Looking back on some of the most enjoyable comedies of the past, like Hal Ashby’s Shampoo or Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, it’s not only their enjoyable essence that made them memorable, but the way they seamlessly blended the comical with the dramatic while delivering a larger social commentary. And with her directorial debut In a World … writer, actress, and filmmaker Lake Bell harkens back to that sentiment to create a truly delightful film about the under-exposed world of the voiceover industry. Known as an actress for her myriad roles in both film and television, Bell’s first feature pays tribute to her life-long obsession with the human voice and showcases not only her many talents as an actor but a refreshing new female voice in film, winning her the Best Screenplay award at Sundance this past January.
In the film, Bell plays Carol, an emotionally-stunted but passionate vocal coach who longs to climb the ranks of the voiceover world but lives in the shadows of her movie trailer legend father, Sam (played by Fred Melamed). But after serendipitously finding herself in a position to be the voice of the next generation, Carol is suddenly in competition with her father amid the sexist world of movie trailer voiceovers. Adding another layer to the family dysfunction is her wonderful supporting cast of Michalea Watkins and Rob Corddry as her sister and brother-in-law who face a schism in their relationship and are faced to explore their commitment to one another. Rounding out the cast is Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman, Ken Marino, and Tig Notaro, who all play perfectly in Bell’s charming world that places us in a Los Angeles that feels contemporary yet untethered to a specific time.
Yesterday, I sat down with a few other writers to chat with Bell about her love for voices, conveying a message without being preachy, and relieving her film of anything too hip.
You’ve been fascinated with the ability of the human voice your whole life. What was the inception of the idea for writing the film?
It started from an organic place, because I was obsessed with voices, but also just the vocal mechanism as a form of expression. Also, it was the ultimate acting mechanism—you could be anybody, especially when it comes to acting, it becomes the tool that allows you to be any nationality, any social nouveau, or any gender for that matter. In the movie there’s a fun fact where Ken Marino is constantly talking on speaker phone to his agent whose this big ol fat Jewish dude, and that’s played by me. So I already used this as a platform to eek out another opportunity to do a voiceover character. But I really do, with genuine appreciation, love voiceover and I think probably started in earnest when I was younger just doing dialects and accents for my family. It was like a dinner party trick, some old dude was like [in an raspy old-man voice] “You have a good ear, you should listen to that.” So I think honing in on it and it being commended in some respect made it an obsession. Then I started collecting accents, so if I heard someone with an accent I’d peak up. And living in New York, that’s a normal thing. We live in a melting pot of the most incredible accents. So I took that to heart .
Flash forward to going to drama school in England, that’s a super intensive look at voice and sound. In the first year of drama school you don’t even get to put on plays—you’ve got a bunch of precocious assholes who want to put on plays—but you don’t get to do any of that, you just have to think about your vocal chords and how they relate to your breath and act like a tree and things like that. But I actually love the vocal training and it makes you so vocally self-aware. I liked injecting Carol with that sort of self-awareness so that she could be haunted by a current vocal trend that is prevalent in our society now—the sexy baby vocal virus. So it all sutured together in that way.
The film manages to combine elements of the comedy, drama, and romance really seamlessly, making it hard to pinpoint in terms of genre but very genuine because life encompasses all those sentiments and is never set in one way.
It’s funny, I had heard some comments about it being a romantic comedy and I would shun that word because—although I love romantic comedies—it’s just not that. It’s just a comedy, and because it’s earnest and about real people, I guess people say: is that a dramedy? But that the juggle between romance and drama and comedy is delicate and I think the movies that I grew up with, the ones that inspired me, all successfully represent those three very profound and serious important sub-groupings versus just one. So whether it’s King of Comedy or Hannah and Her Sisters or Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, they all surround very real circumstances. Of course in my movie there’s not life or death circumstances, but because of the characters living their own lives in it, they would beg to differ that these are very high stakes. I’m interested in real feelings and I’m not a great sketch writer, that’s not what I do, that’s not what I feel comfortable in. I can direct it, like on Children’s Hospital, as an observer and player of it that feels comfortable but I wouldn’t necessarily write it.
Although you didn’t know that you would be the one to direct this at first, did you write it with yourself in mind to give yourself the opportunity to play a really interesting comedic female role that you weren’t necessarily finding through your work as an actress?
To star in a comedy, as a woman at least, you have to be a pretty big star. And that opportunity had not presented itself to me. But full disclosure, when I first started writing it, I didn’t necessarily write it for me. But upon sort of acting 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.
It’s a perfect showcase for the vocal work you’ve been doing your whole life.
And it’s so specified, like whose going to feel as passionate about a Bulgarian accent? I don’t know that anyone would be quite right for it, but I never wanted to cast anyone that wasn’t right for the role, even my friends that are in the film. I mean, I want to put my friends in everything because I think they’re talented and amazing, and you want to surround yourself with great people because it’s a long haul making a movie. You’re married to these people for years, it’s all encompassing and also for the actual 20 days to shoot it, it’s intense and you want to make sure your team is good and there’s no sort of diva assholes. People where you’re like, “Why are bitching? We’re making a movie this is like the coolest thing they you could ever do!” So I didn’t have any jerks or turkeys on set.
Carol and Sam both had a very idiosyncratic style of dress, both stuck in the past a bit. Was their wardrobe an intentional choice to display something further about their characters?
She certainly dons a look that I think represents a modicum of arrested development. I think she and Sam are a little bit stunted and the last time they can remember things being good and the effective was many yesterdays ago. So for instance, Sam, who was big 10 years ago because they were still doing epics and now his relevance as a voiceover artist is dated now, the last time he was killing it was that time, so all of his clothing—his velour suits, his 90s corvette and his decor—stayed in that place. And the same with Carol. I have friends like this and I came to relate to the sentiment of, the last time I was feeling good about things was when I was listening to Nirvana in college trying to figure out who I was and everything was open and there were possibilities, there was promise in each day like, “Oh yeah I’m eventually going to do it,” but then all of a sudden you haven’t done it and you found yourself in a position of not only doing the same things but wearing the same things to hold onto youth.
Wrapped in this comedy is a really interesting message about the roles of men and women in the voiceover industry. Having had your own experiences in that world, was that something you’ve wanted to explore for a while now?
Well, 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 and sewn into the story—but mainly because it’s an interesting conversation, not necessarily to yell at people or soap box. It’s comedy first and then oops, there’s a message. And Fred, he would always attest to the fact that in the movie trailer industry, there are no women, there’s no hyperbole involved in the depiction of that. There are no ladies who do it, for myriad of reasons—one could be that there’s a fear of change because movies cost so much money nowadays and if you’re going to market them, you just need butts in seats. So you don’t want to rupture the template that’s been working for so many years, which is a male omniscient voice, authoritative figure. There have been tests that maybe female voices don’t hold the same attention that a deep male voice does and that’s interesting to me. I wanted to illuminate that.
I genuinely don’t understand it, even if there were tests. If there’s a tampon commercial, it’s not going to be voiced by a male because that would be weird because it’s an authoritative female voice but then when you hear a truck commercial it’s some burly dude telling you about torque and whatnot. Personally, I like trucks, I have two trucks currently, but 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 voices, voicing a movie trailer for women. But the crazy thing is, then maybe whoever is putting the movie out will feel that they’re limiting their audience and not letting men in at all, but if a man does it, both men and women will listen and that’s weird. That said, the voiceover industry is injected with both female and male voices, it’s not massively sexist. There are jobs for women but in the movie trailer voiceover industry it’s cuckoo sexist. This is basically a 93-minute audition for me as a voiceover artist to finally get a job because that would be really cool.
The film is obviously contemporary, but there’s something about it that feels timeless, or out of time. Even in the use of technology, we don’t see any iPhones and there are little things like giving Rob’s character that tape instead of, say, instead of sending him a voice note on your phone. But that’s also echoed in the setting as well.
Yes, all of that was very important. I was obsessed on that with the prop department and art direction because yeah, it’s obviously contemporary, it’s not a period piece, so we already take that upfront. But there are parts in the Valley that I love because you do feel like it could be anytime and the Valley is romantic like that. It sits in this isolated space of 70s to now, it could always be kind of the 70s there. And for instance, iPhones were banned from any character. I love iPhones, personally, but I just felt like for the movie it pinpointed something too current or it almost takes you out. It’s like having a huge celebrity in your movie when it’s not right to have them there. I thought people were just going to look at the iPhone, and it’s too evocative. But yeah, it was too hip and nothing’s too hip in there. Even LA itself was measured, I didn’t want to have iconic LA architecture in the movie at all, I wanted it to feel more like any town. I barely allowed palm trees. There was one beautiful establishing shot and the Capital Records building was sort of iconically just sitting in the background as the sun was goes down and the DP was like, “Let’s get this!” and I thought it was amazing but was like, “Yeah, we jut need to just crop out and reframe to get the Capital Records building out.”