Interview: ‘Sound of My Voice’ co-writer and star Brit Marling on the seductive power of cults
This weekend the science-fiction meditation on faith, time travel and the human desire to subjugate oneself to something “greater,” Zal Batmanglij's “Sound of My Voice,” opens in theaters. And the film is in part the result of actress Brit Marling’s (“Another Earth”) desire to create interesting roles for herself.
Marling found that the types of characters she wanted to play simply were not available to her, and so she and Batmanglij, a college friend and long-time creative collaborator, chose to invent one. The film follows a Los Angeles couple, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) as they attempt to uncover the truth about a cult leader (Marling) who claims to be from the future.
Those are the broad strokes of the plot. But what the film is really looking at is faith, a culture in which a sense of community has become painfully fragmented and the seductive and potentially dangerous power of a person who purports to have the answers so many are seeking.
“When we were writing ‘Sound of My Voice’ we were talking about all of the things that are troubling us,” Marling says of the evolution of the script. “The things that are exciting to us, what we feel about relationships and what we feel about cults and exploring the possibility of a human future. And we’re getting to wrap this all into a narrative and share that conversation with other people.”
Said conversation may seem strangely relatable to many dwelling in an urban setting. The Los Angeles setting often gives one the sense that it is fueled by a consistent pulse of equal parts desire and disappointment. It's a tone that can make inhabitants vulnerable to those who offer an image of authority, particularly those who speak with certainty about the future.
Those who live their lives in a transitory setting, pursuing careers with no guarantees and the odds stacked against them, may crave the belonging and conviction that spiritual groups offer. Many times Los Angelenos are simply looking for a magic elixir that will equal success. So they go seek out yogis and contemporary mystics who sell one more dream to the dreamers: “If you envision it, it can be yours.” But an equally powerful drive is the one to remind oneself (in this often egocentric and self-obsessed environment) that there is more to life than our driving wants and perceived needs.
Indeed, Marling and Batmanglij drew upon their own experience with the new age offerings in Los Angeles when crafting the screenplay. “L.A. is so full of hope and literally the manufacturing dreams,” Marling says. “And then at the same time it’s so filled with nightmare and people’s dreams crumbling and the realization that when the dream comes true you didn’t really understand what you were wishing for.
"I think this town is filled with this strange energy. People come here searching for something and they also come very ready to reinvent themselves and begin again. It’s still the frontier and I think that when I first came out here all of that energy was overwhelming. So I was drawn to all of that transcendental meditation and the yoga and the devotion that can spring up.”
The cult that “Sound of My Voice” depicts exists in the basement of a sparse and simple home in the San Fernando Valley. There is nothing glamorous or sexy about it. Yet the film evokes a palpable sense of longing, a need to belong, to submit oneself and one’s will to something miraculous in the face of an endless urban sprawl. There is also, of course, the appeal of being made “special” in an environment where “special” equates to both worthy and successful.
One gets the sense of the world going on around the inhabitants of the basement sanctum, oblivious to the goings-on in this seemingly normal home, unaware that a group is forming whose members truly believe they are the harbingers of a new era. Equally felt is the sense of isolation the members of the group are experiencing. We watch as they slowly, but very surely, come to believe that the walls that enclose their little basement meeting room equal the limits of what the world has to offer. There is no music, no TV, no connection with exterior life. There is only Maggie, what she has to teach them and their matching personality-less uniforms.
“I think that everybody is looking for meaning and the question is just what in your life is going to be the thing that gives you meaning,” Marling says. “And it can very easily become a meditation, a group, a regiment, dressing this way and following this diet. That can become how your life is filled up. And I think that Zal and I would try out meditations and yoga and on some physiological level it’s just totally working. It’s effective. Whatever it’s doing to your endocrine system and glands in terms of calming you down, just in the science of it, it’s a technology that works.
“But you’re wondering, ‘Okay, first of all, who are the custodians of this technology? Who are these people teaching it? And second of all, is there a spiritual component or not? Are you in communion with the universe or are you just in the deepest recesses of your brain entertaining yourself?’ And I think that’s where Peter’s story really comes from. He’s a total skeptic and so are we on some level. And then the idea is that of course you want to believe. You just need proof; you want proof.”
But proof isn’t part of the equation when one is in pursuit of faith. Indeed, Peter, who stands in for the ultimate skeptic in the film, is perhaps the most desperate to find “evidence” that he can believe in Maggie. He is the wounded seeker, the one with the greatest longing for solace despite his brittle shell. For as Marling points out, as strange and controlling and vicious as she can be, there is something about Maggie that inspires a release, a letting go of all the poisonous doubt and self-recrimination and stress that we all inevitably carry around with us.
In some respects it is a leap of faith for a person to be in Los Angeles. It is an act of insanity to commit oneself to a life that is nearly impossible to create, in a city where one lives as the donkey ever chasing that carrot on a string, always surrounded by the images of the privileged few who have caught and devoured said carrot. Is it any wonder that the search for the divine and mythic is prevalent as well? Indeed, is it not possible that the spiritual pursuits are the more worthy, ultimately?
A friend told me the other day that she had read that atheists and vegans have shorter life spans than that of the average person. The latter just made me giggle. But the former gave me pause. It seemed somehow logical that the stress of carrying the full weight of one’s life, without handing some of it over to a greater force (or at least the belief in one), is enough to shave off years.
"Sound of My Voice" opens up some very interesting questions in that regard. Ultimately, I am simply unable to hand my agency over to another, and likely equally flawed, human being. But, I do understand the draw and desire to do so.
“There has to be some belief in magic or the extraordinary or life folds in on itself a bit,” Marling says. “And who said that the pursuit of one’s individual passions is really such a good idea? I mean I really wonder about American ambition and whether or not it’s really a valuable strain of culture. Peter is so that way and it seems to be eating him alive in some respects. And you see him want to surrender and be a part of a group. And some of the stuff Maggie does, while its terrifying, you think, ‘I want that' or 'I like what she’s saying, yes.’"
That search for community is one with which many are familiar, one that Marling theorizes has given birth to the prevalence of Facebook and Twitter as connection is a fundamental human need.
“I remember doing a yoga thing once where you sat opposite someone for nearly an hour and stared into their eyes," she says. "And at first I was laughing and I was uncomfortable and annoyed and then I was sort of like, ‘Oh, this is amazing. Where do I end and you begin? Are we really as separate as we perceive? Is there some way in which there is a collective consciousness and we’re all thinking and feeling together?’ And isn’t that what’s delightful about cinema? Which is you are with this audience and you’re all feeling at once, even if you're not talking to one another.”
Indeed, that is one of the wonderful things about the communal experience of watching a film in a theater, that and talking about it post-viewing. “Sound of My Voice” is a film which invites the viewer into a dialogue, into a question that really has no definitive answer other than the one that we each provide for ourselves. Such is the paradox of faith. It is union that many are seeking and it is only through one’s own choice that we can find it.
“Sound of My Voice” opens in theaters today.
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