For all her beauty and brains, actor Lake Bell has rarely been given the chance to get out of the best-friend, supporting-role existence. Some might call that being a character actor, but Bell doesn't really fit that role either, and as a result she's been saddled taking secondary parts in films like OVER HER DEAD BODY, WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS, PRIDE AND GLORY, IT'S COMPLICATED, NO STRINGS ATTACHED, and A GOOD OLD FASHIONED ORGY.
She's fared better on television, find ways to shine on shows like "The Practice," "Boston Legal," "Children's Hospital," and HBO's "How To Make It in America." But this year has seen the release of two smaller films that feature Bell as much more front-and-center characters. Earlier this year, she appeared in Katie Aselton's nasty little thrill BLACK ROCK; and now Bell is hitting all size screens with her feature writing-directing debut IN A WORLD…, a funny film set in the highly competitive universe of voiceover actors. Bell plays struggling voice actor Carol, whose father is a legend in the movie-trailer-voiceover world that she is trying to break into. The film is as much a family drama as it is a comedy, and Bell does a great job balancing the two worlds and tones of the story.
Bell was in Chicago recently, and we sat down to talk about getting her film made, calling in favors from her actor friends, and her upcoming Craig Gillespie-directed, Craig Gillespie-written film MILLION DOLLAR ARM (set for release next year), co-starring John Hamm, Bill Paxton, Alan Arkin, and many others. Please enjoy my chat with Lake Bell…
Capone: Hi, Lake. It’s good to meet you.
Lake Bell: Hey, how are you doing?
Capone: Good. Just fairly recently I had a long conversation with Katie Aselton.
LB: Right on!
Capone: Obviously, it was about BLACK ROCK and it became a discussion that I’ve had with a lot of actresses who have gone on to write and direct, and she told a familiar story. She said it was because she wasn’t getting the roles that she wanted, and she finally just said, “I’m just going to write my own.” Not that it’s that easy. But that seems to be a growing trend now. Was that one of the reasons that you wrote and directed your own feature?
LB: I think it’s inherently one of the reasons. Of course, if you can, you write what you want to write and what you feel like nobody has cast you as before. But I also think I was supremely invigorated with the idea of making movies, and whether I’m a girl or a boy, I just wanted to be a part of the filmmaking machine. I am a movie fan. I’ve loved movies since I was a kid, and they inspired me and took me to different places and made me happy and made me feel things and laugh; I’m a buff.
I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, and my mom was always really supportive with that and we used to write crazy letters back and forth, super-elaborate, multifaceted letters that were also visual pieces as well, and then that parlayed itself into prose and that parlayed itself into poetry for a brief moment--we won't dwell on that--and then that went on to dialog-based writing. For me, I think I was more self-conscious and judged myself about being an actress who had a screenplay she was writing. I never wanted to be that until I really had one in hand and could hand it over.
So that’s kind of how it worked for me, but I really wanted to make movies. I come from a family of designers. I have a visual opinion that makes me feel at home. I love to command a great group of people. I love the athletic nature of filmmaking. It’s active. It’s multifaceted and has so many chapters of different challenges of creativity, and I’m just really into it and I’ll do it for the rest of my life.
Capone: So now that you’ve done it, are you just like, “Why did I wait so long? When can I do it again?”
LB: I’m not like “Why did I wait so long,” because I think you have to have lived and be prepared. You can’t be flip with that responsibility. When you are on a set, everyone does look to you for answers, and I don’t think I would have been successful in it as an endeavor as I feel that I have been in the sense that I successfully came out the other end and I’m not dead, and nobody on my set died. So that’s the good news. That’s goal one: “Make sure everybody is alive.” And then goal two is that everybody has a great time and is proud of what they did.
Capone: People who are moderate fans of film, they might learn the certain actors' names, they learn maybe a director’s names, but you clearly have gone into the realm of “Who are the people who do these voices on the trailers?” They either pull you in or they don’t, and I love that you pay tribute to Don Lafontaine and use him as a launching-off point in the movie. He’s a character in the movie, even if he’s not shown, they're always talking about him.
LB: Always. I wanted it to be that way. I wanted it to be like an homage.
Capone: Do you know all the people’s names who used to do the voiceover work?
LB: I don’t know them all. I know some of the greats, yeah. I mean Hal Douglas is incredible. Obviously, there are people who have come up and tried to emulate that sound, but that sound is a trend that’s waning. Now the epic kind of roaring sound is something that’s diminishing now and, the new trend is the everyday man voice, which is what Gustaf Warner aka Ken Marino represents, the new school of things, which is a little more sarcastic.
Capone: In just straight narration, that’s true, but I noticed the trend, at least in movie trailers now is no voiceover; it’s just titles. Weirdly enough, when I read those titles I read them in Don’s voice.
LB: Of course. It’s interesting. I think like any pop-culture or social trend, for movie trailers right now, yes, it’s more visual based and I think that’s because voiceover is considered a little bit dated, a little kitsch, which is why in the movie I was eager to make it feel like the industry was trying to force this resurrection of those iconic words, like it was an event.
Capone: How much research did you do into that world? Were there really these egos and everyone fighting over the same jobs?
LB: What’s great is that I manifested it and then was validated by those in that business. I sexed it up a bit, because I kind of wanted those stakes there and I just likened it to things that I had experienced, that I had exposure to, for instance in my father--he owns racecar tracks--and I’ve always been around some hearty egos and big personalities around the track, and that’s involving something very physical and manly. But there would always be a spattering of ladies who did it as well and seeing male ego deal with that is inherently interesting, and so I used that as a template, because at the end of the day, all of the thematics of swinging egos is pretty universal. I t’s pretty much visible in most industries, whether you are male or female.
Capone: At the very beginning of the film, your character is barely making a living as a vocal coach, helping clients get rid of accents or better an accents. Did you choose that line of work because you're good at that? Is that something that you grew up doing?
LB: Yeah, it’s total fantasy. First of all, it fit perfectly with the thematics of the movie, because I wanted Carol to be on this path to finding herself and finding her voice very literally and then emotionally. So it was fitting that she took on an occupational path that's the step child of the “real” voiceover heavyweights that were doing the noble work, the on-tape work versus Carol being this behind-the-scenes aide, when in truth she then finds that that is the most noble work at the end of the day.
Capone: I was playing a little game while I was watching the movie, any time a face came on the screen that I recognized I tried to figure out how you knew them. “Okay, they were in 'Children's Hospital' together…” The one that threw me though was Eva Longoria being in it, and I know the movie that you guys made together [OVER HER DEAD BODY], because the first time I met Paul Rudd, I did not let up with him about making that movie.
LB: [laughs] Did he get pissed?
Capone: Not at all. He was like “Yeah, I haven’t really talked about that, have I? It’s time.” Was casting this film an exercise in calling in favors?
LB: It was an exercise in surrounding myself with people that I really like, that I felt were really right for the part, but then also “What would be fun?” I was like “I know Eva will make fun of herself for a day. That will be fun. Let’s get her in there.” I think at the end of the day moviemaking, because it’s so fucking cool, it better be fun, because otherwise, what the hell are we doing here? This movie is not SCHINDLER’S LIST; It’s not an epic. It’s smaller, but it’s heartfelt and it’s earnest, and I did want that feeling to be on set. I wanted it to feel like a community and I am very lucky that in "Children's Hospital," I am surrounded by what I consider a comedy family and I love those people. We have been together for years now, and I know a lot of those people as husbands, wives, mothers, fathers. So I know that they are capable of more depth than just sketch. I’m inspired by them, so I wrote some of those roles for those people.
Capone: Speaking of “heartfelt,” I have to admit that I was, I think the most drawn to the relationship between your sister and her husband. Those scenes with them are really tough sometimes. You've placed this very serious relationship drama in the middle of all of the silliness.
LB: The movies that I always were turned on by as inspirational subjects are movies that are ensemble dramedy, whether it’s HANNAH AND HER SISTERS or even KING OF COMEDY, it’s all based on interpersonal relationships and the weird connection they have with each other. BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE by Paul Mazursky is another one. I’m really turned on by those kinds of movies and I like when you go down the path of somebody else’s world and how it laces in and helps our protagonist get to their end goal or distracts them or becomes chaotic. I think that’s part of someone’s journey.
Capone: The other big character in the film is Los Angeles. This feels like a very Los Angeles story, at least to someone who doesn’t spend any time there whatsoever. It feels cutthroat where your friends aren’t really your friends if there’s a job involved and it feels like that comes from a very authentic place.
LB: It does. I tried to circumvent mean tendencies. Naughty things are done and illuminated as such, versus forgivable. You’re pissed when Sam dicks his own daughter over.
Capone: That might be unforgivable.
LB: Yeah, but he’s not perfect and never claimed to be.
Capone: It might be close to evil.
LB: It is close to evil, but nobody dies. Again, back to death. “As long as nobody's dying, everything is fine.” It’s funny you say that about Los Angeles, because I used to shun…I didn’t want to say that it was too much of a Los Angeles story, because I don’t want to isolate anyone. I actually worked really hard to crop out iconic Los Angeles architecture. But you’re right, it’s inherently Hollywood based, but it’s Hollywood adjacent, because at the end of the day the voiceover industry is not what runs Hollywood; it’s the ugly stepchild that’s constantly trying to knock at the door and say “Hey, we are here too, and by the way, we make a ton of money.”
Capone: Talk about Day One of shooting. I’ve heard so many different things about people just being a complete bundle of nerves or being so prepared that they reach that Zen of “We’re just going to go in and do it.”
LB: I was in between. I was so fucking prepared, to the point where… I love lists. I love books where I have a huge blank book where I draw--I drew every storyboard. I drew bird’s-eye view of every location in every scene of where the camera would be for different set ups, 1-2-3 numbered. Everything was so ready to go, mainly because I wanted to be present and I had to also be the protagonist in the movie, so I had to be so organized for every aspect, and all my teammates had to be so ready and prepared, and we had so many production meetings so that every department felt like they had their questions answered.
So the first day of shooting, I definitely was confident, but I think standing there in my Carol outfit, in my wardrobe, and thinking, “Okay, I have to command from this outfit. I have to be this person and then flip.” I think that was what I was most afraid of, so when I finally threw myself in there after setting up a shot. And by the way, what I did was I auditioned a stand in for myself for the part of Carol. I made her learn lines and do the whole thing. I cast someone as my character, so I got the right person--a fucking professional--to literally do the scenes for me for camera and then I would put myself in at the very last minute once everything was set up--art direction was just so and the camera was right and the lens was right--I would throw myself in at the end.
Capone: I have to imagine that that’s necessary just in terms of efficiency too, because I’m guessing you didn’t have a lot of time.
LB: I didn’t have playback; we had 20 days to shoot this there. I mean I playback very little.
Capone: Time is the enemy. I wanted to ask you about another film that you just shot, MILLION DOLLAR ARM…
LB: I just wrapped it. I was an actor for hire on that one.
Capone: Craig Gillespie is the director. I love him.
LB: Starring Jon Hamm, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, and myself, and it’s a feel-good sports movie, which I’ve never been a part of. Craig Gillespie has a really beautiful concept and way of taking on this true story of this sports agent who is down on his luck, and he goes to India and tries to recruit cricket players to be the new star pitchers for the MLB.
Capone: Alright. It was great to meet you. Thank you so much.
LB: Listen, any support helps us. We're a tiny movie, but we're doing what we can to get the word out there. Nice meeting you.