Inside D.C. entertainment

Correction:

Brit Marling was in the class of 2005 at Georgetown University, not '04.

Sundance 2011: How three Georgetown grads might change indie film

January 27, 2011 - 09:50 AM
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Another Earth
Georgetown grad Brit Marling in Sound of My Voice.

When Zal Batmanglij and Mike Cahill met in philosophy class at Georgetown University, they immediately hit it off. They both wanted to make movies, but weren't sure how to make that happen. Georgetown didn't, and still doesn't, have a film program — last year, it launched a minor in Film and Media Studies — so the two decided to try it on their own. The resulting short film earned them a standing ovation at the university's film festival. "There was a 17-year-old girl leading the standing ovation, a blonde beauty — it was Brit," Batmanglij says. When they made a second short, about a girl who's told she's an alien probe sent to Earth "to capture a moment in time," it starred classmate Brit Marling.

Now, some 10 years later, both Cahill ('02) and Batmanglij ('01) — who grew up in Georgetown, attended the Potomac School in McLean, Va., and has a brother, Rostam, in the band Vampire Weekend — have feature-length narrative films at Sundance, and Marling ('05) stars in both of them. There's even another Georgetown connection at this year's fest: An older graduate, Jim Whitaker, directed the 9/11 documentary Rebirth. No wonder the festival programmer who introduced Batmanglij's Sound of My Voice at Wednesday morning's screening said, "It's a crazy little Georgetown festival we have going on here."

It's an impressive showing for a university that doesn't even have a filmmaking program, but what's more impressive is the quality of Sound of My Voice and Cahill's film, Another Earth.

The former is, in fact, the finest narrative film I've seen at the festival thus far. It stars Christopher Denham (Charlie Wilson's War) and Nicole Vicius (Half Nelson) as a young couple making a documentary about a cult they've infiltrated; the cult's leader, played by Marling, claims to have come from the year 2054. Another Earth, meanwhile, is about a bright high schooler named Rhoda (played by Marling) who gets into a drunk driving accident that kills a pregnant woman and child; the driver, a talented composer played by William Mapother (Ethan in Lost), survives, and when Rhoda tries to apologize to him years later, she loses her will and instead offers to clean his house. Oh, and a second, identical Earth happens to have appeared in the sky.

In the opinion of Batmanglij and Cahill, I've probably said more about the films' plots than I should have. But it's important that, at least, I reference the otherworldliness of both movies — a similarity that should come as no surprise given that these three Georgetown grads are close friends, and that Marling co-wrote both films (with their respective directors). More importantly, though, Sound of My Voice and Another Earth transcend their understated sci-fi plot lines and push independent filmmaking in a promising new direction. Such films are the reason I come to Sundance every year.

Another Earth came together in an usual way. Rather than shooting with a completed script and full cast, Cahill essentially began with an extended treatment and Marling in the lead. "I have a very doer mentality," says Cahill, whose theory was, "Let's make a snowball and get it start rolling." Those early shoots didn't go to waste, despite the uncertainty of the project: One of the first scenes Cahill shot became the film's final moments.

Sound of My Voice exudes a similar ambition, though that wasn't necessarily Batmanglij's intention.

"We didn't think of them in that way," he says. "We thought of them just like, 'Let's go make these things.' What's stopping you from making something, you know? In 2001, when we made our shorts at Georgetown, the digital technology had just started, and everything seemed limitless. We didn't understand why features weren't like that. And now, ten years later, the technology has really gotten to a place where you can just go do it."

But few first-time directors are able to "just go do it" this well.

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