Aside from having the name "Batman" as part of his last name, writer-director Zal Batmanglij is cool for a couple of other reasons, chief among them is having made three films with actress and co-writer Brit Marling, who has worked as his creative partner since meeting Batmanglij at Georgetown University. Another member of their filmmaking "commune" at Georgetown was Mike Cahill, with whom Marling co-wrote last year's ANOTHER EARTH, in which she stars. Got it?
Marling and Batmanglij made the short film THE RECORDIST in 2007 which made something of a splash on the festival circuit, and their creative partnership continues through to their latest work THE EAST, which was shot late last year and is currently being edited. But the reason I was fortunate enough to chat with Zal is his first feature SOUND OF MY VOICE, which serves as something of a lovely companion work to ANOTHER EARTH beyond the fact that both films star and were co-written by Marling.
I first saw both films at the SXSW Film Festival 2011 and was struck by how the movies use science fiction-style stories to tell very grounded stories about the human condition. I certainly get into that and many other subjects with Batmanglij, so let's dive write in. Please enjoy my chat with Zal Batmanglij…
Capone: Hi Zal, how are you?
Zal Batmanglij: Good, man. How are you?
Capone: Good. I was hoping that you and Btit would be able to come to Chicago with this movie, because SOUND OF MY VOICE is actually my favorite of the two movies.
ZB: Oh, thank you man, but we couldn’t because we are editing the [THE EAST].
Capone: Yeah, I heard.
ZB: I’m playing hooky for a couple of days, but it’s already getting in our way.
Capone: New work is always good, so yeah.
ZB: But that’s nice that you’re a fan. I mean I love both movies for different reasons, just because I feel like they represent a time and a place, but there are camps. Some people swear to me that ANOTHER EARTH is a way better film.
Capone: Maybe it just depends on which one you saw first, because this is the one that I saw first of the two, so I don’t know. I’m not saying I dislike ANOTHER EARTH at all. I love that film. I had read somewhere that you and Brit had been writing another film when you started doing SOUND OF MY VOICE. Is THE EAST that film?
ZB: Well THE EAST is really not that film, but it was closely related to that film, but we did finish writing the first draft of THE EAST before we shot SOUND OF MY VOICE.
ZB: The truth of these things is really messy and not elegant.
Capone: In a nutshell, explain your history as it intermingles with Brit and Mike [Cahill, director and co-writer of ANOTHER EARTH].
ZB: Well it started all with Mike and I. So we met at Georgetown [University]. He was interested in film: I was interested in film. It wasn’t really a school for that, but we did have this one professor. Do you want to hear a good story? Do you have time for a story?
Capone: If you do, I do.
ZB: I totally do. So there was this one famous screenwriting class. It was a playwriting class, but he had been transitioning it into a screenwriting class. He was this guy named Professor Glavin and he ran his class like the military and he had a student graduate the year before Mike and I started. His name was Jonah, and he had written a movie with his brother who had made a small movie, and Professor Glavin gave us all a copy of the script. Mike and I read the script and Mike’s like, “This is going to be the most amazing movie,” and I was like, “This is never going to make any sense. No one is going to go see this movie.” Low and behold, the brothers got their movie made, and it came out in theaters maybe six of seven months later, and we went to go see it and it blew both of our minds. And that movie is called MEMENTO, and the rest is history. [I'm going to assume that "Jonah" is a nickname for Jonathan Nolan, brother of Christopher Nolan]
So that was our life. I think Mike and I were inspired by MEMENTO and our classes and just being tired of watching films but not making any to make our very first short film ourselves. And that experience was really neat, because we made this short film, and it premiered at the first-ever Georgetown Film Festival, and we won and we got a standing ovation and leading that standing ovation was a 17-year-old Brit Marling. That’s the first time we ever saw her.
Capone: Okay, but then at some point she got a job in the financial sector, and you guys were doing what?
ZB: Mike got a job first; Mike is older than all of us, and he got a job at National Geographic when he graduated, and then Mike and Brit and I started making short films together even after he graduated and she was still in school and I was a senior. We would like take weekend trips and make films together, and then she went to go to Goldman Sachs, because she was valedictorian at Georgetown, so she was like the prize student, but none of us knew any of that stuff.
Capone: Then you all ended up moving to L.A. together or at the same time? How did that work?
ZB: Yeah, well I got into film school and I convinced them to move out with me, because L.A. seemed really scary to me, alien, and I didn’t want to go at it alone, which was actually a really good instinct. And you’ll notice in like [MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE director] Sean Durkin and [producer] Antonio Campos and [producer] Josh Mond, that they also used the idea of having a bit of a tribe as a way to sort of make sense of this stuff.
Capone: And I actually had written down that. Added to that, your film feels very much about the California experience.
ZB: Thanks for saying that. That’s exactly what we were going for.
Capone: And when I was talking to Brit earlier, she kept saying it reminded her of when people came to California, just that idea of people seem to come to California from other places.
ZB: Every prom king and queen comes. It’s the last stop before their cars go into the ocean, you know? [laughs]
Capone: But that idea of the first thing you want to do when you get somewhere where you don’t know anybody is find a community to be a part of and to have rituals with that community. This is sort of a cautionary tale about that sense of needing and that desperation to connect with other people, yeah.
ZB: It is, but also I think it’s less judgmental than a cautionary tale. It sort of says that we need it, but it doesn’t necessarily reprimand them for needing it.
Capone: Did you come up with a backstory for Maggie in terms of her arriving to where we meet her the first time?
ZB: Yes, very much so, and only Brit and I know that.
Capone: [Laughs] Okay. Is there some small piece of it you can give us?
ZB: No, because I think it takes away from the film and also because we may want to continue to tell the story.
Capone: I remember hearing that a while back, that this was sort of part of a bigger multi-part story. Is that the case?
ZB: Yeah, the story came to us whole, similar to a HARRY POTTER situation, in which this is Book One out of a larger thing. These ideas some times just come whole.
Capone: Okay, so is there any shot we will ever get to see those other chapters?
ZB: I think it all depends on how you pump out your review and if people go see the movie, you know? Seriously, if people connect to it whether it’s now in theaters or later on electronic sales of some kind, then sure.
Capone: I also like the idea of telling that story through the eyes, literally the eyes since he's wearing spy glasses, of this documentary team. In a way, they are us; we're being introduced to this cult through them. They are learning as we are learning. Why did you decide to work this story through them?
ZB: One of the secrets I learned at AFI, which is really true and you can feel it from a lot of AFI filmmakers’ films, is that POV is truly the best way to add production value to your project. Seriously, POV makes feel like a much bigger-budget movie. People often say, “Oh you accomplished so much on such a little budget,” and I think a lot of it comes from POV. You look at something like BLACK SWAN--Aronofsky is also an AFI director--and you feel how much POV just heightens that film.
Capone: I was talking with Brit about the idea of Maggie being ill and how that first reveal of her face is so memorable, because, for one, it’s her face, but then you’ve got this oxygen tube there, and that detail opens up so many questions all at once. Why do you think it as key that Maggie was sick?
ZB: Brit always brings this up and she said, “Well if she is a time traveler, the idea of traveling through time, your immune system would just not survive it.” We were convinced of that. Second, the image of a woman who claims to be a time traveler in the Valley in a basement who’s dying just struck me, just resonated for me with the idea that she’s like crippled from traveling back in time and she’s allergic to all the microorganisms of our time period or so she claims, that just really fascinated me.
Capone: When I start to think about what I imagine her backstory being involves her arriving here, getting sick, and needing that group of followers to help her out. If she arrived here with super powers, she wouldn’t need those people, but it’s because she arrived here and was sick as a result that now the cult is a necessity and not necessarily for idolatry purposes.
ZB: I think it really applies especially to the ending the idea that her fragility, you realize “What if she really is sick?” That’s the scariest thought of it all. “What if she is really telling the truth?”
Capone: I read some of the interviews you guys did recently at WonderCon and I noticed a lot of people interviewing you get really hung up on this idea of whether she is a real time traveler or not. I haven’t seen the film in over a year and I think it doesn’t really matter, like in the end it doesn’t matter, because that’s not the key to what I think some of the messages are here. I think there are bigger questions than that in this movie.
ZB: I think so to, but I also think that it always sounds when interviewers bring it up as if the film ends in an unsatisfying way, and I just don’t think that that’s true.
Capone: Not only do I think it’s fully satisfying, I don’t think there’s any mystery by the time it’s over.
ZB: No, I don’t think there is either. Actually, what side do you fall on?
Capone: [Redacted.] I mean I don’t have any doubt that [redacted], and I haven’t seen the film since SXSW last year, so I’m working off memory here and I’m going to see it again next week I think, so I apologize if some of these questions are a little vague.
ZB: You clearly connect with the film on a visceral level.
Capone: To see them back to back was a huge thing for me last year. Let me ask you some more practical questions. I mean obviously you had a micro budget here, but then that also allows you this huge amount of freedom where you’re not really answering to anybody. What would you rather have going forward?
ZB: Let me just tell you a story, because director Park who made OLD BOY, the famous Korean director…
Capone: Oh I’ve met him. He’s great.
ZB: He’s amazing. He saw the movie last week and was like “Oh my God. When I get older, and they won't give me any money to make movies, I need to just go make movies like this,” and the fact that it was shot on an SLR, and our picture was being taken by an SLR and how you can shoot a movie with that thing? I think that a lot of directors are used to low budget--and when they mean “low budget,” they mean like in the millions of dollars, like one or three or four. Ultra low budget allows you freedoms that you cannot even imagine, and so I would like to work in $80-plus million or ultra low budget, because the middle ground is not for me.
Capone: Can I ask, which side does THE EAST fall on?
ZB: THE EAST is us just trying to get our movie made, but you know I tell you what. I think that filmmaking is like digging more than anything else, and it starts with Brit and I. We start digging, we see the shape of something, the outline, the top of something, and that keeps us going. Then the cinematographer comes and he picks up a shovel, and the production designer and the costume designer and then the actors come. In both SOUND OF MY VOICE and THE EAST, we’ve been extremely lucky, so Patricia Clarkson comes and she picks up a shovel. Ellen Page comes and she picks up a shovel, and then Skarsgard comes and picks up two shovels, and by the end of it we are all sweaty and tired, and we’ve uncovered something and we spend most of our energy doing he digging, so you don’t really have time to worry about budgets and constraints and “I wish I had that. I wish I had this.” There are so many things I wish I had, and I don’t mean just in filmmaking. You know, I wish I could run a four minute mile.
Capone: One of the things when we did the Q&A for ANOTHER EARTH that I kind of harped on, maybe a little too much, was that Brit’s acting style is like nothing I have ever seen.
ZB: Why do you think you were harping on that too much? I think that’s exactly right.
Capone: When she’s sitting right there, you feel like your obsessing. In front of an audience, it feels weird.
ZB: Okay, that’s fair I guess.
Capone: I couldn’t even put it into words exactly, because it’s very naturalistic, it’s very unique. Her look and her style of acting is like nothing I’ve ever seen. As a friend and as someone who has worked with her more than once, are you aware of that?
ZB: Yes. I think there’s a rawness. That’s what I call it. I think it’s raw. I think she’s not playing any tricks or games. Maybe I shouldn’t even say this, but I believe she’s the real deal, and one doesn’t come across that in life very often.
Capone: So then let me ask you this, can you use that, her style? It really does lend itself to a character like Maggie. She doesn’t quite act like the rest of us, like she doesn’t talk exactly in the cadence that we do. It’s perfect. It’s the thing that sold me on that character, but it took a couple of movies with Brit to really understand “Oh, that’s how she is. That’s how she performs in different variations.” I’m curious, why you decided, or maybe it wasn’t even in your hands once Fox Searchlight got involved, to put out the first 12 minutes of the film.
ZB: It was Fox’s idea and I supported it, because you know how do we get people to come see these movies? I just don’t know? People just aren’t coming to the theaters to see small movies like they used to and so I always say, “Go bold or go home,” and I thought Fox has been very bold in the marketing of this movie.
Capone: And they are putting out the next one, THE EAST, as well? Is that right?
ZB: Yeah, they made THE EAST.
Capone: Okay, was there any differences in terms of how they dealt with you as the production house as opposed to purchasing the film?
ZB: Oh of course, but you know I call that FSU and I’ve had a really good time. I’ve learned so much. I mean I went to grad school, film school, at AFI, but this is my PhD program now. I got to go to school for free to learn the Hollywood studio system. It’s been an eye-opening experience and thoroughly thrilling, and I really can say in all honesty that the people at Fox are smart and kind and very brave. Look at them releasing BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, SOUND OF MY VOICE, SHAME. I mean these guys are not pussy footing.
Capone: And you never hear those stories about them like asking for cuts, either for length or for content or anything.
ZB: Well if they do, I’ll come to you first.
Capone: You can blow that one wide open.
ZB: I think they mean it when they say they are a filmmaker-driven studio, you know?
Capone: I’m going to ask you the same last question that I asked Brit, which was there’s a lot in this film about part of being a part of a community is rituals, and the cult members have got this handshake thing, for example. But are there rituals that you have had or do have that help you keep the faith that you’re going to get this movie made, and it’s going to be great, and “We’re going to get the next one made.”
ZB: Yeah, I think I’m very much inclined in that direction, so that’s why it interests me. What are ones that I do specifically? I feel like if I say them out loud, then they're all useless. The cycle of filmmaking is so fascinating, because I studied it for so long and wanted to it for so long. It’s only in the last couple of years that I understand the whole cycle of, okay, well there’s the brain storming and there’s the writing, then there’s the really hard part of pushing the boulder up hill to get it made. Finding the actors. Who’s going to fund it? Who’s going to produce it? And then there’s prep and then there’s shooting, which has so many rituals, waking up at 6:00am to shoot for 14 hours and then shooting all night.
We finished shooting THE EAST in December and we had some days in D.C., and my parents live in D.C., so I just went home for Christmas, and I was just fried, you know? Like I just couldn’t relate to my parents in a way. I came into the kitchen and wanted to move things around. I was so used to walking into spaces and changing them around, and then you get into the ritual of editing, that whole process of editing, which is a completely different process. I’m working with Andrew Weisblum, who was nominated for an Oscar for editing BLACK SWAN. He works only with Aronofsky and Wes Anderson. So I’m learning so much from him and, god, we have such a good time. He’s such a smart person and feels things so deeply, and then the ritual of talking to you on the phone and doing press.
Capone: “The most annoying part of the ritual.”
ZB: No, I have to tell you people keep saying, “It must be grueling, these press dates,” and I just have to say that SOUND OF MY VOICE connects with certain young journalist; I feel high from it. I think I’m going to go into the editing room for THE EAST and feel re-energized to try to not make that into a piece of shit.
Capone: When do we think we will see that movie? The end of the year?
ZB: I don’t know. We haven’t even finished it, so I have to see a first cut first to even see where we’re at.
Capone: Okay. Are you aiming for a certain festival for that one?
ZB: Well where would you like to see it? What’s your favorite festival? Where do you think it should be?
Capone: Well since I don’t really go to that many festivals, obviously Chicago would be great, but I would assume you're aiming for Toronto. That’s a great one.
ZB: Well if we went to Toronto, would you go?
Capone: I probably wouldn’t, but only like I said, because we’ve got like three or four guys that live around there that cover that festival for us.
ZB: Cool. Well we will have to come then to Chicago.
Capone: You have to come. Brit’s been here; she’s from here.
ZB: Well, the pleasure was really mine talking to you. Thank you so much, man.
Capone: Thank you. Yeah, it was great to talk to you. Best of luck.