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CLIMATE AND CULTURE

Another Earth

Parallelism

“What if?” is a question that has plagued and inspired humankind since time immemorial. What if we had gone this way instead of that way? Quantum physics has suggested that the outcome of every choice is simultaneously real in parallel universes. It’s a subject that has fascinated two explorers of another type of latitude: Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the filmmaking duo behind Netflix’s metaphysical mind-binder The OA. Here, they talk to Atmos about multiple realities, the parallels between science and spirituality, and their very own “what ifs.”

Interview by William Defebaugh

William: A running theme of your series The OA is parallelism: parallel timelines, parallel dimensions, the parallels between the groups of people. It’s also something that is a theme in some of your past work—Another Earth, especially, Brit. Where does the interest in this idea of parallelism come from?

Brit: One feels as one gets older that the choices you make really send you off on these forking paths. The farther you get out on a limb, you make one decision, and you go one way instead of the other—and then another way into another. Eventually you’re very far out on a quite fragile limb, and it’s hard to go back to the trunk of that tree.

And so, I think you kind of become caught in the idea of wondering, Well, what if I had gone that other way? Back when we were making Another Earth, I thought a lot about, What if I had stayed in the investment banking world? Zal and our friend Mike Cahill had come up to New York one weekend while I was working at Goldman, and they were like, “We’re doing the 48 Hour Film Project, let’s do it together.” And I had so much work to do, and I was like, “Ah! Should I really do this?”

We ended up making a film in 48 hours together. I don’t think it was very good, but the film kind of put into sharp relief this idea of working hard at banking during the week, versus working hard over that weekend, telling a story I cared about with people that I love. And that juxtaposition made me choose one direction over the other. But that was such a strange, fated moment. You know, what if Zal hadn’t come up that weekend to do the 48 Hour Film Project? Would I still have found my way to storytelling? Would I still be in New York working at a bank? It’s just interesting to think about alternate destinies and the idea that, perhaps in a version where there’s a multiverse and all these things are existing on top of each other, maybe we are living out simultaneous, different versions of the same life.

Zal: A person we work with sometimes combs the Reddit threads—Brit and I don’t have the stomach for Reddit—and someone had written, about the Part Two trailer, that they really feel like it’s going to be about selves in different dimensions. And that they really connect to that idea because they feel that there is—uh, I’m gonna start crying—that there is a version of themselves that exists in other dimensions that’s the best version of themselves. A version of themselves that didn’t have all the pain, and all the sadness, and all the misfortune that they’ve experienced in this life. And I think that that is very moving.

Brit: Oh my God, Zal. As you were saying that, I was thinking, Gosh, it’s so true that so much of Part Two is about—at least with OA’s character, and with Homer’s as well—the question of whether you live in a traumatized or an un-traumatized body. Prairie Johnson spent seven years underground. Nina Azarova, who grew up as an heiress in San Francisco, did not have that trauma. And what is it like to jump into a body that hasn’t experienced those depths of trauma and to witness that life? And the same is true for Homer.

Zal: I think that also the idea of parallel worlds, or multiple dimensions, or multiple realities, or realities that are just a bit skewed, or just a bit off of center—it’s something that I think the culture was collectively skirting or flirting with. And of course, Brit and I were interested in that, and we rode our boat towards it. This was before the election. I don’t think it’s so much the results of the election in the United States, or the referendum in England, or whatever, it’s more the idea that the internet has produced a fractal pattern. Twenty years after the internet entered our culture, it’s creating a reality that exists on top of our physical reality, that mirrors, in a lot of ways, the reality that we grew up with, or that we’re used to, but also is vastly different than realities have been in the past. And I think all of us are dealing with that. And multiple dimensions are a way, in fiction—I think the big rise in genre filmmaking right now is a way of talking about these issues, global issues.

Brit: Or an attempt to cope with them. I mean to connect it also to the environment, I think everybody is struggling with the idea that we have gone well past what is safe on the climate clock. It’s now no longer about, Will there be serious damage? It’s like, What is the damage? We are already in the zone where the climate is shifting, temperatures are changing, and the question is now: How will human beings survive inside that? Or will they, ultimately? When we were growing up as kids, human existence on earth didn’t feel that precarious. And now, I think everybody is trying to cope with a day-to-day reality in which, if you really sit with the facts, the world we are living in now will not go on for that much longer. And it’s kind of an illusory reality that it will. And so, I think Zal’s right to say that this interest in metaphysical storytelling, alternate dimensions, has to do with: Is there a dimension where we didn’t poison our planet? Is there a dimension in which we acted as proper stewards for our environment, where we lived in concert with nature? Where humans didn’t have such ego and a sense of superiority? We all wish now we could go to that dimension, you know? And so, I think there’s a bit of a natural coping mechanism that comes from within storytelling that deals with parallel realities where you made different choices as an individual. And where, collectively, we made different choices as a species.

William: Zal, you were speaking of the internet and just how much that has changed things earlier. There’s this theme of technology versus nature that became more apparent in Part Two. Where did your interest in that dichotomy come from? How did you go about weaving that into the story?

Brit: I think there was probably a lot of different origin points for that. One of the things that’s just a specific piece of research we had been doing while we were writing Part Two is that we were reading about trees and the fungal network underneath the earth that connects trees—and how trees share in these resources and use the fungal network as a means of communication. If one tree is dying, another tree (that’s maybe even another species) will send nutrients to that tree.

As we were reading about all of this, it was like, Wow, this feels like, and sort of is, a natural internet. And how funny that in [San Francisco,] with all this green space, there’s a naturally occurring internet beneath the city. And then on top of it is the tech epicenter of the world. That juxtaposition felt sort of bizarre to us, that both of those things sit right next to each other. And that we have difficulty acknowledging the intelligence or genius of the natural world, you know?

We pat ourselves on the back for creating the internet, but the internet was created long ago—and it was existing underneath our feet. And the trees, in an interesting way, are using it as a way to care for one another, to protect different species, to work in concert in a kind of symbiosis with other aspects of the forest. Our version of that technology, our internet, I don’t know that we’re that evolved yet. It feels like a lot of our current applications tend to create greater alienation and isolation than they do community. There’s something about that that’s really interesting.

William: Coming back to the story, I love how there’s sort of this secondary dichotomy, but that’s also very much a part of nature versus technology, which is the idea of mysticism versus rationality. Were you conscious of this?

Zal: I think that we’re interested in the spirit, and I feel like this movement against the environment that we see is a movement against the spirit. I think it’s weird that certain religious groups in the world haven’t made environmentalism their number one cause. As we prize the spirit that we are a part of and that’s inside of us more, we will prize ourselves and the world that we live in more. And so, I feel that is missing.

William: There’s that tiny moment in the second episode, when they’re using the little Russian dolls to explain the dimension-jumping, and Hap says, “the mind,” at the same time as OA says, “the soul.” And you just get this little tiny moment of seeing the differences between these two perspectives.

Zal: There’s even a dichotomy between soul and mind. The truth is, we don’t know what the mind or consciousness is, even scientifically. I mean, I think that’s where it gets really interesting. It’s unclear exactly what consciousness is in all of this. It’s a known unknown.

Brit: I think that’s so true. Science sometimes presents itself as capital T, Truth, you know? And I guess it would feel better if that space was able to acknowledge that we’re always just dealing with the hypothetical. And we’re dealing with technical language that tries to come up with descriptions for what may be happening. But poetry is also a language and a description that tries to talk about what may be happening. And I think, in the best case scenarios, and the most elevated versions of science and of poetry, those are a continuum that just seem like a dichotomy, but actually, that straight line picks up and the ends meet at the top of a circle. I remember reading Einstein’s ideas and opinions, a collection of journal entries and letters, and when you read them, you see that he had this incredible mind for science. But he was also just a deep poetic thinker. And those things seem like the same brain to me. I think that’s really beautiful that you point out Hap says “mind” and she says “soul.” Hap has this one pursuit in one direction and she has another pursuit in another direction, but in some ways, they’re sort of exploring after the same thing. I think in the best versions of both of those disciplines, we’re all just trying to get at the unknowable, the unsayable.

William: And to make the same comparison that Zal is making, you can say the same about science and spirituality. They oppose, but what are they both really after?

Zal: They’re after the unknown. And I think that’s the thing we have the hardest time with. And a lot of times we come to television, whatever that is these days—I guess the stories that are coming into our houses, our bedrooms, our living rooms—and we want a very known world. That really appeals to us: a rational, understandable world. And I think our storytelling is interested in things that you might feel, but you can’t necessarily verbalize. That even we ourselves can’t verbalize, that’s why we tell the story as a way to get the idea across.

Brit: Or things that your body knows, intelligences of your body that just enact themselves without your conscious mind knowing it. When a person gets pregnant, it’s not like they are sitting there in control of their mind, being like, “And now send protein packet A4 to site B7.” It’s unconscious creativity. And I think we all participate in that a lot more than we want to acknowledge. Our intuition is as valuable, and intelligent, as our logic and reasoning and problem-solving ability. It’s just that the intuitive form has sort of fallen out of fashion. That’s not the one you can scrunch down and hold and know for certain.

The OA

William: That reminds me of something fascinating that someone told me recently about the difference between instinct and intuition. They said that we now don’t trust our intuition because we think of it as the same as instinct, when in actuality, instinct is something different. It’s something that comes from evolution, and isn’t necessarily always trustworthy because instinct is based on fear. It’s based on keeping us alive. Whereas intuition, maybe it’s something else, and the problem is that we’ve conflated the two.Brit That’s such a beautiful distinction. I think it’s true. It’s that something else. And for some reason, our modern culture has a very difficult time with that something else. Like it doesn’t want to acknowledge that it even exists. But we all know that it does. We are using it on a daily basis.William There’s such a parallel between Parts One and Two, where all of a sudden, these characters have found themselves in the same situation in a different context. You brought up the word trauma earlier. There are so many spiritual and psychological schools of thought that say that if you don’t resolve the trauma that you have, it will just keep coming up again and again. What was the thought process behind that part of the story?

Brit: I think there’s the very human experience of patterns. I think we find ourselves in different versions of the same relationship. You’re with somebody and you’ve been dating for two years, and then suddenly you realize, Oh my gosh, I’m enacting all the same dramas that I enacted with my mother, or with my father, with this person. I couldn’t see it, but of course it’s all there. I think there’s an idea that we get sort of patterned quite early, and then we tend to repeat those patterns. And then there’s a question of: Is that okay? Or do you try eventually to break out of that pattern? And if you do, what does the wilderness on the other side look like? What is it like if you dimension jump, and you dimension jump outside of the echo? Can you even recognize yourself there, you know? I think that those are some of the questions we were asking.

William: Do you think it’s possible that there’s certain things, like Brit leaving her job in banking or perhaps even telling the story of the OA, do you think there are certain things that would happen regardless? Meaning, if we are to say that other dimensions exist, do you think there are certain things that would happen no matter what?

Brit: I love that question. I love that question because I have no idea how to answer it, because I think it gets into more of a fundamental belief question, which is: Do you think certain aspects of life are fated? Like, if I had stayed in the investment banking world, would I have, at night, been killing myself writing strange novellas on the side and publishing them under a pseudonym? You know, Zal studied anthropology in school. If he had gone into anthropology, would he have ended up telling stories about collectivism? Are Zal and I storytellers no matter what? But when we meet each other, we bring something specific and certain out of one another. And that is a life. I hate to think of the dimension in which we never met each other. I just imagine that there are quite a few echoes in which we did meet each other, under all kinds of different circumstances, and told stories together. Even if they were just like stories that we told to each other on our lunch break at a job we worked together.

Zal: Yes, but I like the version where we never meet. I like the idea that maybe we just told each other a story on a plane once. We were just plane friends, like we just sat next to each other, and had a five hour flight, and got to know each other, and then said goodbye at that baggage claim. I like that because it suggests that this dimension in which we are storytellers together, it’s precious. It could have not happened—it is not inevitable that it would happen. I don’t know, there’s something more beautiful to me, more akin with the natural world. You know, sometimes it’s just the mixture of the rain and the sun and the position of a tree that produces a certain flower. And I like to think that we are both buds on those trees. That it’s so arbitrary, and that arbitrariness is what makes it beautiful.Brit Very powerful. You’re right.

William: Well I for one am very happy that the two of you met and that we all got to have this conversation. Thank you very much.

Brit: That’s lovely. Thank you, William.


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