Sometimes when you interview a director, you have to go to great pains to keep the conversation on topic and about the movie, either because the director isn't that interesting or you don't really know what else to talk about. But even though Zal Batmanglij's movie Sound of My Voice is under 90 minutes, made for a tiny budget, and only the beginning of a story he and co-writer Brit Marling imagine as a trilogy, a conversation about the film trails off in all kinds of fascinating directions, from the value of the modern movie-going experience to people growing food in their backyards to President Obama as a cultural touchstone for a young generation-- at least, back in 2008, when they were writing the script.
Sound of My Voice premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 to tremendous buzz, and it finally comes to theaters this Friday via Fox Searchlight. In the interview below I talk to Batmanglij about his decision not to change the film after the festival premiere-- even though he'd just finished it days earlier-- and whether or not he and Marling still plan to finish the Sound of My Voice trilogy, even though he's moved on to work on his follow-up feature, The East.
Did you make any changes between Sundance and the release?
I wanted to change it even before we went to the festival, and i think we even had some conversations when Fox bought it to change things, but none of us, including Fox, could bring ourselves to change anything. It was a movie that was so well loved out of Sundance and SXSW. It felt like messing with a time capsule.
The story is told in chapter breaks, and it's really important structurally to the film, but it's also really unusual. Is that something you were confident about from the beginning?
There are a lot of strokes here that are not conventional-- I think we just wanted to do some things differently. There's voiceover, then that voiceover disappears. There's chapter headings, there are flashbacks that don't come back. We tried to take the chapter headings out, but once we showed the movie to people, it was really overwhelming without them.
Yeah, because it builds up to these climaxes before each chapter head, and the titles kind of serve as a break.
Yes, and also in some strange way, you can choose to continue going through with the cult or not. I hadn't seen the film with an audience since Sundance, and I watched it two days ago, and its' funny how much giggling and coughing there is during the chapter headings, and then everyone is really still and silent during the scenes.
In the very beginning you see Obama speaking on TV-- is it the trapped miners in West Virginia?
No, he's talking about the BP oil spill. That was in the script, that Obama speech is in the script, but in the original mix you couldn't hear it very well.
So why did you leave that in?
Well, it dates us time-wise. We started writing this thing in 2008, and Obama was such a generationally defining element, and we were very interested in telling stories about people our age-- it was like a FUBU, For Us By Us. Now Obama just feels like the President, so it doesn't feel ours.
It's now coming out at a time when what he means has really changed, and i wondered if you considered taking it out.
I didn't want to take it out, because it's all part of the time capsule of the movie. The movie takes places in 2010, and that sort of dates it nicely. It might be important later on.
You and Brit have talked about the idea of marking this a trilogy, and obviously you've moved on to your next film [The East], but is that something you're still thinking about?
Yeah, to make Sound of My Voice we had to conceive the entire world, and understand it holistically. If you want to show less in a movie, you've got to figure out more. If audiences respond to Sound of My Voice, whether now or it gains a following later, we'd love to continue it as a trilogy, or on TV or whatever it is.
But as a filmmaker who's just establishing himself, you move on to another film with more famous actors and a bigger budget, its it a big commitment to say you're going keep returning to this thing that made your name, without taking like a Spider-Man job, or some big leap?
I wish I thought like that. The Sound of My Voice story just keeps getting better and better I think. The end of the third act would be something people would be talking about.
And you still imagine it as three?
Yeah, or you could put it all in one film. It depends on who wants to finance-- all this stuff comes down to financing. The ball is not in our court.
You guys have very specific ideas of what the movie is about, and you know the real story of Maggie. Some people make ambiguous movies and decide not to know, even for themselves, but what made it so important for you guys to really know the truth?
I don't think it's an ambiguous movie. I think the film has a very clear arc, which is Peter's. Since the indefinite quality that people experience is their own, they themselves start questioning what they believe. A lot of people get a thrill out of that, some people get annoyed, but it certainly isn't a cheat end. It was very important that we knew it. I don't think you can pull off a movie like this without knowing all the back story and forward story.
Fox Searchlight has put together a pretty substantial marketing campaign around this, whereas when you were at festivals, people were always surprised. Do you worry about a campaign like this that's so big for a movie this small?
I think that the campaign that Fox Searchlight has thrown for Sound of My Voice honors the film's roots, and the film's integrity, and I don't think it overwhelms the film at all. Every element shows something that is found, and there is a pulp element to the marketing, and I think it's very true to the film. No one has turned this into some slick thing it isn't.
I agree it's true to the spirit, but as a critic you see things at a festival that you didn't know anything about ahead of time, and you want everyone to see it this way.
Oh, I know, and that's the best way to see this movie. I hope for everybody who is inspired by the marketing to come into the theater, there will be a whole other set of people who are dragged to the movie without knowing anything, who stumble upon the movie. I think that's the best way to watch it, but we do have to et things into the theater, and I think it's a worthwhile thing to see in a theater. Something like this, it's fun to see it with a group. People are laughing, they get so still, then they're gasping. It's fun to see as a group, and it's definitely fun to talk about after.
As a young filmmaker, it's interesting to be sticking up for the theatrical experience, when a lot of people are embracing VOD as a way to get their films out there.
Well I'm not telling people they have to see the film in a theater.
But that seems like your absolute ambition.
Just as a viewer, I think you get the most benefit out of seeing this movie with an audience. You have this communal, cult-like experience in the theater, and you go through each chapter with a group.
It sounds like you guys are trying to expand that cult-like experience to the marketing of the movie, like bringing the actors out at Wonder Con in character. It's like you want us to also be sucked in by Maggie, and to believe.
I think the beauty of the movie is it never tells you what to feel. The audience has to feel what they feel. Surprisingly enough, audiences feel very similarly at different junctures of the movie, because they are coming at it from Peter's perspective.
This movie all takes place in these anonymous, California tract houses, in these really cookie-cutter spaces, when you normally think of cults as being in like rural farmhouses. Were those tract houses an inspiration for you?
Completely. The California tract houses are like the mundane meting the mystical. Sometimes if you're driving at twilight, and you see those houses and they're starting to light up, there's something so beautiful, so ethereal about the fact that they're all pretty similar, set against this desert landscape, and the light just hitting them a certain way. Then other times you see them and you think, wow, they're part of this banal quality that's taking over the country.
Or like a banal evil. You can't help but start wondering what's happening in every individual garage.
Exactly! They might be growing their food there soon. What a crazy idea that one of those banal garages could become a greenhouse, a source of food.
You guys were almost prescient-- people really are growing their own food more these days.
I think that's part of our job, to set out these weather balloons and see what we're picking up on.
So you feel like you're trying to understand not just where we are, but where things are going?
Just what we're needing. I don't think we're prescient in any way, but what do we need? What do we need out of this experience? How do we find meaning in the meaninglessness? That's a big theme, and a theme when Brit and I were writing this movie. We were untested, to ourselves and to the world, and there was a lot of doubt, and we were trying to eke out some meaning.
With The East , which you made after you'd had this festival success, was that doubt not part of it, or does it stay with you?
No, I think filmmaking is very humbling. You're constantly-- it's like the desert wind comes and erases everything, and you're starting from scratch again.