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» Interview: Director/ Co-writer Zal Batmanlij talks Independent Filmmaking and Sound of My Voice

by Courtney Howard, published on April 26, 2012

Sound of My Voice

In director/ co-writer Zal Batmanlij’s SOUND OF MY VOICE, co-writer and star Brit Marling (ANOTHER EARTH) gives a riveting and haunting performance as Maggie, the enigmatic leader at the center of a cult. In the art-house thriller, two documentary filmmakers – Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) – are out to expose Maggie for the con artist they think she is. Well, that is until one of the pair gets in too deep.

We sat down with the director/ co-writer during this brilliant film’s press day. We spoke about everything from the cult’s secret handshake to the writing process to the liberating challenges of a restrictive budget.

VeryAware: What’s this experience been like for you? It’s been a little over a year since this premiered at Sundance.

“It’s been a lot of work. We’ve just been busy making THE EAST. I’m editing it right now. It’s been a whirlwind of work.”

VeryAware: What was the co-writing process like?

“We just sort of spent a lot of time outlining the story and telling each other the story. And get the story so good that you can then go and tell a stranger the story at a coffee shop and it would have an effect on them. Their eyes would light up and lean in. Until you can get the story to that point, it’s not worth writing a final draft. We tried to get it to that place. We spent a lot of time acting out the story with each other and arguing about the story with each other. Or just really trying to convince the other person of something, by getting them excited.”

VeryAware: Was there anything that you wanted to put into the film that Brit didn’t agree with?

“No. We’ve never had that experience. The story is ultimately the greater force. The story is the Maggie of our little cult. You know when something works for the story and when something doesn’t work for the story. We always let the story be the arbitrator – it’s not about personal egos.”

VeryAware: Do you write on your own or do you write together?

“We mostly just tell each other the story. And when it comes down to putting it down on a draft, we do that fairly quickly in like two weeks or we can do that separately. We both know the story so well by that point.”

VeryAware: At what point did you get the financing?

“It was very hard. We finished SOUND OF MY VOICE in 2009. It’s really hard to get financing with an unknown director and an unknown actor, untested. It was particularly hard this time around. At the same time, the technology was becoming available where you could make films that could be projected at the Arclight for much cheaper.”

Sound of My Voice

VeryAware: Is it a harder or easier process when your directing the person you’re co-writing with?

“Brit and I spent a lot of time working on our relationship – our writing relationship. You had to sort of make sure that person feels safe and that you feel safe about that micro stuff that creeps up between people. If you can do all that homework, the creative process happens fluidly. If two people are really open to each other, the chemistry is like static electricity – it crackles. We are together pushing that boulder up to get the movie financed. Then our paths separate – she goes down the acting road and I go down the directing road. The hardest part of that is you’ve been a team and now you are your own camps.”

VeryAware: You and Brit have both mentioned previously you see this as a chapter of a three character arc. How did you decide on what you wanted to tell in the film for this chapter, this time around?

“In order to stand alone – which I think it does – you have to complete an arc. That Peter had to go from being one kind of person, to being another kind of person. That’s why I don’t think it’s a vague film. I think it does that. The ending is satisfying to you. For Peter it is. In book 1, a movement happens. In book 2, maybe a different movement will happen.”

VeryAware: Can you talk about the origin of the handshake? Is that something that came out of late night writing sessions?

“Quentin Tarantino once said he likes things to be uniquely cinematic. Like violence for him. It’s much better to watch violence than to read about it. In a novel it doesn’t have the same effect as it does on screen. Aronofsky showed us that with BLACK SWAN. How could you even have that in the script? A lot of what’s in that movie is the unsaid. Just the way bodies move and what that means. I was very interested in the story that we have an element that was cinematic – auditory. That we have that sound and the movement. That we can leave the realm of words. So that was our little shout out to that.”

VeryAware: How did you pull off filming at the La Brea Tar Pits?

“A lot of the film came off organically to us and the La Brea Tar Pits have always haunted me. The fact there are tar pits here. We wrote it into the outline, just talking about it. When it came time to write the script, we did a field trip to see if this was a place we could set our climax at. Sure enough, there’s a whole time wall in the tar pits. It was perfect. I thought if we just begged them to shoot there, but our begging did not work. So that was the most expensive part of the movie. We had to ask for donations for it. We got it for 4 hours one night.”

VeryAware: Sort of playing off that, were there any other difficult challenges you face while filming?

“On all movies, it’s about navigating the challenges. On this movie in particular, I don’t think anyone had any time to think or breathe. We were just fending off one obstacle after another. Every day a location would fall through. Most of them were donated. I used to be a long-distance runner, it was all about how to quiet your mind and push through it. We had a motel set up for Maggie to wake up. Brit was like, “This doesn’t look like the crack den we had thought about.’ I told her, ‘I know but we had three locations fall through in three days. I’ve got to go to set in the morning.’ She said, ‘I’m not shooting in the morning. If I go out and find it….’ And I was like, ‘Well, You go out and find it and I’ll join you in the evening.’ And she did go out and find it! She found an actual crack den and we actually shot there. I think it’s that level of pushing through and it’s there on film. It makes it so worth it.”

VeryAware: What was your shooting schedule?

“Eighteen days. Three, six day weeks. On other movies you get paid overtime but we had none of that. I think the film has an earthiness to it that you can’t recreate. It’s too hard to do that on a bigger budget movie. So I relish in movies that have that. I’m actually very grateful for our budget constraints.”

VeryAware: What would be your number one word of advice for people wanting to go out and make an independent film?

“Don’t listen to other people’s advice because they don’t know. I was taught at film school that you had to make films a certain way. And then my friend Mike Cahill, who made ANOTHER EARTH, went out and shot that himself. When I started seeing his footage, I was like, ‘You’re right! You should just go out and do it.’ The one thing I would say is that a lot of the time, people don’t make their own films because they are afraid. Anxiety plays a big role in creative endeavors. People don’t actually take the jump. If you are making a low budget movie, you have nothing to lose. If it’s really bad, nobody will see it. If it’s really good, nobody will see it. I think the only thing you really need is a good script. That doesn’t take any money – that just takes time.”

Sound of My Voice

VeryAware: You mentioned you are in the middle of editing THE EAST. Can you tell us what we can look forward to?

“It’s about a girl who works for a private intelligence firm – not a government intelligence firm but a company that does intelligence work. A group of corporations come together and hire this company to send this girl in to infiltrate anarchist collective that’s attacking corporations. The girl is Brit’s character. Ellen Page is in the group that she infiltrates.”

VeryAware: Is it easier the second time around?

“I think the third one will be easier. You will have learned so much more about what works and what doesn’t. We had written THE EAST before we shot SOUND OF MY VOICE. We got none of that pleasure seeing, ‘does it work? Does it not work?’

VeryAware: What is your favorite movie genre?

“Thrillers. I think life is like a thriller. You just don’t know what’s around the corner. It’s the most true to life.”

VeryAware: Fox Searchlight has been very hands on in terms of helping to promote the film. What makes them a good partner for you since you’ve been working with them on THE EAST?

“I call it going to FSU – Fox Searchlight University. They are incredibly brave. I really admire that quality in them. Look at the movies they released last year. Buying SHAME or BEAST OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, not exactly commercially easy. They tackle these films with excitement. Something like BLACK SWAN. These are not obvious films people are lining up to get in bed with. They take them to the next level.”

VeryAware: Were those real worms the cast ate?

“They were real worms I ordered from a laboratory so they wouldn’t have any bacteria. They actually cost a pretty penny. They were like $150 for a box of worms.”

VeryAware: Did anybody eat them?

“Brit ate the worms and Chris put them in his mouth. And there was candy worms mixed in. Oreo cookie crumbs.”

VeryAware: Can we just talk about how great that Hot Chip song was at the end of the film? I downloaded it immediately after the film was over.

“We could not find a film for the end. We had a Leonard Cohen one, “Who By Fire.” I was driving up to San Francisco and someone had made me a mixed tape. I heard that song. I thought, ‘What if the movie ends with this song. That would be so What the Fuck?!’ The moment you think ‘what the fuck,’ you know it’s for SOUND OF MY VOICE because that’s the basis we use for the movie. It just moves the story forward and keeps it from being precious. It’s haunting.”

SOUND OF MY VOICE opens on April 27.

Source: veryaware.com

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