For filmmaker Mike Cahill, the road to "I Origins" began with one photograph and one remarkable set of eyes.
The photo, shot by Steve McCurry in 1984, was of an Afghan refugee girl, maybe 13 years old, whose haunting green eyes hinted at the hard life she had lived. It ran on the cover of the June 1985 issue of National Geographic and became an international sensation.
The photo, Cahill said in a recent phone interview, "became very, very iconic, but we didn’t know what that girl’s name was."
That idea was the kernel that grew into "I Origins," Cahill’s second movie after the 2011 Sundance Film Festival hit "Another Earth." "I Origins" is in the midst of a platform opening nationwide and opens Friday at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City.
Cahill was fascinated by the search for that girl, whom McCurry found again 17 years later. Specifically, Cahill was intrigued by the science that helped identify her: iris biometrics, in which the patterns in the color portion of the eye become like fingerprints.
"Even identical twins have different irises," Cahill said. "Irises are infinitely more powerful than a fingerprint, particularly because it’s an internal organ visible from the outside. They form inside your mother’s womb, they stay the same your entire life."
"I Origins" begins with a molecular biologist, Ian Gray (played by Michael Pitt), who is fascinated by the human eye. It’s the basis of his research, which he shares with a young Ph.D. student, Karen (played by Cahill’s "Another Earth" collaborator, Brit Marling).
Ian also becomes fascinated with Sofi (Astrid Bergés-Frisbey), a beauty with haunting eyes and an unscientific belief in the otherworldly. Ian and Sofi fall in love, but the romance ends with tragedy. Years later, Ian makes a discovery, based on Sofi’s distinctive eyes, that upends his scientific certainty.
Cahill met Pitt — who recently appeared on "Boardwalk Empire" and played a Kurt Cobain-like figure in Gus Van Sant’s "Last Days" — and outlined his ideas. Pitt immediately wanted in.
"This guy has got great ideas, he’s super casual but very efficient," Pitt said. "The best working relationships for me have been when it’s like that."
In "I Origins," Cahill and Pitt collaborated on creating a character not often seen in movies: a cool scientist.
"You rarely see science portrayed in films as something other than something to get through as a plot point," Cahill said. "I really wanted to embrace and cherish and celebrate, without being cheesy, the amazing work that scientists do and the actual process of it."
He cites a line Karen says about making a discovery and the feeling she had that "I was the only person on the planet who knew that it was true." "That’s a visceral sentiment that scientists feel, and I’ve rarely seen that captured on film in that way," Cahill said.
"What these people are doing [is] really, really interesting," Pitt added.
The depiction of scientists in "I Origins" impressed a jury at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which awarded the movie the Alfred P. Sloan Prize — given to movies that show science or scientists in dramatic ways. ("Another Earth" won the same award at Sundance.)
Science is a rich field for writers, Cahill said. He cited authors, from Jules Verne to Isaac Asimov, who employed cutting-edge technology to tell human stories.
"If you think of everything that we know as a species as a circle, that circle grows larger and larger and larger every day, because of the work of scientists," he said. "That new frontier is where paradigm shifts can occur. As an artist, the new frontiers of new discovery is the most exciting canvas to work on."
At heart, Cahill said, "I Origins" is about the fear of death, a fear he said is "fundamentally problematic to being human."
"Most of the problems in the world are because we’re afraid of death," he said. "If we weren’t, I think the world would be a nicer, more peaceful, generous, sharing and prosperous place."
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