A member of an authoritative organization—maybe they’re a cop or an FBI agent; maybe they work for a Blackwater-like corporation that rents out double agents—has to infiltrate a group that poses a threat to truth, justice and the American Way. Once this person goes in deep, he or she starts questioning loyalties and notions of right versus wrong, their moral compass suddenly spinning out of control. We’ve seen this story a gajillion times, which makes the twist that filmmaker Zal Batmanglij (Sound of My Voice) puts on it that much more impressive. His undercover protagonist in The East, played by co-writer Brit Marling, joins an eco-rights anarchist cell, named “The East” and led by True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard, that takes a forward approach to dishing out payback to corporate polluters and Big Pharma offenders. (Call them proactivists.) The 32-year-old director then forces Marling, and by extension the audience, to decide who’s worse: The “bad guys” or those whom they bring to “justice”? Batmanglij talked to Time Out about ’70s thrillers, integrating social issues into entertainment and the benefits of good timing. (Read our review here.)
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Time Out: You’re a big fan of old-fashioned thrillers, right?
Zal Batmanglij: More specifically I’m a fan of thrillers that have the social anxieties of the times embedded in them; I love those wonderful movies of the ’70s that Alan J. Pakula did, like The Parallax View, or my favorite film, All the President’s Men. I guess you would say that’s old-fashioned now. But I’ve always been fascinated with movies that try to work as entertainment and look at the issues of the period, whether it’s a thriller or Sullivan’s Travels. I liked the idea of doing a movie that dealt with the anxieties that my generation is going through right now, as well as the relationship between my generation and our parents’ generation, the Boomers.
Time Out: This film deals with the Boomers? Really?
Zal Batmanglij: They were the original activist generation, and I think that what they accomplished—and the mistakes they made—via extreme radicalism informs a lot of what today’s activists are doing. It’s a two-way street, though; you’d be surprised how well The East played in Berkeley! It blew me away.
Time Out: That was the generation that gave us the SDS and the Weather Underground.
Zal Batmanglij: Right! At the same time, I don’t think this generation of radicals thinks that blowing up buildings will draw attention to their causes or make their points. They don’t see that as effective. When we were coming up with ideas for the group’s “jams,” we were very inspired by how today’s activists have turned protest into a form of video performance art. We thought, Staging an oil spill at an oil-industry CEO’s house in the Hamptons and videotaping it—that’s the sort of this-will-go-viral stunt that the East would totally pull. We wrote that into the script and then a couple of months later, the BP oil spill happened, at which point we thought, Okay, this is a little more prescient than we thought.
Time Out: And then a few weeks into preproduction, the Occupy movement had its big moment. How did that affect everyone’s mind-set when you started filming?
Zal Batmanglij: It fueled a fire under our asses to get the movie made. Our parents had heard our stories from the road, but they had no idea what the people we were talking about looked or sounded like. Then they turned on their TV and overnight, they knew who these people were. They were all over the mainstream media.
Time Out: By “stories from the road,” you mean your experiences researching the world of anarchist collectives, activist groups, etc.?
Zal Batmanglij: Right, though our experiences didn’t start out as research. In the summer of 2009, Brit and I lived with folks on an anarchist farm and squatted with collectives in inner cities. It originally had nothing to do with the movie; we just wanted to see how these people were trying to construct meaningful, socially aware lives for themselves. It was purely a personal thing, with no agenda attached.
But something had become unmoored inside of us from participating in this, so there was no way that we couldn’t bring the experience back to what we were doing. We’d already started playing around with the notion of making a thriller, but we weren’t sure what it would focus on. There were several ideas, but it was all very vague at the time. And then when we got back, we thought, How can this not infiltrate our next movie? How can we not include this somehow? From there, the movie took shape pretty quickly.
Time Out: You and Brit Marling cowrote your first film, Sound of My Voice (2011), as well as this. Has your collaborative process with her changed, or is it roughly the same as before?
Zal Batmanglij: Very much the same, I’d say. Much of our six-day writing week is still spent doing what I like to call “tending the garden.” We’re talking to each other, checking in with what’s going on in our heads, trading books on the subject we’ve read. We actually try to limit the physical writing itself to the final six weeks or so of the process. This film took nine months to write, though the actual “writing” of it didn’t happen until seven and a half months into the process. Most of that time was spent talking it out, with the goal being to make the other person lean in to you while you’re telling them the story. If you can get somebody to do this [Leans in very close] or to try and take the story from you as you’re telling it…that’s when you know things are working.
What’s even better, though, and Brit would tell you this as well, is when you both get to the point when the characters start dictating what happens. When we were writing the final act, I had no idea that [Ellen Page’s character] Izzy would get in the water. No idea at all! Then we were writing, it just sort of happened. We both went, “Hmm, yeah. Right!” It’s one of the things I love about production, too, even if you’re routinely working 15-hour days; I’m so excited to get to work because I want to find out what happens to these characters once the actors have taken hold of them. So much of my direction with actors is just talking to them about what’s going on in their lives. When I call “Action,” I love to be surprised. And the actors I’ve been fortunate enough to work with always surprise me in the best ways.
Time Out: You brought up the movies of the ’70s earlier, and many of those films had a knack for integrating social issues into thrillers, while still setting out to be works of entertainment.
Zal Batmanglij: Hmm, I’ve never thought about that. Maybe subconsciously it did; I’d be lying if I said he didn’t influence me, as I’m a fan. But no, I mean…this is how I’d tell this story even if he hadn’t primed audiences. This is just how it had to be told.
Time Out: You’ve mentioned that, at its heart, Upstream Color is a fairly simple love story.
Zal Batmanglij: I agree, and yeah, that was very much what we were going for here. We didn’t want to make a polemic.
Time Out: So how does someone find that balance?
Zal Batmanglij: First and last, you’ve got to have a good story. A good story isn’t preachy; a good story is always entertaining. I mean, the East itself is a made-up construction, as we never came across an anarchist vigilante group when we were hanging out with members of that community. But the corporate crimes that you see in the film—they are all real. There is a real drug on the market that causes the side effects we show you, and it does make $4 billion a year for the company that makes it. Oil spills actually do happen. Children really did die from exposure to arsenic in their bathwater; in some regions, they probably still do, which is horrendous.
How does one make sense of a story like that? For us, the answer started to appear in another question: What kind of group would try to go after eye-for-an-eye justice against the people who perpetrate these crimes and get away with it? And of course, once you start applying the East’s notion of ethics and accountability, the slopes start to get more and more slippery. Morality starts to get murky—which, to me, is a perfect reflection of the times we live in. That was when we knew we had something here.
Time Out: It was interesting to talk to people at Sundance who saw the film and see if they referred to the group as activists or eco-terrorists; you start to see how either label could apply to the East in terms of how you portray it.
Zal Batmanglij: We didn’t want to hand you that answer on a plate. Alexander once said the thing that fascinates him the most about the script was that he was never sure whether his character or Brit’s character were heroes or villains. It’s an insightful comment.
Time Out: Given that the film asks viewers to consider the following question as well, I’m going to ask you: At what point do the means stop justifying the ends?
Zal Batmanglij: [Pause] I never think the ends justify the means. Someone asked us early on if we’d rather do the right action for the wrong ends, or the wrong actions for the right ends, and I have to say I’d go with the right action every time. I know Brit has answered this question in the exact opposite way. But I think it’s better to live your life step by step in a correct way, even if you’re not sure where you’re headed. I think you eventually find the right ends that way.
The East in theaters now.