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 (as Sarah’s calculated boss Sharon), 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 offered Diabolique Magazine a spot at the roundtable with other press agents and allowed us the opportunity to speak to the jack-of-all-trades Marling and acting icon Patricia Clarkson.
DIABOLIQUE: How important was it to you to stay objective to the actions and motivations of your characters, with Brit also having been the writer and Patricia having played an antagonistic character?
BRIT MARLING: It’s tricky. Sarah’s a hard character. Sometimes, I think when you write something, the characters, as you develop them, start telling you what they do and don’t want to do. So, you’ll want Sarah to do something, and you’ll write a scene, and Sarah will go, “No, I don’t want to do that.” When you then sit down to act in that film and went to prepare for it, I looked at Sarah like, “This is impossible. She’s lying to everybody. She’s lying to her boss, she’s lying to the guy she fell in love with, she’s lying to her boyfriend, she’s lying to herself.” Like, how do you find the quiet moments in between where she’s somehow honest and the audience can connect with her? That was a really challenging and strange thing, because in this movie, the force of antagonism keeps switching. Part of it is that you never know exactly who the bad guy is, and maybe, in large part, the bad guy is you. But I think Sarah has sort of an awakening.
PATRICIA CLARKSON: Well, obviously, my allegiance as Patty would lie more with the anarchists-
MARLING: Patty would be the one pulling off the culture jam!
CLARKSON: Well, I’m from New Orleans, and we were talking about the BP oil spill and how I’d love for dead pelicans to be on the CEO of BP’s chest as we speak, but no, as an actress you have to take on the view of your character for the moment, and you have to see it and invest in it. I understand it, but it’s also thrilling to play something that I rarely get to play because I’m always playing such maternal and warm and fucked up women. This is a woman who’s so even keeled and deadly, but you have to be to run a very private and elite firm. Her life and livelihood depends on it.
DIABOLIQUE: One of the incredible things about The East is that you have this message, but it’s also very entertaining. I love that the protagonist is part MacGyver, part Bourne…
MARLING: Oh my god, we were talking about that. We thought, “Why hasn’t anyone done an espionage movie where people are spying with gadgets that aren’t on their phone?” It’s gotten so modern. Espionage is so crazy since there’s a gadget made for everything. Espionage should be like… you have a paper clip. How do you get out of trouble with a paper clip?
DIABOLIQUE: When you came up with the idea for The East, did you always imagine a female protagonist? Was Patricia cast because Sarah could see herself becoming her in several years?
MARLING: Well, yeah, definitely. The reason we were so excited and that we were praying that Patty would sign on from the script was because we felt that the movie could become really uneven if Benji [Alexander Skarsgaard] and Sharon weren’t equally powerful, equally charismatic forces. Like you really need to believe that Sarah’s caught between these two worlds, and she’s drawn in with her boss who has this intense allure and power. She’s seductive and powerful while being intelligent, and Benji also has an allure. He’s intense and quiet and to himself, and that draws you in. So creating these two polar opposites of equal strength was so important, so when Patty said she would do it, we had a little dance party in the room we were in. But that was a big part of it. And we were always interested in the idea of what to do in an espionage-action movie that was written for a girl from the beginning. Because a lot of the times, you’ll watch something like Salt, which I love, but that was written for a man and then they changed the gender and made it a woman. I think you see that a lot. When you see an action movie and a woman’s in it, she’s thinking from the mans’ perspective, so we wanted to write a movie where the journey is about the girl becoming more feminine rather than moving away from her femininity.
CLARKSON: I think it’s brilliant, and we were talking about this, because so many female characters have to take on male characteristics. We can be feminine and tough. We can be very feminine and tough at the same time. But often, CEO’s of companies as they move into more power, they take on the same misogyny and sexism with women that we have already suffered through with powerful men. It’s just the nature of the beast, so how do you remain an organically feminine, soft, beautiful woman and intelligent? We’re capable of everything that men are capable of, but we are different. We are different.
DIABOLIQUE: Patricia, when you first received the script, what made you decide that you had to do this film?
CLARKSON: Well, I really loved the writing. I don’t write at all. I don’t even write postcards. But all of my dearest friends are writers. Great, brilliant writers. They always seek higher ground, and I just thought The East was a beautiful, beautifully written script. I knew Brit. I loved her as an actress. I loved Zal. I had an amazing conversation with Zal on the phone. This wasn’t a big part, but what was there was so elegant. It was a chance for me to take on a new persona, and I’m always seeking a shift in creating a character; something that can shift me and throw me slightly off-balance. But, really, the reason I did The East was that I thought it was beautifully written. It was a beautifully written, powerful script. It took me and it was unexpected, and in the end, it left me wondering and angry. That’s why I’m here.
DIABOLIQUE: Brit, you obviously wrote the movie and you star in every scene of the movie. Did this make things easier for you or more difficult?
MARLING: Yes and I’ll never do that again. When I was doing that, I was like, “This is stupid.” When I do this again, I’m gonna think about it because you write the story, and you’re so into the world of the story and characters that you don’t think about what it’s gonna be like to play that person. When I went to play Sarah, I was like, “You never get a moment of honesty with her.” That was a weird challenge. Also, the “being in every scene of the movie” thing was just… you don’t think of, in a performance perspective, how much stamina that’s gonna take. The much better thing is to have an arc and a few scenes, so you can focus on each one. It’s exhausting when you’re trying to make a movie, deal with production stuff, be rewriting until 4 in the morning…
CLARKSON: We’d be doing a scene and I’d go, “My god, you’re wearing so many hats.” I’m exhausted just thinking about getting my hair and make-up on and act and everything. You’ve got to think of the larger picture and keep everything in mind.
MARLING: We’d get energized by the moments like the rooftop scene. Patty was so good and so intense that after we shot that scene, every time we’d go, “Gosh, there’s actually a movie here.”
CLARKSON: Meanwhile, there’s a fucking helicopter right behind me, and a man’s gotta carry me there. I need it! Please let me have that in my life. I want my helicopter.
DIABOLIQUE: Brit, if you had to choose between the two, do you prefer writing or acting?
MARLING: If I had to choose? Acting. For sure, acting. I mean, I love to write but I only started writing because I wanted to act, and if you told me I had to write something and told me I couldn’t even play, like, a background maid or something in it, I’d say, “No.”
DIABOLIQUE: Brit, you joined a freegan commune before writing The East, and one ironic aspect of these communes is that even though they allow you to become intimate and develop familial relationships, the members are often abandoning their own families. Do you find that fascinating as well?
MARLING: You bring up a good point. It’s strange that a group of people have to drop out of their culture and the system and leave their families in order to find a different kind of intimacy that they’re looking for by their rules. When Zal and I spent that summer on the road, that experience, and what was so provocative about it, was that the dumpster diving, the train hopping, the squatting and not taking showers paled in the intensity of living in a collective. People stopped thinking of themselves and you started thinking of other people where everything is shared and there’s a kind of vibrancy that I think we’re missing. Modern life, by comparison, feels very lonely. I think we started in these tribes, and then broke away and had extended families, and now we’re breaking away from extended families and now we have a nuclear family. Now we’re breaking away from our nuclear family.
CLARKSON: All we have is technology.
MARLING: We all use technology and Skype to keep in touch. It’s a weird time.
CLARKSON: It is alienating in that it’s changed the dynamic of how we live and interact and socialize. It’s given a whole new way life that we don’t even realize now. I think about how destructive it has been.
DIABOLIQUE: How much of that collective experience is still in your daily life, Brit?
MARLING: I think a lot of it. When Zal and I started making movies, we couldn’t think of ways to break into the system, and I think after that summer, we realized the thing of value was each other. When groups of people get together and decide to do something, you actually are very powerful. You’re more powerful than the system is, so we just started making movies. So that idea really stuck with us, like, the thing of value is the web of resources you have around you and to use those things to create. Whether or not that work enters the system is not necessarily important as what you’re doing every day being some experience of life. It’s about making something that you love and being surrounded by people that you love. And, of course, just the opening of perspective. I think once you realize the dumpster is filled with good food being wasted every day, and that metonymy is the problem with our culture in general. Lawsuits and everything create the blue box behind this door where everything is thrown away because it’s expired or whatever, but the fact that it goes to a landfill in a country where a crazy amount of people are below the poverty line and kids in this country go to bed hungry every night. Why are they not being fed? That opening of perspective doesn’t leave you after you leave. If I hadn’t found storytelling as a thing to do for a living, I would maybe still be there. So the question is how, as a storyteller, can you live a somewhat accountable life even though you recognize you have to work within the system to tell stories? Maybe down the line, I’ll realize, “Maybe telling stories isn’t adding the impact that I thought it was. Maybe I’m better suited to live a life of activism or just let the way I live my life be that of an activist.” But right now, I’m satisfied with my choice.
CLARKSON: That’s a good choice.
DIABOLIQUE: As a writer, what do you think Izzy and Benji’s motivations were, considering their past?
MARLING: I’m sure their guilt is a part of it. We tried to make it, as a group, where it’s people of all different backgrounds. Like Doc [Toby Kebbell] comes from a very middle class background, probably got a scholarship for school and medical school. And Luca [Shiloh Fernandez] and Thumbs [Aldis Hodge]- Thumbs is an ex-soldier from Afghanistan. Everyone came there differently, and I think with Benji and Izzy [Ellen Page], their past is a hard thing for people to empathize with. Benji’s story, in particular, is a hard thing for people to find their feeling into. But when we came up with the initial jam, and we thought, “how do these kids pull off this jam?” the innovative answer to us seemed that some of the collective have a point of entry. And its true. We did meet some people like that on the road, but there were also people who did not. We saw both backgrounds.
The East is currently in limited theaters from Fox Searchlight Pictures. For more information, check your local listings or visit www.theeastmovie.com. Check back to Diabolique Magazine for the final roundtable discussion with director Zal Batmanglij.
– 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.