This past week featured a new release from Prime Video, Bliss. With only a handful of films behind him, up-and-coming director Mike Cahill delivers a one-of-a-kind experience from a love story that transcends reality, quite literally. To get more into of the specifics, Bliss follows Greg Whittle (Owen Wilson), a creative man stuck in a dull cycle, meeting unfortunate circumstance after unfortunate circumstance, until his dream girl, Isabel (Salma Hayek), rescues him from said boring routine and introduces an aspect to his world far more mysterious than it initially seems. Concurrently, Greg’s daughter, Emily (Nesta Cooper), seeks to rekindle her relationship with her now estranged father.
The mystery culminates in the revelation that the world Greg lives in is a simulation, and that reality is a future far more blissful, with technologies such as thought visualizers, holograms, and the standard sci-fi fair. The more the real world is explored, the more is revealed of the true nature behind Greg and Isabel’s relationship and what the simulation is really being used for. While Bliss is more out-there in presentation, the leading performances really sell the premise, particularly the chemistry between Owen Wilson and Nesta Cooper. Despite their limited screen-time actually together, their bond is quite impressive. Mike Cahill’s direction is precise and inspired, and we were fortunate enough to join him for an exclusive interview! We made sure to dive into a few intricacies of the plot, so naturally, spoilers for Bliss follow.
What was among your main inspirations for this story?
MC: My main inspiration for the story, I was interested in the human mind and the different ways we see the world. How one person can see the world very differently from another person. Scientifically speaking, obviously you and a bumblebee, or you and a rabbit, or you and any other animal perceive the world vastly different from each other. They have different senses and yet, even among humans, we see the world differently and there’s a fragility to the human mind which I find a tenderness towards. Especially in these times, and maybe you have encountered this with friends, family, or the ones that you love – they may see the world totally different than you, and their point of view may be distorted in such a way that there’s almost no overlap between the world that you see and the world they see. And the world they see may be infused with lots of details that are colored by their emotions. I was thinking about that, those divides, and how it’s hard to reach across those divides.
I wanted to tell the story of Emily in a way that even though she seems like she’s on the periphery of the story, she’s actually the star because she is someone whose persistence and love, despite the hardship and that feeling of futility, she keeps reaching out to try and connect to her father. Which is not a given, as the brother shows us, and that can make a difference, despite how hard that is. That was very beautiful, and I loved the idea of a love story between Greg and Isabel, where you find somebody who does see the world like you and how intoxicating that can be. How the rest of the world disappears. So those were the emotional cores I was interested in and then I thought, “Wow, cool simulation! I could turn the idea of different points of view on the world into actual literal different worlds.” That’s what science fiction allows you to do – take the expression and turn it into something practical. In science fiction, if I said “Give me your hand!”, you could actually literally give me your hand like a robot, you know? Those are possibilities in the land of science fiction, so we turned different worlds into literally different worlds, leaning into simulation theory, and all those kind of nerdy fun concepts.
This is a bit more tongue-in-cheek, but in the film thought visualizers do what it says on the tin, it adds a visual to all the thoughts and questions you may have. What does the thought visualizer show you when you say, “I’m in a pickle”?
MC: Ah! (laughs) Good question, I have no idea! What do you think it shows?
Honestly? I can only imagine some cronenberg-like horror, you know?
MC: (laughs) That’s good. I love the idea of leaving some things up to the imagination, because again, a lot of the movie has to do with miscommunication – not hearing each other, and that’s brains mishearing things! And the idea of “I’m in a pickle”, to not see what that is means that we can’t show everything. Sometimes, some things are left up to the imagination. Then the idea of a thought visualizer… I don’t know what it would be, but I scripted it to say that we don’t show it. I thought that was important.
How much of the script was translated 1-1 from page to screen?
MC: One to one? Very little. I have to say, my scripts are very much a rough blueprint and we had rehearsals and discussions with the actors and it changes a lot in pre-production. Then in production when you’re capturing a scene, if it doesn’t work – because you can feel if it works or not, that’s part of it – then we’ll change it to make it work. Working with such incredible actors like the ones I got to work with here, you can lean on them and their skill set. They understand the acting body, the instrument, and the abilities they can pack into a single gesture or a single glance. They’re really awe-inspiring. I love actors, so it’s not one to one, it’s more like one to point seven.
How much of the old Greg Whittle, the one that we saw at the projection/ceremony, was left out of the film? Because it seemed like there was more to it.
MC: It’s a window, not much more is left out of that. It’s meant to be a window into a world of the backstory of the Bliss, it happens fast. This whole movie has so many layers to it, but that’s one where we see and understand just for a moment, whether we understand it explicitly, implicitly, or subtly. Isabel’s faith in the reality of the Bliss world is unquestioned. Of course the Bliss world is real, but we understand that she made the Brain Box to save her relationship. She made the Brain Box because her husband was taking things for granted, and you see it. If you re-watch and see Salma Hayek’s performance in there, it’s extraordinary to revel in, because you can see just the way that she’s remembering those tough times in their soul-mate status, and that perhaps this Brain Box simulator world is all just this crazy elaborate mechanism to make her man be like, “Baby, I love you more and I don’t take you for granted”. With that, I think, there’s not more to it – it’s a window into that world.
What was your personal favorite scene to direct on set?
MC: My personal favorite scene to direct… they’re all different, they’re all so much fun. I mean, this job is really an extraordinarily fun thing to do because it’s so creative. It’s really a great beautiful privilege to be able to do this. We had a very tight schedule, so we were moving fast. There’s certain scenes that would have taken a lot longer to do, should have taken longer. For example, the roller-disco. When we scheduled that, we should have taken 3 days. We needed 3 days to do it because it’s very elaborate and there are like 25 stunts and it’s very complicated. But it was a lot of fun and a lot of work. It was like we were moving every 15 minutes to do another setup, then another 15 minutes for another setup, and another. But the actual energy of it was really exciting.
I’ll say probably the most fun scene to shoot, the climax was one of the most challenging. Seeing the cops around and deciding what to do, who’s going to go back and all this stuff. The reason why that was probably the most fun was because it was the hardest. The first time we did it, it wasn’t landing. Which gives you a sense of panic, and that panic I love. I love that kind of, “gasp, what are we going to do? This has to work or else the movie doesn’t work”, right? He has to learn on the other side of his arc, he has to come to love the simulated world, and we shot that before lunch. Then we went to lunch and I was sitting there like, “Oh man, I wish we could shoot more of that scene, but we have other stuff to do.” I then asked all the producers and everybody, and they were like “Yeah, let’s do it!” So we went back and re-shot the scene, making little changes here and there. Then… whew, it landed beautifully. So the most fun is the hardest scene because when you get to the end and it works, that’s exhilarating. Panic is part of my fun.
What’s the main message you want people getting out of the film?
MC: The main message is to take care of your loved ones who are having trouble mentally. If someone’s seeing the world differently, make the effort to try and connect with them, if you can.
That’s a wonderful message, to be honest.
MC: It’s beautiful. It moves me very deeply when Nesta’s character says, “you’re not late, you’re here”. It just slays me.
How was it like directing Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek together?
MC: Amazing, it was the best. It was like a masterclass in acting. Humans don’t have all the best vocabulary to speak about all the nuances of acting, because it’s part of the reason why we revere them as this sort of magical talent. It’s because it seems like magic, they can do things that you and I, and most people, cannot do. It’s hard to express what that is. It has something to do with expressing the truth in a situation, revealing some sort of surprising truth to any given moment. And to do it with the economy and with preserving the whole bigger picture over the course of a film, they’re just fun and really enjoyable to spend time with. But they’re the consummate professionals, and they care about the work. They were dedicated to delivering very powerful performances and it mattered to them, just as it matters to me and everybody. Everybody would show up to work, and we all really cared about what we’re doing. That was a really nice feeling.