When Georgetown University associate professor Roberto Bocci saw a 12-minute clip of the movie “Sound of My Voice” recently, it struck a familiar chord. The speculative thriller, about a cult led by a woman claiming to be a time traveler, stars Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Zal Batmanglij. Both Marling and Batmanglij studied digital photography and video with Bocci when they were at Georgetown. In “Sound of My Voice,” which opens in Washington on Friday, Bocci saw echoes of the films they made as students.
“They did a movie in school called ‘Bernadette,’ ” Bocci recalled in a telephone conversation, “which was a very dark, kind of sinister movie, but also beautiful and idiosyncratic.” From what he has seen, Bocci said, he predicts that “Sound of My Voice” will reflect “the same kind of sensibilities.”
Film and media studies director Bernard Cook had a similar experience when he saw “Another Earth” last summer. That film, again starring and co-written by Marling, was directed by Mike Cahill, a Georgetown alum and close friend of both Marling and Batmanglij.
In a pivotal early scene in “Another Earth” the camera pulls out and up, creating a sweeping vertical shot that presaged the film’s cosmic sensibility. “It put me in mind of a specific shot Mike had created as an undergraduate,” Cook said. “He literally rigged up a video camera with a rope attached, and managed to throw it over a tree . . . in the middle of campus. He was literally playing around with how to create his own crane shot without a crane.”
When young filmmakers manage to have their debut films accepted at the Sundance Film Festival, and later picked up by a prestigious studio, more often than not their educational résuméincludes names like USC, UCLA or NYU. Not Georgetown, which is best known for minting buttoned-down lawyers, politicians and diplomats. But at last year’s Sundance, Cahill, Batmanglij and Marling — who majored in economics, anthropology, and economics and studio art, respectively — put Georgetown on the cinematic map.
But the Cahill-Batmanglij-Marling troika clearly defined a turning point — not just in Georgetown being taken seriously as an incubator of filmmaking talent, but in taking itself seriously as well. Last year, the school created a film and media studies program, an achievement that Cook credits the three with helping to galvanize. “It’s something we’d been building literally for ten years, since Mike and Zal were undergrads,” he said. “They made the coherence for themselves, what we’re trying to do now is build that coherence for others.”
Batmanglij insists that when he and Cahill began making short films, “we had no concept that you could actually make a living doing this. When we were in college, it seemed like a hobby — something that gave us meaning, but not necessarily a living.” In addition to studying with Cook and Bocci, Batmanglij studied with film studies and visual culture professor Lalitha Gopalan, who taught classes about women in film. “She ran her class like the military,” Batmanglij recalled recently. “I think Mike and I both got kicked out of her class multiple times. We were always making movies and showing up hungover, not from drinking but from working all night.”
Batmanglij urged Marling to take Gopalan’s class, which conjures similar memories in Marling. “Lalitha gave me the worst grade I ever got on a paper,” she recalled recently. “In red ink, she said, ‘There are some nice ideas in here, Brit, but lose the flowery language.’ That criticism entered me like a dart. It’s so true with screenwriting: It’s all about what the narrative is actually saying. Your ideas and perceptions and flowery vocabulary don’t matter.”
Batmanglij and Cahill also studied with English professor John Glavin, who taught screenwriting. “I didn’t take his class because I was a double major and I didn’t have that many electives,” Marling noted. “But later on I would take the printouts he gave them about story breakdown and study them. We’re all still using that. To this day, when any of us sit down to crack a movie, we use the beat sheet he gave out: What’s the status quo? What’s the first plot point? What’s the character point? What’s the mid-point failure?”
Marling observed that a number of factors converged in 2001 to make Georgetown the unlikely cinematic hotbed that it turned out to be. Bocci had started a digital arts lab, introducing editing software like Adobe Premiere and providing digital filmmaking equipment; and the campus television station where she worked decided to put on a film festival, where Cahill and Batmanglij submitted their film “Lucid Grey.” It’s that film that Marling saw in a crammed 300-seat auditorium and was “completely floored” by. Later, she approached Batmanglij in a supermarket and begged him to let her help in the team’s next production. He and Cahill decided to cast her, and so began a collaboration that continues to this day (Batmanglij and Marling’s next film, “The East,” co-stars Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard and will come out later this year).
“I’m so grateful to have those two people in my life, and to have come of age with them creatively,” Batmanglij said of Cahill and Marling. “You know, we entered ‘Lucid Grey’ into the Georgetown festival on April 27, 2001. Now ‘Sound of My Voice’ is opening on April 27, 11 years later. It couldn’t have happened in a more perfectly cinematic way.”
Opens at Landmark Bethesda Row on Friday.