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Exclusive Interview: Director Mike Cahill on how Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson create Bliss from his big ideas

Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson star in Mike Cahill’s film, Bliss Pic credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Amazon Studios

When it comes to sci-fi and probing deep life questions, director Mike Cahill is at the top of his game as seen in his latest movie.

From Amazon Studios, Bliss, Cahill’s new sci-fi movie is a mind-bending love story that follows the life of recently divorced father Greg, (Owen Wilson), a down and out guy whose life is unraveling – including his job and personal relationships.

Then, he meets Isabel, (Salma Hayek), a mesmerizing woman who lives on the streets and believes the broken world around her is a simulation. She thinks there is a beautiful and peaceful real world of “bliss” and she does everything possible to convince Greg that her wild conspiracy theory is true.

Bliss is the third of Cahill’s evocative and thought-provoking movies in this genre, including Another Earth and I Origins, and he is eager to start his next movie to continue tapping his creative spirit.

The director recently heaped high praise on his actors. “There were lines we would look at in a scene and Salma would say, “We could remove these lines and I can do everything we’re conveying there with a gesture, or with a look. We can make it stronger in this way.”  And it was true! She has that talent; as does Owen. It was a stunning collaboration!”

Cahill’s cast and crew agree that he is character-focused and also has a unique sensibility to composition and emotion that results in aesthetically pleasing movies. They credit his writing and unique vision for making sci-fi movies that are “richer, and so much more human than many other takes on the science fiction genre out there, at any budget level.”

From his home in Europe Cahill spoke exclusively to Monsters & Critics about pain, joy, escapism, working with Hayek and Wilson, and how this movie exceeded his expectations.

Monsters & Critics: Mike, since you wrote and directed Bliss, did this movie turn out as you expected while you were writing it?

Mike Cahill:  No, not at all.

M&C: Please elaborate about this.

Mike Cahill: It sounds corny to say, but it’s way better than I imagined.  I never imagined that I’d be working with these two brilliant actors.  Actually, all of the actors, Nesta, Jorge, and everybody was amazing. Salma and Owen in the leads took what was a humble working idea of a script and elevated it to something beyond what I imagined.

M&C: I have to ask, what does the term “bliss” mean to you?

Mike Cahill:  Bliss to me, is just hanging out with my wife and daughter.  I’m being blunt; that’s it. That’s my life. That’s my heaven. 

M&C: How long did it take you to film this very poetic movie?

Mike Cahill:  It should have taken something like 33 days, but we did it in 25.  Which is very fast; but we had plenty of time. We were very well-prepared and we rehearsed. We planned everything down shot-to-shot.  Everything was very, very well-choreographed and collaborated in advance so from the first day we could move fast and we could just focus on performance and didn’t have to worry too much about the technical components.

M&C: Why did you want to write this film?

Mike Cahill: I love stories about love, forgiveness, and those that find a meeting point between science and spirituality. When you see Bliss you see it is very much a continuation of the themes that I’m interested in.

My movie, Another Earth, used string theory and a duplicate Earth to look at paths not taken and self-forgiveness. I Origins used iris biometrics and reincarnation to look at grief or the loss of a loved one. Bliss uses simulation theory to look at the malleability of perception as well as our short-lived appreciation for the good that we have. And all three of these films prize compassion and empathy over cynicism or division.

Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson star in Bliss. Pic credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Amazon Studios

M&C: When I was watching the movie, I was struck by Isabel’s comment: “You have to experience the good to appreciate the pain.” I think I have heard that said the other way around.

Mike Cahill: Wel, it comes across a little bit like a Freudian slip when Isabel says it. Isabel says “You have to know the good to appreciate the bad; and Greg responds, “No, you mean the other way around.”  But no, she does not.

M&C: How do you see this complex movie?

Mike Cahill: There’s a strange component in the movie, which is that it’s about a man who’s chasing bliss. He’s chasing some sort of idea of paradise, numbness, escapism, closing off the noise of the world. The world is noisy.  We do have the soundtrack, it’s harsh, it’s filled with struggle and whatnot.  All he wants in his life is to achieve bliss and so he’s chasing that. 

The arc of the film lands him in a place where he’s not chasing the bliss, he learns to love the noise and chaos. When Isabel says, “This is horrible, it’s a nightmare, this is me.”  There’s a moment where he looks at her and he says, “There’s something kind of beautiful about it.”  That’s sort of the completion.  It’s the idea that the paradise lost, the Milton idea, or the fall from paradise, is not necessarily bad.

M&C: Talk about some of the major questions you ponder here.

Mike Cahill: If you’re going to create the world, why include the hardship?  There’s some question we can’t seem to answer and, of course, it’s theologically asked and now with simulation theory becoming in vogue since the 2000s, we find scientists, mathematicians, logicians, and those who don’t have a theological cell in their body can ask the same question.

M&C: Have you always been this deep?

Mike Cahill:  Maybe, I don’t know.  It’s a problem, I should stop. Maybe I should keep it surface level.

M&C: No way. Please talk about this great cast.  Why were Salma and Owen so perfect for these roles?

Mike Cahill: Salma is unique in all the world. I felt like Salma had the power of the storm, the power of the ocean, and the power of nature that produces within one the sense of the sublime. Owen feels like the surfboard riding that ginormous tsunami. 

 It’s like she’s the tsunami wave and he’s the surfboard — that’s what I feel about their union together. And then on top of that, they are among the world’s finest actors. Their skill level is ridiculously incredible. That’s the thing, they made the work better.

Salma is very specific. I actually think their union together, reminds me of this art form that kind of emerged in England and it related to paintings. It’s known as the sublime or chasing the sublime.

  It’s this idea that there’s beauty in that which evokes fear or gives fear.  It’s like stepping into an avalanche.  Or watching one of those crazy surfing videos.  It creates this kind of a wonderful sensation. It’s fearsome. 

Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek in Bliss. Pic credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Amazon Studios

M&C: Does this movie resonate more with audiences, and yourself, because we’re in the throes of a global health pandemic and everything is so precarious and different in our lives than it was a year ago? 

Mike Cahill:  Yeah, it does call into question again what is reality, certainly.  And, again, a lot of the movie says is this real or is this real.  It asks this question, is the ugly world real, is the bliss world real, which world is real?  It keeps going back and forth. But, of course, it’s science fiction.

Real is a metaphor for what is important to you, what do you value, what do you spend your time thinking about.  I think the global pandemic has reminded us that those people that we love are real.  You have to acknowledge life doesn’t last forever. 

M&C: What about sci-fi attracted you initially?  And now with all of these movies under your belt?

Mike Cahill:  I love science fiction as an art form because it allows you to zoom into parts of the human condition that may come across as too nuanced or subtle in a regular drama or a regular story.  I can tell a story about a man caught between two worlds, but I can make them literal worlds. I can make them actual worlds. 

One world represents a type of escapism or numbness, and one world represents a type of harshness and struggle and dealing with the noise and the chaos.  And with science fiction, you can turn them into places.  You can make a brain box and tell stories of simulation. 

M&C: How does this work?

Mike Cahill: You can do all these things that are very nerdy and exciting and kind of – the things I love reading about and visualize. Ultimately, they allow you to zoom in on some part that makes us human and makes us tick. 

Actually, you go away from the every day, in a way, to find the real meat and bones of why we’re living, breathing, why we’re here, what matters to us and how do we make those decisions.  That’s why I love science fiction used in this way.

M&C: Do you know what is coming up next?

Mike Cahill: I think so. I’ve written two scripts over this time period. Hopefully, it won’t take me seven years to make a new film.  We’ll see which goes, I don’t know.  It’s hard to know, the future’s very, very hard.  It’s hard to know what the future brings.  It never is easy, but it’s particularly hard these days.

M&C: What do you love about writing versus directing?  Or do they bring out different sides of you and your personality?

Mike Cahill: What do I love about writing?  Writing is fun because for the most part, you don’t have to worry about what’s possible, yet. When you’re directing you actually have to really think about what’s filmable and possible. I try not to constrain my writing, I try to write everything I want to do.  And then when you’re actually practically making the thing then a little bit of reality comes in. 

I love directing because it is the experience of interacting with artists that you admire and love. When you’re working with a production designer who’s brilliant, a cinematographer who’s brilliant, and producers who are brilliant, and these actors who are just top of their game, they’re like super muscles of the craft. It feels like you joined a dream team of a sports team where I get to play in the land of the human condition.

The sci-fi movie Bliss begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, Feb. 5.

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