Homeless Bodyguards: Zal Batmanglij on Sound of My Voice and The East

The director of this week's new drama about cults talks guerilla filmmaking and a potential trilogy.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Just over a year ago, we met director Zal Batmanglij at South by Southwest where his film, Sound of My Voice, showed after premiering at Sundance. Co-written by Brit Marling, Marling stars as Maggie, a cult leader who claims she’s from the future. This is the other side of the creative team behind Another Earth, which Marling co-wrote with Mike Cahill. The three are all friends from Georgetown University. Now that he’s busy promoting the release of Sound, and working on his second film with Marling The East, Batmanglij was on his way to the airport to get the word out in other cities. We chatted by phone about guerilla filmmaking and marketing, and his forthcoming follow-up film about an anarchist group.


CraveOnline: What was it like waiting for your friend’s film Another Earth to come out first?

Zal Batmanglij: I didn’t feel like I was waiting because right after Sundance I started prepping on The East. Brit and I were so busy with all of that stuff that we just focused on The East. It was so exciting to have Another Earth come out. I love that movie and we had such a nice time, Searchlight did such a nice job of releasing it in New York. We went to the premiere and stuff. It was fun. It was exciting and the wait with Sound of My Voice has been great because it’s sort of allowed Sound of My Voice to exist on its own. So I’m very happy with all of it.


What was your involvement with the guerilla marketing of Sound of My Voice like the handshake videos and putting the first 12 minutes online?

All that is really the genius of Fox Searchlight but because they are so filmmaker friendly I was heavily involved. They invited me to give my ideas and to be part of this. So I think we came at that collaboratively but it starts with them and then comes the filmmaker. I think for our limited resources, it’s been great.


Has it amused you to see people trying to do the cult’s handshake?

Yeah, of course. It’s a riot that people connect with that. I love that.


Was part of the chapter format of the film that if you needed to self-distribute, it could be released in parts on the internet?

No. Originally we had wanted to tell our story in any way we could whether it was film or a TV series or even on the internet. As Brit says so eloquently, we never wanted to wait for permission to do this project. We wanted to always do it because we wanted to make a movie and it gave us great pleasure to make it. So we didn’t want money or studio or anybody who holds the keys to the gates to give us permission one way or the other. So we just went out and made it. Then thankfully, by the grace of God really, we got into Sundance and lo and behold, not only Another Earth got bought by Fox Searchlight but so did we and so we’re getting a proper release. You know, before Sundance we tried to take out the chapter headings but the film just becomes too relentless without a break.


Does it also allow things like the first 12 minutes to exist as its own thing, something they can release on its own?

Yeah, it does. It certainly has that in its DNA and it allows that to happen.


Would you shoot each chapter all in a master take so they’re done straight through at least once?

No, because the chapters aren’t necessarily scene oriented. Some chapters comprise multiple scenes. There’s a chapter that has Lorna swimming in a pool and then she’s in the steam room and then Carol Briggs is talking to her. So those are not.


Would you do a scene like the apple scene straight through?

No, the apple scene was shot over two days. So the first half was shot in one day, and yeah, we’d do a master shot of that. Then the second half was shot on the second day.


What was the process of finding actors who could contend with Brit’s performance?

Yeah, she’s special. We wanted unknown actors so it added to the claustrophobia of the film, because without a recognizable face you have nowhere to turn. You don’t know what’s exactly happening and it helps turn your world upside down as a viewer. It was important to us to find unknown actors but who were really good actors, so we went to some of our favorite films and found actors that were going toe to toe with the leads. Nicole Vicius in Half Nelson really brings it with Ryan Gosling in one scene and we were so blown away by that, we were like she can definitely hold her own against Gosling. She should be in this movie.


And then for the role of Peter?

I mean, Chris Denham’s work speaks for itself. Charlie Wilson’s War, Shutter Island, Duplicity and he doesn’t just have these small roles. He has pivotal roles in those movies. Like in Charlie Wilson’s War he’s the CIA weapons expert. That’s not an easy thing to pull off when you’re playing opposite Tom Hanks and Phillip Seymour Hoffman and company.


How guerilla was it shooting Brit on the streets of L.A.?

Super guerilla because we wanted that authenticity. It was so important to us in things like the puking or Maggie wandering the streets that you didn’t feel that it was artificial, because so much of the rest of the movie is high concept. But I was worried about her safety so we came up with the idea of hiring a bodyguard and we dressed the bodyguard up as a homeless person so that bodyguard is in every scene of her in the streets, but you just don’t notice him because he blends into the background.


Were there any close calls or incidents or people just wondering what you were doing?

There were a lot of close calls. Even with the bodyguard, there’s a scene where she’s in the middle of skid row with all these people, a lot of them are junkies or mentally unstable. If things started getting dangerous, I decided we’d gotten enough, we’ve got to pull her out.


I guess you didn’t get release forms from all those extras?

No, because I don't think you can see their faces.


Are you still planning a Maggie trilogy?

Sure, I’d love that. I don’t plan on it. If the movie does well then I’d love to revisit the world. If the movie becomes a cult classic, maybe we’ll do it in 10 years. Who knows?


But when you developed the story, you already created the next installments?

Yeah, we’re ready to go. If someone wanted to pay for the movie, I could make it next year easy.


When people see the film, the note it leaves them on is wanting to know more about her.

Yeah, people do. We’ll see.


Is there a lot more of Peter and Lorna in those plans also?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The story is definitely still Peter’s story. Peter, Lorna and Abigail and Maggie all the way to the end.


Would subsequent stories get bigger in scope than the basement?

I think like Sound of My Voice they’d get bigger in parts. But no, I don't think all of a sudden it would become a [big budget movie.] I think we’d still shoot it on the 7D. We’d keep that aesthetic.


Is The East more of an action thriller?

The East is a hybrid like Sound of My Voice is a hybrid. It’s sort of a mix of genres. I don't know, you have to see it. You have to tell me, Fred. I can’t wait for you to see the movie.


How do you envision an anarchist group as a different entity than the cult subject?

Well, an anarchist group is a lot more threatening because they mean business. They are into revolution and to change. I think that our group in Sound of My Voice is really keeping to themselves. It’s hard to be chosen by Maggie. The anarchist group on the other hand is ready for revolution any way they can get it.


What is easier about doing your second movie and what’s harder?

Ooh, good question. I guess the easier part is that you trust yourself a little bit more, and the harder part is that this time you know how easily it could go wrong. You realize how lucky you got on the first time.


Are you now in a position as a director that you can take meetings and be part of the Hollywood business?

I don't know what that means. I’m a working guy. I’m a sweater maker and I’m busy making my sweater. I’m in the edit room for The East until 10 o’clock at night. I can barely squeeze in a phone call with you on my way to the airport. [Laughs] That’s my life right now, making and releasing another one.