Talking with some directors, they seem practiced and thoroughly confident in all their responses, as if they’ve said the same thing already 20 times before. Mike Cahill is not like that. He stumbles, he doubles back, he elaborates, and when he’s done he seems to evaluate your reactions to him to determine if he’s gotten through. This, in a way, makes me trust him, like a reverse Dunning-Kruger effect. Anyone who seems to say exactly what they want to must be full of shit.
For me, the best kind of director is the kind who lets their ideas drive them a little mad, whose movies feel more like an attempt to answer a question rather than a point they wish to get across. Which may be why I interpret Cahill’s lack of certainty as a positive quality. His movies — Another Earth, I Origins, and this week’s Bliss, for Amazon — are tricky, sci-fi in a way the doesn’t immediately read sci-fi.
Basically, the entire tension of Bliss, in fact, which stars Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek as dimension-crossed lovers, is based on whether what we’re watching is a sci-fi movie set in the future or… not. The film, which seems to riff on every Elon Musk-esque idea about the nature of reality and the possibility of the future, is brilliant at messing with your sense of reality while blurring its own. In the end, its truth may be simpler than we thought. Or… not. Cahill seems to defy the simple read.
I spoke to him this week about just what he was on about, and about what he saw in the odd combination of Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek that made him want to stick them together.
When did you wrap shooting for this, and how much did COVID affect it?
We wrapped before the pandemic happened. We shot it in the summer of 2019, so basically a year and a half ago. And then we were working through post-production, and post-production halted because of COVID, and then we went remote and finished it that way.
Was the timeline longer for this than your other projects, or is that pretty standard?
I’ll tell you, it was crazy. I’m so fortunate. It depends on whether one likes the movie or not, but I appreciate where we’ve landed in the edit. Where I started, it wasn’t working for me. COVID gave us a hiatus basically in post-production, and I didn’t watch the movie for two months. It was this weird blessing in disguise because when I came back to it, I realized there was all this intentionality that I wanted to infuse in each scene that I was falling short of. Self-critically I thought, “This could be better.” That time away gave me the space to see that, and then we changed a lot of the edit remotely and wrapped it up that way.
There’s that old adage that you write something and it’s brilliant, and then you stick it in your desk drawer, and then by the next morning it turns into dog shit. Was having time away—
By the way, I should say, I love your work. I love your writing and everything. I think you have a great sense of humor.
Thank you. [For any of you conspiracy-minded readers, I assure you I wrote my review before the director complimented my work.]
No, but my stuff turns into dog shit all the time. I’m trying to love dog shit. That’s my problem now.
I just mean, did having that distance from it allow you to sort of find your angle that you wanted all along?
Yeah, it did. I was able to see what was essential and what was inessential. There were certain scenes that I’d cut out, but I put back in. The whole purpose is so that final moment of the film resonates when [SPOILER REDACTED AND PLACED AT THE END OF THE ARTICLE] The dominoes had to fall to make that land emotionally for me. It wasn’t until after that two-month break. I wish I could make that part of the schedule moving forward on every project. You have to sit on your hands for two months and not look at it before everyone else watches it.
The parallel universe aspect in Bliss, it feels like it draws on a lot of ideas about life in the future that come out of Silicon Valley. Did you have a specific set of things that you were playing with there?
I should say this. All that stuff fascinates me on an intellectual level, but the origin of the idea really came from an emotional place. For me, I wanted to tell a story that looked at the fragility of the human mind with empathy. Our brains are fragile, and there may be people in your life that you love deeply, but you see the world completely different from them. It can be for any number of reasons. It could be political, it could be that their brain is deteriorating, it could be addiction. Just whatever it may be, perhaps there’s something not right with their mind, but they see the world so vastly different than you that there’s almost no common ground. Reaching out and connecting with them is hard to do. In that context, I thought, “Well, I really want to tell a story about someone.” In this case, it’s Emily, the daughter who despite the fact that it’s very hard and she doesn’t see the world that he sees, that rich detailed, strange landscape that’s all infused with his emotions, even though she doesn’t see it, she doesn’t give up on him and it makes a difference. That’s a story that you could tell with none of the Silicon Valley simulation theory stuff. It would be like an indie drama story that might be a little bit sad and heavy, but I thought, well, that’s the core idea. If I can do it through science fiction, but where I can turn two different viewpoints into two literal worlds. Science fiction turns metaphors into literal places or things.
So to answer your short question in a long way, yes. I’ve always been interested in simulation theory, that 2003 Nick Bostrom paper, Are We Living in a Simulation, an awesome read because you get to the end of it and you’re like, “Okay. We are.” Someone made a pretty reasoned logical argument for it. I also love where science and spirituality meet. Simulation theory is a way for nerds to talk about theology, basically. For me, those feel like two different worlds that there’s a tiny microscopic overlap, and that’s what I wanted to explore.
Right. You mentioned addiction. Were you attempting to delve into that experience at all?
How do I answer this? I wanted to create a framework. If you as the audience arrive in a movie and addiction is something relevant to your personal life, obviously you’re going to project that upon the movie. If the issue is a political thing, the climate change deniers or whatever it may be, or if it’s mental health, Alzheimer’s, it’s whatever that thing that separates you from someone else’s worldview. The movie creates a framework to allow you to understand those emotions without all the contextual clues. Yes, we have Safe Harbor in the movie and it’s a rehab place. Yes, we have these crystals, those methods, those are the things that are less important than the emotions behind it, I guess. That’s a long-winded way to say, “kind of.”
The metaphor is more important than the thing it’s a metaphor for. Would that be fair to say?
Yeah. Metaphors don’t exist without the human. If I said, “Hey, man, in my backyard I got this old tree next to my swimming pool, and old tree’s roots are busting into my swimming pool.” You’re going to say, “Wow. That’s a metaphor for X.” I don’t know what’s a metaphor. It’s a three-way process. It just creates a framework to understand a bridge between two different worlds. That’s the idea.
Right. In the movie, Owen Wilson’s coworkers at the technical difficulties, which I loved, they seem kind of mean and a little predatory. Was that a conscious thing that you were going for there?
I love how you say, “Right.” I feel like I talk too long, and then you just answer with, “…Right.”
Hey, there’s only so much follow-up you can do in 15 minutes.
No. It’s totally fair, it just makes me feel embarrassed for my answers. What was the question?
His coworkers. They’re a little bit predatory.
Before I write a script, I write a long outline. For me, first-person emotional narrative is key. I want to understand what the main dude is feeling all the way through. I’ll write basically what doesn’t look like a script. It’s just like a scrawl of, “I feel the noise at the office. I feel the tension. I feel like everybody’s looking at me in this weird way.” I’ll walk through the emotionality of what the story is first so that I can feel him. Then when you write the script, you utilize all the things that can help convey that emotion that the first-person protagonist is feeling. It’s hard to do and I might’ve failed miserably, but it heightens the tone in a strange way. …If you say, “Right,” man, I swear.
Right is just my filler word, where I try to buy time to think of something smart to say. No, but I get it. I feel like the tension in your work, in this one and some of the other ones, is us trying to figure out whether it’s sci-fi or not as we’re watching it. Other filmmakers, they set you in it and you’re like, “Okay. We’re in the future now,” but you seem that you’re deliberately blurring that line.
Yeah. I don’t want to trick you into saying, “Is this sci-fi? It’s not sci-fi. It is a little bit.” I just like one variable change from our reality. Another Earth: there’s another earth literally in the sky. It’s a duplicate earth, and we use that as a way to look at forgiveness. That’s the whole point of the movie is one change. In I Origins, I make the eyes the fingerprint to the soul so that reincarnation is true. I use that one change in reality to say don’t be so afraid of death, and grief doesn’t have to be so massive. There’s an emotional catharsis there.
Here, I use simulation theory, one change, although there’s a lot more ramifications. That is one way to say, “Here are two different worlds. Can you reach across those two different worlds and connect to a loved one who you lose?” That’s my jam. Some people dig it, some people don’t, but I realized even in my new script I’m doing the same thing again. I like that. For me, that feels like a rich territory where you don’t lose the relatability factor.
I liked it a lot. So what did you see in your two leads? What made you want them to be the ones to be in the story?
It’s going to sound a little esoteric, but fuck it. First of all, they’re among the finest actors that we have, but that’s obvious. The qualities that they have though are very specific in addition to this range and ability. The esoteric part is there’s an art form or an art movement, this word called “the sublime.” It’s from English painting in the 19th century. The idea is it’d be a man standing on a mountain against the Alps and the dauntingness of the Alps, against this backdrop, or a small boat in a storm that’s huge. Something about that life raft in that crazy storm creates the sublime because you put yourself in the point of view of the boat. There’s something powerful about that. It’s like when you witness the universe for the first time or you conceive of how big it is. It produces fear and beauty simultaneously.
In a weird way, I felt like Salma was the storm. She had that power and that raw, that energy of the storm, and Owen to me felt like the boat, the life raft that we could hold on to. Our vocabulary is deficient to be able to even talk about acting very well, but that quality that he has, it gives me the feeling of the sublime. When you put those two together, they’ve never been together in a film, and it felt like that combustion would be spectacular. I adore their performances.
‘Bliss’ is currently streaming via Amazon Prime. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.
[THE SPOILER — read at your own risk]
…where you feel like it’s a choice to be here when he says, “This woman says she’s my daughter, and I believe her.” He’s not saying, “This world is real.” He’s saying, “I’m choosing to be here,” and then he says, “Sorry, I’m late,” and she says, “You’re not late. You’re here.” For that to land, there are things that had to be in place.