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Brit Marling and Director Zal Batmanglij on Their Crafty Thriller, Sound of My Voice

Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij
Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Like many actresses before her, Brit Marling launched her career at Sundance, but she’s part of a new vanguard in one very important way: She co-wrote the two films she starred in. One of them, the existential sci-fi drama Another Earth, debuted last year, while her new thriller Sound of My Voice bows this weekend. In it, Marling plays Maggie, the leader of a tiny Southern California cult with a secret that gives the film its addictive kick: She claims to be from the future. Her co-writer Zal Batmanglij directed, and Vulture sat down with them both last week to talk about elaborate handshakes, writing your own roles, and their decade-long bond.

Brit, you wrote scenes that would have your character naked, wrapped in a sheet, walking through Skid Row. Did you ever script something and then have second thoughts on set when you actually had to do it?
Marling: No, I was so excited! I think that as storytellers, we get excited about putting ourselves in situations that you would not normally get to be in ordinarily. I mean, that’s sort of the delicious thing about acting: Every time you take on a role, there are probably a couple of dramatic, cataclysmic events that are going to occur for your character in the story. That doesn’t happen very often in a lifetime, and every time you take on a role you’re doing that, so it becomes an extreme kind of living. It reminds me of once when I was in a car accident, and the moment before impact, everything slowed down and my senses were so heightened and I was emotionally overwhelmed. That way in which time slows down and stretches out? That’s the way it feels when it’s really working on set when a scene is really happening.

Zal, tell me how the two of you met.
Batmanglij: Mike and I made a film together at Georgetown ten years ago and won the film festival, and we got brought up onstage, and leading the standing ovation was this 17-year-old freshman, Brit Marling. I tapped Mike and I said, “Look at that girl!” She had this glow about her, and she stood out to me; she was like the love child of Robin Wright and the girl from the Les Miserables poster. She was so willowy and strong. Then, two weeks later, I get a tap on my shoulder: “Are you Zal?” And I’m thinking, Oh, I could get used to this. [Laughs.] And I turn and it’s Brit. She tells me that she really liked my movie and says, “You know, I have a background in photography. Maybe I could help with the lights?” And I said, “Well, do you have a background in acting?” And she says, “Actually, I do.” And I said, “Well, maybe you can be in the next one, we’re shooting it in the fall.”
Marling: And then he actually did come up to me in the fall. I thought, Oh, I’m never going to see him again, and then in the fall, I was sitting outside a Dean & Deluca eating pineapple and trying to teach myself econometrics, and Zal came up.
Batmanglij: That was the first week of September, and then a week later, we found ourselves on the roof of this dorm with all our other classmates, looking across the Potomac River, where there was all this smoke coming up. The Pentagon was on fire.
Marling: I remember that so vividly. Zal came up to me with this strange look and said, “This changes everything.”
Batmanglij: I remember looking across the roof at Brit, trying to make sense of that moment, and there was this knowingness that would take years to actually realize. We wouldn’t actually know each other like that for years, but I remember sharing that look with her, the way you feel under extreme duress. It’s funny how you never know who you’re going to share your life with. I never would have dreamed in that moment that we’d be here, talking about the movies that we were going to make.

In Sound of My Voice, the members of the cult all learn a very elaborate handshake, and that’s even become part of the film’s marketing campaign. How did you come up with all the moves?
Marling: We were so excited for it when we were writing the film, and we had big plans for it before we got financing. We were like, “Oh, we can’t wait until we get money, and then we’ll spend a week on the handshake and hire a choreographer!” And then, of course, we got the money four weeks before preproduction, every day was a nightmare, and five days into shooting, we thought, Oh my God, we forgot to come up with the secret handshake.
Batmanglij: Well, you know what? I remember in the fall of 2001 that I discovered how Brit would disappear for hours on end and go to the basement floor of the library to study — she was the valedictorian at Georgetown and she studied like crazy. So of course, Brit tells this story about how we didn’t come up with the handshake, but then — in good valedictorian form — she came over to my place early one morning on our day off from the shoot, and she had culled fifteen YouTube videos of super-elaborate handshakes and printed out some of this information, and then we spent a long time making it.

You’ve both already shot another movie, The East, where Brit plays a woman who infiltrates an anarchist group that includes Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page. It sounds like it expands on some of the themes and ideas from this movie, but how is it different?
Marling: It’s a completely different world. It’s a whole new landscape of anarchists and rebellion. I think The East really came out of the desire of us wanting to rebel, and what does that rebellion look like? And this was before Occupy Wall Street. How do you rebel against the system? Where do you go, how do you live? So we did that research and went on the road to meet people to figure out how that might work.
Batmanglij: Also, there’s something very simple about Sound of My Voice at its core, and it’s very Zen. The East doesn’t have any of that. It’s a lot more detailed, with a lot of layers.

What’s more fraught: The relationship between two co-writers, or the relationship between a director and an actress?
Marling: The writing partner thing, we’ve gotten to the bottom of. The next thing we write will be pretty simple. That’s hard maybe the first time you figure it out, but it becomes easier and easier.
Batmanglij: I love this idea you’re getting at that in the director-actress relationship, we haven’t even scratched the surface yet.
Marling: Because you don’t get to spend as much time doing that! We spent maybe 18 days on set for Sound of My Voice and maybe 27 on The East, and that’s nothing compared to the years that we spent in the writers’ room together. The director-actress relationship, who knows? We’re still in the beginning of that.

Brit, now that you’ve acted in some upcoming movies that you haven’t written, how have those informed you as a writer?
Marling: Good question. How did Arbitrage and The Company You Keep inform me? I’ll tell you one thing I learned from Robert that was really interesting —
Batmanglij: That’s Redford.
Marling: You gettin’ cheeky today! [Laughs.] Anyway, we were doing a rehearsal and Mr. Redford, the director, said, “Here’s the line, and you could say it like it’s written. Or you could cut out this word, this word, this word, this word, and this word, and just say these three words.” At the time, I thought, But then you’d be missing so much information! But then on the set, I just did the three-word version, and it had the weight of all the other words underneath it. He reminded me that a play is 80 percent auditory and 20 percent visual, but a film is 80 percent visual and 20 percent auditory. You don’t have to actually say that much — sometimes, to reduce something to its barest bones is how you say more.

Brit Marling on Sound of My Voice and Handshakes