It might seem like a distant memory, but it was at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 where Brit Marling emerged as the next actress on the rise, and swept up along with her were filmmakers Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, as she was the star and co-writer of both their films. And while the former's "Another Earth" was quickly ushered into theaters, Batmanglij had to wait a bit longer, but this spring "Sound of My Voice" finally hit the big screen.
A relationship drama, an eerie mystery and an exploration on the lure of the family unit (no matter how twisted), "Sound of My Voice" is both a straightforward and high-wire act, a deeply engrossing picture that tantalizingly never quite shows its full hand, but asks the viewer to take the leap with it into the unknown. The story centers on a young couple who decide to infiltrate a cult in the hope of creating a documentary exposé. But they both become transfixed by its enigmatic leader, played by Marling, who impossibly claims she's from the future, and while their skepticism keeps them guarded, they can't help but follow her and see where her plans take them. And if there is any film from 2012 you might have missed that's worth making the time to catch up with right now, it's this one. In fact it hit Blu-ray and DVD this week, and now matter how you see it, Batmanglij just hopes you give it a shot.
"My hope is that people either watch it on their iPad curled up in bed late at night by themselves or get a group of friends together and download it on the big screen and they watch it together," he told us this week. "There's something about watching this movie communally, it's about community."
So if you've already seen the movie — or need an extra incentive to check it out — we decided to ask Batmanglij what movies had an influence on his debut feature film. And like any devoted cinephile, Batmanglij draws on a variety of influences ranging from the arthouse to the multiplex. So, here we go…
"The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1988)
While Terry Gilliam's wildly fantastical, visually expressive film might seem like an odd place for Batmanglij to draw on for his carefully constructed and controlled feature, it was certain images that resonated and stayed with the director as he geared up his own effort. "I love the reveal with [Uma] Thurman in the shell, and I always thought that Maggie should be revealed like that," he says of the memorable sequence. And there was another young actress in the film that also also left an impression (even if, ironically, he wasn't sure he wanted to see this film in the first place).
"I remember being a kid, I was a little kid when my Dad took me to 'Munchausen.' I guess he took my whole family, but I kind of didn't want to go for some reason. Then we got there and I was so mesmerized by the movie, and I was really taken by the young Sarah Polley. I didn't realize until many, many years later that it was Sarah Polley," he said (you can see pictures of the actress in the film right here). "So the idea of the little ethereal blonde girl that would play little Abigail in 'Sound of My Voice,' it just haunted me and stayed with me for so many years."
"Three Colors: Red" (dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)
There are few trilogies as influential or awe-inspiring as Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors." An ambitious triptych of films whose admirable sprawl covers everything from politics to love to art and more, many forget it played with genre elements too. And for Batmanglij, it intrigued him to see Kieslowski delving right into those waters, but doing so in his own singular fashion. "I just love Kieslowski, and I love that in 'Red' he's dealing with time travel. It's crazy to me that Red has to do with time travel. It's like, 'What? That's a European arthouse film!' So when I was fourteen and saw 'Red' for the first time my mind was blown."
"It was tackling time travel in a way that lends itslef more to the medium, which is more in an ephemeral, non-literal way. Like looking at it from the side rather than looking at it head on. Which fits the notion of time travel a lot better," Batmanglij continued. "It's something that we tried in 'Sound of My Voice, whether she is or isn't from the future, the film comes at it from the side. It doesn't come at it head on. That's I think what a lot of people's frustrations are with 'Sound of My Voice.' I think that's also one of its strengths."
"Gone Baby Gone" (dir. Ben Affleck, 2007)
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of "Sound of My Voice" is that it uses its thriller construct and genre trappings also as a place to explore the dynamics between a couple who are working together, but finding their bond tested. And Batmanglij noted that element as a standout in Ben Affleck's first directorial effort about a couple trying to unravel the mystery behind the disappearance of a young girl.
"I love the idea of a couple, like a couple who are also equals and kind of detectives together. I thought that was really interesting," he says of the film led by Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan. "[In] 'Eyes Wide Shut' or something like that — which I loved a lot as a kid or as a teenager — he goes on the journey himself. That's basically an exodus in an early 20th century story and I think that's very much an older way of seeing things. I thought 'Gone Baby Gone' was really modern in showing a couple going on an adventure."
"The Terminator" (dir. James Cameron, 1984)
"I love James Cameron, I love what he does," Batmanglij says without reservation. And looking back on Cameron's seminal '80s film — that Batmanglij calls "a huge influence" — which spawned a franchise, the director notes the way the material was approached that stood out to him, and it seems to be a throughline of every film mentioned so far.
" 'The Terminator is grounded in so much realism.' It's again a story that centers around a woman that isn't a 'woman's picture' necessarily. I found it really thrilling, both Terminator 1 and 2. When you watch it it's such fine storytelling," he said. "And so I was always wondering why can't you have ['Sound of My Voice'] be as mystical as 'Red'? As mystical as 'Red' but also as grounded in real life like 'Terminator' but also with the fast paced thrilling storytelling the 'Terminator' has."