The Real-Life Cult Experience Behind Sound of My Voice

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This week sees the big-screen debut of Sound of My Voice, the indie sensation centered around a mysterious cult leader (Brit Marling) who claims to be from the future.

We spoke with director and co-writer Zal Batmanglij, and found out secrets about mystical time travelers. Plus we learned about the real-life fringe group this story was based on.

Did you research modern day cults or past cults because Maggie employs a lot of cult leader tactics against her followers.


Zal Batmanglij: Yes, we did. We were interested in fringe groups. And there were a lot of them in Los Angeles, so we were exposed to a bunch of them. They influenced the soup that Brit and I were making.

Can you give me a specific example of something you experienced in real life that you wanted to include in Sound of My Voice?


We were going to this group — I don't want to say its name — and we were really moved by what they were doing, physically. Their exercises and way of being was (I think) state of the art. But the people who were drawn to the groups had this sort of brokenness that was a little overwhelming. And this desire to sort of heal themselves with a quick fix. That was really overwhelming. If they were broken and could just stay in their brokenness, I think, Brit and I would have been more comfortable with the situation. But the idea that this group was going to save them with a snap of a finger fascinated me. And I think that that's really the impetus of Sound Of My Voice. I've never said that in an interview before.


Where do we see that brokenness in the film?

Joanne is a divocree — she talks about how she wore the same pair sweatpants for two years after her husband left her, and it was [the cult leader] Maggie who taught her to come into the woods. There's PJ, who is overweight and whose parents have rejected him because they're these suburbanites. None of these things are overt. It's all subtle.


What don't we know about Maggie?

A lot. Brit and I know a lot more about Maggie than we explicitly say in the movie. I think that's what makes it effective, it's not that we haven't figured it out, we have figured it out. So, I don't think you feel cheated in the end, or dropped.


Do you believe she's from the future?

I know the answer to that question, so I don't want to answer. We wanted a film that operated in the gray zone, but we didn't want a film that was confusing. The parts shouldn't be confusing. I told the crew while filming that it's like the LEGO sculptures that Abigail [a child character in the film] built. Each LEGO has to be perfectly constructed and make a lot of sense. What they build, those fractal patterns, can be up for anybody's interpretation. But as long as you build it from solid building blocks, I think you can get away with it.


If Maggie knows who is with her in the future, why does she need to break down her followers in order for them to officially join the group?


I think we have to go through a lot of rituals in order to fill the gap of meaning in our lives. You could just email me your questions, and I could answer them, but we're doing this interview. I think it's very similar. The journey is a big part of the experience, not just where you're going.

Why come back from the future and become this secret tiny cult leader? Why not come back and act like Michael Biehn from Terminator, why not try and prevent the worst?


If the film does well then Brit and I will continue the story, which we've planned out. And that's one of the big themes [of the sequel] — if Maggie is from the future, why is she here?

Will there be any returning characters in this possible sequel?

Yes, everybody.

You mentioned in an earlier interview that while you were filming this movie, you got sucked into the story, can you elaborate on what you meant by that?


When you're making a film without much support — which is how we made this film — there's no studio, thre's no people overseeing the production, everyone was coming in working 12 hours a day, we didn't have any overtime, no time to sit and think about what we were doing. It was just me and the actors, and our crew. We were doing such heavy material that everyone got sucked in and soon you couldn't see the forrest anymore, just the trees. So it was tree after tree. A lot of times I think of Hansel and Gretel when I think of Sound of My Voice, and I think about the trail of crumbs they left to get out of the forrest. I think that Sound of My Voice is about the claustrophobia of living today, and how do you crawl out of the claustrophobia towards the light?

Let's talk about the idea of claustrophobia a little, because I noticed that's something you played around with while inside Maggie and the cult's basement. Anytime we're in Maggie's world the camera angles are tight, versus in the real world outside. Why was that important to demonstrate?


Claustrophobia is a theme that I feel is really rife in Sound of my Voice, and struggling to come up for air from that feeling [is a big theme in the film]. To achieve that that claustrophobic feeling, as a director, I was very interested in the medium shot, the close up. The film doesn't really have any wides, especially in the basement. Which really ups the tension and creates this subtle sense of dread. Also we used documentary camera operators which creates a really different feeling than if you used feature film operators that are used to a cinematic formalism. So you have this "fly on the wall" sense in Sound of My Voice which I think adds to the story. We never show you or pretend it's a real documentary, and that makes it seem like it's even more real.

Sound of My Voice hits select theaters on April 27th.