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Various Authors 11:01 a.m., April 23
The East tells the story of Sarah (co-writer Brit Marling, interviewed here), a rising star at a private espionage agency who gets assigned to infiltrate the domestic organization that gives the film its name. The group does punishment-fits-the-crime work; during the opening credits, they flood the home of an oil exec with the same crude that his company spilled all over a coastline. It's a fine effort, comfortable with its shifts and complications. My review (together with showtimes) is here; the film opens tomorrow, Friday, June 14.
Matthew Lickona: This is the second film you've made in collaboration with Brit Marling, after Sound of My Voice. Tell me about working together.
Zal Batmanglij: Brit and I met as undergraduates at Georgetown - she was a freshman, and I was a junior. Creative ambitions were not at the top of most people's lists - people wanted to be bankers or lawyers or whatever. My best friend Mike Cahill and I made two short films together, and we submitted them to the first-ever Georgetown film festival, and we won. Brit came up and asked if she could work with us. We've been making movies, by hook or by crook, ever since.
ML: Any details on those hooks and crooks?
ZB: I went to graduate school for directing at AFI in LA, and I wanted to be a director. Brit wanted to be and actress. But it's hard to break into both of those things. So we taught ourselves to write; it took about four years. Four years in, we wrote Sound of My Voice, and very quickly after that, we wrote The East. They're both about people trying to get in - which was exactly what we were trying to do.
ML: How does the writing collaboration work? Does one of you do story, the other, dialogue?
ZB: When we started, we used to write a lot. But then we stopped writing and started talking to each other more and more. It took nine months to write The East, but we only used Final Draft scriptwriting software for the last six weeks. Movies are stories, and you should be able to tell each other the story. It's like an interview - you can tell when you have the other person's attention, and when they're thinking about what they're going to have for lunch.
ML: What were you trying to do with The East?
ZB: We were really inspired by the thrillers of the '70s, things like The Parallax View and All the President's Men. We wanted to do something similar, something that made you think, but was also kind of thrilling. The film was inspired by a journey we'd taken in 2009 through "the underworld of America." We lived with different anarchist squats, anarchist farms, freegan collectives, direct action groups...
ML: Why did the cult element come in?
ZB: I don't like to call The East a cult. We explored cults in Sound of My Voice. I think cults have an underlying spiritual quality. I think The East is political.
ML: But it feels culty at the outset, what with the talk of how the leader is waking people up, and the people wearing masks around the fire, and the humiliating initiation ritual...Of course, just a few minutes later, people are taking a vote about what to do, so it does get political.
ZB: That shift was on purpose. When we first entered into these groups, it was a shock - it felt so alien. We felt so other. We wanted both Sarah and the audience to feel that, and then acclimate. We were trying to dramatize acclimation.
ML: Speaking of things getting political: The East is a political action group, but the motivations for their particular actions are highly personal. It brings things closer to the form of a revenge story.
ZB: A revenge story is a lot more exciting and emotional
ML: But it clouds the question of justice when it comes to these things they're doing.
AB: It does. That's the world we live in. I think the political is personal and the personal is political. You've got gay people leading the charge for gay rights. Straight allies are important, but I think everything that's truly effective politically comes from a place of personal experience.
ML: And since the trees can't rise up for themselves, you have these environmentalists...
ZB: It's funny that we don't see ourselves as part of the environment. We're organic matter, born and bred of this earth.
ML: Still, human drama feels closer to us than environmental drama.
ZB: So you've just answered your question about why we made things personal. We wanted to make something more resonant for people. I think people are feeling frustrated these days. All the things in the movie are based on reality - the drug company is real. The drug is real - there really is an antibiotic on the market that can cause people to end up in wheelchairs.
ML: About that drug. Somebody in the film asks, "How did they even let this stuff on the market?" It's almost as if The East should be going after the government for approving it.
ZB: I don't think the government is that powerful any more. The drug companies fund the studies; the FDA funds very few on its own. The drug is approved based on a study done by the drug company. If it takes six weeks for side effects to kick in, they're not going to include that.
ML: Okay, let's talk about the scene where The East plays spin the bottle. I confess, I wrote in my notes, "Hippie-dippie." It really took things out of the political realm you mentioned. It was touching and sweet, but it was also...
ZB: Twee? One of the things that fascinated me on the road, especially among the anarchists, was their desire for everything to be militant and hardcore. I think they'll have a similar concern. But I'm fascinated by the soft. It's very dangerous, because when you remove irony - and I'm really against irony - it can border on twee. But that scene is one of the few things that we actually experienced on the road. When you remove watching movies, reading the newspaper, smart phones, the Internet, and music, after about six weeks, if you play a game of spin the bottle, it's so exciting and intimate and thrilling. A kiss from a stranger was like What It Was All About. What's funny is that when we tested the movie, that was our lowest testing scene, and it was also our highest testing scene.