Film & TV

Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij on the Fascinating ‘Sound of My Voice’

Film & TV

Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij on the Fascinating ‘Sound of My Voice’

From our 'Golden Issue'
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When I meet Brit Marling at the Crosby Hotel, she is finishing her breakfast muesli. “Just two more bites,” she tells me with a smile. I do a double take. So convincing was she as Maggie, the mesmerizing and manipulative cult-leader in Sound of My Voice, it’s almost inconceivable that an actress—approachable, articulate, and beautiful—could have existed beneath such a larger-than-life character. What’s more, Marling burst onto center stage at Sundance with not one but two films:  Sound of My Voice and Mike Cahill’s Another Earth—both of which she co-wrote. Marling now calls L.A. home, but she’s in New York with her friend, co-writer and Sound’s director Zal Batmanglij to promote the film. Sound of My Voice follows two amateur documentarians who penetrate a shadowy cult by joining it, all in the hopes of uncovering its leader as a fraud.  Needless to say, things do not go according to plan.
When the three of us sit down to talk about the film, I realize that Marling and Batmanglij are not just the future of American indie filmmaking, they are also the kind of people you’d want to get to know. At one point in our conversation Zal, a vegan, peels a grapefruit and passes the wedges around. It’s a gesture that sums up the approach of this year’s rising Sundance stars: humble, thoughtful, and generous with their fruit.

BULLETT: Where did the idea for Sound of My Voice come from? What got you interested in cults?

Zal Batmanglij: When we were writing the film there was a lot going on in our lives. We were living in this soup filled with all sorts of doubts. We were trying to find meaning in our lives, trying to find a job. Brit wanted to be an actress, I wanted to be a director; but you can’t just be those things. We were writing everyday, but the fruits of those labors take a long time to ripen. So we were in this place of doubt. We were living in LA which is filled with all these fringe groups, and we got involved with one of them—I don’t want to say their name. But the things they were doing—their physical exercises and their way of approaching life—were really state-of-the-art. But the other people who were drawn to it had a certain brokenness they weren’t comfortable sitting in. They wanted a quick fix with the snap of a finger. Watching people’s desire to change overnight was the spark that lit the fuse.

There’s this generational critique in the film. Peter (Christopher Denham) ridicules the cult-members as being weak and misdirected. But he’s a slave to the cult of ambition. Did you see yourself in that? Or the people you were around? It’s like the tale of two cities: there’s the fringe cult world of LA and the creative professional world.

Brit Marling: And they’re equally cultish, equally obsessive.

Totally. Was that conscious?

BM: I think our generation is struggling with redefining what careerism means. Or ambition. Zal and I talked a lot about it. And this is probably in whatever brew the story came from. The baby-boomers had a way of seeing the world: you go to school, you pick a discipline, you move away from home, you’re in search of your own personal manifest destiny. And I think Peter has some of that in him. He almost has his blinders on. Something about the experience of the cult and Maggie opens him up in that way. So I guess there is a message there.

ZB: I just think it’s hilarious that this guy thinks he’s going to infiltrate this group, get to its centermost nucleus, which means he has to go through all these rites of passage, all these rituals. And that he’s going to get there unscarred. It cracks me up! And I think we as a generation also believe that. We believe we will get to the tootsie roll center of life without having the scars and the wear and tear that it requires to get there.

Something that struck me about the film is Peter’s struggle between cynicism and belief. I’ve noticed something similar with indie music in the last decade. Ten years ago the bands wore their ennui on their sleeves. But then there was this switch with bands like Animal Collective or MGMT. Instead of being blasé, they’re searching for psychedelic wonder.

ZB: Or my brother’s band, Vampire Weekend.

BM: Yeah, there’s something more earnest and filled with desire about it. This feeling or hope that there’s something more romantic or magical in this setting around us. I think that’s really true.

ZB: I also think that bands like Animal Collective and MGMT and Vampire Weekend are just trying to make really good music without any of the accoutrements. And I think that’s a generational hallmark. I see that with the filmmakers and the actors of our generation. Look at Drake Doremus who made Like Crazy. Or Lena Dunham. It isn’t business as usual. It’s a new perspective. The difference between Sex and the City and Girls is astounding!

BM: At least in its attempt to be honest. Sex and the City was such a fantasy of women in New York. I never thought when I was watching that show that it was telling the truth. But even from the first episode of Girls, the lovely awkwardness of that sex scene. Those felt like real moments.

When you played Maggie was there any model you used? She can be a creepy manipulator at times but then, all of a sudden, she’s like this super-chill yoga instructor.  

BM: I think a lot of that came in the writing once we figured her out. To hold the attention of the group she keeps switching the face that she gives you. Sometimes she’s motherly, sometimes vicious, sometimes it’s really intense psychotherapy. Other times it’s a good feeling like yoga. We really struggled to write her, but when she came she was very full-formed.

ZB: And she was commanding.

BM: Yeah, she was almost dictating what we were writing. I think the breakthrough moment is her moment with Peter. The feeling is that Peter is that for all of his guards wants to be seen in his brokenness and messiness. And she has some way of seeing people, through all of her weaknesses and insecurities, she has a way of seeing people very clearly and getting to the heart of of what makes them tick.

ZB: I think that’s at the heart of Sound of My Voice and connects to that existential soup that we were drinking when we were making the film. It’s that idea of seeing and being seen.

I know Brit, you wanted to be an actress at first. But you’ve co-written these two amazing films. Do you see yourself more as an actress or a writer?

BM: I started writing because I wanted to act, just like Zal who wanted to direct. But how do you begin doing these things? You come out to L.A., there’s this impenetrable system. Especially if you’re a girl in your early twenties. Writing seemed like a way to ensure that I could begin with roles that were interesting, that weren’t awful. Then we had such an amazing time writing together, and as writers we get to enter into conversations with people like you, and other people our age. I mean there’s Sean Durkin’s movie and Antonio Campos and Mike [Cahill] and Drake [Doremus]. There’s Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols’ film. All these young people are making these movies and entering into a dialogue with each other. Sundance was really special for that. You really can feel a conversation happening. It’s exciting to be a part of that.

A lot of these films you’re talking about are apocalyptic in some way. So many films these days are about the end of the world. What’s up with that?

ZB: I think it’s clear. We were the generation that grew up with global warming being instilled in us.

BM: But we live in this strange time where we know it’s going on but we keep driving our cars in L.A. to go to the grocery store. It’s a very weird time to be in.

ZB: And before, people were really scared of the end. But I think we lust after it now. I think it’s a call for anarchy.

People must ask you about the end of the film a lot. Without giving away the spoilers, what do you say?

ZB: We say it’s a satisfying ending. That’s the difference between Sound of my Voice and a lot of other films that could be like it. It’s actually very carefully mathematically plotted and there’s a lot of calculus there. It doesn’t leave you like “What the fuck! I want my money back!” It leaves you like “What the fuck! We live in a weird time.”

So what’s next? Are you working more together?

ZB: We shot a film called The East about anarchists. Brit plays a woman named Sarah Moss. She’s a conservative girl who works for a private intelligence group and she infiltrates an off-the-grid group living in the woods in New England.

Now that you’ve broken through that wall you were up against, what do you do to keep your feet on the ground?

ZB: You know what this work is so humbling. Everyday I’m in the editing room trying to make that movie work. I read a nasty review of Sound of My Voice yesterday. It’s humbling!

But it’s such a great film. And it got such amazing buzz. What was that like, feeling that response at Sundance?

ZB: We felt really, really lucky. We had worked very hard to make a movie, to distill that stew that was in our heads. We had no ambitions of Sundance, no ambitions of Fox Searchlight, nothing other than that we needed to make a movie in order to make sense of ourselves. We made this stew, put it in the bottle and threw it in the ocean. And it landed on a beach. And people like you opened the bottle and tasted what we had concocted and it made sense to you. And that feeling is a little bit mind-blowing.