ABOVE: ZAL BATMANGLIJ ON THE SET OF SOUND OF MY VOICE. IMAGE COURTESY OF FOX SEARCHLIGHT
For a first feature, Zal Batmanglij’s Sound of My Voice shows remarkable confidence. Batmanglij trusts his audience enough to leave multiple significant plot points completely open to interpretation. The film stars Brit Marling as Maggie, a young woman in southern California who claims to be a time-traveler from the year 2054 and who has developed a small but fanatical cult of followers, along with Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius as Peter and Lorna, a couple who infiltrate the cult hoping to make a documentary film about it and expose Maggie as a fraud. As the story goes on, the skeptics both onscreen and in the audience become unsettled—Peter and Lorna become more deeply involved in Maggie’s tribe than they ever intended, and we are left wondering whether Maggie herself is a con woman or a truth-teller.
After the Peggy Siegal Company premiere of the film this week, presented by Gucci, we caught up with Batmanglij to discuss darkness and light, unexpected moments of humor, and what he’s still discovering about his own film.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: I saw the movie twice, actually.
ZAL BATMANGLIJ: How did it play the second time?
SYMONDS: It was great! The second time, knowing what was going to happen and being able to see how it was constructed, I really appreciated that.
BATMANGLIJ: I just sat and watched it for the first time in a couple months, and I loved it too. I mean, I appreciate it. I like the line in which she says, “I’m not going to be there,” or whatever, you know, she’s leaving. She knows she’s leaving. I didn’t even get that.
SYMONDS: Yeah! There was one thing I hadn’t actually caught the first time around—in the first scene in the cult, when the little boy goes into the room to give blood.
BATMANGLIJ: Yeah, he does. You know what, though…
SYMONDS: I completely passed over it the first time.
BATMANGLIJ: It was so expensive. Kids are so expensive, because you have to have a set teacher. You can only have them for one day. But no one ever notices that, thank you for noticing.
SYMONDS: One thing that was super-different between the two screenings that I saw was that people laughed a lot tonight. At the critics’ screening that I saw, people laughed at one scene, because it’s…
BATMANGLIJ: …funny. But they didn’t laugh at other things. I know.
SYMONDS: They weren’t laughing a lot at scene transitions or anything like that.
BATMANGLIJ: I know. It was funny tonight, but I liked it! I realized that it’s a really weird movie, so people are laughing because they’re very uncomfortable a lot of the time.
SYMONDS: Like the scenes with James Urbaniak. He’s so great—did you know him from before this?
BATMANGLIJ: No, but I told him that this was a trilogy, and that the dad character is very important later on.
SYMONDS: I interviewed Brit when Another Earth came out, and she mentioned that you and she and Mike had originally had a project that was a series of short films, sort of along the same themes, and then Another Earth came out of that. Was Sound of My Voice a part of that, too?
BATMANGLIJ: Sound of My Voice had been written before Another Earth.
SYMONDS: There are some similar themes.
BATMANGLIJ: There are. But that’s because we spent 10 years coming of age together, so you have that same stew we made together.
SYMONDS: Did you feel like you had to induct Nicole and Chris into this relationship that you all had together already?
BATMANGLIJ: No. I really believe that if you have a good idea of a good movie, you are just a digger. Brit and I had shoveled, digging out the movie. Chris and Nicole picked up shovels, and they were so serious about digging, and they were digging harder than we were, so we had to dig hard. And then Brit digs even harder, and then the sound guy digs, and then the cinematographer digs, and at the end, you have this movie, and it doesn’t belong to anyone. We just unearthed it. That’s what it really feels like. When it feels like it belongs to someone, it’s just not very good.
SYMONDS: Do you feel like you’re not a self-styled auteur kind of person? You don’t want to do that?
BATMANGLIJ: I don’t fight in the contract for, like, a Zal Batmanglij film. I’m not against anyone who does that, but it’s like, it’s not that kind of medium. I wouldn’t be a novelist and tell the same story. I like how collaborative and cult-like filmmaking is. It’s really family-oriented, tribe-oriented.
SYMONDS: With the very short shoot time—you said you had 18 days. I think in life, super-short, very intense experiences often end up meaning more than when you spend three months with someone on an eight-hour-a-day basis.
BATMANGLIJ: Yeah, I agree.
SYMONDS: Did you feel that way about this?
BATMANGLIJ: One hundred percent. I think we didn’t think about it too much. That was the beauty of making this movie. We just had to make a movie. We didn’t expect Sundance, we didn’t expect Fox Searchlight, we didn’t expect any of this. We just had to make to a movie, and we didn’t have any time, or the luxury to think about it. We were like working at a factory. We just had to make our sweaters, you know? It’s our job in life. I was very rewarded.
SYMONDS: You mentioned in the Q&A that you didn’t joke around on set a lot. That makes total sense to me—it seems like if you had, then it would have been a different movie. There are moments of comedy in it, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of movie where you could have been relaxed and comfortable enough at any point to have inside jokes.
BATMANGLIJ: It’s a very dark movie, too. It’s about the darkness, I think. And then about finding the light.
SYMONDS: That final scene really is—it’s literally in darkness, and then the light comes in.
BATMANGLIJ: Exactly! Literally. I always think that Sound of My Voice is a movie about the crumbs in Hansel and Gretel. You know, those crumbs. It’s about finding your way out of the claustrophobia and alienation of modern life.
SYMONDS: Can I ask about the La Brea Tar Pits? That scene with Chris and the little girl, in front of that mounted wall of fossils, is so great. The light is so amazing in that hallway.
BATMANGLIJ: I actually didn’t connect with that image as much as I connected with the black-and-white photo from 1906 of the guys digging. But my DP loved that image, of the image you like, the fossil wall. So, I honored her. And that is the collaborative experience of making movies.
SOUND OF MY VOICE IS OUT IN THEATERS TODAY.