This may be the first time you have heard of Brit Marling or Zal Batmanglij, but their new film Sound of My Voice guarantees it won't be the last: directed by Batmanglij, cowritten by both of them, and starring Marling, the film is a collaboration on a molecular level, and has already won them attention at both the Sundance and South By Southwest film festivals. Boxoffice sat down with the duo in Austin the day after the SXSW premiere of Sound of My Voice, and Batmanglij and Marling discussed at length the origins and development of the project, as well as their ongoing collaboration as they design and orchestrate film projects from the ground up.
How did these ideas initially strike you guys and how did you formalize them into a script?
Zal Batmanglij: It's a good question. I guess what you are looking for is a big idea that stays with you, because you have to be talking about it years and years and years later. And when we're making it, writing it, we kind of know when we hit one of those things.
Brit Marling: Yeah, it's something that inspires you, that we feel like we would be interested in mulling over for a while. The idea of a cult, the idea of time travel, those are ideas that interested us, and it was cool to delve deeper into those worlds and ask questions about it.
Batmanglij: And also, putting into the story things happening in our lives [like] relationship issues, issues of identity, issues of trying to find meaning. We kind of put everything and the kitchen sink in it and stirred, not thinking that any of that stuff would come out in the final film, or that people will consciously pick on those things. Which was so amazing about sharing the film, because almost everything we put down, people have been picking up.
What kind of research did you into physiological manipulation or the way cults actually draw people in?
Marling: We watched a couple of documentaries on cults and that was very useful, because you are watching actual cult leaders and seeing how they operate in their space and how they elicit that kind of devotion from their followers. And the way in which they are both charismatic and loving and generous, and that's what sort of draws these members in, and the way in which they wound and abuse them, which in some respects keeps some members coming back for more, in search of that original love. And I also think with Maggie, she is very intuitive and she has these intense insights into people. But I think what is weird about the cult experience [in the movie] is that you get the sense that some of the members of her group, she has really helped along. Their lives have improved from meeting Maggie.
Batmanglij: Even Peter - she goes in for the jugular, but something gets unearthed there. I think we were very inspired by people who are like that, someone like a friend who doesn't let alone and who pushes and pushes, and at first you might be resistant to that, but if they break through to you, you feel profoundly ‘seen.' It's such a nice feeling for someone else to see you, to actually see your pain, to see your hope-
Marling: And accept you and maybe even love you anyway.
Why was it important to have chapters in the way you guys structured it?
Marling: We wrote it that way. I'm not exactly sure, but I think part of where they came from and why they stayed in the actual film is because the film is kind of relentless in a way that it brings you into this cult. And at one point we did try taking them out, but without them you feel sort of inundated and you don't feel very much in control of the experience. What's cool about the chapters is that as you're reading the script, all of this insane stuff is happening, but you get to take a moment to pause, and choose to continue; it's like this white, blank space on the page kind of allows you to [catch your breath] and then turn the page. And I think it functions the same way on the screen - it makes the viewer feel like they have a little more control than they actually do.
Batmanglij: And it gives you a moment to reflect. I think we've always wanted to inspire the audience to think during the movie and reflect, and I think that after certain key scenes, you need a moment [to consider,] is she? Isn't she? Is that real? Isn't it real?
How careful did you guys have to be to maintain ambiguity about Maggie's actual origins or motives?
Batmanglij: I think it came naturally to us in terms of the story, in the sense that we always felt the pushback - you know, you would go in one direction and feel the pushback. I don't know the answer, but if it is true that [Maggie] got him to break down, then of course he going to shut down in front of his girlfriend and pretend like it wasn't true. And if he really was faking it, then he was really faking it. But as she says in the movie, which I love, those weren't fake tears; he got himself to cry, somehow.
Marling: It's complicated because as Maggie, I take on a different perspective and make decisions from an acting perspective that we may have not even thought of as writers.
Batmanglij: And as a director, I step out of it because I trust the actors to do their work.
Marling: Like I of course as Maggie believe that I broke Peter, that what I got out of him was the truth; I'm observing the subtlest things that are happening across his face, his muscle twitches, and flickers across the eye, and I am pressing different places in him to find what is creating an emotional response. That is the truth that comes out. But as far as what Chris [the actor] was actually thinking, I don't know; we'll have to go and ask Chris Denham.
Batmanglij: But I think if someone does break through to you, then your natural reaction is to close up again. And I think the film is constantly doing that.
How tough or easy was it to facilitate an environment where the actors could feel free enough to go through the emotional experience this movie demands of them?
Batmanglij: That's really my number one job. I mean, I do a lot of the directing in the writing; we figure out even our cuts - we say, "smash cut to..." [or dialogue will say,] "I'll tell you what they want her for!" and then there's a chapter cut. I even know where the music cues are going to go, so when we get on set, the real work is creating that safe space, and thanks for noticing that, because that's really what is about. And how do we do that? Well, we do that by just trusting each other and by like being open and honest with each other, I think as actors and directors and the whole crew. I think people are sensitive to each other, and we try to cultivate empathy on set. And we try not to overtalk it.
Marling: Zal is like particularly sensitive to it, I think as a director. I don't know that everybody has that kind of sensitivity. Zal is very aware of the fact that as an actor, what you are asking yourself to do is open up and be more vulnerable than you have ever been before. It's such a hard thing to do, and I've always felt, as an actor, with Zal, very protected. And then being in that situation where we are in a room of people and I'm being asked to force all of them to throw up, it's a really strange space to be an actor, to hold their attention and to convince them to do it, take after take. And I never felt unsafe, and I think that's because Zal was so hyperaware of how difficult the work is and how vulnerable you are and how you really need to be protected.
How important is it for you two to be self-starters in terms of conceiving projects yourself as opposed to finding outside projects to which you could apply your creativity?
Batmanglij: We just have a lot of stories to tell. I mean, I think we're open to doing adaptations or other people's scripts, and Brit as an actor for sure, acting in other people's movies, and as a director I'm totally open to it. But we just have a lot of stories to tell, so if those things can fit into our schedule of us telling stories, great.
Marling: I also think one of the cool things about it was learning how to write. It took us a while to do that - Zal wanted to direct, I wanted to act, and writing seems to be the most expedient way to get to actually do those things, and do them in substantive way. And I'm glad that we did that, because I noticed that when you're at the festivals, it's fun to talk to the filmmakers, it's fun to talk to people in the audience, and you feel like you have thrown something out and you're starting a dialogue - and then you actually get to have that dialogue. So I'm glad that we have been teaching ourselves to write, because that wasn't initially our agenda, but it's cool, and we want to do more of it.