Sundance London was something of a homecoming for actress/writer/director/producer Lake Bell. Though born in New York, Bell began her career studying acting at London’s Rose Bruford College, a stone’s throw away from the O2 complex where the festival was taking place. And what better place could there be for the international premiere of the feature directorial debut from the star, who’s consistently impressed both in TV roles like “How To Make It In America” and “Children’s Hospital,” and on the big screen in the likes of “It’s Complicated” and “Pride & Glory.”
“In A World…” stars Bell as Carol, the daughter of a veteran voiceover star (Fred Melamed), who’s looking to break into the industry as competition builds over who’ll get to lend their pipes to the trailer for a new mega-franchise. As her star grows, she becomes torn between a rival voiceover star (Ken Marino) and a sweet-natured sound engineer (Demetri Martin), while also dealing with possible issues with the marriage of her sister (Michaela Watkins) and brother-in-law (Rob Corddry).
As we reported back when the film premiered at Park City in January, the film’s sweet, smart and very funny, and marks a very impressive directorial effort from Bell, who’s set to be as well known as a filmmaker as she is as an actress from here on out. We were lucky enough to sit down with Bell at the weekend while she was in London with the film. Below you’ll find out her path to directing, her influences, her love of trailers and what she learned from making her first feature, and you can read about her upcoming role in Disney‘s “Million Dollar Arm” here. “In A World…” opens in the U.S. on August 9th.
Did you always want to direct?
I’d always written, since I was a little girl, and I had the inclination that I would eventually direct. But I was steadfast on the path to being an actor. And I think you just have to have that type of resolve when you attempt something that’s so competitive. It’s not linear is it? To actually become a working actor in the industry, the journey’s so long and complicated, and full of so much rejection, that you have to be obsessed with, and I was really obsessed. So I didn’t think of anything except acting, although I’d written as a hobby. When I was a little girl, I had something called “The Late Lake Show,” which was the first thing I wrote and directed, which was a procrastination tool so I didn’t have to go to bed, ’cause I’m still an insomniac, I don’t like to go to bed when it’s bed time. So at like 5 years old, until like 11 or 12, I would put on a show for whoever was over for dinner. So then I went to drama school here, at Rose Bruford, for four years. So about seven years ago, there was another script I wrote with a co-writer, that was my first foray into writing a screenplay, but that all fell apart, so that left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth about making movies, but I persevered, and I started writing “In A World…” Cut to, like, a year in, and draft I don’t know how many, I gave it to my agent, we were shopping for a director for it, and my acting agent was like “You’re the only person. What are we doing shopping for a director, why don’t you fucking direct it?” But I’d never have the audacity to direct a full-length feature if I’d never done something else, I know it’s a little chicken-and-egg, but I’m just not going to do it. So he was like, “Write a short film and direct it.” So I went home that night, and pulled out some of these characters I’d been excited about. This one character Wooly, that I’d written for my friend Michaela Watkins. So she ended up starring in the short, “Worst Enemy,” and that went to Sundance in competition, and that was a massive validation, and I got the confidence to take it further.
And there’s been other directing work in between, right?
I directed [the short film] “Worst Enemy,” went to Sundance, and my comrades David Wain and Rob Corddry and Jon Stern from “Children’s Hospital” saw it and asked if I’d direct some episodes. So I did that right before I went into prep on “In A World…”, and then after, I directed this short for The Director’s Bureau, this thing that Roman Coppola was curating.
And what inspired you to set the film in this world of trailer voiceover artists?
I’m a trailer fanatic. If I need to go to my happy place, I just go to Apple Trailers. If I go to the movie and miss the trailers, I’ll be pissed at everyone who made me late. But also, when I was at drama school, we did a lot of vocal training, not voiceover, but radio plays and whatnot. And the voice itself as an instrument, and as a machine was really revered, so even as a young kid, I was collecting accents, listening to other people’s dialects. So this was already a place of interest for me. So when I went to LA with my drama school, I thought I’d get a lot of work, and I got an agent, but I didn’t get shit. I thought I’d be able to be a voiceover star, and not have to struggle. But instead, I became a waitress, because there’s a clique involved in getting into that world. You can’t just roll into somebody’s industry and think you’re gonna conquer it. But what i did realize is that there’s this amazing cacophony of characters that existed in that world, and there were hierarchies, and a lot of insecurities, and chips on the shoulders. The voiceover world is the step-children of the film world.
You open the film with footage of the legendary trailer voiceover artist Don LaFontaine [who passed away in 2008], and he’s a big presence in the film throughout. Did you get to meet him while researching the film?
No, when I started writing, he’d already passed. But I think he’s amazing, so I wanted to pay homage to him, in a very earnest way. He sort of made it an industry. Before him, you weren’t a rock star if you were a voiceover artist. In that speech [near the end of the film], that Geena Davis [who has a cameo as a studio executive] has, where she says that there’s great power in these omniscient voices that tell us what to think and buy and how to feel. It’s sort of funny when she says it, but it’s true, voiceover is relevant. It’s interesting to think the social demographic of the voiceover you’re hearing. Generally it’s a male, somewhat well-to-do person, and that says a lot. But the trend now is more of an everyday man, like [Ken Marino‘s character] Gustav.
Were you writing the script with people in mind for the parts?
Almost everyone. Not everyone, but almost everyone. Certainly Michaela, Rob, Nick Offerman, Tig [Notaro]. Actually, Tig’s part was written as a guy, and I didn’t change anything about the part, her voice just fit the part perfectly. I’m very lucky to have friends at my fingertips that I can call and ask. I was very careful about what favors I wanted to ask. I know it’s hard, when someone asks ‘hey, can you come out and do something,’ there’s only so many hours in the day and days in the year to do stuff. Especially ’cause my friends self-produce, and generate their own work, and I understand that being in other people’s work can be difficult sometimes, even if you love them.
The film’s much more of an ensemble piece than I was expecting
I always… mainly because I’m not a classically trained writer, I write what I want to see next. And as an actor, I’m very attracted to fully fleshed out characters, with their own lives and backstories and thoughts and dreams and flaws and problems, and even if they’re smaller characters, like Jamie, played by Alex Holden, she’s got her own movie going on in her world, and she’s just coming into Carol’s movie. Carol’s definitely the lead, but I had to work really hard in the edit to manage that. I had so much of Michaela and Rob’s storyline, ’cause I just love well-rounded characters, I liked these people and wanted to hear their stories and their foibles. So I had to exercise restraint, for the good of the piece, to tailor it so that Carol was the protagonist. ‘Cause in the first edit, maybe you wouldn’t know. As an actress and a writer, there’s part of me that doesn’t want to put myself in it too much, and that could have been a disservice. Initially I underwrote Carol, which wasn’t good for the piece, it’s not going to make anybody look good. So instead of being self-conscious — ’cause people probably know me as an actor first — and you don’t want it to feel like a vanity project. And if people see the movie, they can see it’s not a vanity project, I do not look glamorous in the movie. I wanted to look like myself, and wanted all the characters to be relatable and sweet. I can appreciate all forms of comedy, but what turns me on is something that’s a little more earnest. It’s not cutesy, or sappy, though.
It’s quite grounded. yeah. Particularly with the locations, there’s a nice sense of the real LA in there.
Yeah, I didn’t want to shoot anything iconic in LA at all. I wanted to shoot the Valley. Like I had to frame the Capitol Building out of one shot, they were like, “But it looks so great,” and I was like “Eh.” I didn’t want iPhones in the movie, I didn’t want anything too contemporary, I wanted a city in America that could be now, or three-four years ago.
What were the films you were looking at beforehand? What were your big influences here?
The ones I kept on my desk were: “King of Comedy.” Amazing. Scorsese, who knew? Hilarious. Dark and tragic and hilarious, and I love the musicality of the performances in that movie. “Hannah and her Sisters,” Woody Allen. Needless to say, Woody Allen is an influence to a myriad of people, but there’s a reason for that. Again, tragically comedic. And I really love “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” Paul Mazursky. I always felt really drawn to that. It’s a little more poppy, visually, but I like the tone of comedy, how very serious things are happening, and there are genuine stakes emotionally, not life or death, but emotional stakes, and yet it’s hilarious. And “Citizen Ruth,” that sits right on top.
The party scenes reminded me of “Shampoo” a little too.
“Shampoo,” yeah, that’s on there too. And also for the dance between social relevance, and what’s going on in the world, so on the TV, the reality TV shows and stuff. We actually shot those fake reality shows. But yeah, “Shampoo” actually is a huge influence, in how to dance between a multitude of thematics without being annoying.
You mentioned cutting down some of the other plotlines in the cutting room. Did the film change much in post-production otherwise?
It did. In comparison to other films, and to my short film for instance, that really changed, that went from 26 minutes to 12 minutes. But my film, because of the way it was written, there was less room for it to be massively altered in intention. I manipulated a couple of story points, but I didn’t have the real estate to really alter it as much. I didn’t overshoot, really, I didn’t have the luxury. And I didn’t have the luxury of overwriting. So it was very nuanced work, the edit. Seven months of nuanced work.
Having been through your first feature now, what’s the one thing you would change next time out?
OK, I’m going to ask for more days of shooting. Maybe just like two more days. And then most important, which I did not see coming, I’m going to ask for more days for the mix. It’s the kind of things you just don’t anticipate, you’re like ‘I’ll be so happy when I’m there, because so much will have been done,’ but no, there’s a lot to be done, it’s again supremely nuanced work. But yeah, I learned bucketloads of things. Even just as a producer, assembling the project, I’ll be so much savvy to the… bullshit.
So are you working on something new already?
I’m on draft one, but I wouldn’t talk about it yet. I’m excited about it, it’s an ensemble comedy.
The film made a pretty big splash at Sundance. Have the studios come calling already?
Totally. That is a great compliment, and honor, it’s cool to feel in the game. But I feel like I’m old enough to feel prudent about it. I feel like I’m still in my freshman year of filmmaking, and respect that very much, and I wouldn’t want to do myself a disservice by biting off more than I can chew. But beyond that, I feel like what your second project is, is somehow the most profound. I’m trying to figure out if I’d at least start by only doing films that I write, or if I’m moved by a script, taking on someone else’s project. But ultimately, again, it comes down to hours in the day and days in the year. If I said, “Yeah, I’ll rewrite this movie for this studio and direct it,” that’s a two or three year commitment when you can’t do other things. Because I know myself, I will not phone it in. If I was capable of phoning it in a little bit, then maybe, but I haven’t done it long enough to know how to do that. I would obsess over it, inject every ounce of my soul into it.
Roadside Attractions will release “In A World…” later this summer.