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.
Check out more brilliant posters for the film by Caspar Newbolt.

Listen to a New Fall on Your Sword Track From Wikileaks Documentary ‘We Steal Secrets’

I first fell in love with Fall on Your Sword when their incredible score for Mike Cahill’s Another Earth took that film from a metaphysical and emotional science fiction wonder to indie masterpiece. It’s a soundtrack I’ve listened to an infinite number of times in the last two years, and since, the guys behind FOYS, Will Bates and Phil Mossman, have been in high-demand, lending their brilliant and varied musical talents to Nobody Walks, Lola Versus, 28 Hotel Rooms, etc.

And now, you can listen to piece of the score from We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks, which they’ve scored for director Alex Gibney. The film hits theaters May 24th but you can purchase the soundtrack beginning next Tuesday. So in the meantime, take a listen to "First Release" below.


‘Another Earth’ Director Mike Cahill’s Next Feature Is In The Works

Well, it looks like writer and director Mike Cahill’s next feature is a go—and I am brimming with excitement. It’s been over a year since the release of Another Earth, his hauntingly beautiful debut feature that won him the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and established him as a rare talent to emerge in a wave of new American independent cinema. Co-written with the film’s star Brit Marling, Another Earth is a science fiction drama about the ability to forgive, the ineffiable ways of the heart, and the nature of existence in a world where there are infinitely more questions than answers. With an affinity towards the scientific and metaphysical, in speaking about his film to me last year, Cahill said, “science fiction is like the impossible metaphor. You can put another earth in the sky, and that fantasy or that twist on reality allows us to actually get closer to something about humanity so I love that. Instead of pushing us away from reality, ironically, it brings us closer.”

Last December he shared that he was currently writing a film about “reincarnation, based in science—like biometrics.” Now titled iOrigins, this film will be on a larger scale than Another Earth surely—in terms of the grandeur of the film, as well as the content. According to The Playlist, the film will tell the story of:

“A doctor, who is on the brink of a scientific breakthrough that will have historical ramifications, and he travels to India to meet a young girl, who can make or break his theory. Said to be a picture that will mine "mine the emotional side of science.”

Casting is currently underway and although this is all the information released thus far, I could not be more enthused and fascinated with the idea. Cahill is someone whose work has an aesthetic and emotional rawness to it that brings forth the beauty in everyday images, elevating them to a mystical level—much like one of his favorite directors, Krzysztof Kieślowski—and hopefully, this film will be an even more realized vision of that artistic sentiment. Now I can only assume Brit will have her hand in the film somehow, and if the planets truly align, Fall on Your Sword will compose another stunning soundtrack as they did for Another Earth. Needless to say, we’ll be watching this one closely.

Brit Marling on Co-Writing and Starring in ‘Sound of My Voice’

In the last year, Brit Marling has emerged on our screens with films that are not only brilliant in their own right, but they are ushering in a new wave of American independent cinema. The actress and writer first blew us away with the hauntingly beautiful science-fiction drama Another Earth, which she starred in and co-wrote with Mike Cahill, winning the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. In her latest feature, Sound of My Voice (co-written with director Zal Batmanglij), she plays Maggie, a frighteningly seductive cult leader who claims to be from the future. The film follows a young couple who attempt to infiltrate the cult in order to expose Maggie, but they soon find themselves caught in the depths of her manipulation.

“Everything’s starting to come together in this way and the distinctions are starting to blur—you don’t have to box yourself in as just an actor or a writer,” Marling says, as she has taken on the multi-hyphenate title with grace. In a screening of the film held last week, Marling and Batmanglij spoke about the transformative nature of the film and the way in which its entire genre can alter depending on your faith in Maggie. Stripped down to its most basic emotional elements, Sound of My Voice can be seen as your everyday love triangle—except in this case one of the people involved may or may not be a time traveler. It’s not only Marling’s riveting onscreen performances that have been engaging audiences, but the sincere intelligence of her films and the way she puts forth dynamic characters for women that feel refreshing in today’s Hollywood landscape. We sat down with Marling to dive deeper into the inception of the film, the magic in the mundane, and dealing with the apocalyptic future.

You’ve had a pretty crazy past year. How has that been for you?
What’s been cool is that for a while Mike, Zal, and I were all in this vacuum together having this experience, feeling a lot about our generation, and making sense of our experience. We were sort of alone in that. And then we made these little movies not expecting anything out of them—like at most we would show with our friends in our living room. The idea that they have entered the world and are things that you’re thinking about is wonderful.

When I hear about the way in which you went about making both Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, it reminds me of a better time in film history when people seemed to have more passion and went after the things they loved.
I feel like it’s so cool that we’re living in a time when the technology has reached a place and you really can just pick up a camera and start making films yourself. Think about what filmmaking must have been like when things were so specialized. You had to learn all these different disciplines and you couldn’t touch the technology and everything was separated. You really feel like young people are making stuff and it gives a voice to our generation in a way that’s very cool.

Your films tell these basic human stories in a very mystical world—it’s a very Kieslowski thing.
Yes! Like that moment in Blue when she’s dragging her knuckles across that stone wall or in Red when the bubble gum ad becomes like the metaphysical portal into how she nearly dies and meets the love of her life. A fucking bubble gum ad! I love that pairing. I think our generation has that desire. You see it in music now, too; there’s a kind of earnestness and deep desire for something romantic and honest, but also the possibility for something magical in the mundane. We’re all hoping there’s more to all of this that meets the eye, and I hope that’s true.

Both of your films are all about questions and experience rather than a final destination. They end on the spot where most films would start, with these giant moments.
I think cinema can get at the ineffable and the metaphysical in a way that’s very special. If a play is 80 percent auditory and 20 percent visual, cinema is the reverse. There are moments in film that can get to a place beyond words. Literally things that cannot be described by language—language is too limited. I think that we’re always interested in those kind of endings, trying to arrive at a place after 90 minutes of storytelling just for one breathless moment where the film is articulating something that you’ve always wanted to say but there haven’t been words for. This film is just taking you on this journey to arrive at this one truth that is unutterable.

Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij did the music for the film. Did you work together?
Zal did all the work with Rostam, but Rostam has been scoring Zal’s movies from the very beginning. It’s amazing because… We were just talking about the ineffable, and Rostam as a composer can put his finger on the pulse of the ineffable. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s in all of his work. I think we were beyond lucky that someone with his extreme ability is willing to write music for these little movies.

What’s interesting about cults is the desperation of the members who need to cling onto something so badly. Is that a theme you’ve always been interested in?
I think that Los Angeles heavily influenced this story. I think if we were living somewhere else this would not have come out. There are a lot of themes and feelings that are generational, like the search for meaning, trying to make sense of where the world is right now. All these movies that are dealing with apocalyptic futures and that we’re on an unsustainable track and where’s it going to go, this sense that the crack up is about to happen of the civilized world as we know it and that our generation seems a bit eager for it to happen.

It’s like if we anticipate it enough and plan it out and show it through art and film, then it will be easier to handle when it comes.
And will someone show us the way out? Will we have to learn to grow food? None of the things that our parents taught us will matter. Will doing your taxes or your degree matter when you can’t tell the different types of plants that are poisonous from the ones that are not? And the idea of the cult thing is like… Manifest Destiny is what L.A. seems to represent, like people going to West Coast in search of reinventing themselves. That is a place filled with so much desire and dreams, and then so much disappointment.

But it’s so dark. That’s what I always loved about film noir and that time period: everyone goes there to be a star and to make it, and then they end up jumping off the Hollywood sign.
Just corn husks washing out into the Pacific: that’s the image I always have. I think that that is totally in the film. It worked its way in there.

When you’re writing, do you keep in mind as an actress what you would want to play?
I try to write the thing that really scares me, the thing that I might not be able to do. Rhoda [in Another Earth] was terrifying because she had this experience that was so overwhelming.

And so removed from most people’s lives.
Yeah! And the same with Maggie. I think what’s exciting with acting is that you can maybe live several lifetimes in one, and you can find a point of empathy for all kinds of people. You can find it for cult leaders and accidental murderers. The bigger the stretch or the farther away it is from you, the most pleasure you get in the attempt to reach for it and get yourself around it. I never want to do something that I’ve done before, and I never want to do something that I feel comfortable with.

And that’s the perk of being a writer and being an actress.
Yeah, because you can find the things that feel like a stretch for you and then push it even further.

Women can be flawed; they’re allowed to make mistakes and have that portrayed on film. The characters that you’ve written show their strength, but also the ways in which everyone is imperfect.
It’s exciting that more women are writing because I think we’re desperate to understand ourselves, and I think men want to understand their wives and their girlfriends and daughters and sisters better. I think these movies are starting to show something. Creative women are putting forth more complicated versions of femininity.

Did you know you were going to be Maggie?
Zal and I always thought I would play Maggie, and for a while she was this placeholder in all of our outlines and early script stuff. It was literally just like: “insert charismatic leader here.” But what is that? How do you write and then act charisma? Why are people so devoted to her? And then I think the thing that sort of came, what snapped her into place, is the scene she has with Peter where she breaks him down and the feeling that Peter has in that moment: that everybody really wants to be seen and be loved, not in spite of being seen but because of being seen. She’s always changing her face, and some of them are like a lot of the faces of femininity. She’s motherly and tender and then she’s innocent; she’s cruel and intense and unforgiving. So that was a terrifying thing to think about playing. I like to do the things that terrify me.

Director Mike Cahill on His Film ‘Another Earth’

At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Mike Cahill scored a major hit with his cerebral sci-fi romance, Another Earth. Along with his co-writer and star, Brit Marling, Cahill collected the Feature Film Prize and Special Jury Prize at Sundance for his movie about a young woman who’s involved in a tragic accident on the same night a parallel Earth is discovered in the solar system. We recently caught up with Cahill last month to discuss Another Earth, which was released on DVD and Blu-Ray last month.

How did you decide on the film’s aesthetic?
It’s interesting because I just started shooting with Brit to try and find the aesthetic, but I knew I wanted it to be like a documentary. I wanted it to feel more naturalistic, a poetic realism. There’s a sensual aspect to filmmaking you can find, and it opens up a different part of your mind besides just the eyes and the ears, so I look for that a lot.

How did you come up with the film’s concept?
I was making all this video art, and I made a piece where I interviewed myself and then I also made a piece where I put an earth up in the sky, very simple. I’m big into the tech, I like touching and playing and editing and shooting, so I was experimenting and I composted another earth in the sky that looked authentic and real, and I was like, alright this is interesting. And Brit and I were talking about the emotional side, which is the confrontation of the self. I wanted people to leave the theatre and look up and be like, Is there another earth up there?

You’ve received some criticism for asking questions and not answering them.
That’s what scientists say, and I really love that and there’s this idea that whenever you find an answer it opens up more questions. I think scientists and artists are kind of doing the same thing: they’re asking the questions of who are we and why are we here, but they’re using totally different tools to do it. I liked a certain amount of open-endedness to allow the viewer to participate. I imagine it’s like building a bridge over a river, and the filmmaker is putting all these bricks, and I don’t think they should put the last brick in there. I think the audience should put it, and that’s where the emotional transference comes hopefully.

Is science something you’ve always been into?
I grew up reading Bradbury and being obsessed with Carl Sagan. and I worked for National Geographic for a while, and my family is all scientists, I’m like the black sheep. I didn’t set out to do a science-y movie. It just happened to be the thing that peaked my interest. Like right now I’m making a movie about reincarnation and it’s also based in science, like biometrics.

When you started writing Another Earth, was it a bigger idea, or were you writing it thinking about the means you had to make it?
The means we had to make it. I was like, we are going to make it with nothing. I told Brit I was not going to have permission from anyone, I was not going to send it the script around. I wanted to write something we could execute, and it was a bit naive and ambitious, but you have to have a bit if self-deception. So we thought big and embedded a smaller story that was more personal, into that bigger concept.

How did you write it together?
Most of the time we would just talk. We’d go back and forth telling a story, just trying to entertain and move one another, and we did that for months without writing anything besides the character’s backstory, but we still didn’t open final draft until we cracked the story, as they say. There was this moment when we were in my apartment in Los Angeles at the time, and we couldn’t figure out how to end the movie, and when we clicked into the ending we were jumping up and down. And we opened our computers and wrote the script.

How did William Mapother get involved?
We cast him very late in the game. I was seeing a lot of guys for the main part, but no one was exactly right. Then we just began shooting, and shot everything we could without a lead male, so Brit was acting with her parents and her brother, not knowing who the lead guy was.

For how long?
Like twenty-something days, and then it was summer time and we wrapped that, and I was still looking for a main guy, and then they asked if I had ever thought of William, and I loved his work in In the Bedroom.

He was petrifying in that.
Yeah, and I thought that was a really great energy to harness, because he’s played a lot of roles that are very intimidating characters, yet he also has such a brightness and lightness, so I thought if we start for a place where of intimidation of fear with this young girl who feels a bit afraid, and then slowly peel away those layers. He’s a genius actor.

Did you anticipate that people were going to see the movie?
We were going to show it to our group of friends, that was our aspiration. I mean, we really just wanted to make something that moved us. We didn’t expect all this amazing shit to happen, which was a dream come true.

Scientists Discover Earth-Sized Planet “Right Next Door”

Life imitates art, right? Or is it the other way around? Whichever is the case, it appears scientists have discovered a nearby planet that’s close to Earth’s own size, and just days after the Sundance sensation Another Earth, partly about an alternate Earth that suddenly appears in the sky, was released on DVD and Blu-ray. Did the stars just happen to align, or did Fox Searchlight spend way too much money on a marketing campaign? Only the universe knows.

The planet, coined Kepler-21b, is only 352 light years away. “By astronomical standards, that’s right next door,” Katy Garmany, the Deputy Press Officer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, told the Huffington Post. Sure, there’s been a lot of astronomical gibbering in the news, with scientists discovering 50 new planets in a week and 2,000 overall. But Kepler is one of the only discoveries that is nearly Earth-sized. However, since it’s orbiting a hot star, the planet’s 2,960 degree Fahrenheit temperature is far too hot to sustain life.  

This is unfortunate, only because I was really hoping that we’d be able to pull a Brit Marling and ponder if there was another “us” on this other planet. Maybe even film another movie about the real-life experience. Call it Another Earth Again or One More Earth or The Two of Us. Something like that. 

A Life Less Ordinary: Actress Brit Marling Emerges with Two Astonishing Films

Brit Marling is leaning over a plate of fried eggs, the silver flatware in her hands clattering against the china in front of her. She’d be enjoying her breakfast were her trim frame not shaking so violently. “I feel like we’re at a pretend restaurant,” she says between fits of innocent laughter, after a bumbling waiter at the Crosby Street Hotel tries to clear her plate mid-bite. “When I was in elementary school, they had a thing called Biz Kids. One day a week for something like two months, students would go to the mall, where there was a Biz Kids store run by—oh my god, this is so f-ed up—8-year-old cashiers. This place feels very Biz Kids.”

Over the course of a balmy New York afternoon in late June, Marling, the engaging, 28-year-old co-writer, producer, and star of the virtuosic sci-fi drama Another Earth, plays fast and loose with colorful analogies. Visiting her real-estate developer parents at their home in Orlando, for example, isn’t unlike “rebooting the computer.” Georgetown University, where Marling graduated in 2005 with a degree in economics and studio art, felt like “a four-year incubator that kept the world at bay.” Acting, meanwhile, is like going fishing. “Some days you catch a fish and some days you don’t,” says Marling, who currently occupies a house in Los Feliz, a hilly neighborhood overlooking downtown Los Angeles. “Regardless, it’s important to show up, because you start to learn your own weather conditions and to understand where to go looking for fish.”

Marling saves the most hallucinatory of her many metaphors for the art of screenwriting. “Before putting pen to paper, Eudora Welty used to stand outside, where she said that poems came to her like wind blowing across the plains. She could see them moving in the grass, and so she’d turn around and start running to her house, then to her desk, and the poem would actually come through her so that writing it was like grabbing the tail of a tiger and pulling it back to her,” she says. Realizing how wonderfully unhinged that sounds, she adds, “Unfortunately, Another Earth didn’t come to me as a wave straight from the Zuma shore. It wasn’t as easy as running back to my Malibu guesthouse and opening my first draft.”

Instead, Marling’s path from Biz Kids to Sundance whiz kid (Another Earth took home the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film prize at this year’s festival) has been littered with hard work and more than a few dog-eared how-to manuals on establishing shots and slug lines. “I studied screenwriting by reading a lot of books,” says Marling, who only began to seriously entertain the idea of a film career after spending the summer following her junior year in college interning at Goldman Sachs. “I so narrowly avoided that life,” she says, humbly relieved by her last-minute career switch. “Maybe it’s naïve, but I’ve always had this weird feeling that I could learn anything if I were disciplined enough to put in the effort. Even if I wanted to be a doctor, I could just get the books and learn organic chemistry—it would be a stretch, but the switch would eventually flip.”

A flipped switch provides the emotional nexus of Another Earth, which Marling co-wrote with her friend and the film’s director, Mike Cahill. In it, she plays Rhoda Williams, an aspiring astrophysicist who causes a fatal car accident on the night scientists discover an alternate Earth. After spending four years in prison atoning for her mistake, Rhoda reaches out to the man (William Mapother) whose family she killed, from which evolves the unlikeliest of romances. The other planet becomes a receptacle for Rhoda’s deferred dreams: How would her life have been different on Earth Two? How would she be different? “I was really interested in the insurmountable chasm between where people find themselves and where they’d intended to be,” she says. “Does a cataclysmic tragedy necessarily denote a life misfiring? From there, how do you let go of the person you so desperately wanted to be?”

Marling asks these questions not as a writer sketching out plot ideas, but as Rhoda or even Maggie, the otherworldly cult leader she plays in first-time filmmaker Zal Batmanglij’s upcoming thriller, Sound of My Voice. “I don’t read scripts analytically,” says Marling, who recently finished shooting Arbitrage, a financial drama, of all things, costarring Richard Gere, Tim Roth, and Susan Sarandon. “I’m not looking for themes or statements about class and gender. I’m actually inside these characters. The shit that’s happening in these stories isn’t happening to someone I’m playing, or someone I might one day play—this shit is happening to me, to my actual cells.” Marling waits a beat and then, grinning, adds, “It’s just like the imaginary games I used to play as a child.”

Photography by Alexander Wagner, Styling by Shandi Alexander.