Why He's On Our Radar: The 2011 Sundance Film Festival served as a springboard for remarkable number of writer/directors, all with bright futures ahead of them. Mike Cahill of "Another Earth," Dee Rees of "Pariah," Sean Durkin of "Martha Marcy May Marlene," and Evan Glodell of "Bellflower," all made strong impressions, garnering distribution deals and a wealth of buzz. Zal Batmanglij, whose "Sound of My Voice" (co-written by star Brit Marling, who was also in Park City with "Another Earth") screened in the NEXT section, saw him film sell to Fox Searchlight and top Indiewire's 2011 mid-year critic's poll. But unlike the writer/directors mentioned above, he still has yet to see his first feature open theatrically. That changes this Friday.
The thriller concerns a young documentary filmmaker couple who infiltrate an underground cult in the San Fernando Valley, headed by the enigmatic and mysterious Maggie (Marling). "Using a chapter-based structure and littering the story with unresolved details about Maggie's origins, the director plays up the situational intrigue to a consistently provocative degree, maintaining a creepy feel from start to finish," Eric Kohn wrote in his review of the film, out of Sundance.
What's Next: Batmanglij and Marling teamed re-teamed with Fox Searchlight for their upcoming thriller, "The East." In the film, Marling stars as a contract worker tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group, only to find herself falling for its leader. Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Julia Ormond and Patricia Clarkson all star.
Batmanglij told Indiewire that he hopes to do another movie with Marling, once he's done editing "The East." "We spent so many years laying down the track, and we've got it down a little bit now," he said. "I actually want to now take the train for a test drive and really try it out. I want to write a big movie."
Where are you at right now with "The East"?
We finished shooting "The East" in December. I'm in the editing room right now. We're editing till 10pm every night. I've just taken a couple days to play hooky.
What's it like having completed principal photography on your follow-up, and now finally seeing your debut hit theaters?
I thought the timing couldn't have been better. Right after SXSW, we started working on "The East" with Fox, and then we prepped in the summer and started shooting in the fall. And now we've been editing. You can start seeing "The East" on the horizon. She's starting to show her mast.
I watched "Sound of My Voice" for the first time since Sundance with an audience at MoMA on Sunday, and god that was fun. For all the problems I have with this movie, and all of the mistakes I see and all the warts — gosh, it's deeply original. I'm grateful for that.
About those warts… you haven't tinkered with it since Fox bought it?
No. It's cool, because it's like a time capsule. I think about a lot of my favorite directors and I think about their first films, and I have great admiration for the earthiness of those films. It'll be interesting to see "Sound of My Voice" years later. But I love "Following," or "Pi." What beautiful, earthy films.
"Sound of My Voice" is earthy, but it's also extremely mainstream in its appeal.
I'm very fascinated by genre. When I was 14 I saw "Terminator 2." My mind was blown. What a beautiful movie. I found it really deep and also so entertaining. And then I watched "Red," by Krzysztof Kieslowski six months later. The films had a lot of the same themes: time travel and destiny. I thought, it's funny that these films are so different and so alike. And I was like, why can't you combine your favorite qualities from James Cameron, your favorite qualities from Kieslowski? What is that sweet spot in the venn diagram of that? That's always sort of been my compass — what I'm interested in.
It's funny to note "Sound" screened at Sundance the same year "Martha Marcy May Marlene" did; another Fox Searchlight acquisition centered on a cult. What is about cults that fascinate you as a filmmaker?
I just think we're really hungry for a tribe or a family. I think in America we often go to college in a different town that we grew up in. You have a tribe there in college, and then you get pulled away from that tribe. A lot of people go find a job in another town. So now we're three times removed from our original location or our original tribe. And let's say you partner up and your partner gets a job in San Francisco or something, and you get a job in Tussan. All of a sudden you separate. You are four times removed from your original family and totally alone. And now, I think you don't even have the water cooler of your bad job anymore. In the old days, people used to come by the water cooler and talk, interact and have rituals together. But now so many people work from home. I think we feel incredibly alienated. So the desire to be part of a group and to have shared belief and group think is very appealing, I think.
This translates over to "The East." Is it a hybrid of your first feature… a sequel?
I would say it's revolution to the same sort of cultural stew that we were interested in. I mean "The East" is a totally different movie, but a lot of those themes are still there. When we were writing "Sound of My Voice," Brit wanted to be an actress and I wanted to be a director. But of course you can't just get jobs. So we were teaching ourselves how to write in order to do those things. We had day jobs so we would find writing time in the early mornings, or writing times late at night. We were doing it every day for years. We had no idea whether we could ever actually pull it off, or do it for a living. So there was so much doubt in that time in our lives, and I think that doubt really manifests itself in "Sound of My Voice" as anxiety.
How does it feel to now have that doubt squandered?
That's the beauty of filmmaking; it's extremely humbling, because you do it all over again all the time. Now I have all these doubts about "The East," because no one's seen it.
How have you evolved as a filmmaker since making your debut? Have your sensibilities changed?
I guess I'm just really interested in craft more than ever before. The tailoring of film; mood and tone have always been my favorite quality. With "Sound of My Voice," I was obsessed with the mundane and claustrophobia. Now I'm interested in tailoring. Did you see the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan?
The exhibit blew my mind. I always thought the fashion side was creative and interesting, but I never understood that you could wrestle complex ideas from clothes. When I saw his clothes, I thought this man was a man who was haunted, dealing with his haunted self through the clothes he was making. But the thing that holds it all together is his exquisite tailoring and the craftsmanship behind the dresses. [David] Fincher has that craft. I feel like it isn't a bad idea to devote a lifetime to trying to develop that sense of tailoring
What's it's been like seeing Brit catapult the way that she has?
It's strange because I first met Brit when she was 17, I was aware that I was in the presence of something original and something raw. It makes sense to me that other people would see that too. But she's very good at keeping it discreet, so I think a lot of people that meet her don't necessarily see it. But she opens up to the camera in the stories that she helps tell. I think Brit has a special relationship between her audience and herself, because she's communicating to them on multiple levels. Her performances are so raw, it's as if she has that rawness for them. I think that's nice. It makes sense to me.
I'm proud of her. I think she's got something to offer, and as a result people are connecting to that. It's still on a very small scale.
How has your working relationship with her evolved?
I think that we got it down. We work so closely during writing, that we walk that road together; it's nice to walk the road not alone. All of sudden it's time to prep a movie, and an actor's prep is really different from a director's prep, so we really go on separate roads. And then we meet back up on set, but we're in completely different head-spaces then. At first it's really overwhelming, because you're used to having your partner. At first I didn't understand that on "Sound of My Voice," but on "The East" I understood it's just part of our process.