Brit Marling

Sarah (Brit Marling) and Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) in “The East,” a movie about eco-terrorism. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Writer-actress Brit Marling first came to South By Southwest two years ago with low-key sci-fi films “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice.” “The East,” her newest collaboration with “Sound of My Voice” director Zal Batmanglij, was the Closing Night film at this year’s festival. Marling stars as Sarah, a private security contractor asked to infiltrate eco-terrorist group The East.
The Daily Texan sat down with Marling at SXSW to talk about her new film.

The Daily Texan: What inspired this project?
Brit Marling: Four summers ago, before I had started acting and before Zal had started directing, we were just young people trying to make sense of our lives and figure out what we wanted to do. We spent a summer traveling and fell in with different anarchist communities and different collectives and lived on organic farms and learned to train hop and spent time dumpster-diving. We were different people at the end of it, more able to find a kind of freedom in living, and we wanted to try and tell a story about that. We wanted to tell a story about all the intense political and moral ideas behind it, how complicated it all is. But we wanted to put in a really fun, entertaining espionage thriller where that stuff is happening in the background.

DT: What were some of the distinct experiences you brought from your summer into this film?    
Marling: The spin-the-bottle moment in the movie actually happened. It was really beautiful. It wasn’t spin the bottle the way you’d play in middle school, with everyone trying to figure out how to make out for the first time. It was spin the bottle as a way of connecting with people, and giving voice to what you did or didn’t want, and being physical and affectionate with friends and lovers.

DT: What are some of the challenges of writing the character of Sarah for yourself?
Marling: Sarah was interesting to me because she’s so unlike me. She’s conservative, and has a really strong sense of her opinion and morality about things, and is not easily swayed by other ideas. She’s a bit of an action hero. She has a toughness to her. I think we have a hard time writing about women. Even women have a hard time writing about women because there aren’t very many stories that show us different paths for them. They’re usually the girlfriend or the wife or the sister or the sex object, and when they are strong and acting with a lot of agency, it’s usually because the script was written for a man, and then the gender was changed at the last second.

DT: When Sarah is preparing to infiltrate The East, or when The East is carrying out one of its “jams,” the members put on nice suits or bleach their hair to slip into the role. Do you ever find yourself doing something similar as an actor?
Marling: That’s such a great observation! We’re obsessed with presentation and the surface of things. Everybody’s Facebook is literally just about them pitching themselves as they see themselves, and trying on different versions of themselves, and selling it or sharing it. I think the same is true in this story. The members of The East have realized that you shave the beard, you cut the hair, you pop in some pearl earrings, you put on a Rolex and a suit and suddenly you can infiltrate a totally different space from how you feel. They’re very interested in the idea of disguise and playing with the fact that people are so obsessed with the surface of things that they’re willing to overlook the fact that they’re letting a group of eco-terrorists into their home because they present well. It’s true that that’s also very much the part of an actor’s life. You have to get really comfortable with dissolving your identity and refashioning as a character and doing it a couple of times a year with different people and still holding on to who you are in between those things. It’s not an easy process.

DT: The terrorists in the film have an eye-for-an-eye philosophy. To what length do you think people should be held accountable for their actions?
Marling: That’s a good question, and that’s why we made a movie about it. It’s funny how the film, we feel this way, we don’t know the answers. All we can do is present the questions. It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you’re on, people are frustrated and angry right now. The question becomes, what do you do? You look at past protest movements. The nonviolence of the freedom riders who got on buses and went from D.C. into the Deep South. That’s really brave. Is that the right way? Or … as some movements have done, [do] they go to structures and say, “What’s happening here is wrong. We have a right to set it on fire”? Is nonviolence correct, or is violence because violence is being used against you correct? We don’t know the answers. We’re not saying, “Corporations are bad and eco-terrorists are good.” We’re saying, “There are bad and good ideas and bad and good people on both sides.” That makes it massively confusing as to what we should do next, but we can’t do anything right until we start talking about it.

In this April 22, 2012 photo, actress Brit Marling is shown at a screening of Fox Searchlight Pictures' "Sound of My Voice," in New York.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

The summer movie season generally kicks off with a big, explosive event film, and Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers,” out today, is certainly that. For viewers looking for a quieter, more contemplative, but equally riveting alternative, they’ve found it in “Sound of My Voice,” an unsettling, engrossing story of a cult led by Maggie (co-writer Brit Marling).

Not everyone in Maggie’s cult truly believes in her. In fact, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) have infiltrated her ranks with intentions of making a documentary about Maggie and her followers. However, Maggie has a certain way of getting into her subjects’ heads. As the film goes on, a chasm grows between Peter and Lorna as they struggle with their faith, their dedication and each other.

With a runtime of only 85 minutes, “Sound of My Voice” is almost abrupt in its brevity, setting up its concept quickly, letting us get to know just enough about the characters before challenging them and their beliefs, and then ripping the rug out from under the audience with its deliciously ambiguous finale. Director and co-writer Zal Batmanglij divides the film into 10 chapters, and there’s a definite sense of dread that builds until the film’s final installment. Batmanglij also finds the sinister in the seemingly harmless, be it in the white and beige basement where Maggie and her followers gather or a friendly hike through the woods between a few members.

Brit Marling hit Sundance last year with this film and last summer’s equally low-key sci-fi “Another Earth,” and “Sound of My Voice” is a better film in every way. As Maggie, Marling has an incredible, assured presence, and she paints Maggie not as a flawless deity but a hypnotic yet undeniably human figure. If Marling wasn’t so convincing in the role, “Sound of My Voice” would fall apart, but she manages to sell Maggie as engaging and magnetic, exactly the sort of person who would be able to amass followers easily.

Christopher Denham and Nicole Vicius both impress as the infiltrators of Maggie’s cult. Vicius’ Lorna has a past she’s not especially proud of, and it’s installed a skepticism in her that informs her character’s every move. Vicius gives a subtle, strong performance, but Denham’s role is much showier and his character is better defined. Denham gets to go toe-to-toe with Marling in more than one scene, and he never disappoints, making the audience just as confused and torn as he is. The film’s final moments, which are sure to be discussed at length in the coming months, make Denham’s Peter experience the unexplainable, and the wonder, fear and betrayal that cross Denham’s face in that moment lend the finale a gravity that makes it all the more gut-wrenching.

It would be easy for this film to get lost in the sea of blockbusters that will hit multiplexes in the coming months, but this is a really special one, a perfect example of accessible, low-key science fiction that makes great use of both its premise and its budget.

Whether Marling continues telling this story or another one entirely, her voice as a writer and actress is so strong and precise that the sound of it should be enough to inspire interest.

Printed on Friday, May 4, 2012 as: Summer film delves into cult culture

In this April 22, 2012 photo, actress Brit Marling is shown at a screening of Fox Searchlight Pictures’ “Sound of My Voice,” in New York.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Brit Marling had two films premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, both of which she stars in and co-wrote: “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice.” “Sound of my Voice” is easily the better of the two, telling the story of Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a couple who infiltrate a cult that meets in a remote Valley basement. Marling plays Maggie, the enigmatic leader of the cult who claims to be from the year 2054. “Sound of my Voice” opens in Austin today.

“Sound of My Voice” screened at last year’s South By Southwest Film Festival, and The Daily Texan sat down with Marling after the film showing.

Daily Texan: Where did you come up for the idea for this film?
Brit Marling: [Director] Zal [Batmanglij] and I were writing another film at the time. He came into one of our writing sessions and was like, ‘Oh my God, I had this dream last night! In this dream, I was blindfolded and my hands were bound and I was in a hospital gown and I was being led down these basement stairs.’ That image that he created was so intense and riveting that I was inspired, and I was like, ‘Yes! And they come into this basement and there are people in white, and they’re meditating in these pools of light, and this woman comes out and she’s a young girl but she has oxygen tubes and she’s breathing from this thing and she’s covered in a white shroud.’ We just kept jumping back and forth. We kept telling each other this story, and for some reason it came out pretty organically.

DT: Did you do any research into cults before you started writing?
Marling: We didn’t really. I did a lot of research in going to play the part of Maggie. I watched a lot of cult documentaries. But mostly, we asked ourselves, if we ran into somebody on the street who said, ‘There is somebody you have got to meet,’ and we went through this experience where we showed up at this house and are blindfolded, and if someone actually claimed to be a time traveler, what would they have to do or say to make us believe? What would that experience be like? So a lot of it just came out of that imagination.

DT: Was Maggie written with you in mind?
Marling: Yeah. It’s funny, when we first wrote the script and we would go try to raise money to try to get it made, people always thought I would be playing Lorna, but we never thought of it that way. We always thought I would play Maggie, and I’m not sure why, but that was a character that really intrigued me. I wanted to get to the bottom of her fragility and her strength.

DT: I really enjoyed the ambiguity of the ending.
Marling: I love that. I think a lot of people have your experience, and I think I’m that sort of way too. I’m kind of skeptical about the world, but I want to believe, and that’s sort of Peter’s experience. He’s a man of reason and logic, and then he has this experience at the end that he cannot rationally explain. I guess the truth is I want to have that experience. We all want to have that experience — we want to believe that something magical or ethereal is happening in all of these mundane settings we’re in. I think the movie is about that, and the truth is there’s no proof either way, which is what faith is, right?

DT: Do you plan to resolve the story at some point?
Marling: This is actually part of a much larger story that we mapped out. There is eventually an answer to the riddle of ‘Who is Maggie?’ If we’re lucky enough to get there, we would love to share that answer with the world.