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.

Steve McQueen’s ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ to be Released by Fox Searchlight This December

After seeing Shame upwards of three times in theaters and spending countless hours at MoMA throughout the year hiding out watching his 1994 short film Deadpan, it’s safe to say I am more than ready for vicious director Steve McQueen’s next film. As one of the most fearless and thrilling directors in contemporary cinema, McQueen crafts harrowing pictures that cut straight to the heart and rip you apart from the inside out.

And as of today, it’s been announced that his highly-anticipated Twelve Years a Slave has been acquired by Fox Searchlight. And it seems they’re on quite a roll lately, with the success of last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild and the upcoming premieres of The East and Trance, as well as Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel next year. Having worked with McQueen before on Shame, there doesn’t seem to be better fit. And although it appears the film will not be premiering at Cannes, today we learn that there is in fact a release slated for December 27th, 2013.

Twelve Years a Slave stars a host of wonderful talent from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender (of course) and Benedict Cumberbatch, to Paul Giamatti and Scoot McNairy, as well as Fox Searchlight alums, Beasts stars Quvezhane Wallis and Dwight Henry. The film is based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography, telling his story as a slave who was kidnapped and put in a slave pen, "paving the way for a grueling life under numerous owners."

 

Let’s just say, I am more than a little excited for this one.

Speaking With Director Park Chan-wook About His Stunning ‘Stoker’

As deliciously evil and thrilling as it is visually-rich and haunting, Park Chan-wook’s fantastical gothic thriller Stoker plays out like an erotic waltz with sinister intentions. As his first English-language film, the acclaimed Korean director has crafted a quiet kind of suspense that shows the graceful unraveling of an isolated American family. 

Stoker tells the tale of a highly intelligent girl, India (played by Mia Wasikowska), after her father dies in an auto accident on her 18th birthday. Following his death, her mysterious yet absolutely charming Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to stay with her and her unstable mother (Nicole Kidman). India’s questions arise as to the nature of Charlie’s appearance in their lives and although sensing his dark ulterior motives, she becomes infatuated with him, inexplicably drawn to this dark figure who has crept his way into her world.

It’s a story about he inherent nature of evil, as well as the sexual awakening of a young girl when first tempted by the desirable. India’s coming-of-age is the undercurrent for this bone-chilling and stunning feature from Chan-wook and writer-actor Wentworth Miller. Staying true to Park’s strong affinity for character-driven tales and his arresting visual style, Stoker is also enhanced by its biting and beautiful soundtrack from Clint Mansell that acts as its own character in the film.

Yesterday, I got the chance to sit down with Director Park (with the help of his gracious translator) to talk about his attraction to the script, telling a coming of age tale, and gorgeous physicality of his characters.

Director Park, how you first became connected to the film and what drew you to it?
The make-up of this family that is comprised of mother, father, and the only daughter is exactly the same condition as my own family, and that was something that sparked my interest at first. And I liked the quietness of it all, it wasn’t a script where all the characters get all too excited and jump around everywhere; I loved how it was all composed and very quiet.

And did you work with Wentworth on the script to change things and further develop them?
No, there was one big long meeting where a lot of discussion was taking place and it was an opportunity where I could listen to his intentions behind everything that we found on the page and allowed me to retain all the good things about the script without taking away the integrity of the script. I was able to expand those ideas and develop those ideas and delve deeper.

There are so many different layers and genres composed together in the film, but I was drawn very much to India’s sexual awakening throughout the film. Is that something you really wanted to explore, a young girl’s coming of age?
Yes, absolutely. The fact that Stoker is a coming of age story about a young girl, it’s actually an extrapolation or a continuation of the themes I explored in I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK. Also, the fact that I have a daughter that’s exactly the same age as the protagonist, and as a father, that has to be a subject matter that sparked my interest in the first place. And because of this, I actually focused more on this aspect of coming of age and expanded it from what he had found originally in the script. But rather than to say that I was interested in sexual awakening itself, in this film India’s sexual awakening is very much linked to her violent urges and what this has to do with, you know this cathartic feeling of allowing yourself to be drawn to something that’s evil? That’s acutely true of those young girls and boys who are going through their teenage years and he wanted to depict and describe the kind of chaotic state that you go through.

The visual style of the film was so wonderful and added so much to the story. How did you want to create their world through set design and colors and even the way the camera moved that echoed the psychology of the characters.
It’s not easy to explain but when people talk about all this Hitchcockian reference in this film, I am rather bewildered. Whatever influence or reference to Hitchcock Stoker has—the obvious one is Shadow of a Doubt—it was Wenthworth that was really being influenced by that. Although I knew the film had obvious influences from Shadow of a Doubt, the actual film is something I had seen such a long time ago, so exact details of it I have trouble remembering even and that goes the same for all of these other great works by Hitchcock. And if people will say this film feels like it has been influenced by Hitchcock, it’s probably something more fundamental I guess, in that everything you see and hear in a film, it needs to be intended, it needs to be planned, it needs to have significance and this attitude to filmmaking is something I learned from Hitchcock. And because of this, I would go and make a meticulous storyboard for every singe shot in the entire film in the order I would imagine the film to be cut later. So everything is pre-planned this way and how I would use color and how I would visualize this world to speak to the psychological state of each character, it’s part of the process.

Speaking to that meticulous style, there was a great physicality between everyone, it seemed very choreographed—the three of them doing this waltz around each other throughout the house. Was that something that was in the script or more of a directorial decision?
To a certain degree the script described such physicality or choreography, but as I am the one who is going to be directing this film in the end, I had to do my own pass of course. And while doing my own revision of the script to tailor it to become my film, it is something that I was thinking, what could I do with the script and how I could visualize it? And that’s all reflected into what you see now. And I really was thinking of the structure and the design of the house, the space where the dynamic between these three characters would take place. And it’s an interesting dynamic too, it seems to start one way, to be a certain dynamic between two characters and then it switches to being focused on another set of characters between this triangular relationship. So in order to express that, it naturally led to directorial decisions about the physicality or the choreography, which I had to think about even during the stage of revisions.

Image via Fox Searchlight

Sundance Hit ‘The Way, Way Back’ Looks to Break New Records

Fox Searchlight has had quite a year. Between Beasts of the Souther Wild, Sound of My Voice, The Sessions, and now their latest Sundance hit, The East, the company is setting a standard in distribution, putting out films that deserve to be seen and heard with the backing of a company who can provide a home for the artists behind them. And with some of the most talked about films of the year having had their premieres this weekend at Sundance, distributors are chomping at the bit to obtain their festival favorites Yesterday, Relativity Media broke records with their acquisition of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon’s Addiction for a staggering $4 million dollar price—unusual for a Sundance feature. But now it looks like Fox Searchlight is about to one up them—set to pay a hefty $10 million for The Way, Way Back. From the writers of The Descendants Nat Faxon and Jim Rash in his directorial debut, the film is an eccentric coming-of-age story starring Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Maya Rudolph, and Rob Corddry. Here’s what critics are saying about it thus far:

But the biggest reason people might be talking about The Way, Way Back for a long time — and quoting it ad nauseum — is Rockwell, who simply pulls off the best Meatballs/Stripes/Ghostbusters-era Bill Murray since the legend himself. (EW)

In terms of production value, "The Way, Way Back" looks great as it is, reminiscent of the similarly sweet-and-sour "Little Miss Sunshine" (on which Carell and Collette previously collaborated), though that film certainly made more of its signature vehicle. (Variety)

Despite the familiarity of this setup, Way Back is a charmer, putting refreshingly little emphasis on Duncan’s romantic needs and allowing family melodrama to erupt and simmer down without pat resolution. Like a kid who gets a free summer in an exclusive beach town and chooses to spend his days manning a chlorine-and-concrete water park, it knows when not to take the obvious route. (The Hollywood Reporter)

 

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Watch the Striking First Trailer for Zal Batmanglij’s ‘The East’

Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling’s latest collaboration, eco-thriller The East premiered at Sundance last night to a warm reception. Produced by Fox Searchlight with Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, and Ellen Page leading the cast, the film explores similar themes as the previous Sound of My Voice, with questions of identity,  the allure of charismatic leaders, and a sense of well-nuanced thrill. Batmanglij has a knack for exploring the questions of our age with a mystical sense that at once heightens reality and reminds us of our basic human desires. And in The East:

Sarah Moss (Marling) is a brilliant operative for an elite private intelligence firm whose top objective is to ruthlessly protect the interests of their A-list corporate clientele. She is assigned to go undercover to infiltrate an anarchist collective known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations. Living amongst them in an effort to get closer to their members, Sarah finds herself unexpectedly torn between two worlds as she starts to fall in love with the group’s charismatic leader, finding her life and her priorities irrevocably changed.

Check out the trailer below, which looks pretty damn haunting and incredible.

 

Here’s the cast and Batmanglij at Sundance this past weekend.

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New Footage Emerges From ‘Beasts Of The Southern Wild’

Filmmaker Benh Zietlin’s debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, has been getting lots of attention. The movie, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, won the influential fest’s top prize for a feature and was promptly picked up by Fox Searchlight. Later, when it went to Cannes to screen for tan, famous people, where it picked up a International Federation of Film Critics prize. Luckily this won’t be one of those movies that critics freak over years before the public gets to catch up; Fox is releasing the film July 27—and before then it will make appearances at the BAMcinemaFEST in Brooklyn and the Los Angeles Film Festival.

The trailer for the film has been out for a while, showing off the magical realismy story of a group of people living in The Bathtub, a low, poor New Orleans neighborhood, who are convinced that they can scare the coming Katrina (or the devil or whatever it is it) away.

At the center of the story is the ridiculously adorable Quvenzhané Wallis, whose character tries her best to save her people before the storm decimates them all.

Now, another clip from the movie has been released, giving already salivating film fans something else to gobble up and giving all the rest of us a chance to know what the hell they’re talking about as buzz grows to a fever pitch in the weeks before the opening.

Check it out below and get ready to shame your friends who haven’t yet caught on.

Former ‘Black Swan’ Interns Say They Were Treated Unfairly, Sue Fox Searchlight

Two former unpaid interns for the Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan are suing Fox Searchlight because they claim they were used unfairly on set. The New York Times reports the lawsuit, which was filed in Manhattan federal court, targets the practice of using unpaid interns on movie sets in general. “In misclassifying many of its workers as unpaid interns, Fox Searchlight has denied them the benefits that the law affords to employees,” the lawsuit says. “No shit,” replied anyone who has ever had an unpaid internship.

The two plaintiffs, Alex Footman, 24, and Eric Glatt, 42, are seeking back pay and an “injunction barring Fox Searchlight from improperly using unpaid interns.” The suit is also seeking class-action status, which would make it a groundbreaking case that will affect hundreds of other Fox Searchlight interns. According to the suit, the plaintiffs say their experience didn’t offer them the educational experience required of unpaid internships in order to make them legal. Footman said his duties included “preparing coffee for the production office, ensuring that the coffee pot was full, taking and distributing lunch orders for the production staff, taking out the trash and cleaning the office.” Add, “Make copies of invoices” and he’d have the entire unpaid intern repertoire.

There are two very different but equally logical responses to this. One is to admit that the state of unpaid internships has gotten out of control and that employers too readily rely on them in lieu of creating actual jobs. The other is to tell these guys to buck up; they should be happy they were interning on the set of a surreal, Oscar-winning ballet thriller. Most interns have to make coffee for accounting firms.

Footman told the Times, “I hope this case will hold the industry to a higher standard and will get rid of this practice.” Even if it doesn’t, at least their foot will be in the door.