WonderCon Interview: Brit Marling & Director Zal Batmanglij Talk ‘Sound of My Voice,’ Writing Together and Filming Without a Permit

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Brit Marling (Another Earth) wrote and stars in the time-travel drama, Sound of My Voice. The film is about a couple (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) who go undercover in a cult in an attempt to refute the claims that its leader, Maggie (Marling), is from the future. The two quickly find out that they may be in for far much more than they bargained for.

Brit is hands down a perfect example of the mantra, create your own work. I talked to her last year for Another Earth, when she was just starting to get on everyone’s radar. After Sound of My Voice is released, she’ll be seen in Arbitrage with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon, The Company You Keep with Robert Redford and Shia LaBeouf and East, another film she wrote and will star in.

I talked to Brit and co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij at WonderCon about how they came up with the idea for the film, filming without a permit and how the two work together as writers.

The idea of a time travel as a genre is very well explored in literature, films and television series. What do you guys actually bring to the table you think that makes your film distinct from those?

Zal Batmanglj:  Well Terminator is one of my favorite films and so is Terminator 2, For us time travel is synonymous for belief, the belief in all the things that are not seen.  And also for the most outlandish claim that you can possibly make. 

To say that you’re a time traveler is even weirder than saying you’re an alien or whatever.  I mean, it’s really weird to sit down in the basement and be face to face with a time traveler, someone who claims to be a real time traveler.  So for us, it was about the sort of nuts and bolts of what it would be like if you were face to face like we are now with someone who claimed to be from the future.

Brit Marling:  And figuring out like the real practicalities of that. I mean usually in science fiction the concept is so big it’s hard to come down to earth for the micro movements of like, if you came from the future and you arrived here, what would you be like?  I mean, would your immune system be depressed from that travel.  Like, would you be well, would be ill, like would you be affected by microorganisms of the time period and be hiding out in a basement? Like how would it all practically work?

Zal Batmanglj:  And if you’re a very sophisticated con artist, what would you do to convince people that you’re from the future and what benefits would that give you?  So for us, it’s also a question of is she or isn’t she? That’s really a major part of the movie.

How do you keep the spoilers out? With Twitter and everything else, how do you keep spoilers away from people?

 Zal Batmanglj:  That’s up to you guys. [laughter]

Brit Marling:  I think, I mean that’s such a good question, but I think that when the audience connects with something, because even from Sundance and South by Southwest, we haven’t seen this too much.  It’s like people enjoy the experience so much that they want other people to go have it.  They’re like, “Don’t talk about it, like don’t tell, just go.”  It’s a nice feeling to feel people coming around it that way and sort of protecting the ideas in it so everyone can see it for themselves.

 Zal Batmanglj: And maybe it’s a bit of a bummer that the trailer gives away more than one would like, but I think the film has so many ups and downs and is such a thrill ride.  It’s actually really fun and has a lot of integrity in and of itself.

How much of the other cult members are explored? Obviously we’re experiencing all this through our protagonist, but, maybe the other couple that comes in with them, do we see their story and their point of view?

Zal Batmanglj:  It’s very strictly POV, so it’s very strict that it’s Peter’s POV that we take the story on.  I think that’s very important in telling stories, especially low budget stories, it really ups your production value when you have one person that you can sort of use as your avatar through the story.  But, I think everyone gets their moment in time.  That other couple definitely has their moment.  They have to make some tough decisions.

Brit Marling:  And I think you get to see through the different cult members why people are attracted to a group like this and everyone is there for a different reason and from a different background.  That was part of what was interesting for us in researching cults and exploring it because a lot of this happens in California, it seems to be like this hotbed for these ideas and bringing these groups together. No matter where they are coming from, they all have in common this feeling of searching for a kind of meaning in their lives that Maggie seems to offer.  You know, she says, “Dress in white, follow this diet, come to these meetings, do these things but I am going to give you a prescription for how to live and what the future will be like and you will be a chosen one to be a survivor and be a part of some experience.” And that seems so compelling. 

You two were talking about the challenges you had to face when you were making this, like filming on an airplane and playing it off like you weren’t actually shooting on an airplane.  Were there more scenarios like that? Where you were filming on the L.A. Bridge and making sure the cops weren’t around?

Zal Batmanglj:  We were such a small crew, that we weren’t worried about the cops on the LA Bridge, but we had no money. So for example we had an Imac that we bought and we would have to return it every 13 days because otherwise we would have to pay for it and we couldn’t afford even a computer to edit the movie on.  We had to return it 3 times. 

Brit Marling:  And that gets heavy. So, you’d have to box it up and carry it.  I would park the car with the emergency lights on and Zal would run in.  We would all take turns turning in this computer.  It was a lot of work.

The initial interest in the idea of cults, was that something that you were both interested in before making the film or did you guys one day just go, “Let’s do this?”

Zal Batmanglj:  I think what really connected with me was about the idea of a surrogate family.  I think we are really hungry for family in America especially, and I feel like people are really pulled apart from their families.  And so, we were interested in the idea of the extreme version of that.

Brit Marling:  Yeah, I think also, you know, when you come out to L.A. to make movies, or to do this kind of work or whatever, everybody is coming out on their own, you know? And you leave your sort of tribe behind and then it’s a question of that was your tribe by blood, now what is the tribe that you’re sort of making by choice or by what it is you want to do or you think is important.  I think we were having that experience, and so somehow the cult world seemed really compelling.

What’s the process like when you work together as writers?

Brit Marling:  You know, we have so much fun.  Like we come to it every day with a set of hours, like this is our chunk of time we have together and we just play.  Sometimes we act things out, like we’d come up with scenes.  We have played between us every character in Sound of my Voice.  Sometimes I’m Klaus and he’s Joanne, and he’s Peter and I’m Lorna and we have the fights.

Zal Batmanglj:  Sometimes she’s Peter, and I’m Lorna. Like for example the driving scene, we sat in two chairs, we’ve put our chairs together and we sat, and I said, “What if she is.”

Brit Marling: Nobody’s from the future, yeah.  That has been really helpful, that willingness to play.

Zal Batmanglj:  So, we’d do that for awhile.

Are you recording it the whole time?

Zal Batmanglj:  No.  We sometimes do.

Brit Marling Write it, we write it down, if it’s a particularly good one.

Zal Batmanglj:  Brit writes a lot down, I stay away from the writing part because I think if it sticks, it sticks and you just know it.  And the stuff that doesn’t stick, sort of just goes away.  Like the stuff that propels you forward, you can see it in your partner’s eyes, like you’ll be telling a part of the story like, “Oh well Maggie wakes up in a bathtub that’s in a crack den.” And either the person will light up or they go, try again.  And so, I think that works for us and then we crack a story and then the actual part of it happens really quickly.  Like, we can do that once we know the story really well.

Brit Marling:  But that outlining part takes a really long time. Once you play with the scenes and you’re outlining it you are again and again and telling each other the narrative, telling it to people and trying to make sure that the mathematics of the story work.  And then once you feel like those are in place, the actual writing in Final Draft doesn’t take as long.

Zal Batmanglj:  Yeah, because it’s very important for us, like we are viewers first and foremost. We view more than we make, you know? So, for us, it’s important that the viewing experience is fun and filling and fresh and different.  Those are our goals when we’re writing something.  When you watch in the theatre, which I hope you will soon, how will you have the best experience possible.  That’s really important to us.  How is it the most thrilling?

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