In her first two films — “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice,” both Sundance Film Festival sensations last year, with the latter just now seeing release, to give it some modicum of distance from the vaguely thematically similar “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — actress Brit Marling exhibits a unique skill set, coming across as at once ethereal and commanding. But she’s no mere ordinary big screen find; she also co-wrote each of the films, giving the Georgetown University graduate and class valedictorian a leg up other actresses of her generation out to establish a career foothold.
Penned along with friend and director Zal Batmanglij, the Los Angeles-set “Sound of My Voice” centers on Peter and Lorna (Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius), a pair of would-be documentarians who infiltrate the quasi-religious sect of a mysterious woman, Maggie (Marling), who claims to be from the year 2054. Weird things ensue. ShockYa recently had a chance to speak to the 29-year-old multi-hyphenate one-on-one, about her film, her writing and acting processes, a Cranberries song, and a past, present and future spent trying to avoid drinking the “cultural milk.” The conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: In college I did a rather lengthy paper on the Branch Davidians and David Koresh, and in my research I don’t really recall reading much about any female cult leaders. Did you come across any in your research for this film?
Brit Marling: Oh, that’s fascinating. You know, I’m sure that there are, obviously there are. I didn’t really find any in my research, though. All the books I was reading that were looking at cult leaders were always about men, and I think that’s why we were so interested in writing this. Zal and I are always interested in trying to write women who are active, and driving the action of the film, instead of passive and just responding to things. So the idea of doing a female cult leader was so compelling, and we thought, “OK, well then, what is the way in which a woman would lead a group like that that’s different (from how a man would lead it)?” I think Maggie is really mercurial, she’s sort of shape-shifting. In one moment she’s motherly, in another moment she’s a vixen, and in another moment she’s, like, a terrifying psychotherapist. And then she’s sort of an ingenue and innocent too. I guess we got to play with a lot of the tropes of femininity, or the different ways in which women cast themselves.
ShockYa: So the creation of the character of Maggie was a conscious reaction to the things that you learned about men as charismatic cult leaders, and separating those traits along gender lines?
BM: Yeah, I think so. I think what’s weird is how — well, I think as screenwriters we’re attempting to write things with strong women and we’re conscious of that agenda, but even so you end up putting your female characters in passive positions because that’s the cultural milk you’ve been drinking your entire life. In a lifetime of movies and novels and TV watching that’s (what) you’re fighting against — usually the woman is the girlfriend or the wife, and is only there as a sounding board for whatever the guy has to say. You read scripts like all the time, where you could literally just take out all of the girl’s dialogue and it’s really just a monologue of what the guy is saying, with the girl moving it forward. I guess what’s tricky is breaking yourself of that. It’s hard to do even when you’re aware of it. And so this was the particular challenge here, because even in the research I was reading about David Koresh and Jim Jones and these archetypal cult figures.
ShockYa: Take me back to that period after college. You were in Los Angeles, out auditioning as an actress, and not very inspired by the material you were seeing. Of course, a lot of people, especially young actresses, get paid considerable amounts of money to play roles that are not very interesting. You wanted more. Was writing your own material a fairly direct result of reading so many terrible scripts?
BM: Totally. I think if I’d come out here and found a way around that, or if I’d come out here and been a guy I might have had [a different] experience, because at least in the horror movie the guy is the one with the weapon running around and doing something. I really started writing out of total necessity, and was very lucky that my two best friends in college (Batmanglij and “Another Earth” helmer Mike Cahill) were filmmakers who wanted to direct, so they had an agenda to write too. So we all started reading screenwriting books, and I was reading a lot of really bad scripts and thinking, “OK, what can this teach me about what not to do?” I read “The Silence of the Lambs” probably two hundred times; that screenplay is so masterfully crafted. Then we started writing together, and for a while we thought that (with) these things we produced we might even be able to enter the system in some legitimate way. Like, they say, “All you need to do is write a really great script,” but that’s not really true. You can’t write a great script and have an unknown director and an unknown actress who’s not even in SAG — nobody’s going to give you money to make that movie, especially not in the current climate. So we then had to decide to make them on our own, and that actually ended up being incredibly liberating.
ShockYa: This and “Another Earth” were written at the same time, right? That strikes me as rather difficult, but also requiring a great discipline. What was that process like?
BM: (pause) We were all living in the same house at that time, and I would write with Mike for a while and then Zal. We were sort of going back and forth. (long pause) You know, I think part of what happens that may be helpful is that the muscle gets sharper just from having been worked out so much. If you’re training for an Olympic swim race, you’re in the pool every day swimming laps and you get your body into a place where it can handle the race. So when I think about that period, it was so all-consumed with writing that, I mean, in some ways… (pause) Have you heard that Malcolm Gladwell thing, in his book “Outliers,” how he talks about how you need 10,000 hours to be an expert or even be in a place to be able to achieve something in a field? Not that I’m an expert — I don’t even feel like I know the first thing about screenwriting, I’m still muddling through it — but that time was a consolidated effort to attempt to get good at it. Writing is so hard, cracking a narrative is so hard to do. If you don’t really spend time on it, it’s hard to imagine that you’d ever be able to figure it out. I’m still trying to figure it out.
ShockYa: With respect to your performance, I was tangentially reminded of Christian McKay’s turn in “Me & Orson Welles.” He’s great as a mimic, but is also playing Welles so puffed-up and broad that it takes a moment to realize the genius of his performance; he’s playing the larger-than-life character of (quote-unquote) Orson Welles, and putting on a show for the rest of his company. As it relates to Maggie, here’s someone who’s also very consciously playing a part. In crafting the performance, did you ever think of it in those terms, of a discrete character who’s also slipping on this other skin?
BM: That’s a really great question. The thing I remember being most aware of when working on Maggie was trying to find… well if you’re playing a cult leader you can very easily get stuck in the external, which is what you have to do to move people, to captivate people. And so a lot of it ends up being about your effect, which makes you stuck on what’s coming, the outside, and what’s coming out of you. I remember thinking very much at the time about what was going on inside, and why was it [cult leaders] need the love and attention of all of these people, that they need this obsessive surrender. Figuring out the origin of that, and where that came from, was where the real work was, and then just making that feel real to you. Someone kissing your hand or fluffing your pillow, or all the excessive attention doesn’t feel like how it feels to me, Brit, which is grotesque — like it literally makes my skin crawl, the thought of that kind of attention — so how do you arrive at the psychology and have empathy for (the person for) whom that is a necessity, that it’s just like oxygen, [they] need it just to breathe? That was difficult. I was really afraid of Maggie. She’s so different from me.
ShockYa: So it sounds like there’s an entire iceberg under the sea level (of the performance).
BM: Yeah. Yeah, there is, which is hard to talk about as an actor, because you hope that the tip of the iceberg that is the performance is enough.
ShockYa: I’m sure you’ve been peppered plenty of times with reductive questions of “What happens?” That ambiguity was always part and parcel of the original story idea, right?
BM: Yeah, I think we felt that the movie isn’t about that, really. The movie is about faith and belief, and (the character of) Peter has been hurt, and yet he still wants to believe — you feel that in him, that even though he’s skeptical on the surface, he wants to believe in the possibility of something extraordinary. But he’s skeptical because you have to protect yourself. I get that, I understand that. I think the movie is ultimately testing the audience’s sense of belief, and how far they’re willing to go. The chapter markers of the film (which is divided into 10 parts) almost feel like choices, like, “Do you really want to keep going?” Then viewers hopefully do, and arrive at some interesting insight about themselves, not really about what’s going on in the movie.
ShockYa: One of the moments of levity in the movie that I think people really respond to is the inclusion of a song by the Cranberries. How did you settle upon that specific tune?
BM: (laughs) Zal and I at the time were writing in these four-hour blocks, and the rules were that you had to turn off the email on your laptop, [turn off] cell phones, and no being, like, “I need to go get a Smoothie or a snack.” And that’s hard to do, especially now that our brains are getting so fractured with all this technology. One day I came in and was really tired, just almost falling asleep, and I started humming that song, and Zal asked what I was humming. I told him, and then started singing a bit more of it. Zal had a camera, and was on a skateboard, actually, and started dollying in. And then he was like, “That’s it, that’s the song!” And then it ended up in the film.
ShockYa: So do you know what the reaction of (singer) Dolores O’Riordan and the rest of the Cranberries are?
BM: No, but I would love to know, oh my gosh. I think and hope that they would feel that it’s done in a really complimentary way. It’s a big “what’s-up-we-love-it” nod.
ShockYa: What was it like coming out of Sundance last year, when you’re hit with that first big wave of offers after “Another Earth” and this movie?
BM: It’s awesome in the sense that you get to read more scripts and meet more people, and there’s more opportunities. It’s been exciting to do (forthcoming films) “Arbitrage” and “The Company You Keep.” I hate the idea of setting limitations, but I don’t imagine that I have the capacity to write the thing that I might be able to best do as an actor. That’s exciting, because you’re looking for this story that terrifies you and you know you must do in the same breath. So it’s exciting for these other movies to enter the world and to start to read more things, in search of whatever that story is.
ShockYa: Your next film with Zal, “The East,” is kind of another infiltration, albeit an inverted one, where your character is actually falling for the leader (Alexander Skarsgard) of an anarchist group she’s gaining access to. Where did that script fall in the chronology of this and “Another Earth,” and the post-production or editing of those films influence your writing at all?
BM: Yes! I tell you what, you learn so much about acting in editing. That is amazing — just watching take after take and seeing where and how your best work comes. It’s fascinating because when you’re going into the editing process you learn that there are things that really, really work on page that didn’t work on screen, and things that didn’t work quite as well on the page that work beautifully on the screen. So learning that difference of the things will come alive when they’re visual — things that are uniquely visual — there’s an amazing learning curve that happens there. So I’m excited for the next thing that we write because I feel like we’ve learned a lot because of “Another Earth,” “Sound of My Voice” and all of these things. Hopefully we take that to even the next level, and just try to get better and better.
ShockYa: Over the last five to 10 years, I guess, there’s been a rise in militia groups, separatists and anarchists. I realize those groups aren’t exactly the same, and that there’s myriad factors influencing their agitation and direction, but for “The East” did you do the same sort of research on anarchists that you did for “Sound of My Voice”?
BM: We did. We read a lot of stuff, and talked to a lot of people. I think the cutting edge of anarchy you can’t find in books or documentaries. Nobody’s talking about it yet. But it is online, and those manifestos and ideas and conversations are happening, and we were excited to get involved in those because we wanted to understand that space better. I think we’re all feeling this sense of unrest, and so what do you do with that feeling and how do you articulate it? These people are finding ways to talk about it. And, I mean, “AdBusters” is at Whole Foods. Sometimes it blows my mind that such subversive ideas are in the supermarket next to… I don’t even know, ["Ladies Home Journal”]. You want to get to the bottom of understanding the imagery and juxtapositions, and make sense of the first world and third world, and what’s happening in the environment, and all the other things going on that aren’t talked about. And so a lot of anarchist groups are like, “We’re going to live our lives with the discipline and rigor that our philosophical ideas have, we’re not just going to have cocktail party banter.” That takes a lot of courage.
Written by: Brent Simon