With “The East,” director Zal Batmanglij crafts a combination of spy thriller and intimate romance against the backdrop of eco-terrorism, pitting the titular anarchist collective against the faceless corporations polluting the environment. It’s a group facing an established system — exactly how Batmanglij felt when he, alongside “Another Earth” director Mike Cahill and lead Brit Marling, moved to Hollywood in 2008 to try their luck at filmmaking.
Struggles early on led Batmanglij and Marling away from LA for a summer of traveling amongst “freegan” communities, dumpster-diving and spending as little money as possible. This experience formed the start to what would eventually become “The East,” and Batmanglij spoke to us recently about that journey, as well as his experience collaborating with Fox Searchlight on his first studio project. But first, he discussed the possibility of releasing his AFI thesis film, “The Recordist” (also starring Marling), in future.
Batmanglij: The first couple days at AFI I was just in such culture shock, and then I started watching the old cycle and thesis films there. At AFI you make three cycle films your first year and then you make a thesis film your second year, and I watched Darren Aronofsky‘s cycle films and was blown away — there was a young Lucy Liu, who was just part of that generation. And I just wanted to be part of that tradition. I’m so glad I stayed there, they were the best two years of my life, but I think it’s better to see those films with as much distance as possible, because you just laugh at the times in which they were made and yet you’re still moved by them because a good story’s a good story.
With “Sound Of My Voice” and now “The East,” as writers you and Brit seem to prize intimate group dynamics couched in a genre bent. When writing together, does one of you lean more toward that genre element?
No, I think our vines have been growing together for so long, it’s like they’re intertwined — it’s hard to tell who thinks what. Sometimes I try to sit on it so I can answer these questions better to figure out what the truth is, but I can’t. When I was 17 I grew from being something like 5’2″ to 6 foot — I grew a lot — and I don’t remember growing… I feel like the same thing is true of writing. You’re waiting for Santa Claus to come down the chimney, but you just fall asleep at some point and then the magic happens.
What were the circumstances surrounding the summer of ’09, and what did you come away with?
Well, we’d written “Sound Of My Voice” and we couldn’t get it made. The economy collapsed — I had come out to LA to be a director, but we couldn’t get those jobs, so we taught ourselves to write, which of course took a lot longer than we realized. We just hit a wall, we couldn’t get our films made, we had no money, and so we decided to go have an adventure. We quit our day jobs, we hit the road, originally for about 10 days to just explore freeganism — actually it was just to explore how other young people were constructing a meaningful life. It was fascinating. Those 10 days became a whole summer. We had to pry ourselves away from it at the end.
Was there any backlash from the communities that you were involved with after you decided to return to your lives?
No, I think there was always a sense of freedom and integrity to those communities, and there’s a real traveling culture — I don’t think anyone thought much of it. It was us who were wondering what were doing by leaving. But we realized something on the road, something that changed our lives, which is that we had access to a free abundant natural resource back home: other young people who were hungry to do what we wanted to do. So if we just tapped into that resource, anything was possible.
So we came back with what we learned from our trip and made “Sound of My Voice” — we made it as a collective, for almost no money, $135,000. We harnessed those people who wanted to make movies in Los Angeles. I applied to Sundance as a way to set a deadline for the movie, cause I thought I’d be so depressed after production that I wouldn’t be able to edit it. I never really thought we’d get in. But then we did, and I was so happy, especially since “Another Earth” also got in —
And now Sundance has become such a massive part of your guys’ shared narrative.
Right, and then when both movies got sold to Fox Searchlight I just couldn’t believe it. Everything felt like a gift on that movie because how we made it was so pure. And then we took some of that same energy and made “The East” with it.
There were the tales on “Sound Of My Voice” of production borrowing iMacs to edit the film, and then returning them later as a cost-cutting measure. On “The East,” were you saying to Patricia Clarkson, “We’re going to need to return your wardrobe in about two hours?” How did you feel your creative process change with a bigger budget?
Well, you’d be surprised at how many actors are hungry for an authentic experience as we were. I felt like we took the same thing — the abundant resources — and on the “The East” just asked, “Who wants to do something cool?” It wasn’t everybody, but the script was a litmus test for that feeling. Ellen Page wanted to make a movie about something. Alexander Skarsgård said no to bigger money opportunities to do this movie, and that was the kind of energy on set.
And when did Ridley and Tony Scott climb onboard as producers?
Well, Michael Costigan who ran Scott Free for many years, saw “Sound Of My Voice” at Sundance and came up to me and started a conversation. Remember, I’d made this movie totally in a vacuum; we hadn’t been in the Sundance labs or anything. A lot of the other movies that get found at Sundance have actually been identified long before that, but Mike, Brit and I were working in a total cave. So when Michael came up to me I thought he just really liked my film, I didn’t realize he ran Scott Free.
And when two days later he’d gotten a copy of “The East,” because people like Scott Free can do things like that, and he called us up and said, “Me, Ridley, and Tony would love to make this movie.” I said, “Are you sure?” Because this is a movie that could be made in sort of an anarchist style.
So there was hesitance over going with Fox Searchlight to make the film?
Yeah, definitely, but what’s ironic is that there’s something really collectivist about making your movie with a studio, because there are a lot of people whose heart and souls are in the film and not just yours. On “Sound of My Voice” I was the first and last word, which is kind of a dictatorship. I like collectives though.
How do you replicate a community like the East anarchist collective with your actors? Did you put them through any sort of living period together before filming?
It actually happened more organically than that. We were in Shreveport, Louisiana which was kind of like summer camp, because there weren’t any nightclubs, we didn’t go to bars — we just hung out with each other. We made this movie in 26 days, for very little money: you know, one-third the budget of “Silver Linings Playbook” and we’re a thriller. We made the movie for very little money and time, so there was an economy to the way you made the movie and on-set. So when we had to shoot the surgery scene, in a low-budget movie that’d usually be two to three days. That’s a low-budget movie. We shot it in an afternoon, in three hours. There was just a sense of seriousness that was involved in the day to day work. I love that. I think day-by-day the film just pulled itself together in a weird way, and it wasn’t just the cast.
And if we had done this sort of boot camp for the cast — which I had thought about, but ran out of time to organize it — I think it would’ve made the cast close but not necessarily the whole crew. What was cool about our experience was that one time, during a scene, I saw a tear run down the focus puller’s cheek. It was that kind of movie. When we did the “spin the bottle” scene, we shot it the traditional way a couple times. And then I said, “You guys have been together for six weeks, play spin the bottle.” The whole crew — grips, make-up artists — just surrounded me at the monitors, leaning in to see who’s gonna land on who, who was gonna kiss whom.
So that was completely improvised?
It was, and the improvised version is the one that’s in the movie. But they knew which beats to hit, so if Brit ever got Alex, she knew to ask him to kiss her, and so on.
Was that occasionally loose approach thrown away when it came to the corporate scenes with Clarkson and the agency?
No, all the scenes were moving pretty fast, but you’re right, those scenes never had that sort of organic feel, and also, the cast had all left at that point. It was just Patty, who flew in. She was a fun lady. But you mentioned returning the wardrobe — what was cool is that you could ask her that. Patty signed onto the movie because she trusted me and Brit and the script, and she gave me that trust. I never felt like Patty knew how to do something better, which sometimes older actors who’ve been doing it for a long time will do. She was excited to go on the adventure with us.
The most fun part of “The East” for me was the sense of trust between everybody. And I don’t know if that has to do with me — I think we just got lucky maybe. But I love the DP [Roman Vasyanov (“End of Watch”)] and the production designer [Alex DiGerlando (“Beasts Of The Southern Wild”)] so much — we would spend hours and hours together, and we would fight all the time, but more like in a playful way. Nipping at each other’s collars. For example at night, when we’d finished doing pre-production all day, we’d show up at the East house, which had been an alternative lifestyle nightclub in Shreveport, that had been black and gold and we’d painted over.
We would show up and paint the wall different shades of green — we had four greens. And then we’d light torches and light the wall, and with an iPhone we’d film it. We’d debate for hours on which green we should shoot and you know, does that really make a difference for the movie? No, but the difference is the trust. No one could touch us on that. So when the actors came, after six weeks of us building that trust, they sort of saw it right away, that effort that had been put into making East house. Toby Kebbell was like, “I wanna sleep in Doc’s room.” I told him, “Okay, there are no lights at night though!”
Did cast and crew stay over at the East house set?
I don’t think crew stayed but a lot of the actors did. You know, they could feel that Roman and I had this simpatico relationship, and we were shooting crazy amounts of pages in a day. They trusted us back, and that cycle keeps going back and forth. I saw Brit do stuff performance stuff that was just so noble. And Ellen is so brave in certain scenes — she’s naked in the movie, and she did it so fearlessly. She showed up on set in a robe and just dropped it and did the scene.
“Sound Of My Voice” was written from a very holistic storytelling perspective, where the possibilities for a sequel were definitely there. “The East” is similar in its ending; do you intend on exploring that option?
Sometimes in the back of my head I think that Brit and I are suited to long-form, you know our stories are rich. “The East” could easily be a TV show. So no, we didn’t write it with intention of a sequel, it was always intended as a single film.
Do you feel the film [MINOR SPOILERS] ends on a hopeful note, or do you think Marling’s character is just getting into another web of corruption?
I feel like it’s almost as if the film’s events never happened at its end. It’s sort of like “25th Hour.” Did that ending happen or not happen? You know, when he says you will get to be old, and he’s still just driving to the thing. The movie could’ve then come back to her in the mirror. It’s sort of like what we’re all capable of if we put our minds to it. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in order to make changes, even for her to make changes.
“The East” lands in cinemas May 31st.