A Conversation With Director Zal Batmanglij on His New Film ‘The East’

Ever since the end credits rolled on Zal Batmanglij’s debut feature Sound of My Voice, I have been anticipating just what his next cinematic endeavor would offer. Upon seeing his first, I was immediately drawn to he and co-writer/actress Brit Marling’s brilliant simpatico and their shared affinity for storytelling that’s both beautifully poetic yet intelligently thought-provoking. And as two of the most interesting and wholly inspiring voices in independent cinema, the two have once again struck audiences with their new film, eco-thriller The East, which opened to rave reviews last week. 

Their seductive and haunting Sound of My Voice, captivated us with a style that amalgamated science fiction, psychological drama, high-concept thrill, and ethnographic study. "So much of what Brit and I have to do as writers is to go live,” says Batmanglij, understanding the importance of “living something authentic” in order to come back and tell an original story. And although the two have their own unique sensibilities as writers—Batmanglij with a zeal or creating stories that stem from the anxieties of the modern age as shown through a lens that exposes the mysticism lurking just beneath the surface, and Marling holding an ineffable quality existing somewhere between serene grace and fierce intelligence that allows us to be mesmerized by just about anything she does.
 
Now more than ever, in a time where our personal sense of security is constantly in question and our beliefs are always on the line, we need films that not only speak to where we’re headed as a society but how it feels to exist in the world today. As we’re forced to assimilate to ever-changing and frightening state of things, the culture that we’re consuming should not only be a means of escapism to dull our anxiety but a reflection and a call to action, an inspiration for ideas that will fuel us. 
 
And with The East, Batmanglij has created a film that’s as intriguing as it is topical, as emotionally stirring as it cinematically thrilling. The film follows Sarah (played by Marling), a young ex-FBI agent now working for an elite private intelligence firm who is hired to infiltrate an anarchist collective that is rumored to be attacking big corporate CEOs and forcing them to come in contact with the harm they’ve inflicted on the masses. But in her time spent with the collective known as The East, her beliefs begin to waver as she starts to sympathize with the group’s leaders (Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page) and opens her eyes to the wrong doings that so easily go unnoticed.
 
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Batmanglij, who has become one of not only my favorite new filmmakers but one of the most interesting interview subjects, to discuss the insightful reactions to The East, he and Marling’s creative process, and what a film like this means in today’s culture.
 
What’s been interesting to see with the film is how people have been reacting across the board. It’s not only young, more politically active people that have been responding well. 
Definitely. And older women love the movie—I think they connected to that idea of careerism versus being more human or softer and that balance. But young people really love it, like 13 to 19 year olds really connect with it, which I didn’t expect.
 
Well it’s a film about young people rebelling and doing something important in a way that’s actually intellectual or for a greater purpose than simply having fun.
There’s this idea now that rebellion is like play, but rebellion has always been rebellion, not play. Going on spring break isn’t rebellion, having a part at your parents house when they’re out of town is about the thrill of being antiauthoritarian, it isn’t just about the thrill of getting drunk for the first time. It’s funny how consumerism has sort of co-opted that of sex and drunkeness and debauchery as the things that everyone should want and stride for. That’s such a capitalist trick.
 
It might be more rebellious now to just stay in at the library.
Or be antiauthoritarian or against the status quo. One of Michael Haneke’s movies that I love is The Seventh Continent. Supposedly when it premiered at Cannes, the audience freaked out when they flushed the money down the toilet at the end. That idea was so anathema to people. That fascinates me, the idea of flushing money down a toilet bothers people more than murder bothers people.
 
Well, it’s also a more tangible concept, it’s harder to conceive of actually murdering someone.
I think people imagine murdering people more than they would imagine flushing their money down the toilet. It so breaks the illusion of everybody wanting to win the lottery. But back to your question, across the board, the movie played strong at Sundance and the Q&A had 95% retention and I thought: is this because of the actors? And then we showed the movie in Ann Arbor where it was just me and Brit. People started talking about the movie and afterwards came up to me and were like, "You know, the guy who poisoned the water in our town, he was in the audience and we kept looking over at him." And then this older woman was like, "So I came with my sister who always drags me to these movies, I don’t really like these kind of movies, I like comedies, and I don’t even watch movies in theaters." So I said, thank you and then she’s like, "But I saw your movie and I can’t get it out of my head, it’s one of my favorite movies I’ve seen in the last couple years because it’s asking questions, I just feel guilty about what I’ve been doing." And I was like, well, don’t feel too guilty—but that reaction was just so heartwarming. Then we went to SXSW  and had a similar reaction, and then from place to place—whether it was Dallas or Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco—people wanted to talk. It’s not so much about the movie but people want to talk about these issues—the corruption of pharmaceutical companies and how they’re being run by marketing rather than the bettering of people’s lives, corporate accountability, private intelligence, and is private intelligence really happening? And that’s a cool reaction.
 
With Sound of My Voice, because it was a smaller film, that operated on two levels—the grand concept and the intimate story. With something like Sound of My Voice or even Another Earth, you guys say, okay this woman might be a time traveler or you put an Earth 2 in the sky and you believe it because it’s rooted in something deeper and you’ve built the base for this story. You don’t need to necessarily show those things in detail to understand them as truth. But with this, because it was a bigger film you have the grand concept, the intimate story, but also the middle, more explainatory section of the film. Is that something you were aware of?
Thats interesting. As a writer, I always thought of Sound of My Voice as a single gear bike, like it had one rotation and you just had to pull off that rotation and you could do that rotation scene after scene if it was doable and that translated into the filmmaking—and the scenes were about claustrophobia or about faith. And then The East I always thought of it as three gears and you can create venn diagrams and do interesting things with it. So yeah, just trying to pull off all the math of the thriller and trying to make it thrilling and then in the shooting of it too, I was really lucky that I had amazing collaborators. 
 
Did you have an idea of who you wanted to cast in the film beforehand?
The script was its own litmus test—who wants to come and have an adventure with us. And right away people closed the script and were either like, not for me, or I have to do this. And we were excited to meet those people and we got lucky that they’re such good actors, the acting is really strong in this movie—like Julia Ormond had two days of work and she just shines. 
 
Were you all really close off set?
There wasn’t much off-set time, we were working six days a week. But on our one day off, we would actually spend a lot of time together. Alexander would cook for the crew and the cast. We liked each other but we were also learning from each other, I felt like it was a time of great discovery for people.There were these freegans I’d invited to come play with three other members of The East—I didn’t want extras or background, I get so offended by the idea of "background" actors. So there were three freegans and I remember they had each their own hotel room but instead wanted to all be in a room together, and I thought that was so cool. I think the actors were fascinated by that world, as were the freegans by the actor’s world and they merged together.
 
I know you’re very inspired by the political thrillers of the 1970s and that definitely comes across in this and knowing that going into it, felt like you were able to merge your cinematic affinities so well with something that was so modern. Were than any specific films you were looking to while making this?
I love Pakula, as you know, so I love The Parallax View and All The Presidents Men and Klute. But the funny thing is, I storyboard these movies as we’re writing the final draft but I never bring that notebook to set. We sort of throw it all out and let the soup come.Someone said that they thought parts of The East were really familiar and I thought to myself: really? I’ve been thinking about that and what it is, is that the thrill is familiar. 
 
But it’s not a cheap thrill, there’s a purpose and you’re connected. It’s thrilling because you care about these people and want to know what’s happening.
They’re poisoning a pharmaceutical board’s champagne with its own pharmaceutical, that’s not familiar.
 
When was the last time you saw that?
And when was the last time you saw a movie about a female spy who had a female boss? We never see that.
 
How do you and Brit go about working together, what is that creative process like for the two of you? I know that you had visited an anarchist collective while traveling and that sparked your desire to write this.
We couldn’t shake that experience and we also wanted to do a spy movie, so those two vines grew together. We’re like gardeners, we come to the garden and dig the soil, plant the seeds, and water it. Then we tend together. But it’s also about being kind to each other, you know, when  ideas are first starting they’re so weak, they’re like these little single cell organisms, they’re like amoebas and they’re gelatinous and you have to hold them really delicately like this little jelly fish creature and it goes from my hand to Brit’s hand. You just have to hold it and and it’s a very soft enterprise—it’s something that if you do with someone you don’t really trust it feels silly. And also, if you feel a lot of push back that little character or idea will die, so you have to create a space where you can do that back and forth with each other. It’s funny how it just starts growing and pretty soon it’s not in your control anymore. A character like Izzy did things all the time that I didn’t think she would do.
 
And what’s so great about The East is that the message is so strong and yet it’s not polemic, it’s there to spark thought.
In Philadelphia when we were showing the movie, for some reason a lot of parents brought their 13 or 14 year olds—or was it the teens that brought their parents. I don’t know how they found out about the movie but they started asking questions in tandem. And I thought wow, how amazing to start the trans-generational dialogue, I felt like the parents were really grateful that this dialogue had started. So I don’t think it’s as much about the film as much as its about the conversation that comes afterwards. I made the joke that you should see this movie with someone you’re sleeping with so you can wake up and talk about it. But it’s also a nice movie for parents and children to see together—older children and their boomer parents or younger children and their younger parents—because it’s a nice film to talk about and it’s about what it stirs up in us about accountability.
 
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Check out more brilliant posters for the film by Caspar Newbolt.
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