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.
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.
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.