Lake Bell Is 'In a World' of Her Own
Sound studios, trailer voiceovers and high-speed rivalries
By Richard Whittaker, 12:00PM, Thu. Aug. 22
As an actress, Lake Bell is a rarity. She loves re-recording her own lines. "I love cave industries, where there's this dorm mentality. Sound studios have that kind of 'we're all locked in, we're eating snacks' camaraderie and eccentrities."
OK, a quick qualifier. She loves the time in the recording studio, not necessarily the time in front of the mic. A few months ago, I was interviewing Michael Madsen (see "Michael Madsen, Last of the Warrior Poets"), and he beat himself up a little over dealing with automated dialogue replacement: That's when an actor has to go back into the studio to re-record their lines. He said, "I do have a tendency to pause sometimes in speaking, which turns into a fucking nightmare when you have to do your ADR." When I told Bell that story, she nodded hard. "I'm with him," she said. "ADR's incredibly hard for me as well, as I do tend to ah uh brr ch, yeah, you know what, ur. It's so erratic that I'm always at a complete loss, but I spend a lot of time in ADR as well for those reasons."
That time in the booth has fed into Bell's debut as a director and feature writer, set in the surprisingly cutthroat world of performers who provide the narration for trailers. Right down to the name (a nod to the classic trailer intro), Bell calls In a World "a love letter to the voiceover industry. Yeah, I'm poking fun and using it as fodder for comedy, but also to get across a couple of messages. But I write this with great love and affection."
Bell's character, Carol, is a legacy within the voiceover industry: Her father, Sam (Fred Melamed) is one of the all-time greats. But she'll never quite reach his level. The reason is simple. He is one of the handful of performers who do voiceovers for trailers. And they are all, to a one, men. There's no hyperbole in that central narrative conceit. Bell said, "Women do work in the [voiceover] industry, but in the movie trailer voiceover industry, they do not."
Think about it. When was the last time you heard a female voice promoting a film? "Maybe there is a glass ceiling," said Bell. "Why is that? Why has this idea of the omniscient, authoritative vocal source have to be male? Why do our ears not respond to a female voice? Or is it not that? Is it just that we're used to a male voice and we've just got used to it, and nobody's ever pointed it out before."
Bell admits that she tried to break into the industry when she was younger, "but I wasn't invited," she said. Like many such niche trades, there is what she called "the clique system. ... In this particular industry, it's really stark. If you try to get into the voiceover work, you immediately notice it." The reason is simple: "Because there are only so many jobs, the people who have them on lock-down are very protective."
If there are mixed feelings in the script about the VO performers, there's no mistaking Bell's fondness for the quirky professionals behind the sound desk. She said, "I do love those people. They're engineers, they're technicians, but it is a part of the movie industry that is so damn important. It's a subculture unto itself."
There aren't many films so dedicated to the art of the sound engineer: Recently, there was bizarre thriller Berberian Sound Studio, and Bell paid tribute to Brian De Palma's Blow Out as an influence. She also thanked The King's Speech: "It was inspiring to see a cinematic movie that deals with something similar. A very different movie, but very visual, dealing with the minutia of a speech defect."
But there was another influence, closer to home. Her father, Harvey Siegel, is a real estate developer and amateur race car driver, as is her brother. In 2000, Siegel reopened the failed Virginia International Raceway as a world-class circuit. Cars are in Bell's blood: "I've been on the sidelines and on the track since I was 3," she said, and in 2011 she joined The Hollywood Reporter as their automotive contributing editor. However, out on the track "it's a boy's world," she said, "I would see my dad and my brother get a little competitive. Who's faster? It gets a little primal out there."
Over time and many drafts, that personal story transformed into the loving tension between Sam and Carol. She said, "That hot-blooded texture within people who are related blew my mind, and became very informative when taking on this other boys' club." It's undoubtedly been cathartic. Bell said, "I always say, therapy is the greatest writing tool ever, and therapy is the greatest writing tool ever. It's cyclical."
When casting the film, Bell had a simple rule: "I will always maintain that making movies is fun, and I don't want anyone who's jaded on my set." That's why she cast mainly comedians, like Ken Marino (Milo, Burning Love) as the smug Gustav, Tig Notaro as studio manager Cher, and Demetri Martin as the nebbish Louis. Bell knew that they would play against expectations: She said, "I put people in this movie that I love as people. We are pals, we go on vacations and dinner together, we make comedy together. But because I know them in an intimate setting, I also know they are fathers and wives and husbands, so I know them in an emotional sense." She gives some of the films tenderest scenes to her Childrens Hospital costar Rob Corddry, who plays her constantly flustered brother-in-law Moe. It was a role written specifically with an actor in mind, as was the part of Carol's sister Dani, played by Michaela Watkins. Bell said, "I peppered in all my friends that had the capacity and are also content producers themselves."
But has the film made her any friends among the unseen starts of the trailer biz? Often overlooked in the pantheon of cinema talent, Bell said they are appreciative that, just for once, someone has told their story. She said: "The community has reached out in a very profound way. They're listening."