If there is something that’s become more common than complaining about movies, it’s complaining about movie trailers. Once an efficient way to tease audiences about what to expect in coming attractions, movie trailers have now devolved into spoiler-ridden short films through which desperate studio marketing departments aim to attract as many people as possible on opening weekend. Nowadays movie trailers give away most of the key jokes, plot twists and anything that would keep a certain element of surprise; they’re greatest hits versions of the films they’re selling.
Earlier this summer we were treated to something quite different, the trailer for In a World… was a delightful surprise for many reasons; the first being that it was a trailer trying to sell a movie about movie trailers (!!), the second was that it teased just enough without giving away any of the plot and third, and most surprising, was that we learned it was produced, written and directed by its leading lady, Lake Bell.
Bell is one of those actors who always seem to be making appearances on random TV shows and movies, her face is recognizable but not enough so, that we can instantly recall where we’ve seen her. For those still wondering, she has played sidekicks, best friends and aggressive femme fatales in films and shows like It’s Complicated, Boston Legal, What Happens in Vegas, Surface and Miss Match.
For In a World…, her debut as a feature length director (after having directed a couple of short films in recent years) she plays Carol, a vocal coach trying to make it as a voice-over artist. To write the part, Bell drew inspiration from her own life, “I always knew I wanted to be an actor…at a very young age I noticed that I could do people’s accents and mimicry” she said, revealing how she became a main attraction during family dinners. “[I’d] have family members going ‘do those funny accents’, or ‘mimic him’ or ‘you have a good ear, keep it up’.” she continued. “I took that to heart and started collecting accents, almost like stamps. I’d hear a new one and almost perk up, it was very distracting especially in New York City where it’s just a petri dish of different nationalities.”
Her unusual talent as a mimic and vocal impersonator are front and center of the movie, which also deals with having a woman try to break into an industry dominated by men. Bell makes this even more complex by having Carol’s main competition be two very important men: her father (played with bearish gusto by Fred Melamed) and a playboy voice-over artist (played by the hilarious Ken Marino) with whom Carol has an affair. By having her love interest and her father be her main competitors, Bell adds a completely new dimension to a genre that seems to become less surprising with every new film.
“Writing comes from what you know and observe in reference to the human condition,” she said during a recent interview in New York City. “At the end of the day voice-over is fantasy driven. When I would go out and audition for voice-over I would sit in a couch and look at the others and think to myself ‘this in itself is compelling’, ‘these people and where do they come from’.” To say that the film feels lived-in would be a disservice to Bell’s ingenious use of personal experience as means to create precise fiction. She added that upon arriving in Los Angeles, after studying drama in England for four years and perfecting her vocal mechanism, she was sure she’d be a shoo-in for all the big voice-over parts, but found herself excluded by a hierarchy that was almost impossible to crack. “[The cliques in the voice-over world] reminded me of my dad’s business—he’s in race car driving—so, I would go to the tracks as a little girl and remember the machismo and egos at bay in this mostly male-dominated world. Being a woman in that environment is an interesting relationship, I used that world to fantasize about what it would be like to be the daughter of a master in the world of voice-over.”
As someone who’s been through all the phases of movie-making, Bell shows humbleness and true excitement when she talks about her work as a director, “I do maintain that movie-making is fun,” she said “...you don’t wanna feel like everyone is dying on the set or psychologically torturing themselves.” In person she exudes the same overpowering energy that makes her so exciting to watch onscreen. She laughs, makes funny voices, moves her hands around, as if her body wasn’t able to contain everything she wants to express.
When talking about preparing to direct herself she shared how she went to a renowned Los Angeles acting coach for the very first time “I treated [my screenplay] as if someone else wrote it, I wanted a space of objectivity and brought Michaela Watkins (who plays Carol’s sister) with me to some of the sessions to have that sisterly rapport.” However, she wasn’t always able to control her writing self from getting in the way and kept finding flaws in her screenplay: “[I kept going] I gotta change something, I gotta change something” to the confused acting coach.
I sat down with Bell in the middle of her busy press day in New York City to discuss her rousing achievement.
Before your movie came out I had never noticed that there are no female voices in movie trailers. Ideally you’re saying you don’t want your movie to be a message movie, but do you want it to inspire women to seek this unconventional career path?
I don’t want it to be overly a message movie, I want people to have a good time and enjoy themselves. I want people to laugh, it’s supposed to be funny and you’re supposed to feel for these people. I want this to be the kind of quintessential “get away from your other bullshit and pay attention to somebody else’s” kind of movie… but I’m aware of the message and I’m comfortable with standing by it and hoping that people are inspired by it, but I don’t wanna preach to you.
However… if you wanna listen to it, god bless you and keep you… (laughs)
I think my favorite thing about your movie was that usually when we see romantic comedies, we usually have the girl chasing after the guy or waiting to be wooed, but your movie’s completely different in how it’s really about who Carol wants to become as a human being…
Yeah, because, and not to be like (in a funny voice while raising her finger) “let me correct you” but the reason why it’s unique is because it is not a romantic comedy and I think it would be unfair to tell people it’s a romantic comedy, because in this movie romance is peripheral. It’s a comedy about family and there is romance, because in life there are moments of romance, but at the end of the day it’s more of a father-daughter competition story and the romantic element comes much later because it’s not at the forefront of what our protagonist is thinking.
It’s funny cause I was reading this article which I thought was so good that said that Wedding Crashers which is about a wedding and sex and relationships, is not considered a romantic comedy, it’s just considered a comedy because it’s all male. And come on…it’s about fucking marriage! In a World… in any case would be more of a dramedy, a comedy with real life elements and it would be unfair for people to think that this is a romantic comedy. I love romantic comedies—I love movies in general—but a well done romantic comedy is epic and classic, whether you’re a guy or a girl, and this is not that.
As a writer did you feel at any point that in order to get a role this rich and original as an actress, you’d have to write it yourself?
(In a serious voice) First of all… thanks for calling it rich and original… (Laughs and returns to her regular voice) …I would be lying to say that I didn’t write it to myself because I wanted to play a character this well versed or at least flawed and funny…
Traditionally if you’re playing a lead role in a movie, as a woman, you’re auditioning to play “the girl”, which is never a particularly funny character, it’s usually a character with sense, who brings the male character off the ledge and the really big funny female roles go to the huge stars. There’s so few of them and all of those parts go straight to the biggest and the best and that felt so far away for me and I really wanted a funny lead female character, the kind of which would be just the peripheral character in other movies.
I wanted to upgrade that character to the protagonist. I mean, I do enjoy playing the character role…you know, the weird executive trying to seduce someone or the strange, the insecure, the neurotic… I like to play all those kinds of characters but I was interested in ripening it to find a character that had a lot of heart, meant well, someone who was also extremely flawed and stunted in her growth but had aspirations and dreams and an interest in achieving them in a real way.
* * *
In a World… opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on August 9.