By now, Brit Marling has told her improbable Hollywood origin story many times. In a nutshell, the 31-year-old writer and actress left an unfulfilling job in finance to pursue an unlikely career as an actress and filmmaker with a couple of like-minded friends. If you’re curious how that worked out, look no further than the gripping sci-fi drama I Origins, Marling’s latest collaboration with director Mike Cahill (Their first, 2011’s Another Earth, launched their careers). In the film, Marling plays lab assistant to an ocular biologist (Michael Pitt) who together make a far-reaching discovery that has implications for their relationship and the world at large. It’s yet another addition to a filmography that is becoming equipped almost exclusively with small, intelligent movies for adults. That is not a bad thing. We recently spoke to Marling, who went into great detail about the decisions, moments, and people that got her to where she is today, and what she’s learned along the way.
With Another Earth and now I Origins, what about Mike Cahill’s writing and direction intrigues and inspires you to hitch yourself to him?
Well Mike and I have known each other since we were kids. He made a short film with our friend Zal (Zal Batmanglij, director Sound of My Voice, The East) that I saw when I was 17, and I was so moved by the film that it ended up being a sort of terror in my life. It led me to overthrowing my Economics degree and banking job to go make movies together. Mike and I went to Cuba and we co-directed this documentary together called Boxers and Ballerinas. We were in this sort of tidal pool together as young people wanting to be artists and figuring out whether we could be artists and whether we had something to say. We read all the same books and watched all the same movies and were heavily influenced by one another, and then got to make these first works.
I really wanted to act and Mike wanted to direct and Zal wanted to direct. I think we all thought the way to get to do these jobs is just to start writing and start making stuff. It’s always been an amazing process with Mike because he’s not intimidated by failure. When we were out making Another Earth, there was this day where there’s this really beautiful fog and I had gone out running earlier in the morning and we had other things that we were going to shoot that day. But I came back from my early morning run and I was like “Mike, there’s this fog, come look at it.” And he wandered outside and I said, “Isn’t it incredible?” He responded, “Yeah, let’s shoot the ending of the film.” And I said “No are you crazy? We haven’t shot anything else yet, we can’t shoot the ending.” But Mike’s so no intimidated and he just said, “Let’s just do it, and if it’s bad, we’ll do it again.” So we shot the ending to the film and he kept good to his promise. We later reshot the ending of Another Earth but never held up to whatever mystical thing was going on that morning with the fog. We’ve found ways to be open to one another, to trust one another, to encourage one another, to inspire and move one another. There were times on I Origins where I know Mike so well that I can feel his energy. I know when a take has really moved him and when it hasn’t. So there’s this incredible amount of trust and intimacy because you grew up together and you’re interested in the same ideas and exploring the same stuff.
At the point where you, Mike, and Zal drove across the country to go to Los Angeles, did you envision making movies like Sound of My Voice or I Origins or The East, or were you just winging it?
We were just winging it. Zal had gotten into film school and was going to go to the AFI. Mike and I had made the documentary and were hoping to finish editing it in LA and then hopefully submitting it to film festivals. We’d never even been to a film festival outside of the one on campus so we were totally flying by the seat of our pants. I worked for a long time as a camerawoman, Mike worked as an editor on other people’s documentaries, and I started acting.
I had been very into that in high school, I just didn’t think there was any real way to make a living at it, and then out in LA I really fell in love with it. I couldn’t figure any way to go about it other than us just making stuff the same way we made it in college. Because we didn’t go to an arts school, we weren’t under the pressure of our films having to compete in art classes. We were just making that stuff because we loved it. We were studying economics and anthropology. Filmmaking was the freedom. Getting to tell stories was the thing we did with our weekends. We did that instead of partying, or we’d throw a party then shot the party. I think we eventually realized out in LA that we shouldn’t be coming out here trying to infiltrate the system or get people to think we’re good or talented. We shouldn’t try to audition our way in or beg for scripts. We should bring our sense of filmmaking here and just make stuff on our own in this collective because we know other young people that want to make stuff too, and if we just start making it, other people will jump on the bandwagon.
That’s incredibly bold. Most people usually try to fit the mold and adapt. Most artists don’t even have a voice at that age.
We didn’t in the beginning. We were scared and confused. I was going on auditions in the valley for weird horror films and then getting really sad when I didn’t get the part. I got lost in it. When you’re young, you really think that somebody’s got to validate you before you can make the work, because you don’t trust yourself. I think at some point we just hit a wall, and it was like, “Wait a second. This doesn’t make any sense. Nobody here knows better than we do.” I think the first time I realized that was when I studied economics in school, and then I went to work at an investment bank and I entered the real world. And I thought wait, “These are a bunch of really bad ideas that are being used to run the world.” So if the old dead white guy that came before us didn’t get it right maybe we should think about reinventing the model to make it better.
At Goldman Sachs, was there a sort of light bulb moment for you? This blinding revelation where you realize you’re living your life completely wrong?
I think there actually was. There was an event that crystalized it for me, which was when Mike and Zal came to New York, and there was a 48-hour film festival. I was working at Goldman, and they came to my uncle’s apartment where I was staying, and said, “We’re doing the 48 hour film festival.” And I told them, “You guys have lost your fucking minds.” I’m in the business suit and briefcase phase, and I’m going to work every morning at 7 and never leaving the office before midnight, seven days a week. And they said, “Well, we’re crashing at your uncle’s apartment and we’re going to shoot it here. So we’re making this film in your apartment whether you’re going to be in it or not.” And I came home from work on Friday and they were there with the equipment, and little piece of paper they had been given with the idea, and they were like “We got 48 hours to make a film. We’re going to stay up and do it. You can do with us, are you in or are you out?”
I was exhausted, so tired, and staffed on two companies that had IPOs at the same time, and this insane workload. And yet, I just couldn’t say no. So I said, “Okay. I’m in you fuckers.” I did with them and didn’t sleep for the weekend and we made a film and it’s not even a good film. But we had an amazing time making it. We begged, borrowed, and stole everything, and we broke my uncle’s kitchen table and the cops came and we convinced the cops to be in it. It was insane. We made something that isn’t very good but is the beginning of people trying to make something good. And that was beautiful.
Is directing something you would want to do?
Maybe at some point. I was reading Kieślowski on Kieślowski last night. Have you ever read that?
You should read it. Someone gave me it in college and I didn’t want to read it because I was being a dummy, and I liked how I felt about the films and didn’t want to know about them. But he’s amazing as a thinker, and what he was trying to do with filmmaking and his deep love of collaboration. There’s some quote in there where he says, “The director isn’t holding anything in his hands. He’s not holding the camera. He’s not holding the sound equipment. He doesn’t have the script. He just shows up and he’s there, and your job is to just help everybody. To bring this concert of people together to achieve something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.” That’s actually the hardest job to do I think, to not have anything in your hands. And yeah I’d love to try it some day, but I don’t know if I’m ready for it now. I think that acting for me presents way too much of a challenge.
Have you been in a situation where a film collapses? It seems like you pick your projects very strategically and you’re sure of what you want to do and where you want to go with your career.
That’s a funny thing to say. I don’t know if it’s as true from the inside. I try to just make choices based on things I write and with people I really believe in, or because I read something like this great film called The Keeping Room that’s coming out in September at Toronto. This young female writer Julia Hart wrote it, and the moment I finished that script I immediately started reading it again. I’ve never done that. It was like 6 AM by the time I had read it three times over. I kept thinking, “Who is this voice? Who is this female character Augusta?” And I thought, “Oh my god I want to be her for awhile.” I don’t know if I’ve had a soufflé experience yet. I may. At best, a film is a fraction of what you hoped it would be, but that’s okay because I think you keep reaching out for more and keep attempting and you sort of know that you’re never going to fully do it. But the process of continuing to try, and to continuing to try with people is like a really lovely life, if you can manage to eat.
Food is kind of imperative.
As it turns out, I never really understood the “starving artist” thing until I tried it. And now I can tell you that food is an imperative.
What do you even eat? I just figured ramen is the go to meal.
Totally, I ate a lot of ramen. When I came out to LA I got really into these boxed lentils at Trader Joes. If you mix them with the really hot cheap mustard, you couldn’t really taste them and how terrible they were. So that was actually my trick, fry your taste buds and it doesn’t really matter.
Are you still doing that?
At least now I don’t have to put hot mustard on my lentils. But I am ready to go back to that at any moment. They don’t pay actors anything anymore, I don’t know if you’ve heard about that.
You should’ve stayed at Goldman Sachs if you wanted to make money.
I probably should’ve. The funny thing is, I think it’s a real question of how small you keep your life, and I’ve kept my life really small. I literally have no stuff in my apartment. I literally just have a bed in there. People come over and they just sit on the floor. I’m not even joking, because there’s not a fucking couch. So they come in and I say “I can make you tea, or you can have some whisky.” But I don’t even have much in the fridge either, except for something that’s rotting in the freezer.
Is Fox paying you that badly?
(Laughs) No, no … but I mean, I think if you keep your life small then you never have to make choices you don’t want to make. I don’t have family or kids so I’m fortunate enough. My parents are in good health so I don’t have to worry yet about how I’m going to pay for education or how I’m going to pay for this weird experimental surgery to save this person’s life that I love. I’m in a lucky place, getting to just choose because I think something’s good or I want to do it, instead of like, “Oh yeah, this money is going to pay the guy that comes to change the filter in the pool.” I don’t have a fucking pool. So not a problem.
Do you plan on living that way for a while?
Yeah, I was having this conversation with Zal yesterday and we were laughing about this and he was saying, “Well, isn’t that kind of the shape of capitalism? Isn’t that just capitalism 3.0 what you’re doing?” Like, stuff isn’t cool anymore. So yeah, you can just not have stuff because the new stuff is like how many Twitter followers you have. And I thought, “Oh god, it’s true.” Capitalism is such a wiley beast that it keeps changing its shape. It used to be cool to decorate your house to look like the chicest hotel room. But that’s already on its way out. Soon that’s not going to be cool anymore.