In “The East,” filmmakers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij have transformed their summer adventure into a riveting espionage thriller, with the kind of gritty detail and authenticity that only first-hand experience can supply, yet infused with the same lyrical vision that informed their first film, “Sound of My Voice.” The film puts it fingers on a growing wave of cultural discontent and personal frustration with rampant consumerism that reflects all the contradictions of living in modern civilization and asks what the alternatives are. Opening May 31st, “The East” stars Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Julia Ormond and Patricia Clarkson.
At a recent roundtable interview, Marling and Batmanglij talked about how their experiences going off the grid inspired them to write the story, why they wanted to raise relevant questions to engage as well as entertain audiences, the challenges they faced shooting a large scope production on location within a limited timeframe and budget, and the most shocking discovery they made while researching the film involving the pharmaceutical industry and deadly drug side effects. They also revealed their plans to write two new projects.
Question: In an interview, you once said you might be a hardcore environmental activist in an alternate reality. How much of this story was wish fulfillment?
Brit Marling: I don’t know. We were talking earlier about how awesome it was in the ‘70s when thrillers were really about something. Like “All the President’s Men” was awesome and engaging and had incredible performances. It played like a real thriller but was also talking about the time that was happening for people. We wanted to do the same. I don’t think we had any prescriptions or answers for what to do, but we thought it would be nice to make a film that asked some of the questions that we ask each other when we’re on long walks or out for dinner and hanging out. We wanted to start that conversation. A lot of it was about corporate accountability and how do I live my life in a way that isn’t so oppressive to other people I’ve never met around the world. These are tricky questions, and we thought we’d embed them in an entertaining espionage thriller.
Q: Can you talk about being an actress who also writes and may want to direct at some point?
Marling: Zal and I wrote this together and I’ve never directed anything, and I don’t think I’d be very good at that [laughs]. But I love acting. Honestly, I think that there aren’t very many parts that are really that strong for young women. Usually as a young woman, you’re the ingénue or you’re the girlfriend character or the wife. You’re never really driving the action of the film. And if you are, there are so few stories a year like that. It’s very competitive to find yourself in those roles. So writing is a way to ensure also that you keep getting to do things that are different than what you’ve done before. Everybody always says, “Oh, you’re good at this. Here’s a lot of scripts that are like this. Here are a lot of scripts that are like Rhoda from ‘Another Earth,’ wandering around lost in grief.” But, as an actor, you have gone on that journey. You’re always looking to live the next lifetime that’s very different from the first.
Zal Batmanglij: You bring up a very good point and maybe I’m a better person to answer it. I think that for anybody doing this work, it’s like pushing a boulder up a mountain, right? It’s so much work. But for Brit, I tell her sometimes that I feel like she’s not only pushing up the boulder but also the house and car with her. It might be a little slower going, but when you get over the hill, when we see Brit really hit her peak and her climax, it’s going to be something else, because what she’s doing is building a very thoughtful foundation by learning. The shock to me has been how much actors are left out of the process of filmmaking and how much they’re in the dark about how a film is actually constructed, both in getting to the point of shooting it and also afterwards and this part of it. They’re very focused on their part of it, and I understand that. That allows them to focus on their work. But when you know about all these other parts like Brit does, it’s so helpful. The fruits of that labor will be very exciting for me to see. I can’t wait to see them. I hope that we all get to see them. That’ll be nice.
Q: How hard is it in the writing process and the creation of the film to leave some ideas unfinished so the audience can chew on them but still leave and feel satisfied?
Batmanglij: I don’t think we think about it consciously. It’s like the characters just start existing for us, and we walk with them for a bit. They come on the walks with us or they come out to dinner with us. Then when we start seeing them in the framework of the story, they never do what we think they’re going to do. I never thought that Izzy (Ellen Page) would go back for her dad. When that started happening, we were shocked. I remember thinking, “Of course.” When he apologizes, something breaks in her. This very tough character that we’d imagined all of a sudden showed us a whole new side of her which was always there but we hadn’t seen it before. That’s interesting to us. With these characters, we don’t feel like their puppet masters. They do have a life before we met them and they have a life after we met them. And so, they exist now between you and me or between all of us, if that makes sense.
Q: Do you ever think about where you want the character to end up and backtrack in order to work to that point?
Marling: For some characters it turns out differently. We always felt that Izzy takes things so far that in the end there’s some consequence to how far she takes it even if she feels remorse. We also always wondered if Sarah (Brit Marling) and Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), despite this incredible and very genuine love that they have for each other, could find a way to actually live and be together? Can their love for each other transcend their differences in morality? That’s a hard question, and we wrestled with that a lot. The ending of that story was not obvious. Some of them we’re still wrestling with I think maybe [laughs].
Q: Can you talk about doing a large scope production within a limited timeframe and budget?
Batmanglij: That’s the funny thing about filmmaking is at the end of the day that shouldn’t count for anything. But it was very difficult to pull off a thriller at our budget level which was about $6.5 million. I don’t know that many other thrillers at that budget level. If you think about it, we were one third the budget of “Silver Linings Playbook.” I watched “Silver Linings Playbook,” and I’d be like, “Oh, they had so much time to do the construction.” But I also love the way we make movies because it forces a sort of seriousness on set. There’s an economy. The actors are so focused and we get into a groove. There’s something real that mixes into it. It’s less constructed. I appreciated that. Shreveport actually turned out to be a great place because it felt like summer camp. There were no nightclubs to go to at night. There was nothing to do. We worked and entertained ourselves, much like an anarchist collective would.
Q: Brit, how much of this character is you?
Marling: It was actually hard because not very much — in the sense that she’s very conservative, she’s tunnel vision about her career and where she wants to go. And those things are not things that I feel. Something that is interesting about her journey that I see in a lot of women is the idea that she feels, because she’s in a masculine world and is trying to succeed in a masculine company where most of her peers who are getting the assignments are young men and not young women, that she’s become tough in this way that is imitating their qualities and characteristics. During the journey with Benji, she says, “So you think I’m not tough enough for the truth?” And he says, “No, I think you’re not soft enough.” And that enters her like a dart in the heart. It’s like, “Oh, whoa. Maybe there’s some part of my femininity that I’ve let go of to just cope with the modern world. And maybe that quality is actually what the modern world needs — more emotion, more softness, more sensitivity, more vulnerability. Maybe these are things that are missing from our time.”
Q: How does the writer side of your head get along with the actor side? Do you ever write something and then wonder how you’ll pull it off?
Marling: We were talking about this the other day. I hate cold water. Why do we keep writing stuff where I get in the cold water naked?
Batmanglij: She hates the water. She’s not even a very good swimmer. We’ve had it in three movies that we’ve done.
Marling: I hate it. I have no desire to overcome that fear or to deal with cold water. But somehow, always on the day, I’m just like, “How did I get here, having to get naked in the water with these people and bathe each other in this freezing cold pond?” But sometimes these things are great too because something happens. You unlock maybe some fears for yourself which is a good thing to do. It’s good to become a little less afraid.
Batmanglij: But it’s really hard for us to imagine the shooting and acting part of it when we’re imagining the story. It’s just impossible for us to imagine that. It’s a story first and foremost. Then we have to figure out a way to make it into a movie.
Q: When you were writing the script and researching the environment, what discoveries surprised you the most?
Batmanglij: The pharmaceutical one is the most shocking one of all, which is that there are drugs on the market that can cause side effects. This drug that the one in the movie, Denoxin, is based on has caused some people to end up in wheelchairs, just from a few pills of a drug. It seems so wrong. I think that everybody should Google the drugs they get prescribed and realize: does this thing have a permanent, life-altering side effect? And if it does, am I in a life-and-death situation? They had a drug that was designed to prevent smoking and to help quit smoking. That drug caused some people to commit suicide. They killed themselves. I just don’t understand how a drug to help you quit smoking [could lead to suicide]. They had to pull that off the market. There are plenty of drugs that exist on the market that don’t quite cause you to commit suicide, but who knows what they’re doing? They can really change your brain chemistry. It’s like, what are they doing? To us, it was shocking that there is no monitoring. There’s a very poorly done FDA side effects monitoring system and only 10 percent of side effects are actually reported to that system to begin with. It’s so ineffective. The only people funding the tests on the drugs are the drug companies themselves. That’s like if the studio was writing the review of all of its movies.
Q: Did you talk to any collectives, anarchists or anybody in this underground?
Batmanglij: We lived with them for three months, not as research for this movie, but we did that in our own lives in 2009. That is why we ended up making this. We couldn’t shake that experience.
Q: You spent a summer living off the grid. What was that experience like and did any of that make it into the film?
Batmanglij: The feeling made it into the film more than anything. Spin the bottle was also something that was amazing when we experienced it because we were living with a group that didn’t consume films or recorded music or any of the pop culture that we’re used to. One week, one month of that is one thing, but after two months of that, when all of a sudden you then play spin the bottle with people and it’s all that intimacy. And we’re sitting in a circle now, it’s like if we all kissed each other, it seems so strange but it’s free and it’s nice and it wasn’t even that sexual. It was more like emotional and intimate and soft. That was, to me, a mind-blowing experience.
Q: Who came up with the idea of feeding each other at the dinner table?
Marling: That was based on a parable. Zal actually told me that parable many years ago, the idea that heaven and hell are the same scenario. You’re at a banquet and there’s all this food at the center and you’re starving. You’re with all these other people and you’re chained to each other and you can’t reach the food. The idea is that heaven and hell are the same set-up, but in heaven the people find a way to feed each other. In hell, they’re just so hell-bent on feeding themselves that they can’t actually get to the food and they’re starving. He told me that story many years ago and it always stuck with me, because it seemed to suggest that your experience in this life or the afterlife is really about what you make of it and how you cooperate and communicate with other people rather than this individualistic approach. At first, we wrote that in the script as a story. Then we were like, “Wait a second. Why aren’t we making this visual? Why aren’t we showing it instead of telling it?” That’s when we came up with the idea of putting people in straight jackets and having them eat carrot soup.
Q: As much as I like seeing you in movies like “Arbitrage” and “The Company You Keep,” I need my fix seeing movies that you’ve been involved with on the writing side. Did you do any writing on your upcoming film, “I Origins?”
Marling: I didn’t write that but Mike (Cahill) wrote it and it’s beautiful. We had a lot of fun making it. It is also sort of a sci-fi thriller. I hope that will count for your fix. If not, I’m going to have to get very busy writing something else [laughs].
Q: You haven’t abandoned writing though, have you?
Marling: No, no. I’ve come to like that as much as I like acting. I think in the beginning I thought I’m just going to write until I can get into a place where people will offer me really great parts. But the truth is that there aren’t a lot of really great parts and it’s really competitive. And also, there just aren’t a lot of stories that matter. I’m so tired of going to the movies, and even if I’m entertained and it’s colorful and the performances are great, that I leave and I’m left with so little that I don’t feel the need to talk about the movie to anybody or even think about it again. That’s frustrating. I don’t like that experience. I want to be part of the storytelling culture that gives something for people to talk about.
Q: How do you feel about fame and the attention that you’re getting right now?
Marling: I don’t really feel it. So either I’m not getting attention or it doesn’t really matter. Every time you take on a project as an actor, you’re still so humbled and frustrated by your desire to be more honest and more truth telling. The process never gets any easier. So that stuff doesn’t seem to enter into it or affect it much. At the end of the day, you spend all this time making a movie like this and you sit with a group of people and they tell you whether or not it worked. That’s such a humbling process and you want to make something good every time that I think the rest of it doesn’t really [matter].
Q: What made you choose the song by The National for this movie?
Batmanglij: We finished shooting in DC and that’s where my parents are from. And so, Brit left and I was there by myself with my parents. It was just like coming home from college or something because we’d done this incredibly hard shoot with no budget. You felt like you’d been in the army, like someone had wind-blasted you. I was all wind-burned. I just came and sat with my parents who were looking at me like I was an alien a bit. At night, I would spend all the time in my room listening to songs that I thought would be good. I don’t know if for in the movie, or just to make a trailer with it or a sizzle thing. I listened to so many songs, and when “About Today” came, I thought that he had the voice that I always imagined for Benji. He sounded like Benji. There was something that Alexander managed to capture in Benji which is there’s something soft and hard about him. That guy’s voice in The National is just so beautiful. And then I sent it to the editor and we put it against Brit breaking down on that bridge. I just love that moment. I remember there was a lot of talk about changing that song or not using it. God, how close we came to not using it.
Q: Were you going to use something else instead?
Batmanglij: People had a real problem with a rock song coming in so late in the movie and then never again. And I thought, “Who cares? Who cares what the rules are?” It just felt right. That’s what’s so funny about making a story is that there’s so much that you want to put in, there’s so much agenda you have, but it rejects it all the time. It’s telling itself. “About Today” just fit in perfectly in there and it would reject every other song. Do you remember that?
Marling: I do.
Q: What are you each working on next?
Batmanglij: Brit and I went to Mexico in December and started writing two new projects. And who knows? It’s a long road with these stories. We try to find energy sources that will go through all the years. I mean, we started writing this movie, “The East,” four years ago. Even today, we’re still dealing with it. But if tomorrow they sent us on a plane and said, “You have to go make another anarchist film,” I’d do it in a heartbeat. It has that much of an energy. That idea for me is so potent. And hopefully, I will have found that again with something new. What do you think?
Marling: I think that’s totally true. We’re going to find it.