Lake Bell has had major supporting roles in Hollywood romantic comedies (“It’s Complicated,” “No Strings Attached”) and appeared in several TV series (“Boston Legal,” “How to Make It in America” and currently Comedy Central’s “Children’s Hospital”). Now she’s starring on the big screen in “In A World…,” an independent comedy that she also wrote and directed. It’s set in the world of the Hollywood voice-over community, with Bell playing Carol Solomon, a young woman determined to break into the male-heavy business dominated by her golden-voiced father Sam (Fred Melamed) and his protégé Gustav (Ken Marino). The title is a recollection of the three words that often began old movie trailers, a phrase made famous by the acknowledged dean of voice artists Don LaFontaine, who’s estimated to have done more than five thousand trailers and a half million commercials before he died in 2008 and is still revered as the master.
“[The phrase was] written by Don LaFontaine, who is a legend himself,” Bell explained in a recent Dallas interview. “He died five years ago, and I remember when it happened, in the industry it was just epic. And no one to this day [is] able to take on the quality he had. Everybody tries, but they can’t get there. [His voiceover] has become a sort of archaic way to represent a movie, because voiceovers are just not in trend with how movie trailers are today.”
Bell’s fascination with the process began at an early age. “Ever since I was a little girl, I was doing accents and dialects,” she recalled, “and someone proclaimed that I had a good ear and that I should really pay attention to that. Of course, any sort of validation when you’re a kid [is important].
“[So] I started to collect [accents] like stamps. Fast forward to going to drama school—I knew I wanted to be an actor from an early age. It’s the ultimate acting tool. Voice acting is mind-boggling, because you’re not judged by what you look like. You can be anyone—any social background, any nationality, any gender. And that’s pretty cool. Because of conservatory training, you do it all phonetically. You can do any accent in the world, if you do if phonetically, because you’re doing it in such a scientific way.”
But her own work in the business, Bell said somewhat ruefully, hasn’t been extensive. “I haven’t done very much,” she said. “Really, I learned so much about the voice-over industry by trying desperately to audition for it. I fell in love with it, and when I came to Hollywood I thought I was going to be cleaning up and then realized it was really cliquey and very difficult to infiltrate, because there are only so many jobs, and the people who do it have it on lockdown and are very protective. That was interesting to me—as a subgroup, culturally it reminded me of my dad’s passion, which is race-car driving. He’s been an amateur racer since I was a little girl. I witnessed the ego dynamics going on in male-dominated amateur racing. [Voice-over] had a lot of similarities [to that world] that I thought was a great breeding-ground for comedy.”
Writing the script, Bell explained, flowed naturally from her interests. “I think you do what you feel comfortable doing,” she said. “I couldn’t write sketch [comedy]. It’s a different type of comedy. But I can write the type of comedy that I think is funny, that feels natural to me, that is observational from my own exposure to the world, the way that my family and I and my friends react to the world. The message is there too, but first and foremost is the comedy, and people should enjoy it.”
One especially telling subplot, Bell said, was one involving Carol’s sister [Michaela Watkins] and her boyfriend [Rob Corddry], who endure a breakup midway through the movie. “The reason I have the Dani-Moe storyline is not just to enrich the world of these people, but Carol’s real path is—she feels like it’s to become the star, but really that’s the goal, and bane, of her father…versus what she’s really good at, which is helping people and being attuned to other people and how they represent themselves, and trying to aid those she loves. She’s constantly trying to help and then squashing that instinct.” In the end she embraces that calling using her vocal gifts in the process, in a feel-good, crowd-pleasing final scene.
When it came to taking on more jobs on the project and discussing which of them was most difficult, Bell said, “It really is the amalgamation. It’s not the one thing. Directing is hard. Acting in a movie as well is hard. Writing a film is also very hard. So when you have all of them together, and [you’re] also co-producing, it’s a wonderful chaos of things going on. But if you prepare like mad—and I’m quite academic in the way that I prepare—then you can do okay, as long as you have comfortable shoes.”
How did she get so many well-known people—Marino, Corddry, Demetri Martin, Eva Longoria, Nick Offerman, Geena Davis—to take parts in the movie? “I am lucky enough to know [almost] everybody in my cast,” she said. “They were in my iPhone, so I called them and asked a myriad of favors. I tend to tend to work with people that I have either worked with, or that I’ve heard are great or that I’ve admired from afar.”
Two exceptions to the old-friend rule were Davis and Melamed. “I met her for this film,” Bell said. “[And] I hired him based on his incredible voice and masterful performance in ‘A Serious Man.’ I always remembered it. When I was writing this movie, I was always thinking of him.”
With such a diverse group of performers, Bell was asked whether she encouraged lots of improve on the set. “Improvisation is somewhat of a luxury on a set and production moves so quickly…. In this movie, since we shot it in twenty days for under a million dollars…we stuck to the script, and then at the end we’d always have fun, playful takes once we got the scene in the can. That’s where a lot of little things [occurred] that I got to add in the final edit. There’s a handful of things you sprinkle in, just for fun.”
“In A World…” got a warm reception at this year’s Sundance Festival, where Bell won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award—an unusual achievement for a comedy. “That was probably the most unexpected, wonderful thing that I’ve ever experienced in my life,” she admitted.
Of course, given the subject of the movie, Bell took special pains with its own trailer. “I wrestled really hard with the trailer,” she said. “I was like, should I do the voiceover on the trailer? The problem is, it became distracting versus telling you about the movie. And frankly I’m a trailer junkie, so I went for just a classic, good old-fashioned comedy trailer.”