Alongside her co-conspirators and director friends Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, actress and writer Brit Marling has fashioned a confident path for herself in the film world, simply by creating the roles she’d always wanted to play. In “Sound Of My Voice,” she played Maggie, the enigmatic cult leader possibly from the future, and in her second collaboration with Batmanglij, “The East,” an operative for a private intelligence firm who infiltrates an anarchist collective led by Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Shiloh Fernandez, and Toby Kebbell.
Targeting corporations for their environmental misdeeds, the group’s “Jams” quickly escalate into more dangerous acts, and the film swiftly explores the murky moral depths that occur on either side of the law. Marling sat down with us recently to discuss the film’s subject matter and genre leanings, her thoughts on writing collaborations, and also the initial inspiration for “The East:” one summer in 2009, during which she and Batmanglij hopped trains, dumpster-dived, and generally led a “freegan” lifestyle.
From the finished product, some might easily assume you and Zal had a unified perspective toward freeganism and direct-action groups when writing it. You’ve spoken about your experiences with both as life-changing, but did you and Zal come out with divided perspectives?
What was interesting is that we may have felt different things from that experience, but we were unsettled and opened up in a similar way. It was so strange because the thing I love the most is movies, but when we came back from that summer it was a long time before I could watch any again. It felt like surrendering to someone else’s experience of life when you wanted to be living your own.
A lot of these direct action groups and anarchist collectives become so radically awake and present and engaged with each other that you… I missed it. I still miss it, that feeling of tribal living and of all the entertainment coming from each other, from spin the bottle and making music. There’s something really beautiful about it all. But we never really thought we were going to writing anything about it — we weren’t an actor or director then. We were two young, broke people who were interested in what other young people were thinking and feeling about things, and it wasn’t until years later that we thought, “What happened to us that summer? Why am I still thinking about it? Why am I still wrestling with all of those ideas, and why have they only become more prescient?” And then we wondered if could we embed that in an espionage thriller.
Recently you gave a commencement speech at Georgetown College, and you were talking about your early days in LA trying to get a spy thriller made. Was that “The East,” or have you been trying multiple projects surrounding that genre?
That one was totally separate, but we’ve always been interested in the idea of a girl spy — I guess because normally you see the genre from the male perspective, and also we were interested in the idea of espionage that felt real. Like a phone can do so many things — what’s the potential for espionage in an iPhone?
Too many times you’re watching espionage movies and it’s like all the laws of physics are suspended, it’s CGI and gadgetry to the max, so you’re not actually feeling the stakes of espionage. There’s always a device that’s going to get you out of something, to repel from this balcony, that sort of thing. Zal and I wondered about making a spy movie in which it’s just a female MacGyver and all she has is a paper clip.
And [Marling’s character, Sarah] is a flawed being as well. She can do a lot with that paper clip, but the question is whether if she’ll use it for the right purpose.
Exactly, totally. What do you do with that? It felt like the stakes would be more intense; you’d be more worried for her wellbeing.
The film is obviously in step with our currently political and environmental climates, to the point of some “Jams” being influenced directly from real-life headlines. Were there any leanings to include more precise reference points of change — from Zuccotti Park to Tunisia or Egypt — in versions of the film?
Yeah, definitely. There were a wave of things that were happening then and I think we just — because of that summer — had our finger on the pulse a bit earlier. The opening oil spill jam was one of the first scenes that we wrote, and this idea of a group of young people breaking into the summer Hamptons estate of an oil company CEO and creating an oil spill in his house — the visual image of that, and then its meme flying all over the web, we thought: “There’s a movie here.”
And then a week later the BP oil spill happened. And two weeks before we started shooting — in pre-production — Occupy Wall Street happened. It was something where we realized this is happening all around us, and what we had to do is basically tell this story as fast as we could to get it out there. The funny thing about that is it’s only become more prescient. I don’t think any of these ideas are going away. I just think they’re evolving, and we’re all doing our best to make sense of the very morally grey time we’re living.
You drew influence for “Sound Of My Voice” from your experiences in Los Angeles upon moving there, and then similarly on your summer away shortly afterwards for “The East.” Do you find the best material comes from those real-life parallels of change in your life?
Maybe — actually, when I was at Georgetown the other day, they were asking about acting and writing; I didn’t study either in school and I think that was really useful, and I didn’t realize that until now. Studying other things and living other things is where ideas in writing come from. I think it’s more useful to have an actor study philosophy or physics than it is to study acting.
I even feel this now. I want to take a break at the end of the summer and write again, and the thing that I feel is I can’t write again until I go out and live more. I just have to go live — get my heart broken, travel someplace unexpected with nothing but my passport. You have to go in search of adventure, because otherwise our lives can become really too comfortable. We feel really safe in these bubbles. You find yourself in a world where you’re only interacting with people who think like you, whom you don’t question too much. I keep trying to find a way to get outside that, to talk to the people I disagree with, or the people that move me in a different direction.
Could that mean moving back toward your documentary roots, like in [2004 film co-directed by Cahill and Marling] “Boxers and Ballerinas?”
That was a interesting experience, for sure: living in Cuba, following those kids, their bravery, thinking about defecting from your homeland when you’re 18 years old; leaving you family and country behind in pursuit of a career, or what you think freedom might be? Those are really challenging questions.
But if I had to think about where I’m interested in going next, I would say someplace I’ve never been, for sure, and a character that I haven’t done before. Someone was saying to me earlier, “What are you interested in doing?” and I said “Comedy.” They were surprised, like “But all you do is serious stuff!” I think in my life I’m more prone to find the humor in something than I am to cry about it, but for some reason the roles that have come out so far have been these intense films. So when I think about it, I want to do something with a lot of humor and light in it. I don’t know exactly what that is yet, though.
You’ve come up with Mike Cahill and Zal and experienced success with both; what do you find in your writing partnerships?
When you write with a partner, a really cool thing happens where it’s like a Venn diagram, and you’re two separate circles but there’s some overlap you share together, and you write from that overlap. And I think the more time you spend together the more you move each other’s circles and there’s more shared space to write from.
Mike and I, we really geek out about the surreal and ethereal, and also a sort of cosmic exploration. Zal and I, we have been geeking out on infiltration, espionage, deep cover — the idea of creating characters and convincing people that you are this identity, and playing with that. That’s the amazing thing about writing with someone — you’re looking for the overlap and then you talk from there. It’s a much better approach than writing alone. Like when I had to sit and write that Georgetown speech, I found myself thinking it’s really lonely, with no one around to read this draft and tell me if it’s bullshit or not.
Have you shot your part in [Mike Cahill’s follow-up to “Another Earth”] “I, Origins” yet?
We shot that in the winter, and Mike’s editing it right now. I’ve seen some of it, and it’s so cool. Michael Pitt is such a talented actor, and it was so much fun making a movie with him. I think you’ll dig it.
Catch “The East” when it hits cinemas May 31st. Check out a new clip from the film below.