Movie Talk

Indie roundup interview: ‘The Sound of My Voice’ director Zal Batmanglij talks cults, indie movies and eating earthworms

Photo by Fox Searchlight Pictures

"The Sound of My Voice" is a movie made for next to nothing, but it still manages to be more taut and suspenseful than most studio thrillers with 10 times its budget.  A pair of Silver Lake documentary filmmakers, Peter and Lorna, who infiltrate a cult located in the basement of a suburban split level. The cult leader is Maggie, an ethereal, charismatic woman who wears a long flowing gown and who trundles around an oxygen tank. Though she claims to be from the year 2054, she's remarkably vague about the future. Peter and Lorna initially intend of exposing her as a fraud, they get more and more swayed by this magnetic, mysterious woman.

Maggie is played by Brit Marling — the reigning indie "it" girl — who also co-wrote the script with first-time director Zal Batmanglij.

I had a chance to talk with director Batmanglij the other day over the phone.  We talked about cults, eating worms, and making the iPhone of movies.

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Jonathan Crow: Last year, we saw the release of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and now there's your movie. Why do you think there's a fascination right now with cults?

Zal Batmanglij: I think we long for connection. People are really alienated, and the cult is just sort of an extreme form of people crying out for the sense of family, for the sense of meaning, for the sense of purpose.

JC: So did that impression inspire the movie?

ZB: No, I didn't think of it the way I'm articulating it now.  I think that's only in retrospect when I saw that so many of our friends and fellow filmmakers who were also making movies about cults.  It was the soup that Brit [Marling] and I were living in.

JC: OK. So what was the genesis of this movie?

ZB: Well, I had a dream in which I was blindfolded.  My hands were bound by plastic cuffs.  I was wearing a hospital gown, and I was lead down these basement stairs, and I when I told Brit the dream in one of our morning writing sessions, she didn't miss a beat.  She just continued telling the story, and then I kept telling the story from where she left off, and we just kept telling each other the story.  It took about six months until we got to the end of the story, and we had a finished story then.

JC: I guess one thing I really liked about the film was that you have the cult setting not in some weird shrine or something like that. Instead you set in a very, very dull suburban basement. I thought that was really a smart move.

ZB: Well, I'm very fascinated by the meeting point between the mystical and the mundane.

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JC: I understand that you had a difficult time getting this project on the screen. Can you tell me about that?

ZB: Yeah.  Of course, we struggled.  The economy had collapsed, and no one wanted to give any money to an untested director and an untested actress with a strange script.  But we got a little bit of money, and we were able to say, "OK, well, we're going to start shooting on this day."

And then, we opened a production office in Brit's apartment, and then we had four or five people who were helping out that first week.  The second week, 10 people showed up.  Third week, there was like 20 people who showed up.  Fourth week, 30 people showed.  Five weeks later, we started shooting the movie, and I would say half or 75% of those people worked for free because they just wanted to be part of something.  It is like the stuff I was saying earlier.  People are longing for tribe and community.

JC: I heard something about an iMac…

Zal BatmanglijJeff Vespa/WireimageZB: Yeah, we didn't have money for even a computer to edit on. Brit would drive into an Apple store, and we would buy an iMac and return it on the 13th day, and then we'd go buy another iMac. It was sad.  I don't recommend that to anybody.

JC: Tell me about the earthworm scene. Did you have to psyche out the actors?

ZB: Just like Maggie says [in the film], you don't have to eat them if you don't want.  But the hardest thing is the idea of eating them, not actually eating them.  And any actors didn't want to eat them, didn't have to. I think Chris and Brit got into it actually.  You know actors love to do extreme things, so that is why they become actors; otherwise they'd be novelists.

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JC: "The Sound of My Voice" merges genres in an interesting way. Sci-fi with art-house thriller…

ZB: Sci-fi always appealed to me, like, since I was a kid. I remember being 14 and seeing "Terminator 2" for the first time.  That blew my mind. Then, I think, a couple of months later "Red" by Krzysztof Kieslowski.  Have you ever seen that movie?

JC: Oh yeah.  A great film.

ZB: Yeah, right but there's the same film in so many ways.  They're about a lot of the same thing, about destiny, time, and second chances. "Terminator 2" is a linear film while "Red" is an abstract film, and I never understood why you can't have both.  I didn't understand when I was 14, and I don't understand it today. Why can't you have both, you know?  Why can't you have it? I want to make the iPhone of movies.  We'll see if I'm able to actually get there…

JC: What does the "iPhone of movies" mean to you?

ZB: It means something that is undeniably functional, undeniably necessary if some ways, and yet so beautifully made, beautifully tailored, beautifully designed. Unlike anything else.

JC: Well, what are you making next?

ZB: We just shot a movie called "The East." Brit stars as a woman who's an intelligence operative who infiltrates an anarchist collective in the woods.

JC: That sounds a bit like this movie.

ZB: It's a lot of the same themes — looking for a community, looking for your tribe, looking for a meaningful life.  I'm not saying we'll always be making that story, but at least for now it seems right for the telling.

See a clip from 'The Sound of My Voice':