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Director Zal Batmanglij Talks Making 'The East,' Harnessing The Power Of Young Filmmakers & Creating An Anarchist Collective

The Playlist By Charlie Schmidlin | The Playlist May 30, 2013 at 11:22AM

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.
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Zal Batmanglij
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.

"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 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.

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews, Zal Batmanglij, The East


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