Lake Bell was speechless earlier this year when she received the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival—which is kind of ironic considering the movie for which she won is ostensibly about voices.
In a World is the comedic actress’s tribute to the voice-over industry—so named for the first three words that once opened up pretty much every other movie trailer. It’s a passion project that’s also a coming-out party for Bell as a full-fledged filmmaker. Opening August 9, this debut feature is centered around a rare cinematic father-daughter rivalry between golden-throated individuals. But while it does take place in a very specific world, what the movie is actually about is family hierarchies and industry dynamics, and it could probably take place in almost any other field. It just so happens to take place in a world where the director has a past—and a score to settle.
"I’m personally obsessed with voice-over," Bell says. "I have a long history of trying to pry my way into the voice-over industry. I thought I was going to be one of the great voice-over actors as soon as I set foot in Los Angeles, but I soon realized it was very much a clique. It is tightly knit, it is well formed and curated, and it is not easy to delve into—like any industry, really."
Before she became the actress you know from Boston Legal, How To Make It In America, and multiple Ashton Kutcher rom-coms, Bell went to film school in England, where radio plays are still studied. The idea of characterization through voice-over is still respected overseas, so the actress fit right in. She’d been collecting accents her whole life; the same way her character from In a World does with a tape recorder, and the same way other people collect stamps.
"It’s a fantastical dream of making you feel like you’ve traveled the world in a way," she says. "When I was younger I was inspired to travel, mainly just to hear how people sounded in other countries. Then later, if I was in a restaurant and the waiter had an astonishing accent, I was immediately enthralled. I would ask how to say, 'How do you like pizza with mushrooms?' I collected these little tidbits because it felt like I could become someone else when voicing an accent."
When Bell found herself chafing against the gender-bias her character in the movie also faces, she happily found plenty of work as a comedic actress. She also set her sights on doing work on the other side of the camera.
"I started writing this just because I wanted to," Bell says. "I had things I wanted to therapeutically get out—whether it’s familial relationships or frustrations in work and in life—but one thing I ask myself when I’m writing is ‘What do I want to see next?’ and this was it."
After she’d completed a draft, Bell’s agent suggested that she direct the movie herself, rather than shop the script around to directors. It was an idea that echoed the actress’s own aspirations, but it seemed impractical. Her agent convinced her, however, to try directing a smaller project first and work up to a feature. That very same night, she began working on what became Worst Enemy, the short film she eventually took to Sundance.
"I was not terrified," Bell says about her first shot at directing. "I was exhilarated by the challenge. It felt like home. Every little part of the process is so profoundly different and satisfies so many different muscles of your creativity. I just felt like, ‘This is my favorite game. I was born for this multitasking shit.’"
She’d had a lot of training leading up to that first effort. Bell has been consulting with directors throughout her entire career. She’s the kind of curious actor who would rather hang out on set, sponging as much information as possible from crew members than stay in her trailer playing Candy Crush. After the success of Worst Enemy, Bell felt ready for the challenge of writing, directing, and starring in In a World.
"I know full well that making a movie is like getting married; it’s a huge commitment and it will be with you the rest of your life in a bunch of ways," she says. "So when I went into In a World, I tirelessly combed over every detail."
One detail that was made easier by having a hit short film under her belt was casting. As that process began, Bell was able to use Worst Enemy as a calling card to help entice some of the talented friends she’s worked with over the years to join the production, including Children’s Hospital’s Ken Marino, Rob Corddry, and Nick Offerman. One actor in particular ended up being a surprise casting coup, though.
For the role of Sam Solomon, voiceover king and father of Bell’s character, the budding director needed to cast someone with a rich, lustrous voice. Fred Melimed won Bell over in his audition, but only after she’d cast him did he reveal that he’d been a voice-over artist for over 20 years, working in the same circles as the legendary Don LaFontaine—the voice who more or less trademarked the phrase, "In a World."
Melimed’s authenticity blended in perfectly with the other voices in the film. Bell made it a point not to use any fake accents in the movie whatsoever. The characters that speak Russian are from Russia. If they have a Midwestern accent, they’re from the Midwest. The director wanted a purity to the voices in her film, even though the malleability of voiceover work is partly what attracted her to it.
"I’ve always been romanced by being the blind voice—where you’re judged not by what you look like, but what you sound like," she says. "You can become any character, whether it’s a different gender, nationality, or social stature." Indeed, the movie’s old Jewish agent character, who is heard but never seen, is voiced by Bell herself.
Credibly voicing a man in a film that’s set in the voice-over industry is a symbolic victory for a woman who found it difficult to win roles from established males in that field. The fact that it happens in an award-winning film she wrote and directed makes it all sound even sweeter.