Over the past year, friends and filmmakers Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling, and Mike Cahill have acted as an informal movie-making collective. Last year, Cahill directed Marling (his co-writer and star) in Another Earth, an understated and heartbreaking metaphysical drama about the discovery of an identical Earth inhabited by identical versions of us. Marling switches dance partners—but keeps the vaguely sci-fi vibe—for Sound of My Voice, about a wannabe documentary duo who infiltrate a cult led by a mysterious and intoxicating leader named Maggie (Marling). Together, Marling and director-cowriter Batmanglij, spin a tense, disquieting tale that bares more tantalizing questions than answers. The only sure thing? We walk out of the theater as high on Maggie’s mystical mojo as her enraptured followers. So to get our next fix, ELLE.com spoke to Marling and Batmanglij about their existential escapades.
ELLE: You two kick-started your careers by writing together. Did you draw on your won anxieties and burgeoning filmmakers when you conceived of Peter and Lorne, the would-be documentarians in Sound of My Voice?
Brit Marling: A lot of Peter and Lorna comes from us being in our twenties. You leave your family and school, and now you’re in the real world. What are the hours of your day going to be? How are you going to construct a meaningful life? And, certainly Peter has a strong sense of himself as a documentary filmmaker, that he’s going to make this exposé. But underneath that conscious want is a subconscious want, a hunger for community, for a tribe, for a sense of connection to something larger. I think that’s what Peter and Lorna both want.
ELLE: Before you became an actress-screenwriter, you were constructing a very different life for yourself. You studied finance, and were wooed by Goldman Sachs at one point.
BM: Yeah, I did spend some time working there. A lot of very smart, interesting people end up finance, but I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t waking up every morning hungry to know what was happening in the markets.
ELLE: And then you ended up in Arbitrage, which hits theaters this fall, and you play the heir apparent to a New York hedge-fund magnate, played by Richard Gere.
BM: Yeah. And then I ended up in Arbitrage playing out some destiny that I otherwise avoided.
ELLE: The two of you are releasing your second collaborative feature, The East, in the fall too. This time the story follows a man who attempts to infiltrate an anarchist collective. What’s the fascination with infiltrating fringe groups?
Zal Batmanglij: I think “infiltrating” is just a more dramatic way to say “joining.” I think both Brit and I are fascinated by the various ways you can construct a life.
BM: That makes me think of high school. In high school, I was never in any one group. I was, what they called at lunch, the floaters. People who would just spend a few minutes with the jocks, and sometimes with the drama kids, and then the math club, and the skaters, and stoners. I never belonged to any of the groups. I was just a visitor.
ELLE: But then don’t you belong to the floaters?
BM: Yeah, I guess you belong to the floaters.
ZB: Or as we like to call them, actors.
ELLE: In Another Earth, Brit plays a young astronomy virtuoso who, distracted by the new Earth 2.0 that’s appeared in the sky, drives into car in the next lane, taking the lives of a mother and child inside. After her life tragically spirals, she clings to the idea that in the alternate world above, maybe things went differently. In Voice, the character of Peter wants to infiltrate Maggie’s cult in part to balance out the loss of his manic-depressive mother, which he blamed on a cultish, pseudo-religious group she belonged to. Are you drawn to the theme of reclaiming what’s lost?
BM: During Another Earth, I thought a lot about what happens if you’re on one trajectory and then your life changes in an instant and you can never reclaim the person you thought you were going to be, or who you could have been.
ZB: That is so beautiful. I hope they quote it word by word.
BM: It’s a very separate feeling than Sound of My Voice, which was a lot, maybe more. Someone brought this up earlier, but the sense of Peter and Lorna are both at their blitz of their back-stories, they come from complicated deeply troubled pasts and everybody in the cult is coming from a place of an emotional swamp of childhood. A lot of the movie is attempting to make sense of your childhood to become an adult that’s equipped to deal with yourself and the future.
ZB: I think that Brit’s right. Another Earth is about dealing with the loss of never being able to be the person she thought she could have been. Sound of My Voice is about finding who you are, where you are. It’s backwards versus forwards.
BM: Either way, it’s intense.
Sound of My Voice is in theaters now.