Interview: Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling on Creating a New Type of Cult Movie With “Sound of My Voice”

The creative duo behind one of the most impressive feature debuts in recent memory talk to us about being awake to life, sneaking into the world of cults, and...

SoundofMyVoiceBritMarlingOriginally published on March 19th, 2011.

I’m afraid to say I may never see “Sound of My Voice” as perfectly as I did at its premiere at SXSW. Without a distributor, there was no title card to suggest you’re watching a film. Instead, there’s simply a white “1″ set against a black background before you’re plunged into a suburban neighborhood in Los Angeles like any other where there are some most unusual things going on. Our guides into this world are Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius), who are frisked inside a garage of an average home and escorted downstairs, asked for a complicated handshake to gain entry and find themselves in a basement in the company of some regular looking people attired in hospital gowns. Soon after, a woman named Maggie (Brit Marling) emerges in a white shroud with an oxygen tank to lead the group as a prophet, explaining that she hails from the year 2054. To know much more about what follows might rob “Sound of My Voice” of a bit of its mystery, but what can’t be taken away is the fact that it’s one of the most exciting American films in recent memory.

Perhaps the only story as exhilarating as the one going on in the film is that of the two people behind it, actress and co-writer Marling and co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij, who finished “Sound of My Voice” two days after this year’s Sundance Film Festival started and had to drive the master to Park City without ever having seen it on the big screen. It played well in the low-budget NEXT section of the festival, but SXSW appears to be where the film has really taken off, a place where a story awash in ambiguity and features a virtually speechless and bleached-blonde James Urbaniak can be appreciated full-tilt. But while “Sound of My Voice” could accurately be dubbed as a cult film, it would be wrong to think that description extends beyond its subject matter since it is a marvel of elegant, muscular filmmaking that touches on elements of science fiction while belonging firmly to tradition of great cinematic nailbiters. Marling, who took Sundance by storm by also appearing and co-writing the Fox Searchlight pick-up “Another Earth” for director Mike Cahill, and Batmanglij took time to talk about making their first narrative feature together, filming Los Angeles in a different light, their future plans and the power of belief.

SoundofMyVoiceNicoleViciusYou were working on something else before. What made this the film you wanted to do first?

Brit Marling: We didn’t quite finish writing the other project we were working on and felt we had to go research it more fully, so when this idea came up and we started to write it and it came out as this entire universe – I mean, a lot of storytelling came out. There is an answer to the riddle of who Maggie is. We haven’t gotten there yet. Maybe we will in a trilogy of films. Maybe we will in a TV series. But when it came out, it really consumed us. We were obsessed with writing it and wanted to bring it into the world.

How much of that universe of the cult did you have to create before you started writing?

Zal Batmanglij: We just kept telling each other the story. Brit would tell me a part of it and then I would pick up from where she left off and continue it. and Sometimes that would end up in a dead end, so we’d backtrack and say what would we really do if we were taken into the valley into a basement and this woman comes out? And it kind of has to be someone like Brit because you’re just like whoa, who is that? And what would repel us, but also what would draw us in? What would make us question our own sense of reality?

Brit, were you regretting some of the rituals of the cult you put in the script when the actual day of shooting came since you’d actually have to do it as an actress?

BM: I think one of the best things about being an actor is that you get to live extreme circumstances. Most dramatic stories are cataclysmically climactic events happening back to back and that’s one of the most amazing things about being an actor is you get to do that stuff. You get to be a cult leader and lead a group of people in doing bizarre things. I would never have that experience in my life.

SoundofMyVoiceBritMarlingI understand you guys first met at Georgetown and took a screenwriting class – were you thinking of becoming filmmakers before that class?

ZB: That’s actually me and Mike [Cahill]‘s story. We were seniors and Brit was a 17-year-old freshman, so we only overlapped for a year. We wanted to be filmmakers, but we didn’t know how to do that. How do you become a filmmaker? I still don’t know the answer to that question. How we made this film is…one day we just left. We left everything we knew with a backpack and we just started walking.

At first, I thought we would get someplace and that would be the destination of where we’re going, like here we are, we’re filmmakers now. We’ve arrived at this place and now I realize there are no destinations. It’s just walking. And you can spend the night somewhere nice – like you could make a movie – and then you have to keep walking. So it’s a very nomadic thing for us. We started that process not at college because we made shorts in college, but we still had one foot in the normal world. Brit worked at Goldman Sachs one summer. Mike and I did other jobs, but at some point, in my mid-twenties when we all moved to L.A., we just decided we’re going to do this and we’re not going to turn around and look back.

Coming from the east coast and going to Los Angeles, did a sense of discovery about the area play into how you decided to shoot the film?

ZB: I think that’s part of our job. People ask us did you research cults and it’s more like we have to be awake to life. We have to be hyperconscious and we were living in Silver Lake in different houses near each other when we were writing “Sound of My Voice” and we’d walk to each other’s houses to write and you’d pass by Forage [a restaurant where one of the scenes from the film is shot], which was just opening up. We went in there and we said, “Hey, look, we don’t have any money. Can we shoot here at night?” And the guys said, “Sure.” I was like, “Well, we first need to finish the script, raise the money, do all those things, but I’ll come back to you.” And so a year later, I came back to him.

BM: The same with La Brea Tar Pits. When we were coming up with the climax of the film, we went to the La Brea Tar Pits and were wandering around that space and all these prehistoric characters and this massive timeline stretching out on the wall, going from the beginning of time to NASA space shuttles lifting off. Real parts of L.A. inspired this story, so it’s like there’s an organic mystery of going into this subterranean universe of L.A.

BritMarlingSoundofMyVoiceIn general, there’s a commitment to detail that’s incredible and my favorite shot in the film is from the back to an airplane cabin, which is even more impressive when you realize there had to be quite a bit of planning involved to pull off since it wasn’t a set. The same could be said of the shot where Brit is walking alongside skid row in a sheet. Did those shots have to be done on the fly?

ZB: Yes and no. As a filmmaker, every time I get on a plane, I want to shoot it. I want to find the perfect angle. So I’m constantly taking my phone or my fingers and creating like a lens [adjusts his hands as if they were a frame], so that back of the airplane shot was something I’ve always wanted every time I was waiting in line to go to the bathroom. Every flight. We couldn’t afford an airplane set or anything, so we just got three tickets: one for the [director of photography], one for the actor (Davenia McFadden) and one for me and we took a flight from L.A. to San Francisco.

We were shooting on SLR [cameras]. We usually had the SLR rigged out. This time, we took off all the rig and the DP and I just went to the back of the plane and grabbed that shot. And the flight attendant goes, “What are you guys doing?” We’re like, “we’re just taking photographs of the tail end of our trip.” She’s like, “Well, oh, do you want me to take a photograph of you guys?” “Sure.” [laughs] And I was blown away when I saw it integrated into the story because at the end of the day, you can have shots or ideas in your head, but they only really work when they’re woven into the fabric of the story. So to see it come alive and to feel Carol Briggs on that airplane – I love that moment in the movie because you’re on this airplane and then you’re watching this black woman knitting and you’re like what’s going on? All of a sudden, we’re following her into this hotel room and there’s this sense of the freefall in life sometimes when things suddenly go in a totally different direction.

This is probably a reach, but by shooting at the back of the plane, I thought it was a striking encapsulation of what was going on in the film, perhaps subconsciously, since you have all those TV screens on the backs of the seats flickering, making all the people seem somewhat the same while knowing that something mysterious is going on amongst them. I’ll confess I’m probably reading way too much into this.

ZB: I get what you’re saying. Even the people on the plane, it’s the ordinariness of American life that I think begs for the extraordinariness that we tried to also weave into the story.

BM: I think also because there’s aspects of the story that are fantastical or magical and I think the things that you’re talking about – Maggie wandering around Skid Row and the plane, these things that were shot in real spaces that real people are around help ground this fantastical story in a realism that makes it scarier, makes it more unsettling because it’s not like uber-out-there sci-fi. It’s like sci-fi in the real world, which is kind of what life feels like I think.

SoundofMyVoiceZalBatmanglijI was actually a little disappointed to hear this would be possibly expanded upon since I loved the ambiguity and mystery of this single film…

BM: Would you watch more if there was more? [laughs]

SS: I trust you as storytellers now, but would you have been content to leave it as a single film?

ZB: We wouldn’t allow for you to see it if we didn’t think it could stand on its own. And I love the ambiguity that I feel every day in life is captured in that movie. But there are answers to a lot more questions and of course, those answers beg more questions, but there is an answer to who Maggie is. Only five people in the world know that answer.

BM: But even if we arrive at that ending, if we’re given the opportunity to do that, I don’t think as writers we think that the world is set in stone or that things are conclusive. I think even if we answer the riddle of who Maggie is, that will only point to more mysteries and misunderstandings because I think that’s part of how we see things.

Your next film [tentatively titled “The East”] is about anarchists? Faith and belief seem to be of great interest to you.

ZB: Well, let me ask you a question, how did you feel at the end of the movie? Were you a believer or a nonbeliever at the end?

A nonbeliever, but that’s probably more because I’m a skeptical person.

ZB: I think cynical people have the most fun with “Sound of My Voice” because it really is a cynical journey for a lot of the time. It’s like being on a rollercoaster. It just pulls the rug from underneath you because I think we’re skeptics too. We’re fascinated by belief and fascinated by groups — creating your group, finding a group, finding a family. Our next film is about anarchists and it’s again about someone who infiltrates [a group of anarchists].

BM: Also the idea of faith – Maggie’s asking these people to believe in something she cannot prove and I think there’s the possibility about something in the unseen, something more than can be mathematically understood that’s beautiful. I hope for that kind of world. I think Zal hopes for that kind of world.

ZB: We still don’t know what gravity is. We do not know where gravity comes from or what it is? What?!?

SoundofMyVoiceZalBatmangliIt’s such a great analogy for filmmaking in general, having that kind of faith.

ZB: We never dreamed it would work out like this.

BM: But you do have to have so much faith because your own self-doubt is so intense, then having to convince other people that it’s a story worth making, then early things coming in and not being sure if it’ll all come together…

ZB: That is true, because I remember running around that reservoir that [Peter in the film] bikes around – the Silver Lake reservoir – and thinking to myself, you just have to believe in your movie. I was so down on the movie. This was before Sundance, before anything. I was just like you have to believe. We put in the line from Maggie saying, “Peter, it’s not my choice, it’s yours.” I just felt that voice saying that to me while I was running, the idea that you just have to believe. It’s not the other person’s choice. It’s your choice to believe. And that’s a profound responsibility each of us have – to believe in ourselves. That’s hard.

"Sound of My Voice" opens in limited release on April 27th.

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