By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 30, 2013 at 2:14PM
Brit Marling is a fascinating example of a brainy talent who in 2009 turned her back on the financial security of Wall Street to follow her yen to make movies. She and her Georgetown buddy Zal Batmanglij, while they were unable to get work in film, spent that first summer trawling around the country with backpacks living off the grid with anarchist collectives, direct action groups and freegans, dumpster diving and train hopping, which later became rich fodder for their current film, their second together, the terrorist thriller "The East" (May 31).
See our flipcam interview and trailer below.
After co-directing a 2004 documentary with Mike Cahill ("Boxers and Ballerinas"), Marling broke out at Sundance 2011 as the co-writer-producer-star of two provocatively watchable indie features directed by Georgetown grads, Cahill's haunting sci-fi film "Another Earth" and Batmanglij's "The Sound of My Voice," in which she held the screen as a mesmerizing cult leader.
The films proved yet again that thanks to the micro-budget production paradigm of high-def hand-held cameras, low-cost actors and found locations, there is no barrier for entry into the film industry. "The technology is allowing young filmmakers to do it now. You don't have to wait for permission to do this anymore," Marling said at the time. "Now you just need to pick a start date." (My 2011 video interview with her is here.)
Both films were acquired by Fox Searchlight, which also backed Marling's next collaboration with Batmanglij, "The East," which premiered at Sundance 2013 and opens May 31. (Rotten Tomatoes reviews here.) Batmanglij and Marling thought they would make the film for $250,000 at a summer camp for actors--"it's about anarchy," Marling reminds, but Searchlight insisted on backing it at $6.5 million. Two weeks after they got the green light, Occupy Wall Street happened. "We didn't realize how much these groups were where the culture was moving," she says. "Their demands were so prescient." They shot the film in 27 days. (More about Batmanglij and the production here.)
Marling has also chosen well as an actress, co-starring in two smart movies, as Richard Gere's Wall Street banker daughter in "Arbitrage" and opposite Shia LaBeouf in Robert Redford's "The Company You Keep." What distinguishes Marling is that unlike many actresses dealing with Hollywood's impossible standards of beauty and allure to the opposite sex, she's landing roles that take advantage of her ability to play intelligent women. She won't take a part that she isn't comfortable with, she says.
And with her own indie projects, she can write convincing parts that don't rely on conventional stereotypes. In "The East," Marling plays conservative, ambitious ex-FBI agent Sarah, who works for a private corporate security firm. Her boss (Patricia Clarkson) sends her undercover to infiltrate one threatening sleeper cell, The East, which is targeting and punishing corporations for their misdeeds. She convinces the group to let her join them, although the charismatic leader (Alexander Skarsgard), to whom she is attracted, and his lieutenant (Ellen Page) don't really trust her. Sarah is strong, resourceful and capable of guile, yet she doesn't really know herself, and gets confused about what she really believes.
In writing the movie, Marling liked the idea of "an action film for a girl," she admits, but not one in which the woman is playing just another version of a male action hero. "What is it like when a woman is at the center of an espionage thriller?" she wondered. While "The East" in some ways fails to be a completely satisfying meal, that's partly because it's ambitiously mixing genres--it's a ripped-from-headlines romantic coming-of-age thriller--and doesn't follow the studio thriller playbook. It follows its own thoughtful, idiosyncratic course, without relying on boy/girl tropes or a neatly tied up conclusion. And that's a good thing.
Marling will continue to be someone to watch. Among other things coming up, she has a small part in Cahill's follow-up feature "I Origins," and takes on the role Abraham Lincoln's mother in A.J. Edwards' period history "The Green Blade Rises."