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Zal Batmanglij '98: Seeing And Being Seen

Zal Batmanglij ’98 Writes and Directs First Feature Film: Sound of My Voice

“How might I describe his mind? Kaleidoscopic,” remembers Dean of Faculty and English Teacher Sheila O’Marah. “He would see multiple facets inherent in an idea, always looking to advance the complexity and depth of the subject."

One of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch in 2012, Zal Batmanglij ’98 has been on a wild ride since submitting Sound of My Voice to the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The ultra-low-budget film garnered significant buzz: a “terrific and engrossing venture into speculative fiction,” glowed the Hollywood Reporter; “bracingly ambitious” and “forward-thinking,” wrote The Washington Post. The attention piqued the interest of Fox Searchlight, which acquired the film in April 2011 and plans a nationwide release on April 27, 2012.

Home for the holidays in late December, after wrapping up shooting on his second feature film, The East, Zal spoke with The Term before heading back to LA, for five months of 12-hour days in the editing studio.

For all the glamour associated with Hollywood filmmaking, the act itself involves less glitz than grit and guts. “It’s like the army. We wake up at 7 am, and we don’t finish shooting ‘til 9 pm. We have 20 minutes off for lunch. It’s an intense, regimented day. Your brain cannot be going off in a kaleidoscopic fashion if you want to get your work done,” he says. “At the same time, it’s because I can run on multiple frequencies that I can oversee and pay attention to all the many different aspects of filmmaking."

What could this mean for Zal’s first film? It’s safe to say that Searchlight’s support will give The Sound of my Voice a fighting chance. After all, this is the same studio that released indie hits Juno, Slumdog Millionaire,Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine. But Sound of My Voice is no Little Miss Sunshine. It is darker, coarser — more akin to The Wrestler and Black Swan (also Searchlight features), but made on a smaller budget and originally conceived as a serial for the Web. Voice is a fictional film about two documentary filmmakers who infiltrate a cult intending to expose it. Along the way, one of them seems to fall under the spell of the cult leader, who may or may not be from the future.

“I am hungry for the authentic experience, the unmitigated experience, a raw experience,” says Zal. “I think we all are. We’re really hungry to connect fully with human beings and also to have something real transpire between us and other people, but also us and the world."

At Potomac, that affinity for connection expressed itself even in history class. Retired Upper School history teacher Gail Nields remembers, “He connected with the historical people and what they were grappling with so that history wasn’t just memorizing facts. History was understanding why people made the decisions they did. And that makes for an extraordinary history student."

This longing to see inside — to be inside — the minds and communities of others might have something to do with being transplanted from one culture to another at an early age. Born in France, Zal moved with his family to the U.S. at age 7. From then on he expressed an enthusiasm for engagement remembered clearly by all of his favorite teachers.

“He was very enthusiastic about everything,” remembers retired sixth grade teacher Jane Lorentz. “It doesn’t matter what it was. Whatever he was asked to do, he jumped right in and gave it his all.” Such as rehearsing his Oscar acceptance speech.

“She made me practice it,” Zal insists.

“First he would thank his parents,” says Ms. Lorentz, “then he’d thank some other people. Then I would make him say, ‘And I want to especially thank my sixth grade teacher.'"

Although Zal claims indifference on the subject of Oscars today, he feels passionately about the lessons he learned in Ms. Lorentz’s classroom, which he remembers as especially strict and structured. “Sometimes people think that to be a creative person you have to be really creatively free all the time,” he says. “I don’t think that’s necessarily true. At least for me, structure and fairness and safety, emotional and physical, inspire more creative freedom. And Mrs. Lorentz definitely taught me that."

Zal’s job as a director, then, is to create a similarly safe space for his actors, who might be asked to cry, sing, dance or make love in front of a film crew and camera on any given day. “That’s pretty intense work that can easily devolve into being really unsafe or emotionally way too overwhelming. Part of what I do is set the parameters: these are the boundaries we’re not going to cross."

Of course, there were instances in Zal’s Potomac career when he perceived himself as outside of the safe inner circle of some group or other. Although he pined to be an actor, he says he wasn’t cast in any good parts in the seventh and eighth grade plays.“ So I spent the entire time watching Mr. Moriarty and Mr. Morgan directing. I was like, clearly I’ve been mistaken and directing is a lot more fun than acting. You get to tell everyone what to do.” Which was particularly appealing to Zal, who says he sometimes felt powerless as a child. “The really good teachers cultivate in their students a feeling of agency rather than letting them feel powerless, which of course they are."

Perhaps even more meaningful to Zal than the bonds he formed with his teachers were those he established with friends. “I had some amazing friends at Potomac that educated me about the quality of people you can find out there in the world,” he says. “We forged such intense, close, intimate relationships. I came out of high school used to that and then hungry to find that in college. And that was a major part of why I’m making movies today, because I met [filmmaker] Mike Cahill and then Brit Marling at Georgetown. We formed relationships that were very similar to the relationships I had in high school."

Now Zal and Mike Cahill find themselves among a small stable of up-and-coming young directors being groomed by Fox Searchlight. “We were so chuffed and happy just to do movies at Sundance. Little did we know that the best studio in the world for independent films would pick up our movies.” And although Zal is extremely grateful for and excited by this, he doesn’t necessarily see Searchlight as his one big break.

“I think your big break is whenever you’re seen,” he says. “You really remember the times when someone sees you. Your life comes into focus — from the kaleidoscopic to the focused. I felt that Jane Lorentz saw me, and it changed my life. That’s another asset of Potomac: if one teacher does not see you, which happened to me many times, then another teacher will. And then your life leaps forward.”

“I had some amazing friends at Potomac that educated me about the quality of people you can find out there in the world."

—Zal batmanglij '98, filmmaker