Sound of My Voice premiered at Sundance in January 2011. The screenplay is a collaboration between Georgetown alum Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. Marling developed a following when Another Earth, also presented at Sundance last year, got picked up by Fox Searchlight and premiered in theaters around the country six months later. Both films consider time, self-worth, and the contradictions between inner and outward manifestations of truth. Batmanglij and Marling collaborated on the screenplay for Sound of My Voice, which thrusts the audience into the underbelly of a mysterious cult commanded by Maggie, a supposed time traveler from 2054 played by Marling. Peter, played by Christopher Denham, is a dedicated filmmaker who overcomes trepidation and sacrifices himself to the cult so he might expose its treachery in a documentary. The narrative unfolds with meticulous ambiguity. Each character is a walking paradox. I spoke with Batmanglij, Marling, and Denham about their connection to the spiritual realm, within and outside the film.
Lynn Maliszewski: Science fiction film has undergone many mutations. Outlandish fictions supported by paranoia or technological takeover have run rampant over the last twenty years. The birth of the internet made us collectively more conscious of the universe, however. Sound of My Voice is a sci-fi film laced with an unexpected emotional resonance. In this moment where we’ve become accustomed to technology’s steady progress, what do you see in the future of sci-fi film and where does Sound of My Voice fit in?
Zal Batmanglij: I think we’re in a sort of state of future shock because technology’s changing so fast. I read this interesting Vanity Fair article a couple of months ago in which the author talked about how each twenty year chunk of the twentieth century is vastly different from the twenty years before. So the 20s to the 40s, the fashion’s different, the cars are different, everything’s different. The 40s to the 60s…night and day, right? But you look at 1990 to 2010 and you can’t necessarily tell that much of a difference. I think the reason for that, personally, is that the technology is changing at such a rapid rate we just can’t deal with it. We’re literally in stasis. The rapid change in technology has allowed for us to make a movie like Sound of My Voice, which is an ultra low-budget movie. I don’t think it was possible even five years ago to have an ultra low-budget film that’s released on the big screen. It looks great for something that’s shot on an SLR, on a camera that costs less than 2000 bucks.
Brit Marling: What’s funny about that is the terror of science fiction and where things might go. 1984 was suggesting this Big Brother that was like a Fascist police state monitoring everyone. That was the big antagonist force. What’s odd is that nobody took away our privacy, we’ve given it away. Facebook and Twitter and all this stuff is basically about us volunteering all of our photos, all of our information, where we are, what we’re doing at any given moment. We are doing surveillance on ourselves, which is strange, and I guess I wonder about that in terms of science fiction. How much of the antagonistic force is actually coming from within rather than an external oppressor? How much of it is going to be what we’re doing to ourselves given all of this technology? I have no idea where it’s going to go. Zal and I are very interested in the kinds of things schizophrenics are interested in. Schizophrenics are interested in things that may possess specialness or magic: angels, prophecies, spies, time travel, all these things.
Christopher Denham: These stories will always be around because these are elemental questions you’re asking. What is our purpose? We all want to have some sense of certainty about the future. Is it going to get better? Is it going to get worse? But it’s very interesting for me because a lot of these high concept ideas get hijacked by Hollywood. They get to have all the fun and make the time travel movies, and it becomes about the pyrotechnics. This film is really about the more elemental, human questions of time travel if she [Maggie] is indeed a time traveler. I think what we’ve been seeing in the response to the film is that 50% of the people are certain that she is and 50% are determined that she’s not. I think that’s the power of the film, you can argue about that and both be right.
LM: There have already been rumors of sequels and the evolution of this narrative. Any solid plans about continuing on?
BM: I guess kind of what happened is the world came and it just emerged very big. Zal and I would meet for writing sessions and we would just riff back and forth telling each other things and it kind of spiraled in a lot of different directions. It was too big to compress into one movie so we just took a slice of this world and told Peter’s story. I don’t think we ever, in the beginning, felt like, ‘Oh, this is going to keep going.’ For most of our films there’s a lot of backstory and future that we think of that hopefully enters underneath the film and gives you a sense of roots. But you’re looking at one slice of it, and I think it is a stand-alone work. I think, my gosh, if people flock to the theaters April 27 and are loving it, we’d be encouraged to keep going and tell more. There’s certainly all kinds of places you could go with the story. It’s really a story about faith and belief, and time travel is just a great science fiction metaphor for talking about the unseen and the unknowable. The film is actually very conclusive in its ending in terms of Peter’s journey. It’s a very obvious arc. But like any story about faith, the moment you have tangible evidence or proof it’s no longer faith. Faith requires that you believe or don’t believe based on something internal, I guess.
LM: Brit, you play the role of Maggie in the film. She is the eternally contradictory cult leader, but embodies very relatable characteristics. How did you prep for this prismatic character?
BM: Prismatic is such a beautiful word for her, my god, I love that. It’s like the light is entering and depending on how the light enters it’s bouncing off at different angles. She’s the same person in there but she’s always changing the face that she’s giving her group. I think part of that is keeping a sense of mystery, that no one can ever unravel you and quite get to the bottom of you. It was interesting writing a female cult leader, of which there are not as many as there are men, for the same reason. What are the ways in which a woman distinctly holds court? What does a woman do to command the attention of a group? In our research we didn’t really read about any, it was more about the Jonestown Massacre and David Koresh. In some moments Maggie is motherly and tender, and that’s intoxicating. In other moments she’s kind of vixen seductress. In another moment she seems broken and vulnerable and childlike and innocent, and then she’s cutting you at the ankles. It’s a prismatic way of looking at femininity, to use your words.
CD: I really see the appeal of Maggie. She reminds me of a politician because she’s a blank slate. She’s like a cipher. Even when she has to speak in these vague terms, Peter falls for that but who wouldn’t? A leader has to be amorphous because you’re appealing to all these different people so they all have to see themselves in you. I bet that every time she takes one of the cult members aside in the room she has a completely different conversation with them. She’s a chameleon. She’s a completely different persona for them than she is for me. She knows that I wanted this and that guy wants that. Charles Manson did that too.
LM: Chris, what did this role teach you (if anything) about the line between manipulation and belief?
CD: This definitely is a story of faith at the end of the day. Hopefully it has made me, and perhaps the audience, less cynical. I think that’s Peter’s trajectory, that whatever cynicism he has in the beginning kind of dissolves. He does take somewhat of a leap of faith and starts to believe possibly in magic, in wonderment. He’s able to open himself to the possibility that there are things that can’t be explained necessarily, which is a really hard transition for him from being such a cerebral, control-freak sort of person. I think he’s a person that believes most people are just deceitful and, towards the end, he realizes he’s kind of wrong.
LM: Time travel is often considered in extreme terms, a mythical and intangible concept. How did you approach it in the film, and were there any difficulties in rationalizing it to yourselves?
BM: Time travel doesn’t mean that the person who comes back isn’t ordinary. If the military, let’s say, in the future develops the ability to time travel and a soldier comes back, that’s a very human person who’s flawed and difficult and complicated and likes video games and listens to his iPod. Would you have time travel jet-lag like if you were to fly from New York to L.A., would your immune system get depressed? We kept trying to think of the practical ways to articulate time travel because I think sometimes when you ground science fiction in reality it actually ends up provoking a greater sense of wonder than when the science fiction is so abstract and so out there that it’s very obvious fantasy. I think the idea that Zal and I were really interested in here is how do you make the science fiction infuse ordinary landscapes with the potential for magic and then keep turning that back and forth: Is she? Isn’t she? Is she extraordinary or ordinary?
CD: The concept of time travel in particular is something I’ve been fascinated with my whole life. It’s a collectively unconscious thing at this point. I really responded to the minutiae of time travel in the script. They took these grand, hyper-intense schemes and transformed them into science fiction in the suburbs in a lo-fi, gritty world.
ZB: Yeah. There were no grown-ups on this movie. We thought we understood the forest because we knew the story, and we knew what we were getting ourselves into. But soon you’re in it. You’re working all day and all night on this film and all of a sudden it’s just tree after tree after tree. There is no forest, there’s just trees. You’ve got to get sucked into the rabbit hole of the very story you’re making. We had some Peter-like experiences. We just made it because we needed to make it. When things are motivated by such pure desire to create, it’s like your night light. It’s like being on the ocean, I imagine, at night on a boat without any electronic or navigation equipment. We had our stars, which was our desire to connect, to see and be seen. We just navigated by the stars, without realizing where it would take us.
LM: How do you feel about mediums and those claiming to have a strong hold on their third eye?
BM: I’m always wanting to have this totally mystical experience where some strange woman on a street in New Orleans looks at me and tells me everything about my past and future. But it never happens for me. I do really think that people have uncanny, and not in terms of the way we understand things now, abilities that cannot be explained. I’ve just never met any of them.
CD: I’m probably more willing to believe in that stuff than most people but I think it’s hard to be any kind of artist and not have a sense of magic in your life.
ZB: Those things spook me a little because I believe in them. I’m a believer, and I believe in the occult. It’s just that, like anything else, there are a lot of people faking it or milking it. I’m interested in those people too. I don’t dismiss those people because its interesting to be committing your life to pretending to have a power you don’t and you know that and a lot of people don’t. That’s like a prison in and of itself.
LM: Any thoughts on self-fulfilling prophecies?CD: [In the film,] Peter does kind of end up doing the damage to himself. He goes into this group trying to debunk it and he thinks he’s going to be immune to Maggie’s power, as I think most of us would. If we went into a cult we’d be like, “Well obviously these people are all insane and they’re having this collective delusion.” He thinks he can just sit on the periphery of this group. He’s a control freak, but he’s the one who ends up losing control. Maggie can get to him and he finds himself in over his head.
ZB: Yes. I think a lot of life is self fulfilling prophecies, both negative and positive. I think it comes back to compass, the compass by which you chart your course. The wishes and desires of parents are often fulfilled by their children or their grandchildren. We think of ourselves as so autonomous and our lives are so our own, that’s something we’re ingrained to think of culturally. But I think maybe in the future they won’t, and certainly in the past they didn’t. Your parents are completely blindfolding you, spinning you around, and sending you in a certain direction by all the choices they make. That inertia lasts for years.
BM: I do think you have to be careful what you wish for because if you’re thinking on something for long enough, it could eventually come to you or be yours and you better be sure it was what you actually wanted. It’s a slippery slope.
LM: Zal, Sound of My Voice and your forthcoming film, The East, both focus on outsiders infiltrating threatening collectives. Tell me about your fascination with the group mentality.
ZB: i’m attracted to the idea of family. How do you construct a family, which is a way of constructing meaning for yourself, out of the meaninglessness? Like any family, they have an edge. Some of the best, or most effective, ways to construct a family is to have a really strong adhesive, a really strong glue. It’s not blood; it is a common person that you’re devoted to like in the case of Sound of My Voice with Maggie, or ideas or ideals that you’re devoted to like in The East.
CD: Exactly! The scary thing is that you can see how that can happen especially in New York, Chicago, L.A., any big city. You have a sense of longing for a family or some collective identity and a cult is just essentially a group of people. I was talking with a friend about this yesterday and he was like, “Yeah but Maggie’s a liar, she’s lying.” But there are liars in every family. It’s just the lies you choose to believe. There are convenient lies just to keep it going.LM: True or False: Hollywood is a cult.
ZB: Hollywood is not a cult, because Hollywood is so much more sprawling than that. Hollywood is a pretty insulated community, but I don’t know enough about it because i’m not in it enough. Ask me in ten years. I think independent filmmaking is a cult because it’s so much smaller.
CD: True. We always talk about the independent film culture as a cult. You have this small group of people put together and you are a family for a time and you do sort of give yourself up to the group. At your hotel at night, someone slips a piece of paper under your door telling you where you have to be, at what time, and what lines to say. In our case it’s because we’re trying to tell a story, but I don’t know if it’s more or less healthy.
BM: Totally true.
Sound of my Voice, in theaters April 27, 2012
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