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Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij Speak About the “Sound of My Voice”

Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij Speak About the “Sound of My Voice” (photo)

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I’m afraid to say I may never see “Sound of My Voice” as perfectly as I did at its premiere at SXSW. Still shamefully without a distributor, there’s 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 film debuts in recent memory.

03182011_SoundofMyVoiceSXSW.jpgPerhaps 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 out from a busy SXSW to talk about making their first narrative feature together, filming Los Angeles in a different light, their future plans and the power of belief.

You 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.

I 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.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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