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.
Perhaps 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.