If there’s a through-line in writer-director Mike Cahill‘s career, it’s that he explores other worlds through the scope of human behavior, and the same for his new film Bliss. What might seem like otherworldly premises is ultimately always brought down to earth by the rawness of the human condition. “I have this thing where I’m chasing human emotions and using sci-fiction on top of that. You can take away the science fiction, and the story still could be told,” said Cahill.
In his feature debut, Another Earth, Cahill explored its lead (Brit Marling) being confronted by their mirrored self from another earth. With I Origins, he sought out to tackle the afterlife through the sci-fi genre. With his upcoming release Bliss, the writer-director focuses his story on redemption through Greg (Owen Wilson), a man going through a crisis after a divorce and becoming recently unemployed.
After meeting an enchanting woman named Isabel (Salma Hayek), Greg discovers he’s been living in a simulation and that the people he has a personal attachment to, such as his daughter, ultimately doesn’t matter. Together Greg and Isabel strike up a co-dependent relationship based on the freedom of letting go of life’s daily worries as they delve deeper into the mind-bending universe of their creation.
Director-writer Mike Cahill sat down with Awards Radar to discuss the premise of Bliss and much more.
Niki Cruz: As an artist, what pulls you into these specific types of stories?
Mike Cahill: There are certain themes I keep coming back to. The work is almost revealing in itself. Another Earth to I Origins, to Bliss. I realized I really love the idea of redemption, second chances, and forgiveness. I didn’t know that about myself, but I think that’s one of the most beautiful things one human could give to another. As it relates to Bliss, in particular, I wanted to tell a story that highlights the fragility of the human mind and to do it with empathy and care.
All of us, we all have people in our lives that we love that see the world differently than us, and that can be for a number of reasons. Perhaps there’s something not right about their mind. Maybe their mind is fragile, so much that they’re seeing a different world than you. That world is detailed by their emotional landscape and is coloring their world. So, I thought, what if I told a story that was in this context and about his daughter Emily who persists through love to try and reach across into another world. I turned the story into other worlds through simulation theory.
NC: Do you always know you’re going to direct what you write?
MC: Yeah, I think of it very visually as I’m writing it. I feel like I’m a terrible writer, to be honest. I know my script is always going to change in the making. Usually, my scripts are 75% of what they actually end up being. In some ways, I just need the map, so I do write them with the intention of directing with it.
NC: What kind of research goes into it when you’re writing about these large ideas?
MC: A lot. It’s easy to research in a sense because it is my obsession. It’s my sitting in the garden reading. It’s not a drag for me to read about simulation theory. For instance, philosopher Nick Bostrom’s seminal paper, which essentially more or less proves we’re living in a simulation and uses logic to come to that conclusion. I’m obsessed — and I sometimes lean into them maybe a little too much, but the emotion is the center. I kind of walk hand and heart at the same time, but it’s not like research as in “here’s my stack of papers.” It’s my life.
Obviously, there’s The Matrix, which is the most famous movie about simulation, and there’s no way you can make a movie about this without referencing that. It’s a story that we keep coming back to because it adds some sort of philosophical resonance within our own suspicion with reality.
NC: The film hinges on the chemistry working between Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek, and they just hit it out of the park. They can ping pong between drama and comedy, and romance. How was it to work with them as a director?
MC: It was extraordinary. I learned so much from them. They’re among our finest actors that we have. I think we have such a deficient vocabulary in discussing acting as a society. You can say, “Oh, that’s good acting, and that’s not very good acting,” but what are we talking about? We as audiences can see it and feel it, of course, but we don’t know how to talk about it, but as a director, that’s your job. You have to recognize it and use it in the cut. One of the things that I can see what them is they can do so much with so little.
NC: Salma is brilliant.
MC: She’s absolutely brilliant. One tiny example of how she opened up a window in my mind where I said, “Wow, that’s what you’re capable of? It’s amazing.” It’s at the presentation on stage, and Greg is sitting there, and Isabel asks him, “Any complaints?” and he says “No..”.. and then it shows his “brain box interview” where he’s kind of complaining, and Salma does this thing in her close up that’s so subtle. In one take, she looks off, and it gave me the chills. Because the character [is now] remembering that guy on the screen and this entire brain box apparatus was generated by a woman who feels that her husband is taking her for granted. It’s a way to save the relationship — and [her choice] gave it such a back story. It was through a simple and controlled look and that’s how strong she is with the instrument of acting. It gave plausibility to the “bliss world” and there wasn’t a single thing that I could write that would make that work.
At the end of the film, you do see Greg seek out help. Do you think that character is okay?
Yeah, I think he’s going to be okay. He says, “This woman says she’s my daughter and I believe her.” You know he’s going to be okay because the one thing we have power over is to decide what we believe in. We have that ability and he believes.
Bliss is available on Prime Video on Friday.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]