In the last year, Brit Marling has emerged on our screens with films that are not only brilliant in their own right, but they are ushering in a new wave of American independent cinema. The actress and writer first blew us away with the hauntingly beautiful science-fiction drama Another Earth, which she starred in and co-wrote with Mike Cahill, winning the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. In her latest feature, Sound of My Voice (co-written with director Zal Batmanglij), she plays Maggie, a frighteningly seductive cult leader who claims to be from the future. The film follows a young couple who attempt to infiltrate the cult in order to expose Maggie, but they soon find themselves caught in the depths of her manipulation.
“Everything’s starting to come together in this way and the distinctions are starting to blur—you don’t have to box yourself in as just an actor or a writer,” Marling says, as she has taken on the multi-hyphenate title with grace. In a screening of the film held last week, Marling and Batmanglij spoke about the transformative nature of the film and the way in which its entire genre can alter depending on your faith in Maggie. Stripped down to its most basic emotional elements, Sound of My Voice can be seen as your everyday love triangle—except in this case one of the people involved may or may not be a time traveler. It’s not only Marling's riveting onscreen performances that have been engaging audiences, but the sincere intelligence of her films and the way she puts forth dynamic characters for women that feel refreshing in today’s Hollywood landscape. We sat down with Marling to dive deeper into the inception of the film, the magic in the mundane, and dealing with the apocalyptic future.
You’ve had a pretty crazy past year. How has that been for you?
What’s been cool is that for a while Mike, Zal, and I were all in this vacuum together having this experience, feeling a lot about our generation, and making sense of our experience. We were sort of alone in that. And then we made these little movies not expecting anything out of them—like at most we would show with our friends in our living room. The idea that they have entered the world and are things that you’re thinking about is wonderful.
When I hear about the way in which you went about making both Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, it reminds me of a better time in film history when people seemed to have more passion and went after the things they loved.
I feel like it’s so cool that we’re living in a time when the technology has reached a place and you really can just pick up a camera and start making films yourself. Think about what filmmaking must have been like when things were so specialized. You had to learn all these different disciplines and you couldn’t touch the technology and everything was separated. You really feel like young people are making stuff and it gives a voice to our generation in a way that’s very cool.
Your films tell these basic human stories in a very mystical world—it’s a very Kieslowski thing.
Yes! Like that moment in Blue when she’s dragging her knuckles across that stone wall or in Red when the bubble gum ad becomes like the metaphysical portal into how she nearly dies and meets the love of her life. A fucking bubble gum ad! I love that pairing. I think our generation has that desire. You see it in music now, too; there’s a kind of earnestness and deep desire for something romantic and honest, but also the possibility for something magical in the mundane. We’re all hoping there’s more to all of this that meets the eye, and I hope that’s true.
Both of your films are all about questions and experience rather than a final destination. They end on the spot where most films would start, with these giant moments.
I think cinema can get at the ineffable and the metaphysical in a way that’s very special. If a play is 80 percent auditory and 20 percent visual, cinema is the reverse. There are moments in film that can get to a place beyond words. Literally things that cannot be described by language—language is too limited. I think that we’re always interested in those kind of endings, trying to arrive at a place after 90 minutes of storytelling just for one breathless moment where the film is articulating something that you’ve always wanted to say but there haven’t been words for. This film is just taking you on this journey to arrive at this one truth that is unutterable.
Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij did the music for the film. Did you work together?
Zal did all the work with Rostam, but Rostam has been scoring Zal’s movies from the very beginning. It’s amazing because... We were just talking about the ineffable, and Rostam as a composer can put his finger on the pulse of the ineffable. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s in all of his work. I think we were beyond lucky that someone with his extreme ability is willing to write music for these little movies.
What’s interesting about cults is the desperation of the members who need to cling onto something so badly. Is that a theme you’ve always been interested in?
I think that Los Angeles heavily influenced this story. I think if we were living somewhere else this would not have come out. There are a lot of themes and feelings that are generational, like the search for meaning, trying to make sense of where the world is right now. All these movies that are dealing with apocalyptic futures and that we’re on an unsustainable track and where’s it going to go, this sense that the crack up is about to happen of the civilized world as we know it and that our generation seems a bit eager for it to happen.
It’s like if we anticipate it enough and plan it out and show it through art and film, then it will be easier to handle when it comes.
And will someone show us the way out? Will we have to learn to grow food? None of the things that our parents taught us will matter. Will doing your taxes or your degree matter when you can’t tell the different types of plants that are poisonous from the ones that are not? And the idea of the cult thing is like... Manifest Destiny is what L.A. seems to represent, like people going to West Coast in search of reinventing themselves. That is a place filled with so much desire and dreams, and then so much disappointment.
But it’s so dark. That’s what I always loved about film noir and that time period: everyone goes there to be a star and to make it, and then they end up jumping off the Hollywood sign.
Just corn husks washing out into the Pacific: that’s the image I always have. I think that that is totally in the film. It worked its way in there.
When you’re writing, do you keep in mind as an actress what you would want to play?
I try to write the thing that really scares me, the thing that I might not be able to do. Rhoda [in Another Earth] was terrifying because she had this experience that was so overwhelming.
And so removed from most people’s lives.
Yeah! And the same with Maggie. I think what’s exciting with acting is that you can maybe live several lifetimes in one, and you can find a point of empathy for all kinds of people. You can find it for cult leaders and accidental murderers. The bigger the stretch or the farther away it is from you, the most pleasure you get in the attempt to reach for it and get yourself around it. I never want to do something that I’ve done before, and I never want to do something that I feel comfortable with.
And that’s the perk of being a writer and being an actress.
Yeah, because you can find the things that feel like a stretch for you and then push it even further.
Women can be flawed; they’re allowed to make mistakes and have that portrayed on film. The characters that you’ve written show their strength, but also the ways in which everyone is imperfect.
It’s exciting that more women are writing because I think we’re desperate to understand ourselves, and I think men want to understand their wives and their girlfriends and daughters and sisters better. I think these movies are starting to show something. Creative women are putting forth more complicated versions of femininity.
Did you know you were going to be Maggie?
Zal and I always thought I would play Maggie, and for a while she was this placeholder in all of our outlines and early script stuff. It was literally just like: “insert charismatic leader here.” But what is that? How do you write and then act charisma? Why are people so devoted to her? And then I think the thing that sort of came, what snapped her into place, is the scene she has with Peter where she breaks him down and the feeling that Peter has in that moment: that everybody really wants to be seen and be loved, not in spite of being seen but because of being seen. She’s always changing her face, and some of them are like a lot of the faces of femininity. She’s motherly and tender and then she’s innocent; she's cruel and intense and unforgiving. So that was a terrifying thing to think about playing. I like to do the things that terrify me.