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 ambitious, up-and-coming director Zal Batmaglij.
DIABOLIQUE: With The East, this film remains different than Sound of my Voice by being ambitious yet scaling back the storytelling. The East is a much more human tale as compared to Sound of My Voice, which incorporates elements of time travel and cult worship. Was this an intentional focus on your part or did this come out of the narrative needs of the story?
ZAL BATMANGLIJ: Well, I wrote Sound of My Voice before The East, but right before it. Sound of My Voice and The East were written back to back, before Sound of My Voice was made into a movie. I’ve always thought that Sound of My Voice was like having a single gear bike. It’s got one rotation and it tries to do that rotation well, whereas The East has three rotations going on. It’s a much more intricate story. There are more levels than just pulling off the narrative part of it. So the end result could be what you’re saying, which is an interesting perspective. The three [rotations] makes [The East] seem more human, whereas Sound of My Voice just rotates ad infinitum. I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision or not. That’s an interesting question, and I’ll have to think about that.
DIABOLIQUE: The germ of The East originated from your own experiences with Brit, living with anarchists and jumping trains. Why did you choose that lifestyle, and how did that lifestyle grow into the film?
BATMANGLIJ: Brit and I were frustrated because we couldn’t get Sound of My Voice made into a film. We entered a dead end professionally before we had even started professionally. We were trying to break in, but personally we hit a wall. We wanted to go have an adventure, but we had no money. So we went on the only adventure that was free and available to us, which was hitting the road and exploring the underworld of America. A world that we hadn’t experienced before, which was anarchist farms, people living off the grid, people off of the bounty of capitalism but they’ve found a new bounty, and it’s waste. We were blown away by how much food is thrown away on a daily basis, like all these good pastries that don’t have to be thrown away the next day. They’re just sitting on a dumpster on the way to a landfill, and as soon as you learn how to pick a lock and open that dumpster, and you go in there and find good food, and you watch someone get fed by that food, that changes how you see the world. In fact, when we came home, we were fascinated about writing a spy thriller, abstractly but inspired by the films of the ‘70s, Klute, The Parallax View, All The President’s Men, but we couldn’t shake the experience that we had on the road. So the two vines intersected.
DIABOLIQUE: Was it difficult to readjust to society after living off of the grid?
BATMANGLIJ: It was very hard, and I’ll tell you why. I’m used to seeing a movie at least a day or a TV show or whatever it is. Last night, I was watching Veep. But we didn’t do that for 2 and a half months while we were on the road. We didn’t listen to popular music. We didn’t look at magazines. We didn’t watch the news. We didn’t know what was going on with who was big in 2009. We didn’t know any of that stuff. When you come back to a world where people are so alienated that at the grocery store, you don’t talk to each other or communicate with each other, except for the person cashing you out, but they’re all reading about teen moms. They know the New York Housewives every move but they don’t know what their neighbor, who is grocery shopping with them, is doing. You realize it’s a sickness, and you realize all the disease and unrest that surrounds us isn’t random. It becomes clear to you that it’s because people are really lonely, nobody helps each other, and families are so deconstructed. In the old days, people would have kids and the older generation would help raise the kid, but now you can’t do that. There’s none of that. People are so isolated, and because of that, it was so hard for us. It took us four months to see a movie. Brit and I went to a movie theater, sat in the audience and when the second trailer came on, and it was all killing, and it was so loud, we just had to get up and leave. We just left. We weren’t ready for a movie. And now, our trailer is one of those trailers. I think we founded something very different, cinematically. I think we’re talking about different issues than any movie you’ll see all summer, if not, all year.
DIABOLIQUE: How were you able to convey an entertaining story without preaching too heavy of a social/political message?
BATMANGLIJ: I don’t think that the film ended up being preachy, for me, because once the vine started to grow together, the characters tell you what to do. I never expected Izzy [Page] to go into the water, for example, after she put that man in the water, but she did. In every outline or rough version of the story that we were telling, that never happened. But the character just does it. In the last moment of imagining that scene, it happened. So, they’re not my puppets. I don’t have an agenda. I also don’t have any answers. I feel like to be a polemic or to be preachy, you have to have something to preach. We only have questions, so we raise these questions and let the characters answer them however they can.
DIABOLIQUE: What moment from your experiences off the grid was most influential to your script for The East?
BATMANGLIJ: The best thing that happened to us when we were on our culture fast was that we met a group that on Thursday nights would play “spin the bottle”. It was like 17 people, sitting in a circle, and they’d spin a bottle in the middle to see who they’d land on. In this group, you’d ask a question, like you’d say, “May I kiss you?” You’d say whatever you wanted, and then the person [you landed on] would have to say “yes” or negotiate back something else. At first, I thought that seemed kind of weird and silly but then you really like it, because it frees it up. It doesn’t matter what gender you land on, it doesn’t matter what sexual orientation the person was. Everyone was just negotiating kissing each other. It was so funny. It wasn’t as sexual as it was a way to get to know each other, and interact and be intimate. Afterwards, I came away from that fascinated. It was amazing. Only two months before shooting the movie did we add that scene to the movie, and then when we shot it, we shot the way it was written a couple of times, but it didn’t have the magic I felt in that moment. So I was like, “Alexander, here’s a bottle, spin it.” And I told the camera guys to shoot him. And then the whole crew stood up and came up to me, behind the two monitors, and they wanted to see who everyone was landing on. That was so funny because everyone had been living together for six weeks, and this “spin the bottle” just happened so organically. It was like playing a game show on set. I consider that [scene] the tootsie roll center of the movie. It’s a soft part, and I’m fascinated, as is Brit, about exploring how to get softer rather than how to get harder. We have to make ourselves so hard so that we can sit in the movie theaters and see the trailers where there’s all this killing, “bang-bang-bang-bang”. You have to have a certain hardness to digest that. I want to practice with myself and in the filmmaker to lower that hard, callous shell and expose the soft innards. I feel that scene tries to do that.
DIABOLIQUE: Do you think more anarchist movements will pop up as a result of The East, particularly amongst the youth that’s previously inspired Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous?
BATMANGLIJ: A lot of these problems are global problems. Problems with the American Economy effect Europe’s economy within a couple months of each other, which is pretty crazy. The “hacktivism” that you’re talking about, like Anonymous, are global groups. A lot of these groups aren’t limited to America. Do I think that The East will inspire little, mini-East’s? Man, that’d be cool. I don’t think so, but that’d be cool. Do films inspire or do they release? I have no idea.
DIABOLIQUE: If you were in a radical group like the one in The East, what company or CEO would be most deserving of your action?
BATMANGLIJ: I have thought about this, and I’d love to see the bankers being evicted out of their foreclosed homes. Just a banker and his wife and their little dog, being like, “What are you doing kicking us out of our multimillion dollar house?” But I guess that they’d have another house they could go to.
DIABOLIQUE: Many of these anarchist collectives try not to have a leader, although they have organizers. How do you see that idea at work in today’s society?
BATMANGLIJ: Well, The East, specifically, tries not to have a leader. You’ll see Izzy constantly battle Benji [Skarsgaard]. It’s interesting because our film set felt anarchistic because it felt like a collective, but clearly there was a hierarchy of a film set. What’s funny is that I think of the circus a lot. The circus is a great tribal group where everybody works together, everybody goes on the road together. Everyone has a job. There is a ringleader of the circus, but I don’t think the ringleader is better or higher up than the acrobats. That’s how I felt as a director. It’s just my job. But the person who was the costumer, not the costume designer but the costumer, would slip hand warmers into the dresses of Brit and Ellen on freezing nights that we shot. They’d put them in their shoes and they’d put coats around them. I couldn’t say that my job was as important as those jobs. They were protecting our precious cargo. I felt that they felt that on our set. There was no job as important as another job. I think that’s a good way to be.
DIABOLIQUE: How much of real life did you want to inject into this project? Was there a method to how you shot the film to achieve this real atmosphere?
BATMANGLIJ: The spin the bottle was the only real moment. The rest was tone and feeling. All the news stories [in the film], like the antibiotic and children with cancer, those are all very real. They’ve never been exaggerated for dramatic effect. There is a drug on the market that makes $1.4 billion a year that has those side effects for certain people. There are kids who are dying of cancer from their bath water. The [group] East is exaggerated for dramatic effect. There are no groups that exist like that, to a point. But the corporate crimes aren’t dramaticized, even a little bit. And the studio called me and said, “We have an issue. We can’t put these dates on the schedule because we have the issue of the water getting colder every day.” We also had an issue about when certain locations were available, and we were all on a conference call trying to check it out. When we went to Cleveland, I woke up at 6 a.m. and went, “Of course.” We’ll start with the bathing scene, or we’ll start with the nude scene, and that’ll be a way to bond everybody.” It was a huge risk, but everyone was open to it. So we tried it, and it worked like gangbusters. I will try this over and over again.
The East is currently in theaters from Fox Searchlight Pictures. For more information, check your local listings or visit www.theeastmovie.com. Check back to Diabolique Magazine for exclusive pictures from The East press roundtable.
– 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.