In Sound of My Voice Brit Marling plays a waif-like cult leader who claims she’s a time-traveler from the year 2054. Hunkered down in a Los Angeles basement, all long blonde hair, iridescent skin, and white robes, it’s not a stretch to see her through the eyes of her followers – Marling’s portrayal exudes an other-worldliness that’s impossible to ignore. Unsurprisingly, and unlike many of her contemporaries, the Chicago-born Sundance sweetheart is not the product of a Los Angeles starlet mill, but has instead emerged from the academic depths of Georgetown’s economics department to become a talented triple-threat Hollywood has the hots for. Working closely with her college contemporaries – Voice writer/director Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, her co-writer and director on sci-fi drama Another Earth and upcoming film The East – Marling managed to pen, produce, and star in two festival favorites in 2011, and has launched herself into the company of industry legends like Robert Redford, Richard Gere, and her Arbitrage co-star Susan Sarandon. It’s a trajectory so startlingly improbable, especially to Marling, that it makes time-travellers and parallel worlds seem that little bit more likely, and has us holding up a cardboard sign to the stars that reads: “Brit Marling, we believe in you!”
BRIT MARLING—How are you? I’m so happy to hear your voice.
SUSAN SARANDON—I’m great. I was just watching you feed worms to people [in Sound of My Voice].
BM—That’s so embarrassing. I actually ate one of them.
SS—How were they?
BM—The dirt that was in the plastic ziplock bag was actually Oreo cookies, so it was actually an Oreo-cookie-coated worm, which was surprisingly palatable.
SS—And how many of the other actors did you tell in the auditions that they would have to eat a worm covered in Oreo?
BM—Why are we always putting people through such tortuous things? We didn’t tell them about the worms, but I remember in the audition Zal [Batmanglij] was asking people to sit on the floor in lotus position and go through a range of emotions, asking them to improv things like acting like animals to see if they were open to the idea of being in a cult and following weird orders. It was a strange process.
SS—And they didn’t even know who he was. It wasn’t as if he was an established director.
BM—No, not at all. But the casting directors were really cool on the movie. They were these two girls, Amber Horn and Danielle Aufiero, who were really thorough in finding great actors. I think everybody seemed really open because they dug the script and thought it was weird and strange. People were really ready to go there. I don’t know why, exactly.
SS—Also, if you weren’t using a huge crew, which I’m assuming you weren’t, it makes it very personal and intimate and easier not to feel like you’re being manipulated.
BM—I think that was helpful. Also, there were a lot of women on the crew: it was a female DP – Rachel Morrison – who’s so talented, and all women camera operators. There were two cameras running and they were both women.
SS—And Zal is so calm.
BM—He gets into the anthropology of it. I remember we were all sitting in the basement – which we had to make because it turned out that there are no basements in Los Angeles, which neither Zal or I realized growing up on the East Coast – the whole group was in a circle and there was a big tarp between them and everybody had plastic cups of fake vomit; I think it was beef stew with cut up apple chunks in it. Zal’s really good at coming into a space where all the actors are nervous and calming everybody down, holding everyone’s hand, and making everybody feel safe that they can go through this experience together and nothing bad is going to happen.
SS—Was your character, Maggie, based on Zal?
BM—In that sense it’s like he’s the cult leader! Maggie came from so many weird places. I don’t know much about female cult leaders. Maybe we could’ve done more research in that regard, but we were really just making it up as we went; this idea of how would a woman lead, enthrall, and entertain a group in a way that’s different from how a man would and what we came up with was this idea of shape-shifting. She’s motherly in one moment, and in the next moment she’s the ingénue and then she’s a bit of a vixen and then a dominatrix…
SS—Without raising her voice, not playing the power thing at all. I liked a lot of what you did in terms of controlling, disciplining but at the same time being very vulnerable – you don’t see that very often or at all.
BM—I didn’t really notice that. I guess Maggie never really yells. I haven’t watched the movie in a while, but you’re right, she’s just intense. She never actually raises her voice.
SS—She makes people who impose order by using force seem so amateur.
BM—Do you think that’s true of women – that part of women being powerful is them showing their vulnerability in a way that men don’t?
SS—It definitely used to be the image of what’s sexy, if you look at the Marilyn Monroe era – they wanted her vulnerable. But as women started to get stronger, this definition of what’s sexually attractive morphed somewhat… But I’m curious to know, you worked with Mike [Cahill] and with Zal, and you wrote on both films, so does somebody have the idea and then you collaborate, or do you just have a broad topic and then throw ideas around? How did the two films come about?
BM—It’s so nice that you know Mike and Zal, because I feel like you understand the dynamic. We were all young and at school together, and interested in the same movies and reading screenwriting books, trying to understand how to write. And with both of the movies, Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, they’re like a little Venn diagram where the circles overlap. The space that Mike and I occupy together is Another Earth and the space that Zal and I occupy together is Sound of My Voice and then there’s something that all three of us have in common too, which I think is the interest in big abstract ideas, time travel, and duplicate universes.
It’s hard to trace the origin of where things actually came from. With Another Earth, I think we were interested in the idea of doubles and doppelgangers, and then Mike made this video art piece where he put another Earth in the sky and then we starting asking what kind of a person is the most in need of a self-confrontation? Who desperately needs to see themselves and cannot? And what story would have the most emotional release from that ending? And that’s when we came up with Rhoda and the idea of this girl who has this bright, beautiful future before her and then it just gets dashed. How do you make a life out of the ashes of that and how do you let go of a version of yourself that you could have been? And her seeing that version of herself at the end: the girl who went to MIT, who got impeccable grades, who never killed anyone, who never fell in love, who never lost everything, who never went to prison. How do you let go of your desire to have been something other than what you are? It’s so fun to have a partner in it, though. Writing’s such a lonely process anyway, the idea of being by yourself in it seems really hard. I admire people who can do that.
SS—It’s required that you be an alcoholic, isn’t it, for that reason?
BM—You need some serious vice. And who do you trust? Who is your confidant that you show it to, to make sure you’re not just bullshitting yourself every day in front of a laptop?
SS—You get so much choice as a writer that I’m just overwhelmed. As an actor you’re constantly being made to make do. You have freedom within a structure that exists when they give it to you, but to have absolutely free-form choice; to me I can’t even understand anymore how that would work.
BM—It’s so interesting that you said that. I remember feeling that on Arbitrage. I felt so grateful for the parameters of the script because even in that scene in the gym room, I remember there being all these feelings and all these things that we were thinking, but there’s just these words and I can’t change the words. There’s something liberating about that; having to dive deeper beneath the words than feeling like you can change them.
SS—If the structure’s there and it supports you, I think it’s really great. For me, I know that world much better than I know the other, although I’ve certainly helped co-write things before. Even with Dead Man Walking there was already a book. Let me ask you this, a lot of people in school have ideas for films and there are probably billions of people right now making videos in college. How do you get to the point where you make it practical, where you actually find the money? Somebody has to be able to put a foot not only in the creative world but understand the other side, the commerce side of it, because just art alone very rarely gets picked up.
BM—It’s so true that now if you want to be an artist you have to be an entrepreneur too. Especially in filmmaking because so much of the landscape is so confusing – fewer films are being made by the studios, fewer films are being bought at festivals. It’s all changing so much and maybe this is coming from our background at Georgetown, studying economics, and going to a school where almost everyone was going to be a lawyer or an investment banker, but I think we always felt like we had to really struggle to figure out how to make it and how to find people to give us the money to make it. When we first came out to LA we tried the proper channels of making things, of pitching things around. But who’s going to finance a movie with directors who’ve never directed feature films before and an actress who’s not even in SAG? We slowly realized we should be using all those tricks we came up with in college to make things look grand even though we had no money – just running and gunning it around campus, stealing everything, breaking into places, calling our friends’ parents and trying to shoot in the National Gallery, and driving up to Vermont because it had snowed and we thought snow had great production value. We were like, why have we let go of all of these guerilla ways of doing things? So we decided we were just going to make these movies literally for nothing.
With Another Earth, when we began we didn’t have any money. Mike and I moved to his mom’s house because we could live there for free and she would feed us for free. We were shooting in the high school she teaches in and around the neighborhood, and we cut some stuff together. And then we found this producer in New York, Hunter Gray with Artists Public Domain – a non-profit company that was giving first-time filmmakers these micro-budgets to get their films made – and he loved the idea and the footage we’d shot so far. So he gave us a bit of money and we started making the movie. We were really fortunate that Sundance picked up both of these movies, because it’s hard otherwise to get the validation that the system thinks that movies made this way are worthy of an audience. And then Searchlight came in – they’re amazing and they make a lot of amazing movies and buy great films, and they put it out into the world. I’m still sort of stunned about how that happened but I do think eventually, in the way music has found a way online to go directly to an audience and be validated by an audience and then sort of enter the world and make money, filmmaking and storytelling have to find the same thing online.
SS—Absolutely, although we might end up seeing them on smaller and smaller screens, which is a lot of what’s happened to TV – people are getting boxed sets or watching it delivered to their home system. Jeff, Who Lives at Home, for instance, that one I did with the Duplass brothers, got really good reviews but nobody really went to bat for it and now it’s coming out and I’m sure people are going to find it and watch it at home, more than they did in the theater.
BM—That’s so true. These movies can’t get over the hurdle of the massive advertising spend you need. I wonder what it’s going to mean for acting and for storytelling. I’m watching a lot of films on planes now, or I’m watching them on my iPad while the TV’s on and while I’m returning emails. What does that mean?
SS—It’s like what’s happening in politics – the dominance of not necessarily equality, but where the big bucks are and where the taste of the money is. The underground stories that are going to be told will definitely come up through more democratic things that are servicing people individually. You can see the crisis in the film business now in terms of trying to figure out how to woo bloggers, for instance. It used to be The New York Times you were wooing, now you don’t even know who these people are, and they’ve become so powerful in terms of shaping taste and telling studios where they should spend their money.
BM—And you know what’s so strange about it to me? If you think about films that you were making, like Thelma & Louise or Dead Man Walking, these classic movies that entered American mythology, I wonder how you would even make those films now.
SS—I don’t think they would get made. I was talking today about Bull Durham, because they’re doing an article about it, and I think Bull Durham would’ve been a TV movie or something. It was a first-time director, and all those things that go into it. I was talking to a very well-known director who was saying, “I have to have Leonardo DiCaprio.” I can’t believe that a director of his status wouldn’t be enough to get a project up, but there are very few bankable people, and I guess occasionally they do smaller films, but a lot of them are making the big blockbuster stuff that’s happening. I wanted to ask you, have you thought about doing a romantic film? I find it the most difficult [thing], because there are so few things that keep people apart sexually, to really define the trajectory when people meet and fuck. There used to be real obstacles, but now it seems there’s much fewer obstacles to people copulating than there used to be. Trying to figure out what a modern romance is about is interesting.
BM—I love that you said that! I’ve been so interested in that idea. It feels almost like if you write or tell a story when war or race or class or even gender was still an issue, it’s set in the past. But now none of those things are issues anymore, nothing is keeping people apart except for their general attention deficit disorder or emotional crippling…
BM—That’s exactly it – the neuroses of our time, the collective insanity – but that’s not very dramatic to make a movie about. It’s funny because Zal and I just finished that film [The East], and there is a love story in there. I guess the conflict is that she’s a spy and she’s lying about who she is. But it’s also more of a straight-up espionage thriller movie too. I would love to write something that’s just deeply romantic or romantic comedy. I would love to see what the new modern woman of that story is too. How has sexiness and sex appeal in a woman changed? You said earlier it used to be all about vulnerability, and Marilyn Monroe was so appealing because she was so wounded and that vulnerability was so soft and open. But what does it mean for a woman to be sexy now that women are…
SS—They have options and are stronger and are not that interested in being a victim. It’s a very daunting task to try to figure out how to write something. If neurosis is what keeps you apart, you could do it really funny, I suppose, but it’s not very attractive. And the bravest thing you’re ever going to find is people deciding to be intimate with one another. I mean really intimate, not just sexually intimate, and it definitely needs some crafting of things to try to figure out what that means without sounding really boring and self-helpy; to still make it fun. It’s a challenge for sure, but you can do it, Brit!
BM—No, I certainly cannot! But it was such a beautiful thing that you said, that the bravest thing is to try to be genuinely intimate with each other and not just physically, although that’s hard too, to be genuinely physically intimate, but to be emotionally intimate. It’s so hard and become even harder. I feel something about the way the culture is right now, people feel so much shame. There’s so much strange packaging and repackaging of one’s self into all these identities and images that culture creates. It’s so hard for people to be honest with one another. That’s the challenge – to write a movie like that.
SS—And it’s also so easy to lie. When you’re texting, you ask a question and people only respond to what they want to. You can create a whole persona online that doesn’t have anything to do with you. There’s so many ways to create an avatar of who you are and never have to expose really what you’re feeling and get by just fine, but never have that kind of surrender and honesty.
BM—Never have been hurt, never have been wounded…
SS—So what’s next? Are you going back to Tulum?
BM—Are you going to go back to Tulum?
SS—I don’t know. I was just in Costa Rica, but I might try a new place and with the Mayan calendar running out it might be the place to be for sure.
BM—I was thinking that too, actually. What better place to be on New Year’s than where it’s all supposed to end? Civilization will finally unravel. This has been such an interesting conversation. I’m so inspired by what you’re saying about the texting thing and the romance. It would be nice to get to the bottom of that and try to write an interesting story about it. We can get Mike on this too. Between you, me, and Mike we can probably dream up some way to tell a story about this.
SS—It’s definitely worth the challenge.