The East, Brit Marling

Alongside her co-conspirators and director friends Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij, actress and writer Brit Marling has fashioned a confident path for herself in the film world, simply by creating the roles she’d always wanted to play. In “Sound Of My Voice,” she played Maggie, the enigmatic cult leader possibly from the future, and in her second collaboration with Batmanglij, “The East,” an operative for a private intelligence firm who infiltrates an anarchist collective led by Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Shiloh Fernandez, and Toby Kebbell.

Targeting corporations for their environmental misdeeds, the group’s “Jams” quickly escalate into more dangerous acts, and the film swiftly explores the murky moral depths that occur on either side of the law. Marling sat down with us recently to discuss the film’s subject matter and genre leanings, her thoughts on writing collaborations, and also the initial inspiration for “The East:” one summer in 2009, during which she and Batmanglij hopped trains, dumpster-dived, and generally led a "freegan" lifestyle.

"Zal and I wondered about making a spy movie in which it's just a female MacGyver and all she has is a paper clip."
From the finished product, some might easily assume you and Zal had a unified perspective toward freeganism and direct-action groups when writing it. You’ve spoken about your experiences with both as life-changing, but did you and Zal come out with divided perspectives?
What was interesting is that we may have felt different things from that experience, but we were unsettled and opened up in a similar way. It was so strange because the thing I love the most is movies, but when we came back from that summer it was a long time before I could watch any again. It felt like surrendering to someone else's experience of life when you wanted to be living your own.

A lot of these direct action groups and anarchist collectives become so radically awake and present and engaged with each other that you... I missed it. I still miss it, that feeling of tribal living and of all the entertainment coming from each other, from spin the bottle and making music. There's something really beautiful about it all. But we never really thought we were going to writing anything about it -- we weren't an actor or director then. We were two young, broke people who were interested in what other young people were thinking and feeling about things, and it wasn't until years later that we thought, “What happened to us that summer? Why am I still thinking about it? Why am I still wrestling with all of those ideas, and why have they only become more prescient?” And then we wondered if could we embed that in an espionage thriller.

Recently you gave a commencement speech at Georgetown College, and you were talking about your early days in LA trying to get a spy thriller made. Was that “The East,” or have you been trying multiple projects surrounding that genre?
That one was totally separate, but we've always been interested in the idea of a girl spy -- I guess because normally you see the genre from the male perspective, and also we were interested in the idea of espionage that felt real. Like a phone can do so many things -- what's the potential for espionage in an iPhone?

Too many times you're watching espionage movies and it's like all the laws of physics are suspended, it's CGI and gadgetry to the max, so you're not actually feeling the stakes of espionage. There's always a device that's going to get you out of something, to repel from this balcony, that sort of thing. Zal and I wondered about making a spy movie in which it's just a female MacGyver and all she has is a paper clip.

The East, Brit Marling
And [Marling’s character, Sarah] is a flawed being as well. She can do a lot with that paper clip, but the question is whether if she’ll use it for the right purpose.
Exactly, totally. What do you do with that? It felt like the stakes would be more intense; you'd be more worried for her wellbeing.

The film is obviously in step with our currently political and environmental climates, to the point of some “Jams” being influenced directly from real-life headlines. Were there any leanings to include more precise reference points of change -- from Zuccotti Park to Tunisia or Egypt -- in versions of the film?
Yeah, definitely. There were a wave of things that were happening then and I think we just -- because of that summer -- had our finger on the pulse a bit earlier. The opening oil spill jam was one of the first scenes that we wrote, and this idea of a group of young people breaking into the summer Hamptons estate of an oil company CEO and creating an oil spill in his house -- the visual image of that, and then its meme flying all over the web, we thought: “There's a movie here.”

And then a week later the BP oil spill happened. And two weeks before we started shooting -- in pre-production -- Occupy Wall Street happened. It was something where we realized this is happening all around us, and what we had to do is basically tell this story as fast as we could to get it out there. The funny thing about that is it's only become more prescient. I don't think any of these ideas are going away. I just think they're evolving, and we're all doing our best to make sense of the very morally grey time we're living.