NOTE: THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW WAS DONE AT A PRESS DAY ROUNDTABLE. THE QUESTIONS POSED WITHIN ARE NOT ENTIRELY THAT OF THE REPORTER, BUT RATHER OF THE ROUNDTABLE AS A WHOLE.
Rarely nowadays do thrillers, especially those that dance along the lines of political/social subtexts, inspire dread as well as The East, the new film from Zal Batmanglij. The director, fresh off of his eerie but incredible cult film Sound of my Voice, returns back to the world of independent, underground collectives, this time visiting an eco-terrorism group with a blurry moral code as it is infiltrated by an independent investigation agent, Sarah (Co-writer/star Brit Marling). Batmanglij assembled an incredibly well-balanced cast for The East, including Patricia Clarkson, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Julia Ormond and Jason Ritter. However, his headliners may have been the most attention worthy, as he landed True Blood/Melancholia star Alexander Skarsgaard and Inception/Super star Ellen Page to escape from traditional leading stars to play the most aggressive members of the organization. The film is startling, awe-inspiring and absolutely engaging, doing so much with the little it inherently was given that it will be a surprise if the film doesn’t find an audience. Nevertheless, Fox Searchlight, who release the film tomorrow in limited theaters, offered Diabolique Magazine a spot at the roundtable with other press agents and of course, Mr. Skarsgaard and Ms. Page.
DIABOLIQUE: Zal and Brit went off the grid and joined an separatist collective before the film, which helped them tap into this project. How did you prepare for your roles?
ELLEN PAGE: Well, I have a similar experience in the way that Zal and Brit had their own personal experience in that in research of the movie. Ultimately, it fed into the writing of The East. When I was 22, I studied Permaculture Design and Eco-village Development, on an Eco-village called “LostValley” in Oregon. So there were some very similar philosophies, people that were “freegans”, people that were anarchists that were also taking this course. So when I first met Brit and Zal, it was actually kind of great because we had this shared experience. We talked about how it effected us, and certain people we met, so that was something that when I read the script, needless to say, I thought of. I was quite familiar with the philosophy and certain kinds of people who tend to be in those groups, as well as the overall aesthetic and feel of [the project].
ALEXANDER SKARSGAARD: Well, yeah. I kind of grew up in a hippy commune in Sweden. My parents weren’t anarchists, but the feeling of living together with a huge group of people was where I came from. But Zal and Brit went off the grid a couple of years ago, before they wrote The East, but not for research. They did that because they wanted that experience, and that got them so excited and so intrigued because they had the insight into the world. That was the seed that bore the film. I was in New York shooting What Maisie Knew and Disconnect, so up until three days before the shoot, so my research was basically done in a hotel room, online. I read books, watched documentaries, talked to Zal and Brit about their experience and all of the fascinating people they met on their travels.
Diabolique: What do you think the motivations to your characters were? Do you think they had felt guilty about their pasts?
PAGE: You actually see that a lot when you meet people who are anarchists who grow up and reject [their pasts]. But it has a lot to due with their internal discomfort, and their internal sadness and anger. That’s something that really fascinated me with Izzy. It’s hard to talk about her overall journey and arc, because that gets revealed late in the film. But her reasons for her actions are so obviously emotional and personal, and I think that applies to a lot of people in any resistance movement. I don’t think that should take away from the validity of what they’re angry at, because they have a lot of valid reasons to be angry as well as anyone who has been oppressed. But [Izzy’s] journey, very specifically as an actor, is fascinating because you see that a lot of her external anger and external angst comes from her inner pain and profound discomfort, which is confronted in the film.
SKARSGAARD: As Ellen said, it’s a little difficult to talk about it, because there is a scene in the film where Benji talks about his background and explains what motivates him in that moment. And what was interesting about that moment was we talked about that scene, Zal and I and Brit, and I didn’t want to go into [the past] with my family and go, “I’m out.” I think that it’d be more interesting if [his past] didn’t change his family, but changed him. People related to him in a different way, and he kind of enjoyed that. He let them do that because he had a power, and I thought it was more interesting if that’s what scared him. But it’s difficult to talk about it. You don’t want the audience to know too much going in.
DIABOLIQUE: What are your own political views? Do you go to rallies? Recycle? Where do you stand?
PAGE: Well, I think anyone who’s not concerned with saving the environment is frankly crazy and a psychopath because it makes no sense to me that it can even be a partisan debate, considering it’s what gives us life and we’d all probably like humanity to keep going. I mean, maybe, are we really that worth it? It’s like the saying, “Why wouldn’t a woman be a feminist?” It boggles my mind. To me, most of it is common sense. That should explain to you where I am politically. The exponential growth of the economy and putting profit before people is beyond illogical, and so harmful. It’s about exploiting the poorest people in the world as well as decimating the environment. To me, that’s what’s crazy. It all seems very crazy to me. So, that’s where I stand.
SKARSGAARD: I agree, and I also think that it’s a frustrating time with what’s going on in politics right now. Regardless if you’re a Democrat or Republican, it’s just so frustrating that they can’t pass a bill and what’s going on in Congress now. But it’s like a perpetual election, or rather a perpetual race. Politicians are so worried about the upcoming election, and it’s all about that. “How do I get elected again?” rather than “What are my core beliefs? What do I stand for? What do I fight for?” It’s all about being smart and tactical and navigating your career in a way, which is very scary because then you’ll end up with votes on Gun Control. I’m sure a lot of Senators were for [Gun Control], but didn’t vote or voted against it because they were terrified. They might have been Democrats from a RedState, and they might have been like, “Oh, if I vote for it, what’s going to happen in 2 years at the mid-term election?” And all of that is very frustrating because how are you going to have a democracy when the people you elect and send to office aren’t there to do what they believe in?
PAGE: And then there’s just the profound misinformation. I grew up in a country lik Canada where there’s better gun control and public health care. Just to listen to the warp on something, it’s pretty simple and obvious from a lot of countries that have better health care than America, and have universal care for people. But you come to America, and you learn about the system and you experience how it works here, and you’re baffled. You can’t even fathom it when you grow up in a country where you’re just given that because you pay tax dollars and that’s what you receive. It’s crazy to me. Like, what are you spending money on? You’re not obviously spending money on roads. It’s all going to war, oil subsidies and agriculture subsidies.
DIABOLIQUE: The fascinating thing about this film is that it’s dealing with a political theme, but it’s not really political. It seems to be a more human story, and at some times it carries a sexy tone. Did you talk over the nuances of the scenes with the director beforehand?
SKARSGAARD: What I thought was important was we wanted to make an entertaining film, like an old school spy thriller with a great love story in a world that you haven’t seen much of before. This is just a couple miles outside of Philadelphia, but it’s completely new, cinematically. It felt like, even in just reading the script, a world I hadn’t seen before. But again, I think that’s what was so brilliant about the script. It wasn’t preachy or didactic. It wasn’t the good guys versus the bad guys. It had much more depth than that. Even throughout the film, it’s not like Sarah (Brit Marling) joins the group goes, “Oh these guys I thought were the bad guys are actually the good guys, and now I’m going to fight on their side.” Even within the group, you’ve got Benji and Izzy, who are the more militant members of the group, but there are other members who are not willing to go as far. We talked about that, and that’s one thing that’s very interesting about the film, morally. How far are you willing to go when there’s an Eye for an Eye? Are you willing to go that far? Are you willing to hurt someone or break the law or kill someone? What’s okay? Where do you draw the line? That created a lot of tension in the group, and also that’s what I thought was great about the script. When I read and finished it, it wasn’t clear on who was the good side or the bad side. It had much more depth than that. It felt more of an internal struggle, like good vs. evil, rather than an external struggle, which I always find more interesting.
DIABOLIQUE: What did you learn from the characters that you played in the film? Did you realize something you hadn’t before?
SKARSGAARD: The first two days really set the tone. We shot a certain intimate scene with Izzy on day one. Shot one. It was a cold, cold morning in the fall, down in Louisiana, and we’re standing there, and Ellen is getting ready and she comes out. She was so vulnerable and fragile, but that kind of set the bar, like, “It’s for real.” Then, day two was the bathing scene, which may have been a coincidence but it was so smart that those two days…
PAGE: The more that we talk about it, the more I go, “Did Zal do that on purpose?” That definitely made it more intimate for this commune that’s lost in our society. I think that’s one of the most unspoken tragedies: the loneliness and isolation that people feel. And before we even shot, we all went to this nice dinner up in Shreveport, and we all have these wooden spoons, and we’re all practicing feeding one another. The idea of putting this spoon in your mouth, putting it in soup and looking at someone this closely while they eat is really startling. It’s really beautiful. Those first few days, we really bonded and had this closeness. And the feeling and camaraderie in that lost sense of community between people, it’s beautiful. I know, as an audience member, when I’m watching and it gets to that spin-the-bottle scene, I’m like Sarah. I want to lean in and be a part of it.
DIABOLIQUE: Could you talk about your relationship to consumer culture, considering the stance that the film takes on it?
SKARSGAARD: I consume a lot. I think in a way, just by living in this society, I think we oppress other people and we consume. I’m very much aware of that. I feel guilty, absolutely. But I’m absolutely not perfect. Of course, it’s important to be aware and to fight. For me, it’s been… traveling is the key right? To go to other cultures? It’s so easy in our society, either in the states or Europe. The eye-opener is to go to other cultures, like to poor, third world countries and to see that, and then that puts things into perspective. It really makes you think.
PAGE: It’s funny because I like to think that I live relatively simple. I’m not that big of a buyer or a shopper, and not necessarily for a political reason. It’s just not a part of my life. But even when someone says that, it’s like I’m not living completely free. Every day, when I open my eyes, I’m unwillingly oppressing a lot of people. Not that everyone in the western world gets to live in comfort, as there’s immense poverty here. But most people live because other people in the world are being exploited. But even the simple things, like, “Oh, I’d love a tea.” That’s fucked up. [Those teabags] took a lot of work and a lot of energy. It’s complicated. I think it’s complicated to be alive right now. Yeah, I drive a car. Yeah I’m on planes all the time. Yeah, I’m drinking bottled water from Norway. But, what can you do?
The East will hit theaters tomorrow from Fox Searchlight Pictures. For more information, check your local listings or visit www.theeastmovie.com. Check back to Diabolique Magazine for Roundtable Discussions with Director Zal Batmanglij as well as Brit Marling and Patricia Clarkson.
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he recieved an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.