The Director of The East
Last week I posted two roundtables I participated in with the cast of Zal Batmanglij's political thriller, The East, his second film written with rising star Brit Marling. Here's my follow-up, a roundtable with Batmanglij. Again the plot: Marling plays Sarah, the prize recruit for a security firm that protects major, often disreputable corporations. The first big assignment she's given by her dynamic boss, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), is to infiltrate an underground anarchist group called the East. This extremist freegan collective has been targeting companies that are callously putting people's lives at risk with their products or polluting the environment. While gathering Intel, she finds herself attracted to the charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), inspired by the dedicated Izzy (Ellen Page), and seduced by the communal living, and she wins them over by participating in the group's dangerous, subversive "jams." She comes to question the East's eye-for-an-eye tactics that endanger individuals--as well as her own values. Will she side with Sharon or Benji or take her own path? I note my questions.
Zal Batmanglij Photo: DP
Q: I read the essay by your mother about her successful sons in the New Yorker. You bought a camera when you were younger and made family movies. They called you Woody Allen, right?Zal Batmanglij: My mom thought I was really funny. I am really funny, just my movies are not funny at all. My mom wrote that profile about her two sons and it was sort of advice from a non-tiger mom. My parents always encouraged us when we felt creative, but never demanded any results. So my brother played music but he was never asked to perform for anybody. And I made films I never had to show anyone. I wanted to be a filmmaker so my parents helped me buy a video camera simply by encouraging me to save my allowance. I bought my first video camera and there were no expectations, but I would come home from school every day and make movies that I never finished. My brother was the star of my first movies but he would laugh all the time, so I had to find another leading man. But my friends didn’t really want to act in movies either so it wasn’t until that I went to
Q: How do you and Brit write?
ZB: We set aside time. We have a six-day writing week. We spend three or four days working on the housekeeping --how are you feeling, how am I feeling? If you can trust each other and clean up even the most random issues that percolate around any partnership, then you can spend 2 or 3 days doing the actual work of passing the information back and forth without being mired in all the ego-driven stuff that normally exists. We’re getting better and better at doing that. We email each other YouTube videos and stuff but never the writing itself. Because we had day jobs when we were first started writing, we would write early in the morning or late at night after we got back from our day jobs. That’s how we wrote Sound of My Voice.
Q: How did Fox become involved with The East?
ZB: We made Sound of My Voice in a vacuum and didn't expect anyone important to see it. We’d shown it to only about five people before we submitted it to Sundance, and after it was accepted, we didn’t show it to anyone else until it premiered. The next day I was at some party I’d been invited to because now I was a filmmaker, and this guy came up and started talking to me about moviemaking. He said he liked Sound of My Voice and asked if we'd written anything else, and I said The East. I just thought he was a nice guy giving me a compliment, but it was Michael Costigan, who ran Ridley and Tony Scott's production company for many years. Two days later he had a copy of the script for The East. I don’t know how he got it but he said, “I read The East and we’d like to make it into a movie.” I asked, "Who’s we?" He said, “Ridley and Tony Scott. I was like hahaha. And he said, “No, really.”
Q: Did that open doors for you guys that you didn’t have before?
ZB: No, but it gave us support and guidance. It gave us a road to walk on and people took it more seriously. Still we made it on a $6.5 million dollar budget, which is one-third the budget of Silver Linings Playbook. I don’t know what fraction of a Ridley Scott-directed movie budget that would be. But strangely, because I’m very inspired by Tony and Ridley’s work, it has a lot of elements from Enemy of the State and Spy Game, any of their films that I grew up loving.
Danny Peary: In the production notes, you’re quoted as saying “Michael Costigan, he got it in ways that we didn’t even get. He helped us articulate what we were trying to say.” Anything specific?
ZB: Yeah, all the time, people are telling me things about the movie that I didn’t put together. For example. the other day someone said, my favorite line in the movie is when Sarah says to Benji, “You don’t think I’m hard enough,” and he says, “No, I don’t you’re soft enough.” Later,
Q: Did writing about this lifestyle put you back into the whole mindset of when you and Brit did something similar over one summer?
ZB: Yeah, it did. We had this experience and couldn’t shake it, and had to make the movie in order to digest the experience. We had to find a way to make sense of it. We wanted to write a spy thriller anyway, so we decided to combine that with her experience and that’s how the movie was born.
DP: Did Sullivan’s Travels influence your dropping out, traveling around without money, and hoping to write about it when you returned?
ZB: We didn’t do it consciously necessarily, but I think so. The idea of the haves and the have-nots was really big in movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s and the ‘70s. There is a sisterhood between these times, and I think that we definitely felt that. You can see Sullivan’s Travels finding its way into The East. Brit looks a little bit like
Q: What was scarier, getting into the freeganism movement or coming back out of it?
ZB: I’m not sure. When we went into it, we stopped watching films, we stopped listening to recorded music, we didn’t know what was going on in the news or in the gossip world because we didn't read magazines or have any access to television or other people who knew any of those things. We entered into a sort of a capitalist-free zone. What replaced it was kissing each other in spin-the-bottle, taking food out of the trash, and learning how you could feed not only yourself but also a hundred other people at a time. One of the groups we were with would take abandoned bicycles and fix them up, so we learned how to do that and would ride them around the city. We learned all sorts of very different things. So when we came back we were shocked by the world that we had taken for granted before. It was overwhelming. There’s so much stimulus coming at you all the time. Seeing movies was now weird. If you go see a movie not only do you have to navigate the intensity of film, and its lack of authenticity, twenty minutes of ads before a movie. You’re a captive audience, they’ve got you.
Q: So you underwent a big change?
ZB: It’s funny how quickly human beings adapt. Part of that is always with me, I’m always very wary and very aware. I remember us going into a Whole Foods to use the bathroom, about a month and half into our summer, and everyone just kept looking at us. We were like, What are they looking at? We thought they all smelled funny because they had used so many chemicals in their hair and deodorants and stuff. When we got to the bathroom we looked into the mirror and we saw that we looked totally different than they did. It was evident from our hair that we hadn’t showered in a while. I had a beard. We had these underground eyes. When I’d seen underground eyes in people I’d always thought those eyes that were saying, “I hate you,” but I realized they’re the eyes of someone who is not afraid anymore and is feeling fearless.
Q: How did your experiences with this lifestyle affect you as a director?
ZB: Anarchist collectives are all about egalitarianism and having no leadership. The collective says that every vote is equal. And a film set is all about hierarchy. I always like to think about the circus. In the circus there’s this real sense of tribalism; people work together. I think the ring-leader is not more important than the clown, the acrobat, or the elephant trainer. They all work together. I felt that on The East, and I think the crew and the actors felt too that everyone was working together to create a common film. We would shoot nights and it was so cold that the actors were freaked out. They were shaking, their lips were blue. So the costumers put heating pads in Ellen and Brit’s dresses and their shoes. There was such thoughtfulness there, and I could see that job was not any less important than my job.
Q: Did the actors follow the script or did you make changes while you filmed?
ZB: I remember one Sunday where Brit and Alexander and I were together trying to figure out a week’s work, and we work-shopped scenes to try to make them feel more real. We were always doing that, and inspired by the idea of Woody Allen, I always told the actors to just make it sound good. We are not precious about the dialogue, so if you want to make anything feel more real, then by all means do it.
DP: I would guess that the scene you and Brit might have discussed most was the first jam at the party. In the second jam two people are nearly killed, but they were responsible for other people’s deaths. But in the party scene, the East puts a lot of innocent people ar risk as well by allowing them to drink champagne containing a drug that may have lethal side effects. Did you two worry that this might alienate a mainstream movie audience?
ZB: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know. We debated that scene in terms of the characters. The antibiotic is the most commonly prescribed antibiotic in the world, and it’s actually based on a real antibiotic. If it’s not dangerous to put that drug on the market then everybody should be able to take it. But if people have adverse side effects, then the pharmaceutical company has to wake up and realize what’s going on. Because of what happened to Doc’s sister from taking the drug, the group thinks that it’s acceptable to have collateral damage to make its point. But Sarah doesn’t think its right to allow innocent people to drink the champagne with the drug and collects some of their glasses before they drink anything. At that exact moment, Sarah realizes she’s on her own. The film asks: What do we personally think about it? I don’t think Brit and I ever talked about whether we were alienating the audience. Are you saying you felt alienated at that moment?
DP: I was thinking in terms of you as filmmakers risking us losing all our sympathy for the East, despite its idealism. If we happened to go to that part, the East would be willing to kill us too; we’d become guinea pigs.
ZB: It’s not as if they put arsenic in the water. All they give everybody is a drug already on the market. We weren’t trying to get people to identify with the East necessarily; we were always just trying to tell a story. And that story just gets murkier; the gray area gets murkier. It gets trickier and trickier.
Q: In films about extremist political groups or cults, often the people who are the most fanatical or committed are estranged from their families. Is that a tendency you see?
ZB: Yeah, the Earth First review of the movie recently came out. Earth First is a group that I think is kind of cool but it’s definitely an extremist group. There were a lot of things they liked about the movie but they had a problem with the idea of Daddy issues. The mainstream media always paints these groups as having Daddy issues. I think we all do our jobs, or life’s work, because of the experiences we’ve had growing up with our parents and friends. So yeah, of course, I think if you were abused as a kid you’re much more sensitive to abuse in the world. I think the same thing is true of the people who are the abusers. CEOs have often been compared to sociopaths in their brain makeup. I think they've also experienced certain things in their lives that allow them to close down certain parts of their empathy. How do CEOs of the pharmaceutical companies think?
Q: What do you hope the viewers will take from the film? Do you think it’s going to inspire people to maybe try this lifestyle?
ZB: I don’t know if films have the power to change so much as they have the power to reflect the world back to us in a way that makes more sense than our own interpretations of the world. We were just making a movie, we didn’t poison anybody, but those people are actually allowing people to be poisoned. And that’s the collateral damage for a drug that saves millions of lives. I think doctors would not want us to start a movement where everyone’s googling the side effects of their drugs, but I think we should. I think we’re all responsible enough to be able to make that choice of what goes into our body. I think we need to take more accountability for ourselves, for our actions, I hope this movie inspires us to start that dialogue. I think Brit and I have a lot of questions, but we don’t have any answers. We’re not able to preach in the film, because we have nothing to preach. We just have a lot of questions that we’re asking.
DP: Accountability is the big issue you raise. Basically, you point out in your movie that pharmaceutical companies may know something is wrong and not tell anybody.
ZB: Yeah, because the only tests for drugs are tests that are paid for by the pharmaceutical companies. That’s as if the movie studios wrote their own reviews. They would insist that they’re not biased, and they probably wouldn’t be fully biased, but… can you really trust those reviews? If the studio is funding all the reviews, that would be weird. Maybe that’s what will happen in the future.
Q: It kind of happens now.
ZB: But the drug companies totally have that. They take the doctors on junkets. In effect, they fund the lives of reviewers.
Q: Did the Occupy Wall Street movement influence the film?
ZB: Well, it influenced my desire to make it faster and faster. Occupy happened three weeks into pre-production, so we were in
but they’d never seen what it looked like really, it was a total abstraction for them, so they were the most excited. We felt, we’ve got to shoot this movie, we’ve got to edit it fast, we've got to get it out there!
DP: Do you consider The East a political film?
ZB: I consider every film a political film. I mean I literally. I’m very attuned to feeling the politics of a movie, so I’m always thinking, what is this movie trying to say and what’s it about? Do I think it’s more political films than most things, I don’t know. What’s a recent film I saw recently? I was trying to watch The Guilt Trip on the plane and I thought to myself that there is something so wrong in the politics of this movie. They keep talking about corporations. Every 5 minutes, she’s like, “I’m going to the Gap!” They’re talking about the Gap a lot and they’re talking about J. Crew a lot. In our script, we wrote in all these specific brands as a joke. For instance I wanted to show a Coke bottle but we couldn’t get Coke’s permission.
DP: What about The Company You Keep, in which Brit plays the daughter of a former political activist?
ZB: The Company You Keep is for me a story of generations. I guess I’m so leftist that I didn’t feel it was that political.
DP: But it’s the only
ZB: I remember we were watching a great documentary on the Weather Underground and Brit and I were very moved and inspired by it. And then Robert Redford sent Brit the script for The Company You Keep a couple of weeks later. Then Brit shot that movie until the day we started shooting our movie. So Brit literally left
DP: Since you and Brit have been making movies, do you see each new film you do as something entirely new? You did a film about a cult before, this is a film where the guy is almost a cult leader, so I can’t tell if there is progression.
ZB: Well, they were written sort of back-to-back and come from the same period in our lives, born during our period of looking for our tribe. So in both films you get that sense of tribalism. Whatever movie comes next will be born out of the fountain of what we’re experiencing now. Hopefully Brit and I will get to make many more movies together.