One of my favorite films from last year’s Sundance was Sound of My Voice (which opens this weekend in limited release). Directed and co-written by Zal Batmanglij, the film follows a documentary filmmaking team made up of Christopher Denham and his girlfriend (Nicole Vicius) as they investigate a cult lead by a supposed time-traveler (Brit Marling who also co-wrote the film). While they start the investigation intent on exposing her and freeing the followers, as they get further inside, they start to question their objectives. For more on the film, you can watch the first twelve minutes here.
During the recent Los Angeles press day for the film, I sat down withBrit Marling for an extended interview. We talked about what it’s been like waiting for the film to get released, her writing process, Sci-fi, favorite movies, and a lot more. In addition, Marling talked about The East (which also stars Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page) and Robert Redford‘s The Company You Keep. Hit the jump for what she had to say and make sure to check out Sound of My Voice this weekend!
Brit Marling: I’m really good, how’re you?
As I said to your partner in crime making this film, it has to be a weird thing for you. The movie premiered at Sundance a year and a few months ago, and I loved it back then, I was like “when is this thing going to come out,” and it’s been a while waiting. What’s it been like for you, knowing you made a really great movie, but we need to wait such a long time for audiences to see it?
Marling: That’s a really good question. You know, it was intense because Zal and I were working on getting this other film The East of the ground and so we were actually so occupied doing that that we got a little distracted. And in some respects I actually think that this story has become even more prescient. So I don’t really mind the time delay, and maybe that’s because the world gets progressively stranger and more complicated and life keeps moving faster and faster, and you have 200 emails to respond to in a day, and text messages. We seem to be moving at this fanatic pace towards something, and, like, what is that something? It feels like a bit crack up to me, and I think that’s sort of where Maggie comes in and she’s talking about this future that we can only day dream about now.
You bring up an excellent point, I think that for all the advances in technology have opened the door for communication among the entire planet, and being able to see and do anything that you could almost dream about. It does feel, though, like you never get to slow down, because we’re so interconnected all the time. I have this conversation with people all the time.
Marling: I’m really worried about what it’s doing to our minds and our ability to empathize, all these things. It’s strange, I feel like four years ago when I would sit down to write or sit down to prepare a character to act, I used to be able to sit in a chair and for four hours straight in a very focused meditative way be in my own world without ay interruption, without anything intervening. And now it’s like your brain is getting so trained to check your phone, and there is like a dopamine release every time you get a text whether it’s a good or a bad one. It’s like “Gasp! A text! Gasp! A text! Gasp!” It’s like there is this hiccup pace interruption to life. I don’t know that that’s positive, I’m pretty sure it’s negative.
I think you’re probably right, I’ve been training myself to take a step back at certain points and just not look at my phone and not look at my email because you can spend your whole day, there is always something to do.
Marling: And into your night. I’ve found myself at one in the morning just sitting at my desk spending an hour returning emails from the day until like two in the morning. It’s ridiculous, I should be sleeping, or dreaming, or reading a novel.
Again, I’ve had this exact conversation with a lot of people and I do think that eventually we are going to get to a breaking point because you can’t always be so, as you said—
You have to take time for you.
Marling: You can’t be so available, and you can’t be available to so many people. We’ve now gotten to a place where if you get a text you’re expected to return it within the hour. What if I’m at the beach that day? What if I want to throw my phone in the ocean? Like, don’t take it personally.
The most rude thing, in my opinion, is when you go to dinner with a bunch of people and half the table is on their phone.
Marling: I know.
Marling: A rule!
Where there is a little . . .
Yes, and I think that it should be that everyone put their phone in the basket and the first one to pick it up has to pay the bill. I’m being totally serious about this.
Marling: We should start a Twitter revolution about it, there should be rules. Because this is the funniest thing about it, this is the thing that is so odd, is that I really seriously doubt that anybody is getting in a text or email or information on their blackberry that is actually more interesting then what the conversations they could potentially be having in front of them.
I think it’s also— We’re so off the tangent of where I thought this conversation was going to go, but I’ll bring it back after this one but— I do think that there is, being a journalist, sometimes there really is shit I got to deal with, no matter where I’m at, at certain times of the day. But I do think that when you’re with people, and you have limited time, an hour or two, give your hour or two. Give yourself to that moment. And when you’re done.
Marling: You’re done.
The world is still going to go.
Marling: And nothing is going to happen if you take a break for a second.
Absolutely. Let me switch by saying, I ask this of everyone, do you have a favorite movie, a favorite director, and a favorite actor? And if not one favorite, do you have several favorites?
Marling: I’ll give you some favorites. Favorite movie: I love Red.
Marling: I love Red, and then I love Blue. I never quite connected with White. Actor: I think Samantha Morton is astounding, I think Robin Wright Penn is incandescent in this film Nine. That short Diana that she does is quite possibly— ten unbroken moments, that camera is not cutting from the moment that short beings until it ends, and the performance, the range of feelings she goes through, the subtly, the texture. It’s astounding to me. Of course I like Daniel Day Lewis, Vanessa Redgrave, I mean, god, there are so many great actors it’s hard to even—it’s overwhelming. Penelope Cruz in Elegy or Volver. And Directors: I love so many directors. I love Iñárritu and I loved Biutiful, I was really moved by that. I loved Children of Men.
That was my favorite film of that year.
Marling: I think Cuarón is an amazing filmmaker.
Have you heard what he’s doing with Gravity? That the whole movie is just a bunch of very, very long takes. And the opening shot is 17 minutes?
Marling: I’m so excited to see it. We’re alive in a really cool time, there’s so many great . . . There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson, I mean, it’s like I couldn’t possibly . . . Fatih Akin The Edge of Heaven. Reprise I loved. I mean we could go one forever.
You’ve been asked a lot of the same questions today, so I’m going to throw out a new one. How much did you enjoy being on Community?
Marling: [Laughs] I loved that experience! I loved that experience because Gillian is so funny, so talented, so cool. We had a great time doing those scenes together. Dancing and like, kissing, and like, fighting, I mean is there a better day then that? Hilairous.
It’s one of my favorite shows.
It’s brilliant what they’re able to do each week.
It’s actually crazy.
It’s also— You know how hard it is if you watch a lot of TV or understand the process— Because if it was easy to do, there would be more great shows.
Marling: Yeah, I mean I think it’s really hard and I think it’s hard to be inventive, and I think that that show is always taking you weird places, it’s kinda awesome. It just seems totally unfettered and off the chain, which are the kinda shows I like to watch.
Jumping into Sound of My Voice, talk a little bit about the writing process for you. Often I speak to writers who say they have a “golden time,” when they wake up, for the first 3 or 4 hours they are the most creative, and then they reach a point that they can’t do anything else and they just say f-it. And then other writers I’ve spoken to treat it like a 9 to 5 job, from 9 to 5 they are writing even if they pages aren’t great. And I’m curious, for you are a writer, what is your process?
Marling: You know, I can’t imagine 9 to 5 writing. That takes some stamina. Zal and I would get together in 4-hour chunks and we would just set up a schedule for the week and at the time when we were writing this we were working other jobs. So we would be like, “Okay we can squeeze it in from 12 to 4 this day, and from 9 to 1 this day.” And we would just take out these chunks, and you’d get in that time period and you turn off your cell phone and you turn off your email and you’re just focused. And you cannot be all “Oh, I need to eat something.” That is the time, and that time is like the sacred regimen, you just throw yourself into it.
And we spent a lot of time talking to each other, and pitching things back and forth, talking about things that are happening to us, like who just broke our heart? How? Why? What did we overhear in line at Intelligencia waiting for a coffee? And these things start to swirl around like a bit of a hurricane and then you eventually get to the eye of that storm, which is like, what’s happening now in life that is interesting to both of us at the same time. And then hopefully some story comes out of that, and then we start outlining and then start writing.
Marling: I mean a lot of it’s the same in that the structure is the same and Zal and I are obsessive outliners and that’s the same. I think I realized very early on that you can spend a lot of time constructing a really perfect scene in final draft and just end up throwing it away because you didn’t figure out that mathematics of the story first. And you’re doing icing before you’re making cake and that is frustrating because you have to just throw it out.
We really focus on outlining, and the moment you’re ready to write is the moment you know you can walk up to any stranger and start telling the story from the first moment to the last and hold their attention. And that to me is an easier way to write because then when you’re actually sitting at your computer making up scenes, those are scenes that are most likely going to stay and be in the story. And you know every thing; you know what the conflict is that’s underneath it and what needs to come out. So that part of it is always the same for us.
I don’t want to reveal anything about Sound of My Voice, because sometimes I post audio and I don’t want to be specific. I think that when you see the film it opens the door to staying in this universe or making it a stand-alone movie. How excited would you be to come back? Now for you, in your heart, do you want to continue this story?
Marling: That’s such a good question.
I don’t know how good it is, but I appreciate it.
Marling: No, it’s good, it’s a really good one. It’s a really good one because I’m not sure I totally know the answer to it. I mean, yeah, I would be curious to finish this story. From an acting perspective, even. I think Maggie can go interesting places. But I’m also really okay with the idea— When I think about Sound of My Voice, to me, it’s like we’re done with it, it’s a stand-alone feature. We maybe dreamt up this whole world, but you do that anytime you write a film. And you take a slice of it, and you’re like, “This is the slice that we’re going to tell you.” And I love the ending of this film. I love the ending of this film. I almost don’t like the idea that you would keep going. I like it to be just like [pop]. Like the ending of “Red,” we were talking about Red earlier, it’s like you’re just left with a [gasp] since of possibility.
Well you also left that sense of possibility with Another Earth, this is almost like a trademark now. I’ve seen those two films, it leave you where your brain is thinking. Which is really cool. When you were doing The East, and I don’t want to be specific, because I don’t want to know the ending, but is this something that you— Like, J.J. Abrams’ is known for always making the audience wonder what’s in the box. You know, that kind of writing style.
And M. Knight was always known at the beginning of always doing those twists.
So for you guys, is this continuing almost with The East? Where you’re going to walk out at the last moment and be like “WHAT?”
Marling: You know, The East is different. The East is different because it’s like an espionage thriller, and there are things in it that are more like classical pillars. I think always, Zal and I and Mike, and all three of us because we came of age in school together and we were interested in the same films and talking about the same ideas, I think we all like the idea of a film that opens or provokes your sense of wonder. And that wonderment can come at the end of the film or it can be part of a world you dive into, where like the whole time you’re in the film you’re just like “What is this landscape? Who are these interesting characters?” But I think it’s the sense of wonder that we’re after.
My favorite genre is sci-fi.
Marling: What’s your favorite movie?
Goodfellas is my favorite movie, which is not sci-fi, but . . .
Marling: Interesting, okay what’s your sci-fi?
Marling: Terminator is amazing.
Argue the merits of Close Encounters.
Marling: Oh my God, good one.
I could give you a laundry list of sci-fi. I mentioned Total Recall, there are moments of that that I think are cool . . . actually a lot of that is pretty cool.
Marling: Like the first Alien. I really love the first Alien.
Marling: Aliens yeah.
And lets argue which is better, the theatrical cut or the directors cut.
Marling: [laughs] Oh my God, your knowledge is deep.
They’re so radically different, there is so much removed. But anyway, you must dig the sci-fi genre a little bit. Do you have right now, going in the brain, some sci-fi ideas that you guys might want to work on? Or fully explore with, say, more of a budget?
Marling: Oh, that’s interesting. Maybe with more of a budget, but I think the thing that the three of us have always been interested in, and I am sure we will all go one to tell stories together and stories on our own, all kinds of things. But I think that one of the things that we all like or are attracted to, why we have so much common ground, is the idea of sci-fi or science fiction, but set in a kind of reality. Sci-fi that feels real, so that the possibility for something extraordinary can happen in a space as ordinary as this conference room. It’s like “What’s under the table?” The possibly for extraordinary things in ordinary spaces interests all three of us.
And I think even as you get bigger budgets you don’t want to lose that sense of magic in the mundane. I think sometimes big budget means explosions! CGI! CGI, the possibilities are so limitless that it begins to be impractical. You invent a creature that defies all the laws of physics all the time, in ever perspective, and there is no rules because you don’t have to have any because you’re just are animating it all. And that’s cool, that’s okay, but I’m more interested in the kinds of movies where the science fiction world has a set series of rules and you operate in it because of, maybe, constraints in the budget, or because of just how you’re seeing the world, you don’t let go of that.
Marling: Oh gosh, amazing, really amazing. In part because Sundance was such an extraordinary experience for all of us, and because so many of my favorite voices have come out of that festival. I mean Half Nelson, what an amazing movie. All these films that owe their experience in the lab or their discovery in the festival, it’s why those people are making films. Why those films enter the world. Why we get to have the conversations we do about them. So to get to make a movie with him and to learn about acting from him, it was a tremendous experience.
I’m not sure whom you play in the film.
Marling: It’s about the Weather Underground. I play a . . . how can I talk about this without giving away too much of the story, I haven’t had to talk about this before. Shia [LaBeouf]’s character is a reporter who is trying to unravel the mystery of the Weather Underground and he meets me as he’s, sort of, unraveling it all.
I like that, I don’t want to ruin anything about it, I’m not spoiler person.
Marling: [laughs] I can tell.
I have to wrap with you so much for giving me your time.
Marling: Thank you so much, this was awesome.