Sound of My Voice, directed and co-written by Zal Batmanglij and opening in theaters on April 27th, is a haunting tale that delves into the underworld of a cult. At the center of the group is an enigmatic young woman named Maggie (co-writer Brit Marling), who never leaves her basement chamber and has her members grow her food, obsessively sanitize the house, and give her their own blood for transfusions. Although a young couple smuggles in hidden cameras, with the intention of exposing her as a charlatan and freeing the members from her spell, they quickly find themselves falling prey to her mind games.
After their panel presentation at WonderCon 2012, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij talked to the press about what makes their film distinctive from past films about time travel, what gave them the initial idea, how they’re trying to keep spoilers from happening, what they’re doing for viral marketing, the challenges of making such a low-budget movie, and what their process was like, when they were writing. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Question: The idea of time travel, as a genre, is very well-explored in literature, films and television series. What do you bring to the table that makes your film distinctive from past films about this subject?
ZAL BATMANGLIJ: That’s a provocative question and a good question. Terminator is one of my favorite films, and so is Terminator 2. What we bring to the table that’s different is that, for us, time travel is synonymous for the belief in all the things that are not seen, and also for the most outlandish claim that you could possibly make. To say that you’re a time traveler is weirder than saying you’re an alien. It’s really strange to sit down in a basement and be face-to-face with someone who claims to be a real time traveler. So, for us, it was about the nuts and bolts of what it would be like, if you were face-to-face with someone who claimed to be from the future.
BRIT MARLING: And it was about figuring out the real practicalities of that. Usually in science fiction, the concept is so big that it’s hard to come down to earth for the micro-movements. If you came from the future and you arrived here, what would you be like? Would your immune system be depressed from that travel? Would you be well? Would you be ill? Would you be affected by micro-organisms of the time period and be hiding out in a basement? How would it all work, practically?
BATMANGLIJ: And if you were a very sophisticated con artist, what would you do to convince people that you were from the future? What benefits would that give you? For us, it’s also a question of, “Is she or isn’t she?” That’s really a major part of the movie.
With Twitter and everything else, how do you keep spoilers away from people?
MARLING: That’s such a good question. I feel like, when the audience connects with something, they enjoy the experience so much that they want other people to go have it. They’re like, “Don’t talk about it. Don’t tell. Just go!” It’s a nice feeling to have people coming around it that way, protecting the ideas in it, so that everyone can see it for themselves.
BATMANGLIJ: Maybe it’s a bit of a bummer that the trailer gives away more than one would like, but the film has so many ups and downs, and is such a thrill ride. The film is actually really fun and has a lot of integrity, in and of itself. It’s fun, no matter what you know.
What have you been doing online, as far as viral marketing?
BATMANGLIJ: We released the first 12 minutes, which has interactive hot spots in it that take you to other videos. Other cult members have made their own videos. They have meetings in L.A. As we get closer to release, you’ll start seeing meetings pop up in other places.
MARLING: People are learning the handshake and are posting it.
How much of the other cult members are explored? Will audiences see their story and their point of view, as to their belief or trust in the main character?
BATMANGLIJ: It’s very strictly Peter’s POV that we tell the story in. I think that’s very important, especially in telling low-budget stories. It really ups your production value when you have one person that you can use as your avatar through a story, but I think everyone gets their moment in time. That other couple definitely has their moment too, and they have to make some tough decisions.
MARLING: I think you get to see, through the different cult members, why people are attracted to a group like this. Everyone is there for a different reason and from a different background. That was part of what was interesting for us, in researching cults and exploring it. A lot of this happens in California. It seems to be this hot-bed for these ideas and bringing these groups together. You find that the one thing that everybody has in common, whether they’re a teenager who has run away from his parents, or a divorcee who lost her husband, is that they all have in common this feeling of searching for a meaning in their lives, that Maggie seems to offer. She’s like, “Dress in white, follow this diet, come to these meetings and do these things, and I’m going to give you a prescription for how to live and tell you what the future will be like. You will be a chosen one to be a survivor and be part of some experience.” That seems so compelling to everyone.
Isn’t a cult also like finding a surrogate family?
Was the initial interest in the idea of cults something that you both were interested in, before making the film?
BATMANGLIJ: It was the idea of connecting as a surrogate family. I think we’re really hungry for family in America, especially when I feel like people are really pulled apart from their families. So, we were interested in the idea of what the extreme version of that would be.
MARLING: When you come out to L.A. to make movies or to do this kind of work, everybody is coming out on their own and you leave your tribe behind. Then, it’s a question of, that was your tribe by blood, and now, what is the tribe that you’re making by choice or by what you think is important? I think we were having that experience, so somehow the cult world seemed really compelling.
There seems to be allegorical elements of religion in all of this. Is that what your ultimate aim is, with the exploration of forming a new religion and these characters representing some kind of religious figure?
BATMANGLIJ: We’re not trying to form a new religion. I think that all the powerful religions are pretty much the same. People like to pretend they are very different, but they are not. They are really about believing in something bigger than yourself, something that’s unseen, and about having some faith. That’s not such a bad thing to have in the world, right now. I don’t know if any specific religion is the one to subscribe to. I’m not saying, one way or the other. I don’t want to get involved in that. But, I think having faith in this experience we are having as a group of people on Earth helps a lot.
MARLING: Yeah, I think it’s less to do with divine or not divine. Maggie never claims that. But, it has something to do with having belief in a human future and what that human future is. What is the future of humanity? How does this whole experiment not self-destruct with the environment and everything else going on?
You two were talking about the challenges you had to face making this, filming on an airplane and playing it off like you weren’t actually shooting on an airplane. Were there more scenarios like that, when you were filming on the L.A. bridge, in making sure the cops weren’t around?
BATMANGLIJ: Tons. We were such a small crew that we weren’t worried about the cops on the L.A. bridge, but we had no money. We had an iMac that we bought, that we would have to return every 13 days because otherwise we’d have to pay for it. We couldn’t afford even a computer to edit the movie on. We returned it three times.
MARLING: And that gets heavy. You have to box it up and carry it. I would park the car with the emergency lights on, and Zal would run in. We would all take turns, turning in this computer. It was a lot of work.
What’s the process like, when you work together as writers?
MARLING: We have so much fun. We come to it every day with a set of hours, like, “This is our chunk of time that we have together,” and we just play. Sometimes we act things out. We come up with scenes. Between us, we have played every character in Sound of My Voice. Sometimes I’m Klaus and he’s Joanne, and then he’s Peter and I’m Lorna. We have the fights.
BATMANGLIJ: Sometimes she’s Peter and I’m Lorna. For example, with the driving scene, we sat in two chairs, put our chairs together, and said, “What if she is?”
MARLING: That willingness to play has been really helpful.
BATMANGLIJ: We do that for awhile.
Do you record it, the whole time?
BATMANGLIJ: We sometimes do.
MARLING: We write it down, if it’s been a particularly good one.
BATMANGLIJ: Brit writes a lot of that. I stay away from the writing part because I think that if it sticks, it sticks. You just know it. The stuff that doesn’t stick, goes away. The stuff that propels you forward, you can see it in your partner’s eyes. You could be telling a part of the story, saying, “Maggie wakes up in a bathtub in a crack den,” and either the person will light up or they will be like, “Try again.” I think that works for us. We crack the story, and then the actual writing part happens really quickly. We can do that, once we know the story well.
MARLING: Once you play with these scenes and you’re outlining it, again and again, and telling each other the narrative, and telling it to people you know, trying to make sure that the mathematics of the story work, you feel that those are in place, and the actual writing and final draft doesn’t take as long.
BATMANGLIJ: It’s very important for us because we are viewers, first and foremost. We view more than we make. For us, it’s important that the viewing experience is fun and thrilling and exciting and fresh and different. Those are our goals when we are writing something. When you watch it in the theatre, which I hope you will, how will you have the best experience possible? That’s really important to us, and is the most thrilling.
MARLING: Well said!