News Column

Lake Bell sounds off on voice-over field

August 23, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 23--At early screenings of "In a World..." this month, Lake Bell greeted viewers in the theater lobby and handed out popcorn.

She might as well take over these movie jobs, too. Bell wrote, directed and stars in this whip-smart new comedy, which opens here Friday.

The title, "In a World...," comes from that unforgettable phrase we've all heard in movie trailers -- the voice that rumbles from the surround-sound speakers, urging moviegoers to let go of reality and let a new world unfold on the screen. It's a line made famous by Don LaFontaine, the king of the movie-trailer voice-over, who recorded more than 5,000 trailers in a five-decade career.

And in "In a World...," Bell explores the ultra-competitive upper ranks of an industry most of us know little about.

"I found the voice-over industry so compelling because it's the ultimate acting," Bell said last week when she came through Houston to introduce a screening. "You can be anybody" because a disembodied voice isn't limited to being what its owner looks like.

"You're not given boundaries," she said, "and that's the ultimate fantasy as an actor."

Bell, 34, plays Carol Solomon, a struggling vocal coach who can't afford to move out of her dad's house. Her dad -- played by longtime voice actor Fred Melamed -- is Sam Sotto, the top voice in the business.

He's taken smarmy young hotshot Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) under his wing, giving Gustav a boost in the biz and grooming him to be the next big voice. But as Carol stumbles into voice-over success -- even beating out Gustav for a prized movie-trailer gig -- the father-daughter competition ramps up. And Carol slams up against the reality that the industry, always cutthroat and competitive, is especially hostile to women.

"The industry does not crave a female sound," Carol's dad tells her. "I'm not being sexist. That's just the truth."

He's not wrong, Bell says. The voice-over industry is a boys' club, and those omniscient voices that guide our consumer choices are almost exclusively male.

"In writing this movie and investigating these questions," Bell said, "I became hypersensitive to what voices are actually representing life decisions, like what bank to trust with your money, what car to buy, what movie to see. There really is a dearth of authoritative, omniscient female voices."

In fact, Bell points out, the female narrator almost doesn't exist in movie trailers. Thousands of movie trailers are made every year, but the only time a woman's voice has promoted a major-market movie was in 2000, when Melissa Disney narrated the trailer for the auto-theft action flick "Gone in Sixty Seconds."

But if Carol represents the underused richness of women's voices, "In a World..." also takes on what Bell likes to call the "sexy baby vocal virus" -- the high-pitched, girlish tone that some women adopt as their everyday voice, combining a Minnie Mouse sound with uptalking and vocal fry.

"I get a little bit on my soapbox in the movie," Bell said.

"You sound like a squeaky toy," her character tells one of these women in "In a World...." She calls the affectation "a cancer to the intelligence of young women."

Bell says the "sexy baby" voice has its roots in Valley Girl culture and has spread through reality shows and the rest of media. "Because our media is so infectious and viral now," she said, "it's not just New York and L.A. that get this affectation because we all hear it. In every state and every city."

The movie explores how successful women support each other (or don't) and how parents can feel threatened or overshadowed by their children's success. But for all its soapboxing and complexity, "In a World..." is ultimately a comedy. And it's full of little surprises: Eva Longoria has a cameo as one of Carol's vocal trainees, and Geena Davis appears as the studio executive who gives Carol her big break.

Listen carefully to the smarmy Gustav's agent, who's always shouting at him over the speakerphone. The voice of that "old Jewish dude," Bell said, belongs to her.

Early on, Bell herself wanted to be a voice-over artist. As a kid she was "vocally self-aware" and liked to teach herself how to imitate accents and other people's voices. When she studied drama in England, she carried around a tape recorder to capture the voices and speech patterns of strangers.

"In a World..." was a five-year project for Bell, who has shepherded it from a "blinking cursor and a blank screen" into a full-length feature. The movie won a screenwriting award when it premiered at Sundance this year.

Bell has acted in movies ("No Strings Attached," "It's Complicated") as well as TV ("Boston Legal" and the Adult Swim comedy "Children's Hospital"), but now she wants to do more writing and directing.

Working behind the camera is "so multi-faceted and so athletic to do," she said. Before she decided to direct "In a World...," Bell tested her skills in 2010 by directing a short film she wrote. It felt right "from Day 1 of shooting," she said.

"That became not only a point of confidence," Bell said, but "I thought, God, you know what? I love this. I want to do this for the rest of my life."

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(c)2013 the Houston Chronicle

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