Director Zal Batmanglij guides viewers into a sinister cult world

Sound of My Voice

Directed by Zal Batmanglij

Opens May 11 at the Charles Theatre

In Sound of My Voice, a young couple infiltrates an underground group led by a mysterious woman who claims to be from the future. They plan to expose her as a fraud, but it turns out she has more power over them than they expected. With his first feature film, director Zal Batmanglij crafts a thriller that earned quite a bit of attention at Sundance, then went on to get picked up for distribution from Fox Searchlight. He recently chatted with City Paper over the phone about The Pelican Brief, Baltimore’s great potential for communes, and tightrope walking.

City Paper : It seems like there’s something in the air about living communally . . .

Zal Batmanglij: Yeah yeah, I’m a big believer.

CP : So this is something you’re into?

ZB: Yes, communal living, are you kidding? Yeah. And Baltimore’s actually a hotbed of anarchy and communal living because it’s so cheap. It’s a great place to do it, actually.

CP: So is this something that you’ve done?

ZB: Yes, big time. I mean, not with a cult that claims to have a time-traveller, but I have lived in Pittsburgh and New Orleans and other places. But never Baltimore. I wanted to do it in Baltimore. Maybe I still will. I think it’s cool to get an old house, an old squat, with a lot of people and fix it up linearly, not make it look pretty, but make it functional. I’m a big believer in communal living, but also groupthink when the think is good. I think there’s an overemphasis on individuality.

CP : Why do you think this way of living is becoming more of a viable option now?

ZB: I think it always has been, in a way. I think we used to live in groups. People lived with their grandparents and maybe their great-grandparents and uncles and aunts. I mean, I think people lived in much more communal housing. And that living alone or in a nuclear family that’s three times removed is a new thing.

CP : Your background isn’t in film, correct?

ZB: I studied anthropology, but that was my background from 18 to 22. I’ve been making movies since I was 22. [Batmanglij is now in his early 30s.]

CP : You study people, though. You’ve been trained to know what groups of people live like and think like and that must influence your films.

ZB: Yes, but that’s what I think filmmaking is. What was I watching the other day? Oh, The Pelican Brief, which I love. And I realized that so much of that movie works because nothing is said, but all of the anthropological work has been done. The clothes the people are wearing fit their exact socioeconomic bracket, their exact job. The sets are exactly right. The cars they’re driving. All this stuff is telegraphed to us, and so you don’t need a title card that tells you what city you’re in or who that person is. You just know it.

CP : This is your first feature. Was there a huge learning curve with just diving right into it?

ZB: There was, but more in retrospect. At the time—and I think this is the saving grace about making movies—you have to put one foot in front of the other. And we really didn’t even have the luxury to look down or look behind us. We just had to walk the tightrope, and we shot this movie in 18 days. If I had second-guessed what we were doing, I would have surely stopped.

CP : Eighteen days is a really short span of time. What was your style like with guiding everyone?

ZB: I got lucky, because the actors we chose to do this movie understood how precarious our schedule and our ambition was. And also, there were no adults on the set. There was no studio. There was no release date waiting for us. There was no film festival waiting for us. It’s not like we got the call from Sundance like, “Can’t wait to see that once you’re done with it.” We didn’t know anyone. We were totally on our own. And so, as a result, we couldn’t really mess up. The actors came with that kind of seriousness. You know, on a lot of sets, there’s a lot of joking around, because you’re in it for a long time. You’re doing pretty intense work. You need a way to sort of cut loose. On our set, there wasn’t any of that. It was a very serious set, and I like that. I think that’s how we got our work done.

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