Hidden in a basement somewhere in Los Angeles, a woman named Maggie leads a group of devout white-clad followers. A journalist and his girlfriend infiltrate the cult and investigate Maggie’s alleged past – or future, rather: She claims to be from the year 2054.
The premise is the setup for the new Fox Searchlight film “Sound of My Voice,” starring Brit Marling and directed by Zal Batmanglij, who together wrote the script for the cryptic thriller. The movie, which opened in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., last week, is the first in a small wave of projects to explore the notion of time travel on the big screen this year. Due in June is another time-bending indie, “Safety Not Guaranteed,” and the fall will bring “Looper,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a hit man in the near future whose targets have been sent back in time.
The concept of leaping through the centuries has inspired writers and filmmakers for generations, but what’s unusual about this new crop of movies in the modern era of multimillion-dollar, CG-laden blockbusters is their stripped-down approach.
In both “Sound of My Voice” and “Safety Not Guaranteed,” the writers, directors and actors set out to render their stories without sci-fi gadgetry and blazes of special effects. Working in the tradition of indies like 2004’s “Primer” and 2007’s “Timecrimes,” they brought a low-fi approach to an ultra-high concept, unspooling tales shrouded in mystery.
In Batmanglij and Marling’s film, it’s unclear whether Maggie is truly a time traveler or a con artist with a devious agenda. In “Safety,” which opens June 8, a reporter and two interns from Seattle Magazine track down a man who placed a classified ad seeking a fellow time traveler (based on the real meme-inspiring ad published as a joke in Backwoods Home Magazine in 1997). The question for the trio of reporters – and the audience – is whether this man is insane or really can travel through time.
“We wanted it to be a mystery, but in the context of this movie, it almost becomes a mystery as to what kind of a movie you’re watching and what the genre of the movie even is,” said director Colin Trevorrow. “Every time that the audience figured, ‘OK, well, we know where this quirky indie comedy’s going to go now,’ we wanted to pull the rug out and try to do something different.”
Creating a genre hybrid that could surprise audiences was equally important to Marling – who also made last year’s “Another Earth,” a similarly low-budget, independently produced film with sci-fi elements – and to Batmanglij.
“The meeting point between that humanist story and the sci-fi genre is something that fascinates us,” said Batmanglij, whose film will expand to more theaters this Friday.
Batmanglij and Marling set out to make “Sound of My Voice” at once a popcorn thriller and a thought-provoking art house film – a combination inspired by the movies they saw and were disappointed by while studying at Georgetown University with “Another Earth” director Mike Cahill.
“The disappointment was like, ‘OK, these films all have the spectacle and the huge budgets but seem to be totally lacking in the character and the substance’ – for the most part. There are exceptions,” Marling said. “And then the small European art house drama is really heavy on ideas and feelings and emotional anthropology, but where’s the sense of wonder? I think we’re all interested in the idea of mixing those things and having there be the same sense of wonderment in a story that was diving deep in terms of character.”
Though the audience is kept guessing whether time travel is really possible in each movie, the filmmakers still put on their scientist caps to invent their own take on how to leap through the fourth dimension. The same was true for Julie Cross, whose debut novel, “Tempest,” has been optioned for a film adaptation by Summit Entertainment.
The YA book, which hit shelves in January, tells the story of Jackson Meyer, a 19-year-old living in 2009 with the ability to travel through time. When strangers burst in on him and fatally wound his girlfriend, Jackson suddenly jumps back two years and gets stuck in 2007, where he becomes determined to prevent her impending death.
Like “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Sound of My Voice,” Cross’ book uses time travel as a “device to create an emotional connection between the reader and the character,” she said. But there was still some space-time continuum brain-teasing involved in the writing of the book and its upcoming sequels.
When Cross’ editor reassured her that she didn’t need to decide how her version of time travel works in her early drafts, she insisted, “No, people are going to start a website debunking my time travel theory. We need to decide right now.” Cross kept a chart of what Jackson had in his pockets and backpack at each point in the story to avoid any plot holes as he made his many leaps through time.
For Marling, the game of “What If?” led her and Batmanglij to decide that traveling decades through time depresses one’s immune system and that water is a conduit for time travelers: a sickly Maggie claims to have appeared in our present when she suddenly found herself in a bathtub. Time travel by water instead of by machine or flurry of sparks and smoke certainly achieves keeping a budget low, but the team behind “Sound of My Voice” had other reasons for avoiding effects-heavy visuals.
“CGI and all those special effects have gotten to a place where everything enters a land of the absurd and your imagination as a viewer isn’t given any room,” Marling said, who hopes “Sound of My Voice” allows “the audience’s imagination [to] meet the filmmaker’s imagination.”
Time travel has captivated Trevorrow’s imagination more than once – he wrote two scripts that made use of the conceit before “Safety Not Guaranteed,” which he developed with friend and writer Derek Connolly, became the one to make it into production.
“It’s such an amazing device to create new dynamics between characters that couldn’t otherwise exist,” he said, citing “Back to the Future,” when 17-year-old Marty McFly meets his parents as teenagers.
Even with new dynamics and all of history to explore, filmmakers still face the challenge of keeping time travel stories fresh. Andrew Bowler, who wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated short “Time Freak,” told our sister blog 24 Frames earlier this year about working to find an original take on time travel.
“With time travel, there’s definitely a lot of well-worn ground… You can feel like you’re hitting the same jokes and the same ideas that have been hit before,” said Bowler, who is currently writing a feature-length version of the short.
But Cross is confident that time travel as a narrative device will continue to fascinate — next year already promises at least two more time-travel-themed films: Zooey Deschanel’s rom-com “About Time” and Tom Cruise’s time loop war movie “All You Need Is Kill.”
“I think it’ll last a lot longer than the vampires and the zombies,” she said. “Vampires are vampires. They’re gonna drink blood and whatever. But time travel – you can keep going on and there’s so many things you can do with it to expand it.”
– Emily Rome
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