Two years after “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice” catapulted her to indie-icon status at Sundance, Brit Marling is back in Park City with her latest writing-acting effort, “The East.” Directed and co-written by her “Sound of My Voice” collaborator Zal Batmanglij, the Fox Searchlight thriller centers on an ex-FBI agent (Marling) who infiltrates an anarchist collective known as The East suspected of attacking corporate CEOs. Once embedded within the group, however, she soon finds herself on their side.
Indiewire sat down with Marling and co-star Ellen Page, who plays a member of The East, to discuss the timely aspects of the film, Marling and Batmanglij’s personal ties to the screenplay and why Sundance founder Robert Redford is a revolutionary in his own way.
Brit, I first met you back when “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice” premiered at Sundance. Watching “The East,” I had to pinch myself. Did you?
Marling: Oh, gosh. You know, it’s funny. Some things change, but some things stay the same. When you’re in the Eccles, it’s the same totally terrifying feeling. You make films in an incubator. And this time it was even more intense because you make it with people you really love and respect like Ellen and Alexander [Saarsgard] and everybody at Searchlight. And then you just have no idea how it’s going to play. But I think it was better than anybody could have expected. The audience seemed really engaged. So that was wild. The story has been a long time coming and it was an intense experience for us all.
At the screening this morning, the first person to ask a question during the Q&A introduced herself as an anarchist. Did either of you anticipate folks like her coming to the film to see how their lives were portrayed on screen?
Page: I don’t know if I thought about that too much. Yeah, I guess I’m interested in how anarchists feel about how their world is depicted. I think whenever you go create a world you’re interested in hearing from the people that are actually in it. You hope to make them feel ok. I don’t typically think about that while I’m making a movie. But I’m very specifically interested in how the audience in general will respond to this one, just because I think it’s so ethically murky — the ideas that it presents. I’m so intrigued to see people’s responses.
Ellen, did you meet anyone similarly minded to your character to prepare for the role?
Page: No. I mean, I’d been in a world that is different. I studied permaculture design in Oregon on an eco village. It’s different, obviously, but I met a lot of people there. I met this young girl, she was 15, she was in our class, and she had dropped out of school and was a freegan. I was just in awe of her. She just made me feel horrible about my consumption and my justification of it. So I’d met people and had known people sort of in that world. But then also I read anarchist manifestos and books that were actually really incredible and intriguing. A lot of the ideas are actually common sense, and that’s what is actually kind of unfortunate.
Brit, I wasn’t aware until today’s Q&A that “The East” was actually inspired by real-life experience. Can you talk a bit about your and Zal’s personal ties to the screenplay?
Marling: Yeah. Before we had made “Sound of My Voice” and “Another Earth,” we were living in L.A. and trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives. I don’t think we really knew. We had heard about ‘Buy Nothing Day.’ Have you heard about this?
Marling: It’s just this day where you basically buy nothing. You don’t buy gas for you car. You don’t buy groceries. You try to figure out how to make do with the things you already have. When you spend a day doing that, it kind of changes your perspective on things. So then we got this idea that we wanted to do a ‘buy nothing’ summer and we wanted to travel and we wanted to learn how to train hop and we wanted to sleep on roof tops and dumpster dive and explore this world of anarchy and freegans and intentional communities. And we did it and it was… I’m not the same person. I just was different on the other side.
It’s not even about the politics actually. I feel like one of the things our generation’s, maybe everybody’s, struggling with is stuff like isolation and alienation. More technology doesn’t seem to connect people necessarily. These groups of people seemed so connected. They seemed engaged with one another. They seemed awake and living their lives in this way that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I think we were both really moved by that.
The summer kind of ended and we were like, ‘OK, maybe we should go find some jobs.’ We were still mulling over these ideas and couldn’t make sense of our experience. That’s when we sort of started writing it. I don’t think we even necessarily thought it would be a movie. It was before “Sound of My Voice” and “Another Earth.” We had no career. I was pimping myself out as a camera operator to make money. But we were trying to make sense of the experience and make sense of the question: how do you live your life? At the same time, the movies that we watch and that we’re interested in are really high-concept thrillers. I love the “Bourne” movies; I love espionage. I love to go to the theater and be entertained. So we thought we’d bring those things together. Hopefully it worked (laughs).Ellen, how much did your role rub off on you? During the Q&A, you expressed your aversion to mass consumption. Clearly that stems from your encounter with the classmate you mentioned, but did the experience of embodying Izzy have an especially profound effect on you and on the way you’re going to lead your life going forward?
Page: I think they’re ideas that I’ve always been really interested in. I think it’s complicated. Knowing and being aware of how my existence suppresses a lot of the world: I know that! I don’t like that that happens. I would like to do the best that I can to have a minimal impact. But even what I think is a minimal impact is absurd. It’s such privilege and luxury compared to so many people. It’s hard. I understand Izzy and I think she’s really brave. Sometimes I wish I were more brave. And then I think, well she is running away and living in the woods; is that brave? Should we look at this infrastructure that we’ve inherited and try to do the best we can to create positive change? That’s complicated. I can go back and forth on it.
I think it’s a tricky time to be alive when we know that there’s incredible disparity of wealth, where we’re destroying the environment, you name it. It’s a tough time to be a person. It’s hard to look at all those things, but I think it’s important. I’m just as guilty and responsible for all of the things that I think about – and I’m aware of that. It’s a complicated thing to figure out what one does with that information.
Watching “The East” at Sundance made me think of the festival’s dichotomy: the commercial (the corporate sponsorships/giveaways, the parties etc.) vs. the truly independent. What do you make of that?
Marling: I think there’s a dichotomy to the work of being an actor, just like there is in life right now. The dichotomy is that your job description as an actor is to try and be present, authentic, genuine, open and vulnerable. And a lot of the aspects of the business surrounding it work in the opposite direction. They make you want to shut down, protect yourself, throw up a guard, be phony. Makeup, hair… all this stuff puts on layers and layers of masks. So it’s two things working in opposite directions in this career; the same way that it’s kind of where we are in the world too. That’s hard.
But I do think this festival does something really unique. When Robert [Redford] came up with the idea, it was actually super fucking anarchist. To do labs in the middle of Utah in show and bring these young filmmakers out here? I remember him telling me stories about how his agent and manager were like, ‘You lost your mind! You’re being offered the biggest film roles in your career and instead we can’t get a hold of you because you’re out in Utah dragging people off the ski lifts to come see films they never heard of before at the Egyptian…’ Of course now we look at Sundance as an institution, but he was a revolutionary and an anarchist thinker who created something that’s now an institution. Nobody saw that coming. The space that he’s created here has really protected artists, actors and filmmakers, so they can leave the city behind, take off that armor, come here and be vulnerable – and hopefully keep making things that matter.
Do you feel free here, Ellen? On the way to this interview I saw Kristen Bell get mobbed by a throng of paparazzi after leaving her car.
Page: I mean, yeah, because that’s what the focus is right now. I’m fortunate because no one really cares about me or what I do, because “Juno” was a while ago. It’s not like my life is difficult. I just live my life.
This festival is amazing. It creates such an incredible platform for young and older filmmakers. I was here with a movie [“Hard Candy”] when I was 17, and that changed things so much for me. I’d been working in Canada and that was my first American movie.
It’s an extraordinary place. The reality is that the sponsorship and the branding, it kind of works hand in hand. It’s just like when you shoot larger films that allow you to do the smaller films, but the larger films are great, too. The opportunity to work with Christopher Nolan and shoot a movie like “Inception” was absolutely astounding. Every day I was excited to go to work. He actually works in an incredibly intimate way.
I think it’s so much more individualistic. It’s so easy to paint big movies with a brush and indie movies with a brush. I think what’s going to become more interesting, especially with people as insanely talented as Brit, Zal and Mike Cahill, is I feel like they’ve sort of inspired so many people. People are responding to the fact that they just made something. They made something awesome and they just got it out there. And hopefully that can allow other people to have those opportunities, too. And hopefully the relationship between the larger movies and the smaller movies can connect more.