Lake Bell’s movie “In a World . . .” started as a secret.
The actress — known for roles in “What Happens in Vegas,” “Children’s Hospital,” and the romantic comedy “No Strings Attached” — had been a writer her whole life, but that wasn’t what she did, as far as Hollywood was concerned. She was meant to be cast as the quirky friend, or as Alec Baldwin’s pretty, new wife in “It’s Complicated.” She certainly wasn’t on track to be the next Woody Allen.
But in private, she was writing “In A World . . . ,” a heartfelt comedy that follows Carol, a somewhat stunted 30-something voice-over artist who desperately wants to become a star in the male-dominated movie trailer business. Her biggest competition is her father, played by Fred Melamed, who’s the go-to guy for big-budget trailer voice-over gigs now that the real-life voice-over master, Don LaFontaine, has died. It’s a funny film that doubles as a family drama, as well as an intimate look at a strange industry within the entertainment business that often gets ignored or taken for granted.
“I started sort of writing screenplays probably like eight years ago,” Bell explained while in town to show “World” as part of the Independent Film Festival Boston (the film opens Friday at Kendall Square Cinema). “I wrote with a writing partner for one script and that didn’t work out, and then I was sort of exhilarated to sort of take on the task by myself. And I’m actually thankful it didn’t work out, in a way, because it put me in a position to kind of have the gusto and courage to take on a story by myself. I didn’t tell my agent [I was writing] ‘In a World . . . ’ until I had a draft that I was real proud of. I delivered that to UTA out of nowhere and just said, ‘Hey, I have this script.’ I never wanted to be an actress who was writing a screenplay — until I had an actual screenplay.”
Her surprised reps at United Talent Agency loved the script and said it could be her next acting project (from the start, she was writing the part of Carol for herself). A hunt for a director began, but no one stood out.
Bell remembers UTA agent Bill Lazarus telling her, “Why don’t you [expletive] direct this thing.”
“I was like, ‘I would never have the audacity to direct a feature-length project without ever having directed anything,’” Bell said. “He was like, ‘Why don’t you write and direct a short film and see how that goes?’”
That idea turned into Bell’s 2010 short film, “Worst Enemy.” And then she moved on to “World” casting many of her friends and costars from other projects. Wellesley-bred actress Michaela Watkins, who had starred in Bell’s short film, took on the role of Carol’s sister. Weymouth native Rob Corddry, who worked with Bell on “Children’s Hospital,” signed on as Carol’s brother-in-law. Some of Bell’s other recognizable friends — including Eva Longoria — signed on to play themselves. (Longoria pokes some fun at herself when she shows up to get vocal coaching in Carol’s studio.)
One of the most important roles, Carol’s father, went to veteran actor Melamed, whose work Bell admired.
“I didn’t know her at all,” Melamed admitted. “[But] I thought it was such a strong script and that, in particular, my character was such a great character.”
Melamed, who spends many of his scenes competing and emotionally sparring with his onscreen daughter, said that his respect for Bell only grew when he saw how she worked. Melamed invoked Woody Allen’s name when talking about her. He said that Allen, who directed him in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Radio Days,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” and “Husbands and Wives,” is one of those people who’s meant to be behind a camera, and that Bell is in the same category.
“Directing is a funny skill. Being an actor is much more fun,” he said. “[Directing] is one obstacle after another. When you get on the set, the film kind of gets away from you. Lake was completely up to that and then some.”
While Melamed was confident about Bell’s skills, he was surprised that the movie became so widely embraced as it started appearing on the festival circuit. He assumed “World” would be a niche film because it focused on the voice-over industry. “We weren’t aware that so many people are actually fascinated by it — that this little stepchild industry is of a lot of interest to people.”
Bell was even more shocked. The surprises started when she won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
“I went to that awards show totally relaxed, drinking beers, not being nervous,” she said. “I was thrilled to be there because it was my first time with a feature at Sundance in that capacity.”
Bell went on to win the New Voices in Screenwriting Award at the Nantucket Film Festival, which meant she was honored next to “Silver Linings Playbook” director and screenwriter David O. Russell, who won the 2013 Screenwriters Tribute Award.
Nantucket director Mystelle Brabbee said the festival has had a long relationship with Bell — she participated in a staged reading in 2006 — but Brabbee said Bell’s feature exceeded expectations and earned her the big honor.
“Not only did we eat her up, our audience ate her up,” Brabbee said. “She’s incredibly humble but she’s meticulous as well. You can tell she has all the makings of a nuanced director.”
Bell said one of the most exciting aspects of the film’s reception is that festivals and audiences have embraced her movie despite the fact that it’s just a comedy about real life. There are no life-or-death issues, just everyday chaos. It’s not even a big slapstick comedy like the kind that often takes over at the box office.
“I don’t like the trend in comedy to be mean spirited or to laugh heartily at someone else’s expense. It personally doesn’t turn me on,” Bell said, adding, with a smile. “I’m really jazzed to make films that make people feel good.”Meredith Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.