In the summer of 2009, Zal Batmanglij and his writing partner, Brit Marling, hit a wall. “I wanted to be a director, Brit wanted to be an actor, and we couldn’t make it work,” he says. So the pair left L.A. and began traveling, living in squats and on farms, sometimes sleeping on floors next to 20 strangers. “It was eye-opening for me,” says Batmanglij, adding that the experience pushed them to finally shed their inhibitions. “We came back and realized we could make movies the way we had lived on the road—by ourselves, within a collective.” What followed was last year’s Sound of My Voice, their psychological thriller in which a journalist couple investigates a mysterious cult whose leader is played by Marling, and their latest film, The East, the story of a young female operative (also played by Marling) assigned to infiltrate a group of eco-vigilantes targeting major corporations. “All of the crimes are based on real corporate crimes we read about,” the 32-year-old filmmaker says of The East, which also stars Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page. “We wanted to take our country’s eye-for-an-eye justice system and apply it to an oil spill, a pharmaceutical drug that has devastating side effects, a company that’s poisoning children’s bathwater.” Both projects became critical favorites after their premieres at Sundance, making Batmanglij (whose brother, Rostam, is a member of the band Vampire Weekend) one of Hollywood’s most promising newcomers. Still, he doesn’t necessarily see The East as a film with an agenda. “We don’t have anything to preach,” Batmanglij says. “We don’t have any answers. All we have as writers are questions.
What drew you into filmmaking?
When I was a kid I loved TV and movies a lot. It’s funny, because this new generation of filmmakers that I feel like I’m a part of, we grew up with home video. The generation before us, their first experience with visual storytelling was going to the movies for the first time. My first experience was watching videos with my family. It’s a different look, it’s a different mood.
You and Brit are working a lot together, along with Mike Cahill. What do you guys all share as far as your perspective on filmmaking?
The three of us met in college, we hit a lot of walls together. We fought together. We made up together. We travelled together.
What was it that drew you to Brit Marling when you met after college?
She has this really intense intelligence and and yet she’s also very inviting. A lot of people who have a fierce intelligence either are very wary of other people, or they’re just sort of overwhelmed. Brit’s not like that. She invites you in, and that mix of empathy and self-confidence, which was very appealing then, is still very appealing today. I hope to be able to capture it properly onscreen.
When you sat down to develop The East, what was your objective?
We were frustrated and fascinated by the devastating quality of the stories we were reading online. There is an antibiotic that produces side effects that are irreversible. There were kids dying from brain tumors from the arsenic in their bathwater. So we were so frustrated by that. We were thinking, our justice system is based on eye-for-an-eye justice, and we wanted to sort of take that justice and apply it to an oil spill, a pharmaceutical that has devastating side effects, a company that is poisoning children’s bathwater. And we started playing, and then of course,] that’s the beauty of being involved in storytelling, it never goes the way you want it to go. We’re not preaching it and we don’t have any answers. All we have as writers is questions.
I’m thinking of Sound of My Voice, as well, and there’s a cult involved in that story.
I don’t think The East is a cult. A cult has a spiritual underpinning. I think this is more of a political, direct action group, a collective.
What’s the fascination with these groups of people who share a cause?
I’d love to join one. I’m very pro-collective, pro-cult. I think it’s a way to keep back the alienation we all feel. I think one of the best and freest resources is each other, and with Mike and Brit and I, I think that we sort of navigated our 20s as a sort of tribe, as a way to survive it.
You were actually able to spend some time with some anarchist collectives, right?
Yeah, we didn’t do that as research, we did that just because we had hit a wall in Los Angeles. I wanted to be a director, Brit wanted to be an actress, and we couldn’t make that work. It’s very hard to infiltrate the filmmaking community, and so we decided to go on a journey to explore America’s underground, more out of the fact that we were fascinated by it and we didn’t have any money.
Watching this film, I was really surprised how much this collective was just like a group of friends and how they got by with what limited resources they had, they were still able to hang out like a group of friends. Did you experience that as well? Were you surprised by how they lived?
I wouldn’t say I was surprised. I was fascinated to learn more about it and to experience it myself and so I was open. I was surprised by how much I thought it was the correct way to live. Of all the ways I’ve lived, and maybe being a kid, that was the most natural, immersed. When I was a kid I didn’t think about other things other than playing and being in that space, and I felt the same thing when we were travelling and living in squats and on farms with 100 other kids at a time, sometimes 20 kids to a bedroom sleeping on the floor, I felt that it was very natural. The way lions are meant to be in prides we’re meant to be in tribes.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from spending time with them?
I don’t know, it wasn’t like backpacking across Europe when you graduate college. It was more like, Wow, I realize I have been missing something for a long time. I didn’t realize that what was missing was myself and that I couldn’t find myself without finding other people. And yes, Brit and I both chose consciously to come back, because we realized that there is an abundant free natural resource completely available to us at home, and that was other young people who also want to do the same things we did. And if you just harness that energy then we could make Sound of My Voice and make The East. And sure enough we come home, and just made Sound of My Voice. We stopped asking for permission, we stopped waiting for people to tell us, “you can make this movie.” We just decided to make it.
Do you want to stay working with a smaller budget and having a little bit more autonomy with your projects?
Yeah. I mean I’d love to work on a large scale, but we have no idea in five years what the landscape is going to be like. It’s so easy to say in an interview, “oh yeah, I just love small movies” but that’s not the truth. I admire the American auteurs a great deal, like James Cameron or Chris Nolan. They paint on hundred million dollar canvases. You have to work your way up to that, you have to earn that.
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