Zal Batmanglij Reunites with Brit Marling, Confronts Timely Issues in The East
"If we are part of a planet that is being abused what is our role in that abuse. What do you do about it? How do you act? How do you stop the cycle of destruction?"
The oft-discussed parallels that bridge Zal Batmanglij’s debut feature, Sound of My Voice, to his sophomore effort, The East, nearly undermine both. Perhaps it’s the burden of creating worlds on screen so vividly unique that they can only be compared to one another. But for all those similarities—the “thriller” label, Brit Marling, cult culture—Batmanglij’s captivating follow-up is an entirely new experience, and one that showcases his evolution as an exciting young filmmaker.
The East tracks ex-FBI agent Sarah Moss (Brit Marling) as she infiltrates and embeds herself in an anarchist group known as The East, suspected of “poisoning” corporate CEOs with the noxious products that they manufacture. As Sarah begins to cultivate relationships with the group’s leaders, she finds herself identifying with their mission as she begins to deviate from her own. Below, director Zal Batmanglij discusses the making of his 2013 Sundance Film Festival official selection, the blurred lines between storytelling and personal commentary, and the importance of challenging audiences to look inward for answers.
The East is now playing in theatres across the country. Click here to find a screening.
There is a common tenor that dominates your first two feature films, in part due to the subject matter. What spawned your interest in making these sort of enigmatic thrillers?
Zal Batmanglij: Life these days feels like an enigmatic thriller, so it seems to me to be the most natural genre to make movies in right now.
The East confronts some timely socioeconomic and political issues, but it’s still a work of fiction. Is there a line between what is story and what is personal commentary?
ZB: The East is a story above all else and Brit and I are servants to that story. The narrative zig-zags because it follows a protagonist who is figuring out right from wrong, which is tricky business these days. I think most of us are interested in that journey so I don’t think it reflects our values in a vacuum.
How does having Brit involved in the writing process inform her role as an actress and your approach to directing her?
ZB: Again, we are servants of “Sarah” the character. We did birth her and raise her, but a couple months into the writing process Sarah was telling us what to do. When the writing is over, Brit becomes her sole custodian and I make sure “Sarah” fits into the larger narrative at play. So it doesn’t really make a difference that Brit and I know the character’s evolution. All that matters is who that character is right here and right now on the days that we’re shooting.
Where did most of the shooting take place and how much creative freedom did you offer the cast?
ZB: We shot The East in Shreveport Louisiana, a quiet and remote town, which made the set feel like summer camp. And in that spirit the actors had all the creative freedom they needed. We never talked about the characters and shooting was relaxed—ideas and better ways of doing things are always welcome. We’re all digging out the story together. If someone digs out a great piece, it is exciting for all of us. It makes the story better and makes us happier to come to work everyday knowing that anyone at any moment might strike gold.
In some ways, The East challenges audiences to address their own moral boundaries. What kind of questions does the film pose?
ZB: Yes, insomuch as we (Brit and I) were trying to figure out our own sense of our place in the world. How are we accountable? If we are part of a planet that is being abused, what is our role in that abuse? What do you do about it? How do you act? How do you stop the cycle of destruction? These answers aren’t easy. But shying away from them is certainly not a brave way to live.