marling, Cahill and Batmanglij became a creative trio. They have since collaborated on three films. Five years ago Cahill and Marling went to Cuba to make a documentary called Boxers and Ballerinas about athletes from the island finding political exile in the US. In between filming that and making Another Earth, Batmanglij made a mystery thriller, The Sound of My Voice, which Marling co-wrote and starred in. This has also been picked up by Fox Searchlight and will be released in the US this winter. Marling plays Maggie, a cult leader with a mesmerising and dangerous influence over her followers.
Of her two friends, Marling says, ‘I just got tremendously lucky that I met two creative collaborators. That’s about as difficult as finding someone you want to marry. Finding someone you want to make art with is like finding true love. The three of us became each other’s family, a bit like a tribe, and that was really powerful.’ She dated Cahill briefly at university, but at the moment she is single. ‘I would love to be in love with someone, but I’m not right now.’ She stops to think. ‘The moment that you fall in love with someone is the moment you stop really seeing them, don’t you think? They become a projection for all the fantasies you have.’
Her passions outside filmmaking always seem to lead back to something she has seen and been inspired by on screen. After hearing Yumeji’s Theme, the haunting string music in Wong Kar-wai’s film In the Mood For Love, she taught herself to play the violin by watching how-to videos on YouTube. ‘I am constantly trying to find things to keep exercising myself. I hate the feeling of being staid or stuck in things,’ she says.
Her can-do attitude is infectious. And she makes her achievement of having bypassed the Hollywood system (which she has described as ‘a morally bankrupt swamp’) sound easy. ‘The system is always making the same things over and over again, which is why it’s sort of broken,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t take any risks, and it’s always in a film that takes risks that the audience learns something new about what it means to be human. Those are the movies that transcend themselves.’
‘THE WAY TECHNOLOGY IS ADVANCING MEANS THAT YOUNG FILMMAKERS DON’T NEED TO WAIT FOR PERMISSION FROM HOLLYWOOD ANY MORE’
Her next role will be in Arbitrage, which she describes as a Faustian thriller, alongside Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth. She is in talks to play the female lead in Robert Redford’s political thriller The Company You Keep. Both are Hollywood films, but she finds herself in the privileged position of being able to pick and choose only the scripts that she feels have something substantive to say. ‘It’s incredible to be able to act in things you’ve created and co-written,’ she says. ‘But being given something that’s already written means there are constraints; instead of pushing to the side, you are diving down deep, you can’t change the text. How deep can you get behind the looking glass? What do you find there? That is the most intoxicating experience, because you are losing yourself in someone else’s way of seeing the world, so I do intend to do more of that.’
But should the interesting work dry up, she and Cahill can always pick up the Sony EX3 camcorder, go out and make their own films again. ‘The way technology is advancing,’ she says, ‘means that young filmmakers don’t need to wait for permission from Hollywood any more.’