I recently took part in a conference call interview with actress/co-writer Brit Marling and co-writer/director Zal Batmanglij about their new eco-terrorism thriller The East. Read the transcript below to find out about their real experience living on the road, what real corporate crimes inspired the film and how their time practicing freeganism influenced some of the movie’s themes.
Lost In Reviews: How did you guys prepare and do research for the sort of lifestyle that the characters have? I heard there was some sort of living like homeless people and on the streets and such.
Brit Marling: Well, actually, Zal and I, this isn’t really preparation for performance. A couple of years ago, the summer of 2009, Zal and I were just young people trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives, and we spent the summer traveling; we learned to train hop and we went back and forth across the states. We lived on organic farms and we fell in with anarchist groups and active collectives, and we were really moved by that summer and by what we learned from a lot of people on the road.
So a couple years later after we had written and made other projects, we sort of started writing this story; and we wanted to do an espionage thriller, and we thought it would be more exciting to set it in what we felt was a very prescient landscape, so that’s sort of where The East came from.
Other Journalist: As was mentioned previously, during 2009 you spent the two months practicing freeganism. What aspects of that experience do you feel were the most influential, both when you were writing the script and when you were moving into production?
Zal Batmanglij: Brit (who plays Sarah) and I did this together, and we wrote the script together, but we didn’t do it for research. We did it for our own lives. I think the most salient thing that I experienced was the change in perception, a deep change in perception when you start dumpster diving. And of course, we just didn’t do this blindly. We had read about it a lot, but then we met up with people who were experts at it and you need to learn the tricks of the trade.
When you all of a sudden break the lock of a dumpster behind the grocery store and realize how much good food is in those dumpsters and has to be thrown out legally, packages of bread and apples, and carrots, and peanut butter, when you see the way you’ve always thought of as waste and was headed for the landfill is actually bounty, that changes your perception, especially once you start having three meals a day from that.
So that change was something that inspired us to make our first film, which was Sound of My Voice, and it inspired us to make The East, which was instead of looking around a situation and feeling sorry for yourself or feeling inadequate, you have to look around the situation and say hey, look, I’ve got all this great, free natural resource. And in our case it was a lot of other young people, who were hungry to do something exciting, both on Sound of My Voice and The East.
LIR: So you said you had some experience with some anarchist collectives when you were on the road and such. Did you model The East after them, or it seems like a bit of Anonymous in there, too?
Marling: I think that there were some moments that we experienced on the road that entered the film, like the spin the bottle scene, but the characters in the group itself are totally fiction. What is real though are all the corporate crimes that happened. Those are things that are literally just ripped out of the headlines of newspapers.
There was a New York Times story about a town that was dealing with arsenic poisoning in their water and kids were getting brain tumors from it. There was a PBS special about a class of drugs that were causing really severe adverse side effects and people were taking them for mild things like a sinus infection or taking it as a preventative measure and then a woman would find herself in a wheelchair for the next several years.
So these were all things that were happening around us and I guess the idea came of this eye for an eye justice or a group of people who want to hold corporations accountable for this kind of behavior; and The East was really kind of a daydream or a meditation on that. But we never encountered anybody on the road that was like anyone in the group or the group itself.
Other Journalist: What was the major thing that led to the decision to make the target of the anarchist organization a pharmaceutical company as opposed to banks or the government?
Batmanglij: Our hearts were a little bit broken or a lot broken by reading about the side effects of some of these drugs. I mean if someone takes an antibiotic and ends up in a wheelchair, or a triathlete whose body and mind are devastated, we just thought that that was an important thing that should be—we were interested in exploring that in fiction.
Other Journalist: And with that kind of framing and that setup, what’s the biggest thing that you hope audiences will take from the film?
Batmanglij: Well, we don’t have any answers, so we’re not preaching anything. We have nothing to preach. We just wanted people to ask questions, to be inspired to think about things differently and ask questions on whatever side they are on of a lot of these issues. I think whether you’re on the extreme left or the extreme right, everybody is very frustrated right now.
LIR: Seeing Sound of My Voice and this film, you sort of structurally set them up the same way as outsider perpetrates into secret organization and then falls in with them. Do you guys have a certain fascination with organizations such as that that inspired you to write these?
Marling: I think maybe they were written around the same time. And I think when you’re young and you’re in your 20s and you’re trying to make sense of your life and who you are, you’re trying on a lot of different identities and trying on different groups of people to see what sticks, and so I think infiltration and espionage is a metaphor for that.
As a young person, you grew up in a family, you leave the nuclear family behind maybe or an extended family behind, you go off in pursuit of something you want to do, and then you have to fashion a new tribe for yourself. So I think we were really interested in the idea of the tribe that you create, I guess, in your 20s and what that means about what kind of person you become, so you’re right to point out the connection. I think they’re both meditations on taking an identity on and infiltrating some group within hopes of maybe finding your new family.
LIR: Could you further relate that to your own experience with how you previously were studying economics and you got offered that Goldman Sachs job, but then you decided to move into filmmaking instead?
Marling: Sure. I think there’s a weird thing sometimes in this country or maybe in the West in general, this idea that what you do for a living is somehow separate from who you are. That you do a job, but your real life is on the weekend or on your two week vacation. I was maybe operating under that principle. And then I found out that actually no, the thing that you do everyday all day long eventually that is who you are.
Those things can’t be separate, and so I was really moved by the idea of acting. I thought it was cool to do something where you spend all day developing your empathy and your ability to listen and be present and honest with people. I thought maybe that would be a better version of myself, so I became really interested in acting. Of course, it’s actually really hard to infiltrate that system. Hollywood is next to impenetrable, filmmaking of any kind.
But I think one of the things we learned on the road that summer was that the resources of the most value that you have when you’re a young person are other young people who want to make stuff and who want to do it for free and you don’t care. They’re just looking to be a part of something that feels meaningful and so we did that in Sound of My Voice. We did that on this one, too. Everybody who came onto this film was there because they loved the story and we all really had an intent collective and bond with each other and that was awesome.
LIR: Since Another Earth and Sound of My Voice had broken through, was there a big change in the production of this film as compared to those?
Batmanglij: No, in both Sound of My Voice and Another Earth, we had really great actors and so I as the director didn’t notice much of a difference, because I love the actors I was working with; so whether I had 15 people behind me working for free, which is Sound of My Voice, or any people getting paid working behind me, which is The East, what matters was who was in front of me. And to work with Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page and Patty Clarkston and Julia Ormond and Toby Kebbell and Shiloh Fernandez, and of course, Brit, it was just a pleasure to go to work every day, and I was so focused on those performances on every take that you don’t really notice the larger apparatus.
By Alex Lamb