I was lucky enough to sit in for an interview round with up and coming director Lake Bell. On the eve of the release of her debut feature In a World … The actress was animated and entertaining showcasing her gift for impressions. She discussed topics as far reaching as the writing process, being a first time director, and the message underlying the film. You can check out my review of In a World… here, and see the trailer here.
“I just woke up.”
Lake Bell explained as she begins to describe the early inspirations of her debut film as a director In a World … “It started from an organic place, because I was always obsessed with voices…” The film, which follows the story of a struggling voice actress in the male dominated movie trailer industry, stresses a simple creed “A voice is a choice.” Bell went on to describe how her appreciation for voice over “…started in earnest when I was younger doing dialects and accents for my family, it was like a dinner party trick…being commended in some respect made it an obsession.”
This party trick turned obsession eventually led Bell to attend Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in London where she fostered hopes of breaking out in the Hollywood voice over scene. “Going to drama school in England, that’s a super intensive look at voice and sound…It makes you so vocally self-aware.” It’s this vocal awareness that inspired Bell to have her character, Carol, “…be haunted by a current vocal trend that is prevalent in our society now, the sexy baby vocal virus.”
Beyond deriding the unaware and infantile vocal stylings of many young women, and presenting a look at the typically faceless voice industry, Lake Bell’s film tells a story that includes elements of comedy, drama, and a romance, in the director’s words: “I had heard some comments about it being a romantic-comedy and I would shun that word only because it’s just not that…It’s just a comedy. Because it’s earnest and about real people, I guess sometimes people say, ‘well, is that a dramedy?’ Let’s call it a comedy and say that the juggle between romance, drama, and comedy is delicate, but I think the movies I grew up with, the movies that inspired me all sort of successfully represented those profound and serious sub-groupings versus just one.”
Bell went on to cite Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film The King of Comedy, Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) as direct influences on her work, “They all surround very real circumstances, and of course in my movie there’s not life or death circumstances, but because of the characters living their own lives, they (the characters) would beg to differ…”
It’s this realist aspect that distances In a World … from Bell’s previous work on Rob Corddry’s Emmy-winning absurdist comedy, Childrens Hospital. “I’m interested in real feeling. I’m not a great sketch writer, I’m really not, that’s not what I do, that’s not what I feel comfortable in. I can direct it, like with Childrens Hospital… That feels comfortable, but I wouldn’t necessarily write sketch comedy.” It was Bell’s interest in writing dramatic comedy which encouraged the beginning of the four-year production of In a World … and her work on Childrens Hospital laid the groundwork for Bell’s budding talents as a director.
“‘why are you bitching? We’re making a movie, this is like the coolest thing you could ever do.’”
Bell’s intentions for the script were initially limited to writing, she did not intend to star in the film and certainly not direct, “To star in a comedy, as a woman at least, you have to be a pretty big star…When I first started writing the script I didn’t necessarily write it for me, but upon actually getting into the meat of it and starting to develop it in a serious way, I felt like I was the only person that could play it…(the script) is so specified, who’s going to feel as passionate about a Bulgarian accent?”
The specific personal nature of the script encouraged Bell to fill her cast with mostly friends and Childrens Hospital cast-mates rather than Hollywood unknowns, “I never wanted to cast anyone that wasn’t right for the role…you want to surround yourself with great people…you want to make sure your team is good and that there’s no diva assholes…” About potential “diva assholes” the young director showed her passion remarking, “‘why are you bitching? We’re making a movie, this is like the coolest thing you could ever do.’” Bell went on to explain how the writing process encouraged a convivial set environment with her Childrens Hospital co-stars who joined the supporting cast of In a World… “I knew I was right for the role, and was like ‘great casting, Lake.’ And I wrote those roles for Rob Corddry and Michaela Watkins.”
In bringing her vision to the big screen, Bell had her hands not only in the casting decisions, but also design from costumes to props. About the costumes for the main protagonists Bell says “She dons a look that I think represents a modicum of arrested development…her and Sam, her father, are a little bit settled in a stunted development. The last time that they can remember things being good and effective was many yesterdays ago. For instance, Sam, who was big ten years ago, because they were still doing epics, and now his relevance as a voice over artist in doing these big booming things is sort of dated now…The last time he was killing it was twenty years ago, so all of his clothing is velour suits, his nineties corvette, and his décor has stayed in that place.” For her own character, Bell went with a decidedly dated grunge look, explaining Carol’s sentiment as “‘the last time I was feeling good about things is when I was listening to Nirvana.’”
“‘the last time I was feeling good about things is when I was listening to Nirvana’ … I also just like overalls”
The nostalgic design choices carried on into Bell’s cinematography as well as her decision to fain away from depicting more modern technology. “I was obsessed with the prop department and art direction…It’s obviously contemporary, it’s not a period piece…still, iPhones were banned from any character…I felt like for the movie it pinpointed something too current, it almost takes you out, it’s like having a big celebrity in your movie…No iPhones, I’ll allow a sidekick.”
Bell’s choice of locations and small interiors reflect a stylistic ethos that keeps the film away from typical Hollywood glitz, “Even Los Angeles itself was measured, I didn’t want to have iconic architecture in the movie at all. Even though it is LA, I wanted it to feel more like any town. I barely allowed palm trees.”
While the design choices did engender the film with a unique style, also In a World… contains a message about gender inequality which it tackles through Bell’s gift for satirical irony. When I asked about this theme Ms. Bell responded, “I didn’t want to be overly preachy with the message of the movie, but it needs to be said that there are some messages involved. Mostly because it’s an interesting conversation, not necessarily to yell at people, or soap box…I think it’s comedy first then ‘oops, there’s a message.’”
Addressing why the film focuses on movie trailer voice-overs, Bell referenced a co-star, “Fred Melamed, who plays Sam Soto, he always attested that in the movie trailer industry there are no women, there is no hyperbole involved in the depiction of that. There are no ladies who do it because of a myriad of reasons, but one could be that there’s a fear of change, just because movies cost so much money nowadays that if you’re going to market them you just want butts in seats, so you don’t want to rupture the template that’s been working for so many years. Which is, male omniscient voice, authoritative figure…I wanted to illuminate it.”
“If there’s a tampon commercial, it’s not going to be voiced by a male because that would be weird…”
To make an analogy about the gender bias, Bell compared movie trailers to commercials: “If there’s a tampon commercial, it’s not going to be voiced by a male because that would be weird…It’s an authoritative female voice saying ‘here are the greatest tampons to buy.’ And then when you hear a truck commercial, y’know for ‘TRUCKS!’ It’s some burly dude telling you about torque and whatnot. It’s not addressed to me. But there are movies that are straight up addressed to women, and there are beautiful voices in the industry that could be an authoritative omniscient female voice voicing a trailer for women…It needs to be said that the voice-over industry is very much injected with female and male voices, it’s not massively sexist, there are jobs for women there are jobs for men, but in the movie trailer voice-over industry, it’s cuckoo sexist.”
“you want to surround yourself with great people…you want to make sure your team is good and that there’s no diva assholes”
This fear of change that keeps movie trailer voices stagnant is a characteristic Bell applies to the movie industry on the whole, “We are so inundated with butt loads of digital media and opportunities for franchises, yet no franchises are being launched anymore because everyone is so scared, so they end up doing the same old franchise over and over again.”
Despite these fiscally based fears dominating Hollywood productions, Blake points to a burgeoning independent movie scene which has been allowing unique visions and messages like hers to reach the screen, “The studio system, in my opinion is breeding more independent voices…People are inspired to take things in their own hands because it’s so hard to infiltrate the huge movies. Great independent movies can get picked up by mini majors or studios, and then they get seen, and at the end of the day movies are meant to be seen.”
You can see In a World … When it opens to a limited release on August 9, 2013.