At this year's Sundance Film Festival it was impossible to miss Brit Marling. Every year critics and writers at the festival try to peg the "It Girl," and this time Marling was a shoo-in as the star of two very different hit films. In Sound of My Voice, which she co-wrote with director Zal Batmanglij, she played the mysterious leader of a Southern California cult who claimed to be from the future (that movie will be in theaters later this year from Fox Searchlight). In Another Earth, which Marling also co-wrote with director Mike Cahill, she played an entirely different character as Rhoda, a young woman whose dreams of becoming an astrophysicist are shattered when she kills a woman and child in a car accident.
Rhoda spends the next four years in jail, while the man who survived that accident (William Mapother) sinks into grief and depression. When Rhoda leaves prison she visits the man's house with the intention of apologizing, then loses her nerve and poses as a maid instead, spending her days cleaning his house and getting close to him without ever revealing her identity. Oh, and there's a whole sci-fi twist too-- all this time, looming up in the sky, there has been a "mirror earth," an exact replica of our planet that appears to contain mirror versions of all the people on earth as well. It's a tempting idea of escape for anyone, but especially for a girl with dreams of space who wants to escape her troubled past.
With Another Earth opening this Friday, I talked to Marling about her experience going from a Georgetown economics major to rising independent film star, and making films with both Batmanglij and Cahill, both of whom she counts as close friends (as the story goes, the three shared a house in L.A. and Marling would shuttle between Cahill and Batmanglij on their respective floors to work on both screenplays simultaneously) . For more on the film you can also check out my video interview with Cahill, or read below what Marling had to say about her Sundance success and making films with huge imaginations to make up for their tiny budgets.
You don't usually get a lot of filmmakers or film people out of Georgetown. Obviously you didn't go there thinking you wanted to make movies, so when did filmmaking and acting come into the picture?
I had done a lot of theater in high school, but when I came to the end of that experience I was kind of like, "Eh, I've read a lot of plays, I've done a lot of theater on and off my whole life," but I didn't feel like I had done a lot of other things, which you have to do in order to bring something to acting. So I thought, I'm going to Georgetown and get a broad liberal arts educate, and majoring in econ. When I was there I saw a short film that Mike and Zal had made together, and i was so blown away by it. It was not student filmmaking. Then I met the two of them and I was like, "I want to make movies with you guys."
So that was the thing that made you think movies were something you wanted to do?
Yeah. Acting had always been there. I had always loved that, and certainly the reason I was attracted to that was because that seed was there from early on. I think I found in the three of us working together, in the unique collaboration that we had, that I was able to do what I really wanted to do for the first time.
This movie is about this huge, enormous loss and huge feelings that a lot of people don't think people in their 20s can understand. Did you guys have to get past that perception that you couldn't really get those feelings?
Young people really love this movie, but it's also interesting that people in their 50s and 60s connect with it too. I think it's because you have lived your life, you're thinking more about second chances and loss, you've had more experiences. When we were writing it, it was biting off a lot. I think we knew that, and I think Mike and I are both the kind of people who like to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone and then try to jump and get it. Rhoda was definitely outside of my comfort zone. I don't have a common experience with her, I've never experienced that kind of loss or grief or imprisonment. I spent a lot of time doing homework on that. When I take something on I always like to be a little bit nervous that I might fail, that I won't be able to create the illusion fully. I think that's where the real growth comes from. If you play it safe every time, then you're missing the best part of acting. You haven't learned anything about your humanity.
But she's on her way to MIT, which is a great school just like Georgetown. Are you kind of the other earth version of her, if she'd actually succeeded in her life? Did you have that personal connection?
I hadn't thought about that before, because I was never bent on physics or astrophysics. S The thing that we did think about, that I thought about from an acting perspective, and we both thought about from a writing perspective, is the feeling of the choices you make or the things that happen to you, how quickly you divert form other versions of yourself, and how you deal with that. What if I had stayed in economics? What if I hadn't gone to Georgetown at all? What if MIke and I had never met? There are so many alternate outcomes, and it seems so, at times, arbitrary. There's a real fight in this film between, is there some sort of destiny to any of this, is it planned, is it organized, or is it chaos, people bumping into each other in the middle of the night?
Did you come down on one side or another?
No, I still wrestle with that. And the film wrestles with that too.
This and Sound of My Voice both contain such big ideas, and thoughts about the ways humans interact with each other. It seems like you gravitate toward stories that start with a thought, rather than with characters or plot.
When the three of us sit and talk together we talk about ideas, emotions and feelings and things happening in our lives. From that pool a lot of these things grow. They take on a lot of seeds. So much of the origin of these things are ideas and then constructing narratives around them to get the narrative out.
When people make small movies on their own, they tend to constrain things and make it small, but both this and Sound of My Voice are so expansive.
I don't know where the fuck that came from. I think it was because we were watching a lot of indie films, and we were thinking, there's a lot of substance here in the drama, but where's the deep, imaginative thinking? Then you go see a blockbuster movie and think, OK there's a lot of wonder and spectacle here, but where is the substance? And how can you marry the two together? We wanted to go out and make the kind of movies we wanted to see and weren't seeing. We couldn't get any money to make them, and we were like, let's just make them anyway. Then the technology sort of met up with us. I don't know what would have happened if we were trying to make these on 35. Sound of My Voice was shot on a D5 and a D7, and they're both cut on Final Cut Pro on computers in people's houses. The Sound of My Voice computer we bought at the Mac store, used it for 14 days, returned it, bought another one at the Mac store, used it for 14 days and returned it-- we literally had no money. But we didn't want to believe that had to be the thing that roped our imagination in.
And I think also not having money forces you to find more original ways of doing things and grounding them in reality. Another Earth, that was Mike's mom's school that we shot in, and those were her students. The mess in William's apartment, we made that mess every day. We would cook food in the morning, and 12 of us making the movie would eat around this farmhouse table, and everybody would leave their dishes, and then I would spend the day cleaning it up as Rhoda. I was the maid! You find ways to do things, and I think then you're filmmaking as a family. You're deeply connected to one another. You're all trying to o something impossible, and you know it's impossible, so every little victory over the impossible nature of what you're doing is thrilling.