The new film sci-fi Bliss is so open to interpretation and discussion, star Salma Hayek changed her entire approach to it three days into filming. In Mike Cahill’s latest film, which hits Amazon Friday, Hayek plays Isabel, a mysterious woman who claims to have created the reality she and a stranger named Greg (Owen Wilson) live in. This alternate reality looks very much like ours and, slowly, Greg starts to believe her. Eventually, she shows him a new reality, a peaceful, blissful one...or so we think.
“The movie, for me, works best if there’s a bistability of interpretations,” writer-director Mike Cahill (Another Earth, I Origins) told io9 over video this week. “Meaning you can assume that the ugly world is real or you can assume the bliss world is real and both have plausible evidence. You can find enough evidence in the movie to make one argument about one or the other.”
Cahill came up with the idea for Bliss because, as a sci-fi nerd, he’s always been fascinated with simulation theory. “I feel like simulation theory is a way for nerds to talk about the theological proposition,” he said. And while he acknowledges that “The Matrix dominates and rules simulation movies from now until forever—it’s a perfect movie,” he also believes the idea is so big, there’s way more room to explore. Even beyond what he touches on in his latest project.
“For me, all ideas start from an emotional place and Bliss was no different,” he said. “For Bliss, I really wanted to tell a story about the fragility of the human mind and to treat the fragility of the human mind with empathy and kindness and care. You, me, everyone we know, everyone has someone in their life that sees the world differently from you. And that could be for any number of reasons; that can be mental health and addiction, that can be Alzheimer’s, that can be political, that can be education level. That could be any number of things. But, as it relates to mental health, if they’re seeing a world so vastly different than yours, it makes it very difficult to reach across.”
In Bliss, the viewer is continually given information to support different perspectives. Maybe Isabel truly created a simulation. Maybe Greg is a drug addict untethered from reality. Maybe they’re both dreaming in a rehab center. Every scene adds to the mystery. And while that’s a story that could, and has been told, in straight drama, Cahill saw the opportunity to actually create a movie with two worlds. From one perspective, it may look like these characters are on drugs or sick. On the other hand, maybe that’s just how they look to others, which is where Hayek’s aforementioned change of approach comes back in.
“I was required to make a performance that would work 100% organically in either way,” Hayek told io9. “But at the same time, I wanted to make a decision of what I thought.” So, before filming, she decided to buy into the idea that Isabel and Greg are drug addicts. “Three days into the movie, I said, ‘Oh, no, this is real,’” referring to the simulated world. “The character took me over. Took a life of its own. And then I was so sure this was real. And it was very interesting because concepts that I was not sure that I understood [before], immediately I started understanding everything.”
Best known for films like Frida and Desperado, Hayek isn’t an actor who usually takes on straight science fiction (though she does star in Marvel’s Eternals out later this year). She even admits to not loving all things in the sci-fi genre, but felt Bliss was different. “This is a movie that is very original, even for sci-fi,” she said. “And it’s very intimate. It’s an intimate sci-fi movie. We’re not there to save the world or to save ourselves from the world. The sci-fi that’s experienced in the movie are actually things that are kind of happening right now.”
Both Cahill and Hayek have nothing but glowing things to say about one another. In fact, Hayek said she took a meeting with Cahill before reading the script because she was such a fan.
“He had me at hello,” Hayek said. “He said, ‘I have this thing. I’ve been thinking about you for the part always’ and I said, ‘What do I play?’ And he said, ‘You play many things. One of them is a drug.’ And then I read the script and then we continued to talk. It was an amazing collaboration. I think we’re going to work again for sure.”
Cahill also credits Hayek for making his movie work in ways he never could have imagined. “Salma’s almost unique in all the world,” he said. “She’s one of the finest actors that we have. She has this magnetism and this power. She’s capable of conveying so much in a look.” He explained to us a fairly spoiler scene where, when asked a question, Hayek’s character does something he feels only she could do.
“She doesn’t look at Greg. She doesn’t look at the screen. She looks off into her memory,” he said. “It’s such a subtle thing but when she looks into her memory it suddenly opens up his whole backstory...And Salma is alone capable of doing that kind of profound work with the instrument that is her acting skill.”
That skill goes beyond what’s on-screen too. Though not on Bliss specifically, Hayek is an accomplished producer as well as actor. When looking at the film from that perspective, she feels that while Bliss works as it is, it would have worked better how it was originally conceived: for theaters.
“[For example] the beginning, it kind of goes slow for 10 minutes because you have to experience what that character’s experiencing,” Hayek said. “If I was a producer, and I was going to cut it straight for streaming, [the viewers] don’t stay. People don’t go and make a commitment. I would have maybe edited a couple of minutes out of the beginning. It is a different language. It’s a different language because on the streamer you are also competing with series. So you have to think of a film for streaming differently from a film for the theater.”
Cahill agrees. He believes the way a person is forced to watch a movie in theaters, without distraction, changes their fundamental viewpoint on a film as opposed to watching it more passively at home. He would love if everyone could’ve seen Bliss in the theaters—but to be fair, in this day and age, he’s also aware he’s lucky it’s even coming out. “I’m so grateful that the movie is going to reach an audience at all,” Cahill said. “If people had to watch it as a flipbook I probably would be like ‘Put on some headphones and watch it as a flipbook.’”
Thankfully, you don’t have to watch it like that. But you might be flipping back and forth between what you think it all means. Bliss his Amazon on February 5.
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