News Column

Lake Bell finds her voice in films thanks to 'In a World ...'

August 18, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 18--"In a World ...," the new comedy about voice-over artists written by, directed by and starring Lake Bell, came, you might say, from a tape recorder.

Bell, whose many screen credits include "No Strings Attached" and "It's Complicated," has long been fascinated with voices. While studying drama in England years ago, she was encouraged to learn accents phonetically. "You'd have to go out into the field," she remembered, in a telephone interview, "and you were encouraged to take a tape recorder and record live humans from mysterious lands and ask them random questions." Once she was told to learn a Bulgarian accent, so went -- where else? -- to the Bulgarian embassy, dressed in black, with a tape recorder. "That was the first time I got kicked out of an embassy," she remembered, laughing.

In her last year of drama school, Bell studied radio plays and became fascinated with "combining forces and energies to create characterizations with just your voice." After relocating to Los Angeles with "a demo CD that I thought was pretty good stuff," she hoped to find work as a voice-over artist, but found most doors closed. "It's very cliquey," she said. "Only a handful of people are even privy to the auditions. There's just no room for newbies."

So she approached the field another way: by writing a screenplay about it. "In a World ..." is the story of Carol (played by Bell), a 30-something vocal coach determined to find success in movie-trailer voice-overs. At the film's beginning, Carol lives with her father Sam (Fred Melamed), himself a legend in the trailer voice-over world; as it progresses, she becomes entangled with Gustav (Ken Marino), an up-and-comer who doesn't quite realize that they're vying for the same jobs.

"I felt drawn to the father/daughter competition story," said Bell. "My dad and my brother have an interesting relationship surrounding racing -- my dad owns race-car tracks, and when they get on the racetracks, it kind of gets a little primal out there. I always like to hear their banter, and I thought it was an opportunity for fodder as well, to apply that to a father/daughter relationship. A perfect framework for this woman trying to find her voice, literally and emotionally."

Bell spent about a year and a half working on the screenplay; initially thinking that anyone could play Carol, but gradually realizing that "it was an opportunity to have fun and write something I would really enjoy playing." The script attracted some attention and Bell eventually decided to direct it herself -- after first directing a short film ("Worst Enemy") that screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. (She's since directed several episodes of "Childrens Hospital," the TV-comedy series on which she is a regular.)

"In a World ... " premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last January. "It was the most magical moment of my life thus far," said Bell. "I was nervous that I wouldn't be this excited for my firstborn child!" The film won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the festival and was picked up for distribution by Roadside Attractions.

Thrilled with the warm reception found by her first feature, Bell says she'll be making films "for the rest of my life." She spoke enthusiastically of other female filmmakers who've been inspirational to her: Lisa Cholodenko, Lynn Shelton, Katie Aselton, Lena Dunham, Sarah Polley, Miranda July, Kathryn Bigelow ... "I think I have some great role models to look up to and I'm super thankful for that."

Unlike Carol, Bell's moving away from the voice-over world -- but she's still having some fun with it. Listen carefully to "In a World ..." when Gustav is talking on speakerphone to his (male) agent, Segal. "That's me," said Bell. "I would never get cast as an old Jewish agent, but that's the beauty of voice-over. You can be a million different people."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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