To Sundance via Georgetown
Reporting from Park City, Utah —
Every young filmmaker has a story of pulling a tricky guerrilla maneuver to get his or her movie made. But most don’t involve a renowned art museum and distracted federal employees, as it did for Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij and Mike Cahill.
“We wanted to shoot in the National Gallery, so we would wait until the guard left the room, put a piece of art on the wall [that the film called for] and just start shooting,” Marling recalled of a time she and her two friends made a short while undergraduates at Georgetown University.
“And we were on Rollerblades,” Batmanglij added.
The trio may not need to surreptitiously skate through filming locations for much longer. The Georgetown gang scored major success at the Sundance Film Festival with two projects: Cahill, 31, wrote and directed “Another Earth,” a science-fiction drama that was acquired by specialty-film powerhouse Fox Searchlight; Batmanglij, 30, wrote and directed “Sound of My Voice,” a cult-centric thriller that could get released in theaters or turned into a TV series.
Starring in both projects: Marling, the 26-year-old straw that stirs the drink who emerged as one of the actress discoveries at this year’s festival. (She also helped write both films.)
Every generation spawns its own indie filmmakers, DIY types who know how to stretch a dollar and who come from out of nowhere or at least an unlikely place: Kevin Smith (suburban New Jersey), Richard Linklater (Austin, Texas), “Mutual Appreciation” director and mumblecore pioneer Andrew Bujalski (Boston).
Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown University, which tends to groom more diplomats and Wall Street titans than indie filmmakers, may be even more unusual. “Yeah,” Batmanglij said when asked about the career paths many of his fellow alumni have taken, “but ‘master of the universe’ always just seemed kind of boring to us.”
Batmanglij and Cahill met in 1999 in a philosophy survey course; Batmanglij was majoring in anthropology, Cahill in economics. They became fast friends and filmmaking collaborators. Not long after, the pair encountered Marling when the freshman, then 17, came to one of their screenings. The trio started making shorts together.
When Cahill graduated and decided to travel to Cuba to shoot a documentary about boxers and ballet dancers, Marling, about to enter her senior year, turned down a post-graduation offer at Goldman Sachs, left school and moved down there to work with him. (She later graduated.)
By 2005, after dabbling at the fringes of the entertainment world working on TV documentaries and the like, the friends had all moved to Los Angeles and were doing odd jobs, in and out of the film business. They’d eventually come to share a two-story house in Silver Lake, where Cahill would write the “Another Earth” script on one floor while Batmanglij worked on “Sound of My Voice” on the other, Marling shuttling between them.
Independent filmmakers who break through to the mainstream often distinguish themselves in a genre — Quentin Tarantino with violent action and postmodern collage or Linklater and Smith with slacker comedy. Marling, Cahill and Batmanglij, of course, are far from the level of acclaim of those filmmakers but have nonetheless homed in on a brand identity, exploring big issues through a whimsical, science-fictiony lens.
In “Another Earth,” a college-bound girl (Marling) kills a family in a car accident in the manner of many indie dramas, but the story is told against the backdrop of the discovery of a new planet where there’s a doppelganger for every person on Earth. “Voice” centers on a filmmaker who tries to infiltrate a cult that’s led by a woman (Marling) who may be from the future. “Science fiction lets you be a pop philosopher, and in the times we live in I think we need pop philosophy just to make sense of the world we’re living in,” Marling said.
“I feel like there’s a desire among our generation to understand why we’re here, the bigger questions,” Cahill added. “We just attack those questions in an indie way.”
Soon after arriving in L.A., Batmanglij enrolled at the American Film Institute’s directing program. Cahill, more of a hippie-minded idealist to Batmanglij’s cynical realist, decided to forgo schooling, scrape together money and begin shooting “Another Earth.”
“Either Mike is going to be right and we’re going to follow him, or he’s going to land on his face,” Batmanglij recalled thinking at the time of Cahill’s autodidact, bootstrapping ways. (Batmanglij, incidentally, comes from Gen Y creative royalty; his brother Rostam is a founding member of the indie-phenom band Vampire Weekend.)
Cahill was right. He completed his movie with no formal training and almost as little money. So Batmanglij followed, also self-financing his microbudgeted picture. They both ended up with prime slots at this year’s Sundance, where their films were among the most-talked-about features.
The Georgetown trio is aware of its outsider status, at least compared to the hordes of USC and NYU film school alumni who flow through Los Angeles every year. But they say their D.C. roots may have actually helped them. “The best part about it is that you don’t have an environment where you get destroyed by your competitors,” Cahill said. “If your ultimate goal is to find your original voice, you’re not getting influenced by scholars and other students.”
Their group-house era is now coming to an end: Marling moved out last year and Cahill recently relocated to New York. Last week, Batmanglij was packing up his belongings at the Silver Lake residence. After Sundance, there are new offers on the way for all three.
But their creative collaboration isn’t over. Batmanglij will next direct “The East,” about anarchists in Pittsburgh. Cahill is working on “Underwater Love,” a fantasy about a fashion designer who lives at the bottom of the ocean. The plan is for Marling to star in both.
“We’re going to shoot underwater and use green screens,” Cahill said. “Well, they’ll probably cost $10. So maybe green fabric.”
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