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Sundance Interview: Writer-director-actress Lake Bell of 'In a World…'

The comedienne makes her debut as a writer and director -- and earns Sundance glory ...

By James Rocchi Jan 27, 2013 1:57PM

 Sitting down to talk with Lake Bell the day after her writing and directing debut "In a World" premiered at Sundance, the long-limbed actress, writer and director beamed with energy and good humor. As well she should have; her film was a crowd-pleaser, and in the interim between the film's debut and now, Bell has earned the Waldo Salt Award for Screenwriting.  In the movie, Bell plays a vocal coach and the daughter of a renowned trailer voice-over artist played by Fred Melamed; when Bell stumbles into her father's professional world, it turns out that the two have plenty to talk about. Bell spoke with us in Park City about the comedy of bad kisses, what she loves about voice-over work, directing a real-ish world and the promise of hope inside every movie trailer.


MSN Movies: When I first heard the description for this I thought "Okay, we're getting the fictionalized Don LaFontaine in this, which is fine." And then you start with the real Don LaFontaine, playing proper tribute, and that's not the decision a lot of filmmakers would make. They'd just sort of turn Fred Melamed into this mock LaFontaine. Was that something you decided to do early on to keep it real, or to pay proper tribute?


Lake Bell: I think it's a mixture of both. For sure, definitely, I wanted to pay proper tribute because I was, with respect, it was pretty incredible that this man ... he had a great presence, and I always read all about him.


Great sense of humor about himself.


Great sense of humor, I loved his attitude about it, and I actually approached his estate to talk to them about using the title "In a World."


Now, did he hold a copyright on that phrase?


Yeah. He owned "In a world ..." and "In a world where ..." Both of those. 


So technically if you and I say "In a world," we owe LaFontaine...


We owe a lot of money. Already, in this conversation, we owe a tremendous amount of money.


But he did not seize up "In a town."


In a town, in a place. I think "In a place," too. I can't remember. But yeah, it was  a really interesting process, but I did want to be respectful to Don LaFontaine.


How fun is it to sort of channel your inner voice-over person?


Wait, can I just piggyback that and say that also I like the idea of a male character ... that I looking for the patriarch character to have a chip on his shoulder, that he wasn’t the guy, you know? And that I find that just in terms of the human condition, I find that very interesting when people are insecure about not being the guy. Like the guy the only reason why Sam Soto (Fred Melamed) got to do what he gets to do is because Don LaFontaine paved the way and passed away so somebody had to take on that position, and so he gets haunted by that in the movie.


BING: Don LaFontaine l Lake Bell

And the film industry, whether you're cutting film  or doing voice-over, it's all these weirdly insecure egomaniacs, right?


There's a lot of hubris involved, yeah, and insecurity. That's why when you're talking about hubris and insecurity it can be mean, and I didn’t want any ounce of mean in (the film) 'cause I don’t like confrontation and meanness. I like things that are sweet and encouraging and have heart. And I wanted to even the sort of more unsavory characters that did naughty things to have a heart.


And be like fallible, real people and not just constructions to move the script along.


Correct, which is ... when you're doing an independent movie you're able to do that. Hopefully you can do that in a studio movie, too.


Is it weird to notice like the one touch that I loved, which is early on you're wearing a kilt and then later on you're getting dressed for a party a few days later and you hold up the same kilt and it's like you have the closet of a real human being and not just a refreshed wardrobe everyday far beyond the salary of this human being.


You picked up on every single detail that I was so tirelessly fawning over because those kinds of things -- for instance like having someone in fresh hair and makeup every time or having a new outfit every time you see them -- I find it so unrealistic. And I wanted all of them to be very ... I purposely recycled clothing, and I purposely had very minimal makeup and hair and things like that. And I had to have a team that understood that and also respected that because it's hard sometimes when you're head of the hair and makeup department, or you're head of a wardrobe department you kind of want to show your chops, but I had people who understood that restraint and I challenged everyone to adhere to that because it's restraint on something.


How fun is it to channel your inner trailer person and just bring it down, get low?


Oh yeah.




I had been channeling it for my entire life. It was I had to make an entire movie about it in order to play with it. It is something that I enjoy profoundly, and I don’t know where, I think it starts from the idea of this blind voice that you can be anyone, that you can be any social level, any race, any gender even. I mean I don’t know if this is a fun fact for you, but I play Segal -- the agent on the other end of Gustav's call. (Gustav Warner, played by Ken Marino.)




Yeah. So I did all of that voiceover work. So you know he's like, "You're not going to be that. The voice -over world battle ..." (Laughs) You know that kind of stuff. That's all me, but we pitched it slightly so that I sound like a little more manly. But since I was thirteen, when my mom moved to Florida, I would fly as an unaccompanied minor from Florida to New York every other weekend so I got to know the stewardesses. I knew them very well. And this is where it all starts, which is I was so obsessed with their announcement that they made. They would like sit in their little cubby and read from their book.


On their little fold out seat.


Exactly, in their little fold out seat.


"The bag will not inflate."


Well, yeah, that whole thing. Then, "This is 127 flight to Atlanta." And I asked if I could do that 'cause I got to be buddy-buddy with them. I was like "I'm going to infiltrate the system. I'm going to know this leg." And I got in there, and at 13 I did it a couple times. It was great. And of course everyone would be laughing 'cause a 13 year old was doing it. And I was like, "I don’t know what you're laughing about because this is a very serious situation. I think I'm doing a great job."


"If you people don’t listen to me about the safety belts it's your own goddamn fault when you die later."


Yeah, exactly. "It's your f**king fault, yeah."


In terms of you often see L.A. in movies and it's all neon with beautiful homes, how important was it for you to get craptacular graffiti? How important was it for you to get the L.A. people don’t see on film?


It's incredibly important, and I talked to Seamus Tierney about it, my DP, quite a bit because I wanted to crop out as many palm trees as possible. I didn't want it to look pretty, not interested in things that looked shiny and pretty and new or sort of celebrity or anything kind of. I think it's boring, I've seen it before, and I just felt like it's not as accessible. I think warm city USA seems more interesting to me, and I love the Valley. I shot also my short film "Worst Enemy," which was here in 2011 -- I shot that all in the Valley. I really like the valley, I like Koreatown, I like these weird pockets of L.A. that feel like anywhere. They're unique in their own sense, but they don’t feel, it's like the kind of place you wouldn't necessarily go to shoot because it's not beautiful. But I find it a better sort of canvas to tell a story.


Fred Melamed, who I love in "A Serious Man" ... How tough was it to find your Sam Soto, did you know he was your go-to guy? Or did you know him enough to know he was your go-to guy? Or rather did you look for somebody who'd have that tone?


Yeah, I mean I knew. I'd seen "A Serious Man." I loved him "A Serious Man." And he was always on my radar, but when I was casting this, when the two points came together and I thought of Fred Melamed as Sam Soto, my mind exploded because his voice. I remember a part of what was so amazing was he had this masterful voice, and he had that weight. And when I met with him he then revealed to me that he was a voiceover artist for 20 years. I don’t know if you know this, but like he started out as a theater actor, and then because of his incredible sound he graduated to be this very, he made a ton of money doing voiceover and was like the guy and knew Don LaFontaine and worked with all those cronies. And then his sound became out of vogue because all of a sudden the everyman was sort of more interesting. So instead of, "In time," all of a sudden it was like, "Hey, meet Jack. He's one of the guys." Like it was sort of ironic.


You can't have that kind of intonation.


Right. And all of a sudden that was like not as cool. He sort of became, he stopped doing it, and it sort of forced him to start acting again, thank God.


There's one thing the film leaves unanswered, which is why does Ken Marino's character not know how people kiss?  Why does he go for the nose first?


My idea was that that was a fetish. Yeah, that he has this secret room. He has these secrets. He's like one of these guys that he's not like a villain. I mean he, you know, he's got his own story.


He's got a ludicrous but well-rounded life.


Yes! Ludicrous but well-rounded life.


Is it weird that when she was walking around his room full of secrets I kept thinking of Kim Basinger in the '89 "Batman"?


(Laughs) Oh my God.


Like I thought...


Okay, that's all right. He actually was the first one. He did. Marino was the first one to audition. He said to me, "Hey, is it okay if I French kiss your nose?" I was like, "What?"




I was like, "Come again?" And then I was like, "Yeah. I mean obviously yes. Go for it." And we're friends. We're old friends. Anyway, so he went in for it, and it was like one of the hardest times to not break up, honestly because I would never crack up on my own set because I have a day to make, and I would try really hard not to. And I'd be like, "I know we're having a good time, but we've got to keep going." But then when he did it, it was so fun so I said, "You know what? I'm going to order two. I'd like two (takes)"


What to you is the greatest trailer as ever made, in terms of its narration and tone and what have you, the one that even as a kid made you go, "Whoa."


That is an incredibly difficult question and I'm just not equipped to answer it because I am a totally trailer junkie. I am of the community that goes on to Apple trailers and watches them over and over again, and I'm so excited when a new trailer comes out. I don’t know if that's because we all have tremendously short attention spans at this point and it's enjoyable to watch a trailer, but I also love the drama, the promise, the promise of what it could be.


Right. It's weird because I've stopped watching trailers primarily because I feel like I'm letting the marketing department show me like the 30-second version of the movie before I actually get to see it.


But you know what? You're totally right, but I think they're like guilty pleasures for me. It's like I don’t really watch reality television, so maybe I just watch trailers. But I think it, you know what it also is? It makes you nostalgic for the moment where you settle into the theater and you're about to watch a movie like go down. Trailers come up and that means the movie's coming. So it becomes this sort of...


It's a symbol of hope.


It's a symbol of promise and hope.


And is it better to travel hopefully than to arrive?




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