How They Did It: Mike Cahill Dreams Big on a Budget

Director Mike Cahill knows how to make low-budget movies feel expensive. In this “How They Did It,” the purveyor of the epically lo-fi sci-fi films Another Earth and I Origins explains how he combined good ideas with some striking visuals to make “small” movies big.

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You may be in possession of a good idea. Possessing a good idea is the first ingredient in a very simple formula. Please take this equation with a grain of salt, and, perhaps, a shot of tequila:

A Good Idea + A Handful of Money Shots = A Movie That Feels Big Despite Being Made for a Relatively Low Cost

Good ideas have tremendous value and they don’t cost anything. Good ideas are not everywhere; bad ideas abound. Good ideas are not just clever, because cleverness will eventually fail you. A good idea is an idea that at first glance seems clever but over time sheds light on something profound. It will awaken the viewer’s sense of wonder. It’s how you engage your audience in a unique emotional experience.

A good idea should be equally nourishing for the moviemaker. The material must engage and sustain you through writing, pre-production, production, post, and release, or you won’t make it. Two years of a moviemaker’s work and two hours of an audience’s day contain exactly the same potential for tedium, but if your idea is capable of sustaining you and your fellow creators throughout the filmmaking process, then it will also resonate with your audience. The sense of wonder (especially in speculative fiction, or lo-fi sci-fi) created by a good idea gets upgraded when joined with a handful of special “money” shots: complex and compelling shots that use either CG or practical FX, well-orchestrated choreography, or other elements that help convey a fresh visual language.

Now, the following may or may not be obvious to the beginning filmmaker: Not every shot in a movie should cost the same amount. Not only that, but so-called money shots don’t even need to cost a lot of actual money; they just have to be visually special. They just require a high cost equivalent of time, planning, and execution. If you can effectively combine a good idea with a handful of money shots (and this assumes that all other cylinders are firing brilliantly) then you can make an ambitious, grand, awe-inspiring narrative feature at a low cost. How low? Let’s say $20,000 to $200,000. A new filmmaker with some tenacity can certainly scrape together that kind of money.

Let’s apply this equation to my film, Another Earth. Our idea for Another Earth was this: A duplicate Earth appears in the sky. All seven billion of us are up there. The possibility of meeting yourself exists. On the night of the discovery of this duplicate Earth, a young woman (Brit Marling) causes a car accident, forever altering her life and those with whom she has collided. Brit Marling’s character is confronted with an overwhelming feeling of guilt, for which she fully owns the responsibility; she does not shirk it. And she, with full agency, seeks a resolution, with a sincere desire to fix what she’s destroyed. And perhaps, with the confrontation of the self, she can find some appeasement for this existential dilemma. Empathy, guilt, forgiveness, redemption were all at stake in this film. The film engages these big themes with a small story, set on a stirring lo-fi, sci-fi canvas.

The money shots in Another Earth were the dozen or so compositions containing the other Earth in the sky, plus one very important car crash scene. The shots with the other Earth were planned, shot, and then achieved in post-production with motion tracking and basic compositing. The car crash was a carefully choreographed shot with a relatively simple CG effect that ultimately cost very little money.

ANother Earth

Brit Marling stares into a “relatively simple CG effect” in Another Earth

In my opinion—though of course there are exceptions to every rule—when you have a car crash play an important role in your plot, it should be shown on screen. If the filmmaker cuts to black and simply plays a car crash sound effect, it feels cheap and uninventive. It is our imperative as moviemakers to engage the mind, heart and eyes of the viewer.

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue opens with an elegantly rendered car crash scene. He starts with a shot of the wheel and axel underneath a car zooming on the highway. The shot’s specificity and assumed relevance immediately makes us feel a sense of nervous foreboding. The next shot shows a child’s hand outside of a window moving a blue cupcake wrapper up and down with the wind. The power of montage is now in full effect. These two shots say so much in juxtaposition. A few shots later, a young man is in a field watching the car pass, and plays a rudimentary game trying to land a ball on a stick. It misses. It misses. And then, it lands perfectly. The final shot in the sequence: the car drops from a skewed angle to the ground under a tree, the reverberation of the halted inertia. End scene. A car was destroyed, and we see it onscreen via visually fresh, powerful, suspenseful, efficient and masterful filmmaking. Kieslowski is the real deal.

With Another Earth’s car crash, I had some very specific wants. I wanted to see the characters in the car delivering dialogue through the sunroof. I wanted a birds-eye shot from above looking down, as if from the other Earth’s point of view. I wanted the camera to slowly rise up, both peacefully and ominously. I wanted the scene to provoke both suspense and surprise—one instinctively knows the crash is coming and yet when it comes one is jolted. I wanted to witness the impact of one car careening into the other. And I wanted this all to take place in one continuous shot—no cuts, no inserts.

So how did we do it? My friend is a police officer and he helped arrange for a stretch of street to be closed down for us. The only cost was paying the traffic cops for the hours they kept the street closed. Not that expensive. We went to a junkyard and found two cars that looked like they had crashed head-on into each other—an SUV and a BMW sedan—with their fronts smashed in. We asked the junkyard owner if we could borrow the cars and then return them. We had production insurance, and they agreed. The only cost was the towing of the inoperable cars to the set location and back again. Again, not that expensive. We then found two operational cars of the same make and model as the junked cars. The cars were close enough, but they weren’t perfect. If you look carefully you will see that the interior of the BMW that actor William Mapother drives and the interior of the smashed-up BMW are totally different colors—tan in one and dark blue in the other. I don’t think anyone has ever noticed.

Then we found our makeshift crane. Hertz Rent-a-Car had a cherry-picker (usually used to fix power lines, wash windows, or do roof work) that they rented for 75 dollars a day. This device is not as smooth as a camera crane, but it was cheap, and we didn’t need an expensive specialist to operate it. My friend Damon and I found that one simple switch made it go up and down. We both climbed up on the platform and strapped in, me with the Sony EX3 camera and tripod, and him at the controls. We pointed the camera downward, sound-speeded, rolled the camera, and up we went.

The first few takes were shaky, so we aborted mid-process. On the fourth, we managed to get a smooth movement from bottom to top. At the top, 50-something feet in the air, I locked off the camera in its final position. I had Brit drive her car super slowly to the front of William’s car and kiss bumpers—this way we could see how the headlights cascaded across the cars. Then I had William remove his car and had Brit drive through the frame at full speed. I shot a minute of the street with no cars for a background plate. With these elements we could successfully make it appear as if Brit’s car, driving at full speed, collided with William’s car. Since the action smashed off to the left of camera, we only had to rotoscope about 12 frames of picture. After this (relatively inexpensive) money shot, we cut to the junked up cars exuding smoke. Voila.

I Origins is my latest film, which came out this summer. It’s about a scientist who is confronted with evidence that suggests humans possess an entity most commonly referred to as a “soul.” The budget of I Origins was bigger than that of Another Earth, but my approach was the same. Not all shots cost us the same amount. One shot, involving a 70-foot crane, many extras, and two subtle visual effects, was projected to cost one-tenth of our allocated budget for India. One-tenth! A film has something like 2,000 shots in it on average.

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Michael Pitt in India in I Origins

When you work with brilliant producers, as I have had the good fortune to do with Hunter Gray and Alex Orlovsky, you can be precise, thoughtful, and ensure that the value is seen onscreen. Even though the crane shot was expensive, it wasn’t a sure thing; we had to pull it off amid a chaotic set of variables. The 70-foot crane with a stabilized head traveled by truck from Mumbai to Delhi’s Okhla market, where we were to carry out the shot. We had scheduled the entire morning from 5 a.m. to noon to get this single shot. We planned to have a certain number of extras, and due to all the excitement of the morning’s proceedings, a massive crowd showed up.

Take one: Thousands of extras simultaneously stare directly into the camera, following its movement as it drops 60 feet and 360 degrees around actor Michael Pitt. The footage was absurd, beautiful, and completely unusable.

We shot with a zoom lens, subtly zooming in mid-shot so the first key frame was wide and the final frame was super tight, with a depth of field of about three millimeters. Keeping it in focus, in this case manually, was extremely difficult. On one take that was nearly perfect, one prominent extra in the marketplace walked right up to Michael Pitt in the foreground and took a long dramatic sip of a Diet Coke, like he was in a commercial. Again, it was totally absurd, strange, wondrous, and utterly unusable.

It was already 1 p.m. and we hadn’t gotten the shot. It seemed as if one-tenth of the budget was being thrown away on something that wasn’t going to work. And then on take 28, the clouds parted, the movie gods looked down upon us, and somehow every little variable fell into place. We got the shot.

That’s all my advice for now. Good luck, fellow filmmakers. MM

I Origins opened in theaters July 18, 2014, courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

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