Writer-director Zal Batmanglij and his writing partner and star Brit Marling attracted attention with their 2011 collaboration “Sound of My Voice,” about an attempt to crack a cult headed by a woman who claims to be from the future. They return with “The East,” about a private intelligence operative (played by Marling) who infiltrates an eco-activist group that attacks firms polluting the environment. As they explained in a recent Dallas interview, the project came out of their own personal odyssey.
“In the summer of 2009, we did go and live with various direct-action groups—anarchist farmers, collectives—and so we had direct experience with these people and were very moved by their way of living and also fascinated by it,” Batmanglij explained. “But when it came time to write the movie, The East is a completely imagined group inspired by that summer and our travels, more for the texture of the world and the texture of the characters, not as much the actual characters or the actual direct actions that they do. The direct actions they do were inspired by our frustration with the headlines we were reading in the news. While The East is imagined, the actual corporate crimes in the story are all exactly as they were—they’re not hyperbolized or dramatized. There are drugs on the market that have permanent side effects; there are companies that are poisoning the water and causing kids to die. That’s all proven and documented. So we figured out a fictional way to bring those stories into the light and have some sort of dramatic interaction with them.
“We spent a lot of time researching this stuff on the Internet. We were fascinated by dumpster diving. We’d read a lot about it, and I guess the first step is just giving yourself permission to go out and go for it. What’s funny is that we’re all living in this script every day and we don’t even realize it.
“When you start really experiencing it, it kind of blows your mind. At first we were just watchers, anthropologists, because we were newbies. So we didn’t know, and we had to be with people who were more experienced than we were. And these people are very open to teaching—that’s something they believe in, this idea of communal learning. And we would go to dumpsters and watch people forage through the dumpsters. The dumpster behind any grocery store is locked. But when you pick the lock and open it up, it’s filled with all this very edible food that has to be thrown out by the sell-by date, because that’s the law. That food is all headed for a landfill—it’s just going to be buried in all its plastic wrapping and forever forgotten. And these guys take that food and another group of people in another spot, whether it’s rural or urban, would cook that food and feed a hundred plus people with it. And something that we noticed in almost every community that we interacted with is that they would invite the people who were living in the community who were not part of the collective to have lunch, for example. There would be kids who were going hungry and they were coming and being fed with this food. And when you watch with your own eyes these kids getting fed, you can no longer be just an anthropologist. You become a participant—you become a believer in this.”
Marling added, “That’s part of what’s amazing about many of these groups—their openness, sharing all the knowledge that they have. We were just living our lives, we weren’t looking to tell a story about it. We were looking to have an experience and explore for ourselves this question of how you live your life in an accountable or meaningful way. And we learned a lot from them. They were incredibly open, and we were transformed by the experience. One of the most important things we learned from them was the idea of collective living, and working in a tribe, and all the meaning and feeling that comes from living in a group or a family.”
Batmanglij said, “A lot of these groups are direct-action groups. They believe in waking up the world—they believe that we’re on a train headed for a brick wall, so they want to get as many people to wake up and say that we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to stop this train…”
To which Marling added, “…or get off the train and lay track in a different direction. Hard and muddy and exhausting work, but potentially life-saving.”
Batmanglij emphasized how the experience had changed them in terms of their professional attitudes: “Once you eat three meals a day from a dumpster, you start seeing what is needed, what is available and what is waste versus bounty very differently. So we’re not disenfranchised from movie-making—we’re not poor. We have richness not in dollars, but in lots of other young people who are hungry to make movies around us. All we had to do was get those people together, and all of a sudden we were in a completely different space.
“When we came back, we looked around and realized the most valuable thing we had was each other. We had been making films at school”—the two had been classmates at Georgetown—“and we felt that we had to learn to do it within the system, and I think that summer taught us that we really didn’t need to do that—the thing of value was the tribe that we had, and learning to make films just for the pleasure of making them, and gathering whatever resources you had around you and being sort of a scavenger to make a movie.”
In constructing a script around what they’d experienced, the duo fashioned the notion of a woman trying to infiltrate such an activist group. And they determined to make her a conservative ex-FBI agent now working for a private firm.
Marling explained, “A huge part of it is, we love espionage movies—we love Pakula films from the seventies… and first and foremost we wrote to craft a great espionage thriller set in a landscape that is new, that we hadn’t seen before. It was exciting to try to write something that would keep you on the edge of your seat that was set in the now, and about what’s happening now and the things that we’re thinking and feeling now.
“We read a lot about it, and there have been articles and discussions about how forty percent of our intelligence work is now outsourced to private companies, and that’s an unusual place to be in, because we think of espionage having some oversight from the democratic process, that it’s somehow connected to government. But now a lot of it is connected to private enterprise, and that’s a brave new world to be in. It was an interesting place to set an espionage story in.”
Batmanglij added, “And the more we researched espionage, which is something that’s always fascinated us—because we met in college in Washington, D.C., which is a hotbed of that—the more we realized that a lot of it is being outsourced.
Marling spoke of the development of her character: “We were really interested in the idea that Sarah, who’s a religious person and a very moral person, finds herself in a very moral gray zone, in which there are no obvious answers. She’s ex-FBI, so she comes from being trained in law enforcement, and laws are based on a body of ethics that hopefully society agrees upon. But in corporate espionage, which is the job she does now, it isn’t law enforcement, and what you’re really connected to is a profit margin. So I think she finds herself in a really morally gray zone during her deep cover experience. I think that her experience in connecting with other people and connecting with nature actually makes her spirituality deeper. That’s why the film ends with her prayer. Even though her perspective has changed, she’s still the same person.”
And Batmanglij added, “This is not a woman who loses her religion—she’s a woman who finds her religion.
“I think it’s about one woman’s journey—she’s conservative, she’s religious, she goes deep cover into a group that’s very different from her, politically and ideologically, she’s very clear on that—but she touches them and they touch her in a human way.”
But Marling added that the theme of the film was broader. “I think that for all of our connection nowadays on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, we also for some reason feel more isolated and alone than we ever have before,” she said. “And I think it’s from the lack of real human contact. Why is there such a fear of intimacy and connection now, and yet such a desire to be intimate and connect? I think after that summer, that was something we came away with—how much meaning and sense of purpose and satisfaction come from being in a group.”
And Batmanglij emphasized, “It’s hardly our intention to preach anything. If we’re saying anything at all, it’s that the idea that collectives are interesting. We just want to ask questions, have a dialogue. It’s great, because we traveled around America that summer, and now we get to travel around America again and share this film with people. And whether they like it or don’t like it, all that matters is that people are having a conversation about it. And we’ve found that people are very hungry to talk about these ideas.
“We’re not big believers in exposition,” he added, pointing to the fact that the film leaves questions unanswered and a strong degree of ambiguity. “We think that audiences are so smart these days, it’s more fun just to put things there and let them put them together if they want to.”