Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling on The East
Brit Marling recently gave the convocation speech for the 2013 graduating class of Georgetown University, the alma mater of the writer/producer/actress and her friends and collaborators Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij. Cahill directed Marling in Another Earth, a film she co-wrote, and Batmanglij has stood at the helm of Sound of My Voice and the new eco-thriller The East, both of which also credit Marling as co-writer and star. In her speech, a riveting address that was wonderfully articulate and rang deeply true, Marling offered fun anecdotes about her misadventures with Cahill and Batmanglij (Cahill, for example, once served as a “human dolly” on rollerblades), and ended with the poignant advice that graduates “stick to a tribe,” and keep in mind the vital importance of community and creative collaboration. That same notion practically runs through the entirety of my recent chat with Marling and Batmanglij, who bounce ideas off one another like they’re still having brainstorm sessions on the Georgetown quad, and who repeatedly, without any favor-currying pretense, preach the virtues of surrounding oneself with a supportive, collaborative posse — a tribe.
The philosophy has surely found its way into the pair’s feature efforts, both of which involve a collective being infiltrated, but also fundamental notions of human connection, earthly stewardship, and societal rebellion. Sound of My Voice and The East both seem to revel in making their viewers squirm (tinges of pseudo-sci-fi oddness abound), but such is more a sign of said viewers having been modernly indoctrinated than Marling and Batmanglij having trickster-y goals. Just as Frances Ha has joined the post-hipster artistic response to the over-educated, underpaid zeitgeist, this duo’s work is putting forth a response all its own, one that challenges our tech-infused, oft-lonesome world with concepts that are less strange than they are human. As they talk, Marling and Batmanglij prove that these primordial sensibilities are deeply ingrained in their respective worldviews, and even their vocabularies. They continually use words like “hunger,” “primal,” and, yes, “tribe.” The interview itself feels highly organic, like the conversation could just keep going, and keep bearing more fruit.
Filmmaker: The East feels like a big step forward for both of you, yet it still possesses a lot of the same elements and ideas from Sound of My Voice: The infiltration of the collective, the hand signals, the forcing of the viewer to question social norms. Can you discuss the cross-pollination between the two films?
Batmanglij: Well, we wrote them at the same time, really — one after another, but before we ever made Sound of My Voice. So I think a lot of the feelings we were feeling was in the milk we were drinking at that time.
Marling: Yeah, I think that they both are infiltration stories, and they’re both about looking to infiltrate a group that at first seems “other,” or “outside,” and then finding that sort of perspective opening that changes the protagonist who’s the infiltrator. So there are similar themes, for sure, in both of them. But Sound of My Voice is about a cult and The East is about political resistance, so they’re different in that way.
Filmmaker: Yeah, I was careful not to use “cult” as the umbrella term.
Batmanglij: I’m pro-cult. I think cults are interesting. I mean, they can be very lethal, but they’re not necessarily all bad. We were also very hungry for tribalism, and I think that there’s a deep sense of alienation that runs through modern life that people don’t really talk about, for some reason. People are deeply alienated.
Filmmaker: That relates to the glut of media out there right now that’s very much in reaction to the millenial generation — notions of discontent, alienation. HBO’s Girls, of course, is an example. But your work is a very different kind of reaction to the same modern experience. Do you feel connected to your generation? Disconnected?
Batmanglij: I think we feel very connected to our generation, and are very supportive of the stories that are generational, and are happening now. But I don’t think we’re that into irony, so that sort of separates us, on some level. We’re into authenticity, which is sometimes sort of hard to find.
Filmmaker: That notion definitely seems to be a hallmark of your work together. It makes me think of a piece in The New York Times that ran not too long ago about how this is the generation of irony, and how that’s problematic.
Marling: I think it is problematic because I think irony comes from fear of intimacy, and fear of emotion. Like, you’re going to be caught with your heart on your sleeve and you might get hurt. There’s something distancing about it, and I think we’re both interested in removing that distance, and getting to the sort of bone marrow. Like, the spin-the-bottle scene is something that actually happened to us. We spent a summer traveling a few years ago, just as young people living our lives and wanting to connect with other young people, and that moment, that feeling of connection — the same thing happened on set when we were shooting that scene. That same connection and kind of sweet, physical bond, which wasn’t as sexual as much as it was just a desire to be close to people. It was interesting to see that this game that we think of as a childish game was actually…
Marling: Yes, a profound game, and even an adult game, in the sense that it’s about breaking down barriers to intimacy. Which happened on set too. We kind of became this collective. I mean, I think you meet people on sets and become friends, but not the way that we all became friends. We are all, like, very much still in each other’s lives because of the experience we went through.
Batmanglij: And it wasn’t just an actor thing either. It started with the crew. My relationship with the production designer, Alex DiGerlando, who’s going to be one of the great production design voices of our generation, for sure (he did Beasts of the Southern Wild), and Roman Vasyanov, the d.p. — the three of us were all the same age, give or take a year, and we just trusted each other. It doesn’t mean we were always happy go lucky. We were sometimes like puppies who’d bite each other’s necks and stuff. [laughs] But there was a lot of trust and simpatico. And as pre-production rolled into production, that went three ways. The first way is it went down the ranks of the camera department. So because Roman and I were close, his crew came to the set with a level of respect. I think the crew takes notes from the d.p. and how the d.p. feels — it’s very primal like that. And then the same thing happened with the production design crew. Everyone who was helping us in that area made that world come alive. And then, the actors sort of saw those relationships, and the relationship me and Brit have, and they picked up on that and went with it.
Filmmaker: Before all that happened, what were some of the initial reactions from the actors upon reading the script? As you said, you both spent some time living the “freegan” lifestyle of the members of The East, but was there any trepidation among the actors regarding certain parts of the material?
Marling: I think the script was a real litmus test. People who read the story and were intrigued were not just like, “I want to be in this,” they were like, “Oh, I have to be in this.” It was kind of a lightning rod of a story that drew in the people that found a lot of meaning it. And everyone was coming from different levels of experiences. Some people had been on eco-villages or farms before, or met freegans before. Then some people had never even heard of the term freegan, and started reading about it for the first time. But I think the space that everybody got into eventually, and when it jelled together, was the day that we shot the soup scene [wherein the collective reveals its unique, communal way of dining]. It took it away from the political, and made it about the intimacy and the emotions of living with a group of people, and your focus being someone else more than it is yourself. When that scene happened, and they were all feeding each other in concert, it was such a primal thing. I think it was the first moment that the crew really got into the story.
Batmanglij: It was. It was the first the Friday of shooting, and the crew lined up and shook my hand after that scene was over. They were like, “We didn’t really understand the script, especially this scene, but now that we’ve seen it, we trust you.”
Filmmaker: The East also seems to be the rare film in which a larger budget has served as a creative and artistic booster, rather than, say, a sign of indie filmmakers selling out. It’s just given you a broader canvas for your ideas. Can you discuss your collaboration with [Scott Free Productions producer] Michael Costigan, and how you feel it helped the movie?
Batmanglij: We met Michael at Sundance, and I didn’t really know what he did. I didn’t know he ran Ridley [Scott]’s production company. But he connected with Sound of My Voice on such a visceral level. And we just enjoyed each other’s company and talked for 45 minutes at a party, which is rare. And two days later he got a copy of The East, in his magical ways. And he said, “We want to make this into a movie.” And I’m like, “Who’s we?” And he said, “Ridley and Tony and I.” So that was…cool. [Laughs] Yeah, Michael Costigan is someone who is very smart. But at the end of the day, we used the same principles we used when making Sound of My Voice. And it involves that summer when we were traveling. We found out something really amazing, and it’s the reason we came back to our lives in L.A. We found that there was this free, abundant natural resource available to us back home, and that was all these other young people who wanted to do the same things we did. And instead of feeling the sort of rejection we felt before because we couldn’t get films made, we just went in and tapped into this resource. And lo and behold, it was readily available to us. So when we tapped into it, we were able to make Sound of My Voice like that [snaps], and we came into making The East the same way. And it’s true that so many people were so hungry to do something authentic like this. The crew and the actors rallied around this, and so did the studio. So everything felt very easy to get the production off the ground. Actually shooting it, though, was fucking hard.
Marling: Every day I would look at the schedule, and I’d be like, “There’s no way Zal’s gonna pull this off.” I mean, there were impossible days. With certain scenes, even a low-budget film would have had a full day to do them, if not two. And our schedule would say that we were going to do them over a few hours in the afternoon. But Zal would manage to pull these days off, and I think it was because, in large part, he had such commitment from the people around him. Everybody was just ready to go and it would all just miraculously happen. And it’s funny for me to say because I’ve known this person for 10 years, so of course my expectations of what he can do are high. But every day he just exceeded that expectation. Every day I was in awe of my friend.
Batmanglij: Well, it comes back to the crew too. The conventional wisdom is that when you’re making a bigger film, you need to surround yourself with an experienced crew. So they often pair young filmmakers with experienced d.p.s, right? So I fought, really hard, as to why we should have a young d.p., because we were shooting digital, and I wanted someone who had grown up on digital. Not someone who was shooting digital in this sort of removed, second-fiddle way. Having a young crew was essential for this movie. I’m not an ageist, but for us, for this story, we had to continue that same energy that we had discovered, and made Sound of My Voice with, which was a tribe of hungry, like-minded creative people.
Filmmaker: So, moving forward, do you think you’ll both continue on this path, and continue to explore these themes?
Marling: I think Zal and I can’t help but make things that are challenging to the status quo because I think we see the world that way. I don’t know that, right now, we’ll write another espionage, spy story. I think we’ve explored the territory of the infiltrator. There are new things and feelings that we’re interested in. I think as a writer you’re just, like, sticking your finger in the air and trying to catch the feeling of what’s going on right now. I never feel like the ideas are from us; I feel like the ideas are in the ether, and the challenge is being a custodian, or a conduit of it.
Batmanglij: And I’m surprised by how little ego is actually involved in it all for me. I don’t think of my films as mine that much. It’s a very collaborative endeavor.
Marling: If you wanted it to be yours, you’d write a novel. Because that would be yours. I think you become a storyteller in the world of film because you get great pleasure out of working with a tribe of people. You get pleasure out of harnessing that energy. Otherwise you’d do a solo endeavor.
Batmanglij: It comes back to what you just said, that word you used. We’re custodians of these worlds, these stories, these characters. We’re conduits. They’re not ours.
Marling: And you also make movies and hopefully the audience tells you what it is that you made. Because I don’t think you always know. I feel like filmmaking is one of the strange art forms in which the loop doesn’t close until the audience takes it in. I don’t know what it’s like to be a painter, but I imagine that the process of painting and the painting is it. You don’t necessarily need a response to it.
Batmanglij: With film, you need a large response. Our films have had very small audiences thus far, but we’ve watched their evolution with viewers. It’s strange to think about one day making a movie that millions and millions of people see. How strange. And how strange to think that the evolution of it won’t be complete until it’s finished that trajectory.