As a film-obsessed pre-teen growing up in France, Zal Batmanglij’s dream was to export the children’s program Choudenshi Bioman to the States. “People ask you when you’re a little kid, ‘Do you want to be a fireman or a ballerina or something?’ I said, ‘No, I want to bring Bioman to America,’” recalls the 32 year-old director at the Crosby Street Hotel. “But someone beat me to it. They called it Power Rangers.” Luckily, Batmanglij got a video camera when he was 12, and never stopped making movies — though he never finished one until he met his future best friend and fellow filmmaker, Mike Cahill, at Georgetown.
The two collaborated on their first two shorts, Substance and Lucid Grey, the latter of which Batmanglij notes was “about a couple who goes to a college party and has various sexual encounters separately, and then come together and break up realizing all sorts of things about their lives.” It won the top prize at the university’s film festival, and attracted the attention of then-17-year-old aspiring actress Brit Marling, who gave them a standing ovation from the front row.
When Batmanglij, an anthropology major, was later accepted into the American Film Institute he brought Cahill and Marling out to Los Angeles with him. “I just didn’t want to go to school by myself and they were my best friends,” he says. “It seemed crazy to move out to LA from the East Coast but we did it and then we became other’s family.”
This familial connection bled into the work, which started with Batmanglij’s thesis film, a 35mm short called The Recordist, which starred Marling. “We had such a healthy, fun experience, it just seemed right, so we were like, ‘Let’s just keep going,’” he explains. Marling and Batmanglij wrote their first feature, Sound of My Voice, about a cult-leading, basement-dwelling Angeleno woman “from the future” who becomes the obsession of an undercover documentarian and his girlfriend. When they couldn’t get it made the two hit the road on a 2009 summer odyssey — catching out on trains, dumpster diving, joining collectives, taking rideshares across 14 states — that would change the way they approached the film industry.