Brit Marling on Sound of My Voice, Guerrilla Filmmaking, and Not Waiting for Permission
Sundance '11 darling Brit Marling is now a year and change removed from the stunning festival debut that made her one to watch thanks to two films she co-wrote, produced, and starred in: The moody sci-fi drama Another Earth, released last summer, and the mesmerizing Sound of My Voice. The latter film finally hits theaters this week, giving audiences a chance to see a different side of Marling: Earthy, enigmatic, dangerously charismatic, and -- as the leader of a cult amassing members in a basement in the Valley -- possibly from the future.
Movieline spoke with Marling last year about Sound of My Voice, in which a would-be documentarian and his girlfriend (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius) find themselves falling deeper under the spell of Marling's Maggie as she prepares her followers for an unknown event. As with Another Earth, which was co-written and directed by Mike Cahill, Marling penned the script for Sound of My Voice with director Zal Batmanglij (who is currently at work on his SOMV follow-up The East, a drama centered around an anarchist group starring Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgard, Julia Ormond, Patricia Clarkson, and Marling).
Marling herself has since filmed the dramatic thriller Arbitrage with Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon and will be seen in Robert Redford's The Company You Keep. In Movieline's chat she discusses the borderline illegal guerrilla filmmaking tricks that made Sound of My Voice possible, her thoughts on taking professional risks, her dream director list, and how to avoid the "morally-corrupt swamp" that is Hollywood. (A longer version of this interview was previously published here.)
Sundance was a huge coming out event for you. How did you process the sudden attention of being named a Sundance darling in your first major festival appearance?
To be perfectly honest, it's a little weird. It's weird because, I guess, you're working for so long in a vacuum -- writing this work, making this work -- and you're doing it really on your own. It hasn't met up with the world, and you're totally sustained by just making the work. So it's a completely different experience for it to enter the world and to get responses and reactions. And of course, the Sundance experience was amazing. I'm incredibly moved by the programmers of that festival -- that they would search out these films that are so small, handmade, truly outside of the system of filmmaking, and that they would bring these movies that were made in little caves in Silverlake and take them and bring them into the light. It's pretty amazing.
Not only that, you also got to bring two films to Sundance with two of your close collaborators, Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij. You were all three roommates once upon a time, right?
For a long time in L.A. the three of us lived together and we were kind of each others' family in L.A., in a way. We'd all left family on the East Coast and come out to the West Coast, and L.A. can be a very isolating city. Doing this kind of work is really extreme work. I think we were really lucky that we had each other and could encourage each other, because there was quite a bit of time before we were able to make these movies. And of course you're filled with doubt; can you really do this? So it's nice to have each other for encouragement, to keep going. Otherwise I'm not sure. Maybe I would have ended up doing something else.
What would you be doing instead?
When I think about what I would be doing if I wasn't an actor... maybe an environmental activist? An eco-terrorist of some kind? I don't know. [Laughs]
Take us back to your days at Georgetown. How did you meet Zal and Mike in the first place?
I was a freshman and they were seniors and there was a film festival at Georgetown, which is really odd because everyone there is going to work on Capitol Hill or at an investment bank. But they had a festival, and it was the first year they'd had one, and the films were all horrible. I mean, the worst student filmmaking ever. And then there was this film that came on at the end, and it was colorful and poetic and it was digital filmmaking like you'd never seen before. It had all this breadth to it, really beautiful imagery, the rhythm of it, an interesting story. I remember it won first place and I just popped up and led the standing ovation for the film. The filmmakers came onstage to get the award and it was Mike and Zal, and I saw them and I was like, "Okay. I have to be friends with these people." And the three of us started making movies together.
That was an amazing time; I don't think we thought we would ever end up making movies that way later. We came out to L.A. and assumed we'd learn to make films properly, whatever that means, but because of the recession, because of the way filmmaking and technology has changed, we pretty much ended up making movies in the same sort of completely illegal guerrilla fashion that we'd been using to do stuff at Georgetown.
You folks still talk, and openly so, about the semi-legit hustle of getting Sound of My Voice made...
Like returning our Mac every 14 days! It was actually really hard; we would pull up, I would put on the emergency lights and Zal would run in with this heavy computer. Tamara Meem, the editor, had to reinstall the Final Cut software every time. It was an intense way to go about it but it was also the only way we could afford to do it. [Laughs] Yeah, we were pulling a lot of tricks like that.
You have to think that somewhere out there, aspiring filmmakers are hearing these stories and thinking to themselves, "Brilliant idea!"
Yeah, I think one of the things we realized is that sometimes in life when you're doing your craft, you're often waiting for permission -- for someone to give you money, for someone to read a script and say yes, you can go do it. And I think at some point I was like, "I don't want to wait for permission anymore." Let's just do this, let's make these movies for whatever money we can raise, we'll figure it out. And it's kind of cool because there ends up being as much creativity in the execution of figuring out how to make a movie with limited resources as there is in the screenwriting or in the acting.
You multi-task with your films, acting, producing, writing -- but you studied a very different field. At what point did you decide to go full-force into filmmaking?
I had done plays and studied acting a bit in high school, and I think when I was graduating a lot of my friends were going to theater school. I really wanted to act, but I felt like I knew a lot about plays, about Shakespeare and Chekhov and plays, but not enough about being a human being in the world. I didn't understand how you could be an actor if you didn't also study philosophy and study political science, astronomy. And also just go out and live life and have experiences. These are all somehow part of being able to bring something to Chekhov, or bring something to any play or any story.
Or just merely having something to say.
Yes! And at the time I decided that I was going to get a broader liberal arts education and also just go live some life, because the drama world felt small and a bit self-referential. Not a lot from the outside was coming in. I ended up studying economics -- I don't know exactly how all of that happened -- and I ended up working in an investment bank for a while, then I think at some point I just decided that I didn't want to be afraid. I think when you decide you're going to go act in L.A. it's just an overwhelming wave of fears: I'll never make any money, I won't survive, I'll waste all this time in my life that I could have used pursuing another direction, I'll fall behind... the feelings of illegitimacy, of struggling for so long and not getting to do the work you want to do. Everybody's writing you off as another young girl who's gone off to L.A. It's a huge risk. And I guess I finally came to a point when I was working at this bank and studying econ when it didn't feel like a risk anymore because I was so not living the life I wanted to live. And that felt like its own kind of death. So at some point you realize that your life is not just going to start one day in the future, that you're living it. You are nothing more than the sum of the small choices you make on a daily basis, so if you choose to study economics or you choose to be a banker, this is going to be who you are. It gave me more courage to go be an actor, because the more time I spent acting the more I liked who I was. I feel like I'm a much better person when I'm developing my imagination and my innocence and my vulnerability. I like that version of me better than the version where I'm just working on my analytical mind.
Since moving to L.A. have you been doing the regular aspiring actor thing, sending out head shots and resumes and hitting auditions?
It's funny, right when I got out to L.A. I realized pretty quickly that one, it's just difficult to go on auditions as a young unknown. And then even if you can get an audition, what you're auditioning for is probably garbage. I mean, it's just horror films, the torture porn genre, or it's just bad comedies, girlfriend characters, girl in bikini running from man with chainsaw. I thought to myself, "Oh my gosh, I don't know how I can do this stuff." People said to me you just have to start somewhere, everybody's got this kind of work, the skeletons in their closet, and eventually you'll get to the other side and you'll get to do substantive work. I remember thinking to myself, nobody says to an aspiring heart surgeon, "One day you'll get to operate on patients at Cedars-Sinai -- but for now, come over to this back alley and remove kidneys illegally and sell them on the black market." Nobody asks that of any other profession, that you wade through this morally-corrupt swamp. Also what I felt really strongly about was that I didn't want to play these roles where women are constantly in these submissive positions or being sexually abused or harassed or just sexual objects. I did not want to do that. I didn't want to be responsible for putting storytelling into the world that other young girls would watch and think, that's what it means to be a woman. Hell no. So writing became a way to get to act in things that I thought were meaningful, and hopefully write stronger roles for other women. The Lorna character, to write [SOMV character] Carol Briggs, to create work for other women that wasn't like the stuff I was reading.
Speaking of strong female characters, Maggie in Sound of My Voice is mesmerizing, manipulative, transfixing. There is an amazing power to her that's almost inhuman. Where did that magnetism and power come from in your performance, and where did you draw her characteristics from when you were writing her?
In the beginning when we wrote this, Maggie for a while was a bit of a blank placeholder. She was there, but we had a hard time determining her character. For a while she read pretty one-dimensionally, and then she started to flesh out the moment that we came up with the scene between her and Peter [Christopher Denham], where she kind of pressures Peter about his past and gets him to throw up, physically and emotionally. I think that scene gave us as writers insight into her character, in that she's deeply intuitive, really compassionate on one hand, but on the other hand there's a scorpion- or viper-like quality to her. If she feels dismissed or threatened, or if she feels someone accusing her of being a fraud, she will attack and it will be fearless and aggressive and very dangerous. I think that seed from that scene gave birth to this girl who's at once potentially magical -- is she a time traveler, is there something ethereal, or is she ordinary? And look, even if she is a time traveler, which I'm not going to answer, but if she is a time traveler, a time traveler is just a person from the future who comes back in time. She can be sort of an ordinary girl who, like, smokes menthol cigarettes and is kind of crass in the future and travels back in time. That ordinariness doesn't leave her. I think we liked the idea of that juxtaposition, that she's telling people the future and smoking softpack menthol cigarettes and has really badly chipped nail polish on her fingernails.
[MILD SPOILERS] About that ending; you don't have to tell us the answer, but is there an answer?
Yeah. And that's what's amazing about this; this was actually conceived as the first part of a larger story. Oh my gosh, there are hours of storytelling that could be had. Whether or not that's a trilogy of films or a TV show or a miniseries, it doesn't matter -- there is an ending that you come to between Peter and Maggie that is so, I think, beautiful and complicated. A really great love story. And I hope that we get a chance to tell that, because right now only Zal and I and another person know that ending.[END SPOILERS]
It might just drive people crazy to know that more story is out there, even if it only exists in your minds.
[Laughs] We'd love a chance to share it. Maggie's a character that I think there's still a lot to mine, in who she is.
After Sundance, you signed with an agency. Did Sundance completely change things for you in terms of career opportunities, and what kind of roles have you been approached with since?
It's a very cool thing to begin to have the opportunity to read really great scripts, to actually go in and meet the people who are making those stories and really be in a position to be a part of them. That is awesome. But so far I haven't been approached with anything similar. You do have to be careful of that, but because these films haven't fully entered the world yet people still don't really know. Absolutely, I don't want to do another role that's similar to Maggie or similar to Rhoda; I think as an actor once you've explored that territory it becomes safe and you begin seeking out the dangerous territory, something new that you feel you maybe cannot do. So I'm looking for that, and it obviously becomes much easier when you have an agent and managers and people supporting you that believe in your work and your ability to do it. As far as studio vs. independent films, I'm interested in any story that's good and a lot of the great stories that I watch are huge studio films. I love 12 Monkeys, it's one of my favorite movies of all time. I love The Princess Bride, I love The Fugitive. I also love Dogville and Edge of Heaven and I Am Love. So it doesn't really matter to me, the budget or how it's being made. It's really a question of the story and the people behind it.
The common thread in many of those films seems to be that they're made by iconoclastic directors with very strong visions.
Yeah, and I think that's what interests me the most about being an actor. You have to surrender. You have to really trust the director and the way that they see things, and how can you surrender to anyone who doesn't move you deeply and whom you don't trust? I'm excited to meet those other directors and writers that will move me so much that I'm like, "Take me on the journey with you." I will do my homework and know this human being that I'm playing inside and out and I'll trust you to keep me safe. You have to be willing to make yourself really vulnerable.
Who are some directors you can name who have inspired you that you'd like to work with as an actor?
Oh, gosh. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden; I love their work and Half Nelson is, I think, the most stunning film that's come out of our generation. Fatih Akin blows my mind. Luca Guadagnino. So many people.
In terms of directors working closely with their actors as you have in your films, Guadagnino developed I Am Love over a long period of time with Tilda Swinton.
And her performance in it is transcendental! She's speaking Italian with a Russian accent and then Russian? It blows my mind. Also Elegy, directed by Isabel Coixet. Beautiful film based on the Philip Roth novel. For whatever reason it came out at the same time as Vicky Cristina Barcelona and it got sort of got buried, but it is an amazing movie and she is a stunning director. A female director who also camera operates, which I think is so cool. Oh my gosh, there are so many directors I look forward to getting to know.
Sound of My Voice opens in limited release Friday.