The East is the name of a anonymous terrorist group that treats devious corporate bosses with eye-for-an-eye justice. Spill oil in the ocean, we'll flood your mansion with the same material. The title group is led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgaard), and features members played by Ellen Page and Toby Kebbell. Brit Marling plays Sarah, a Christian woman hired by a secret company to infiltrate the East, in order to understand and stop their efforts. Batmanglij and Marling have collaborated before, having co-written Batmanglij's first feature, 2011's Sound of My Voice. Marling also starred in Another Earth from co-writer/director Mike Cahill in 2011, and has recently appeared in The Company You Keep, Arbitrage, and an episode of "Community."
In a roundtable interview, I sat down with this creative duo to discuss ideas from the film, the influence Voice had on their second project, the film's most shocking scene, and more.
The East opens in Chicago on June 7.
Like 'Sound of My Voice', 'The East' is about an outsider coming into this closed community, and getting a second chance at life. What spurs your interest in looking at these cults?
Zal Batmanglij: Sound of My Voice and The East were written around the same time, so there is spillage over both. We were really interested in identity, and fascinated in the idea of deep cover as metaphor for how we all feel in our 20s as we try to figure out who we are. We put on these hats, and we go through these rituals.
Was 'The East' meant to be bigger with than 'Voice' considering casting and locations?
Batmanglij: The East was always meant to have more moving parts. But it wasn't meant to be a different budget. We thought we could do all of those moving parts at a super low budget, doing them in a hyper reality of real life.
What are you doing to maintain artistic integrity? What comes with a bigger studio film? Freedom, flexibility?
Brit Marling: It's funny. On this film, we didn't really have that much time. Lots of locations, big casts, and the film was shot in 25 days. It didn't feel that different from Sound of My Voice in the sense that we were moving fast all of the time. I don't think we ever strayed too far from how we first started making films, which is mostly with the sense that we're going to just roll up our sleeves and do it, and everyone has to wear a lot of hats, and everyone has to come to the project because they love it. That is the energy that creates a tribal feeling, whether you a making a film for a couple thousand dollars or a couple million. If people are coming to set not because they're getting a paycheck, but because they feel the story has meaning, and it gives their life a sense of purpose, that energy is contagious, and we felt that everyday making this movie. And we feel it now talking with the actors. It doesn't feel like you're selling something, it feels like you're having a conversation that you want to have with people about a subject you're interested in.
What was the choice to make Sarah listen to Christian radio?
Batmangij: I think that she's a person of faith, in a very traditional sense of the word. She maintains that the whole movie. The movie ends with the word "Amen." I think she comes to faith in a totally different light by the end of the movie. I think that she believes in a new way.
Brit, in the film your character does numerous bizarre stunts. Did you ever try swallowing a memory card?
Marling: I tried to swallow the Listerine packet. I went to Walgreens and bought one, and really tried to figure it out. I was like, "Could the width of it ... ?" And it is intense and it scrapes [your throat]. I think it can be done. You have to really relax.
Were there any other stunts from you tried yourself?
Batmanglij: We tried everything; we tried the paper clip thing. I remember being at my desk and I threw a paper clip to Brit and said, "How long will it take you to open that up in your mouth?" And a couple days later, she came into the writing room, and put the paper clip in her mouth and it would come out as straight. And I was just filming it on my iPhone, and I thought it was pretty great.
This is a movie that speaks out against the lack of intimacy experienced in currently with our obsession with social media.
Marling: One of the most shocking things I've found about the movie is that people are really unsettled by the group bathing scene. I was playing a video game the other day for the first time, and it's so violent and so intense, and nobody is flinching. And they do that in movies too. So much violence and nobody flinches. And then this scene where people are just in the water, touching each other, it is such a thing about our time that we have become so afraid of intimacy, and contact, and looking someone in the eye, and real connection, that we are just retreating to be the Twitter/Facebook portal.
The piano piece featured in the film is like an exclamation point. Could you share something with us about this pivotal song?
Batmanglij: My brother wrote that piece. It's a great piece, so soulful. I remember when Tobe used to practice it in the house everyday, and Skarsgaard would lie down on the grass and just listen to the music through the open window. It was a very rewarding feeling for me.
Which is more forgivable? To do the right thing for the wrong reasons, or the wrong thing for the right reasons?
Marling: It's so hard to say. I think where I fall, is that I tend to think that the means cannot justify an end. But that's because of how I have started to live my life. I used to think that what you did for a living was separate from who you are, but it's not. The things you do daily is who you are. So I am very preoccupied with the idea that if you do a series of actions to get some end, along the way you are going to become that person. Even if your end you think is noble, you can't avoid the way you got there.
Batmanglij: Or vice versa. I think that doing the right thing is the most important.