Filmmaker Zal Batmanglij: Introducing a Bold New Voice

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William Faulkner famously observed that the entire story of The Sound and The Fury came from his vision of one image—Caddy climbing a tree, her muddy underpants visible from the ground. In the case of this week’s chilling and intriguing psychological thriller The Sound of My Voice, the initial image came to director Zal Batmanglij in a dream. “My hands were plastic-cuffed,” he says, “with the exact same plastic-cuffs from the film, and my eyes were blindfolded, and I was wearing a hospital gown, and I was being led down these basement stairs. In the morning I told Brit that dream, and she just leapt from her chair. I riffed off her riffs, and she riffed off my riffs, until we had a story.”

“Brit,” is Brit Marling, Batmanglij’s longtime friend and creative partner. They wrote the film together, at the same time that Brit and a third friend, Mike Cahill, were also writing a different film. “Brit and I were talking about how I wanted to direct and she wanted to act,” Batmanglij remembers, “so we said okay, let’s teach ourselves how to write. It was really spearheaded by Brit, with her faith, because she believed that if you practice you can get good at anything. So we did. We started going to the library, and we started writing. We were writing another script and Sound of My Voice just hit us like a thunderclap, and we just became obsessed with it. We started telling each other the story at our writing sessions, which would happen in the early morning or late at night after our day jobs. And at the same time, Brit and Mike wrote Another Earth and shot it, and then we finished writing Sound of My Voice and shot it.”

Although Marling stars in each film, the two performances couldn’t be more different. What’s striking about her performance in Another Earth is that it’s so naked and vulnerable, while in Sound of My Voice we’re never quite sure how much of the truth we’re getting from her character. “That deception and secrecy are major parts of Sound of My Voice,” agrees Batmanglij. “My job was to create a safe space for all the actors, not just Brit but Chris [Denham] and Nicole [Vicius] and all the other actors, for everybody, and then for Brit to sort of have the room to play and give us Maggie. You know, I created the boundaries and hopefully engendered a space of trust between everybody. In some of the most intense scenes, like the throwing-up scene, Chris and Brit gave their all even when the camera was not on them. I think that level of seriousness and that trust really shows in the film.”

The three friends took their two films to Sundance in 2011, and made a huge impact. Brit was the toast of Park City, as no one could remember the last time a newcomer had co-produced, co-written, and co-starred in two Sundance hits her first year out. The only word to describe the experience, says Batmanglij, was “magical.” “It was this mystical experience,” he recalls, “and not because I was showing a film, which was cool, but because I felt like we were a part of a much larger conversation. I was blown away when I saw Circumstance by Maryam Keshavarz, and Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Drake Doremus’ Like Crazy, and Mikes Another Earth. I remember being at the Another Earth screening and at the end my mind was blown. Brit’s performance, especially, blew my mind. Almost literally. And then the pleasure of actually having a hat in that conversation, and the fact that Sound of My Voice was sort of an underdog and found a cult following by the last day of Sundance. I mean, the last day there were lines around the block, and I asked, ‘Oh, is that the line to get in?’ And they said, ‘No, people are already through. That’s the waiting line. It’s the wait-list line.’ That was fun.”

It’s taken the film over a year from that point to finally reach theatres, but Batmanglij swears he hasn’t had time for much anxiety over the lag. After all, he’s been deep in the throes of production on his next film The East. That film stars not only Marling but also Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Julia Ormond and Patricia Clarkson, so he can be forgiven for being a bit distracted by it. Still, he will admit to being excited to share the film with a wider audience now. “You never know until the film meets up with its audience,” he muses. “It’s funny; movies are elastic, and they’re not permanently defined. I remember seeing Mulholland Drive just before 9/11. And that time and place and the theater I saw it in, all those factors really pour into how I felt about it. I’m not saying it’s not a great movie today, it probably is if you watched it, but how can you divorce time and place from a movie? I don’t think it’s about the filmmaker at all actually, I think the filmmaker is the custodian. I think it’s about the film and lots of different people. It’s not a novel; it’s a film. It’s really a collective environment, a collaborative art form.”

I ask Batmanglij about the film as a political statement about our current moment, with its fundamental distrust of institutions, and its uneasy suspicion that maybe the people in charge are all frauds .“Wow,” he says, “I think that you’re actually dead on with this reading of the film, actually.” He pauses. “I think the film comments on what you’re saying by being kind of post-institutional. There’s this sort of alienation and this sort of Western expansion or pioneerism to the film. You know, that group is kind of rudderless. They don’t seem to be involved with any political or governmental institutions. They’re a fully functioning society in a basement. There’s really not even a nature with them. It’s kind of interesting. I think they’re post-institutional. I don’t think the group is directly a commentary on governmental institutions and whether we have faith in them or not, but I think that group is a reaction to that loss of any order, or that loss of trust. Wow, that’s intense.”