As I was getting ready to talking with director Zal Batmanglij and star/co-writer Brit Marling of the upcoming film The East, a surprise was presented to me only a few short minutes before I was ready to start my interview. Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, Zal couldn’t make it but we got a more than acceptable substitute as one of Brit’s co-stars, Canada’s own Ellen Page joined the table as a last second replacement.
The East challenges our ideals and preconceived notions about how we live our lives and the kind of excesses that occur on a daily basis when we turn a blind eye to in order to maintain a blissful ignorance. Sarah Moss (Marling) is an operative for a private intelligence firm that’s hired with the job of infiltrating an anarchist collective known as “The East”. Her undercover mission isn’t an easy one as she’s faced with circumstances that she previously could have never imagined. Despite some initial resistance from the likes of Izzy (Page), she’s ultimately accepted into the collective. Things however get a little complicated as she slowly becomes involved with the collective’s leader (Alexander Skarsgard) and the responsibilities of her job begin to get in the way with this new life that she has become increasingly attached to.
We talked about so many of the motivating factors behind this film including the importance of a strong sense of family, how much preparation went into to playing anarchists, the semantics behind dumpster diving, the best way to make a subversive narrative, and the real inspiration behind some of the ideas shared in the film.
Brit, this is the second time you’ve worked with director Zal Batmanglij in an acting and co-writing capacity. Both films really had a sense of needing to belong, and now that you’ve played with that dynamic from both sides of the coin here and in Sound of my Voice, I was wondering if that kind of theme is something that you are drawn to in your writing?
Brit Marling: Gosh, that’s a really interesting question. I think Zal and I have talked a lot about the idea of family. It used to be the idea of the extended family that was a big thing and then we broke from that into the nuclear family. Now we’re breaking from that and just being individual people in the world. We both left the east coast and moved out to LA, and I think that part of that was about finding a new filmmaking family. A lot of our early stuff definitely has that “tribe” mentality about trying to find a group of people that think like you and there is some of that in this too, so you are right to point that out (laughs).
Ellen, can you talk a little about the dynamic between Brit and Zal and what you observed as you were working together with them?
Ellen Page: The first time I met them they were together and the closeness was evident. These obvious ‘besties’ sat in the room together, and you can feel it in the writing as well. It’s such a beautiful and cohesive thing that these two people fused together to create this piece. However when they are working, things are pretty separate. Zal is very much the director and Brit is very much the actress, but what I think about what was how really nice their natural closeness really did bridge the gap for everyone else. On the weekends there truly was a sense of community as everyone hung out together and cooked together, just danced and had fun.
BM: Granted we were in Shreveport, Louisiana so there wasn’t a WHOLE lot to do… (laughs). Don’t get me wrong though, it’s a very cool town, but we we’re constantly entertaining one another and sort of became the anarchist collective that we were portraying.
EP: But I guess what I am trying to say is that is their closeness, doesn’t make you feel like you are left out of anything. Brit and Zal bring you in, and that experience sort of ripples off on to everyone making for such a great atmosphere to make a movie in. Especially a movie like this one where you need such an atmosphere of trust.
Brit, how much preparation did you do for your character, particularly the ‘dumpster diving’ (Brit laughs) in order to get ready for this role and get into that mindset?
BM: You know it’s funny, because I was thinking we should go “room service diving” right now, and just eat food off of every tray we find (laughs)
EP: Oh, we totally should! (smiles)
BM: It just feels right especially for this kind of movie, but I mean we really didn’t do anything really in preparation. When we wrote it, we were at a point in our lives where just didn’t know what we were doing. I was interested in acting, but I didn’t know how to go about it. Zal graduated from film school and couldn’t get a job, and we were just broke and reading a lot about the anarchist freedom movement and we were really interested in what other young people doing and feeling.
So we just hit the road with backpacks and we didn’t have any money. We learned how to train hop and we stayed on different organic farms, and different intentional communities, and we fell in with groups of anarchists in a bunch of different cities, and one group in particular that really moved us. We learned a lot of different things. We learned how to pick locks and sleep on roof tops and dumpster dive, which of course when you say it out loud it sounds really gross when really most times it is packaged food that has expired and is being moved out honestly because more stuff is coming in. I honestly ate some of the best vegan meals of my entire life that we got out of dumpsters, and these meals not only fed all of us in the squat but also people in the surrounding neighborhoods who were having a hard time in putting food on the table. It was basically an exercise in realizing how much abundance their actually is in the waste of our culture. We wrote so much while we were on the road, this and Sound of my Voice, but even years later we could never really shake that feeling we had while out there so we tried to put it in this espionage thriller. (smiles)
Would you say that some of these philosophies and practices that you picked up while on the road are still a part of you today, and how much preparation time did you have in order to get the ensemble cast into the same kind of headspace?
BM: Well when we first met Ellen, she was talking about her time on a permaculture farm. So I think that the script was a bit of a litmus test as people either read it and said “Oh, I have to do this” or they just didn’t get it at all. We were lucky enough that Ellen got it and knew what we were going for.
EP: I mean it’s obviously different in a lot of ways, but I had stayed on this eco village development on an organic farm in Oregon and had experienced some of that fringe type of community. Along with the ideas of going back to what Brit was saying about dumpster diving, when you do something like that you sort of begin to realize that it’s the status quo that’s unusual. It’s the same in a lot of permaculture communities where you don’t use a toilet, and you save your urine because it is a great source of nitrogen for plants. And at first you are of course like “What???” but the more you learn, the more you realize that what we do now is the really insane thing. A lot of those ideas were being explored in what they had written and with it being things I was already interested in, it was a compelling and exciting project for me to be a part of.
How do you ultimately bridge that gap as storytellers, because it is a film that exposes us to a lot of ideas that may be obviously foreign and even kind of gross like when you say something like “Dumpster Diving”. We as an audience are a little off put and uncomfortable by what is going on at the beginning, but it slowly brings us in to the point that we accept these actions and these ideas that are being talked about?
BM: You bring up such a great point which is really the control of language. Like if we called “Dumpster Diving”…”Gathering free food from that big blue box behind every store” we would think about it differently, and there’s a reason why that bin is locked or we’d all go to the big blue box behind every store instead of paying for it. Language locks us in to an idea in so many weird ways and it’s such a good thing to point out.
I really think that making the movie with Fox Searchlight was helpful in this regard. We never saw any of these ideas as being “different” or “other”. It was very normal to us, and our partners were more aware of this when helping us have this material connect to a wider audience that may be initially repulsed by a way of living that is so completely different from what they are used to. It allows them to least let them go on my character Sarah’s journey, as she experiences something so different and so “other” than what she’s used to. She then ultimately transitions to that way of life on the other side.
I think there were some changes we made during the script phase and some differences along the way. I mean even with things like costume design, even when you try and “fake” age clothes, it looks fake, so Zal sent an intern down to New Orleans and found a group of anarchists living there and asked if we could just borrow their clothes. They just brought this bag of clothes back, dumped them out and Ellen, Alex (Skarsgard) and I were just going through them calling dibs. I mean I was wearing this hoodie, and you could still smell the person who had worn it because we hadn’t washed these clothes at all.
EP: Your hoodie had a very specific smell…and hell, I had a bunch of pretzels in the pocket of what I was wearing!
BM: See, great for snacks on set too!
Discomfort is such a motivating factor in the film for your character Sarah, how important was that for both of your characters but also for yourselves as actors to keep yourselves motivated.
BM: I think that discomfort is definitely a motivator when it comes to acting. I always find myself attracted to the things that I haven’t done before or that make me uncomfortable. Like, it might be a stretch for me and I might not be able to pull it off. I think that in this movie, the line between fear and discomfort often gets misunderstood. It’s really a part of Sarah’s journey as she’s labelling her own emotions as fear when in actuality it really is just discomfort with something that’s new and different. When you work through that, the ideas that you’ll find on the other side can be better. or at least point you in a different direction then you were going in before.
EP: Yeah, I was almost comparing it to like getting stretch marks on your brain, because it hurts and it’s difficult. It can be such a paradigm shift when you are living on an organic farm in that community because you are forced to digest things completely differently, and that can be really hard when you look at living so very differently. But I would rather have that discomfort and then be able to move forward with that than not,, and I think the same applies to working as actors, as well. I really think that this job that we do is such an incredible gift, because we’re encouraged to be uncomfortable and in everyday society you really aren’t. Or, you’re encouraged to be emotional and go to these crazy places within ourselves pushing our boundaries on a daily basis. We get to do that for a living, and we get to let go of so much shit because of it that. It’s pretty radical.
Does that also play to the moral difficulties that both of your characters faced in the film, particularly with the confrontation that Ellen’s character had with her dad? Is having that sense of abandon key for you as actors to be able to buy into what your characters need to believe in?
BM: That scene, the confrontation with the Dad is probably my favorite in the entire movie, and I mean this movie really is about very high stakes. The whole question of “How fare are you willing to go?” is so present throughout. Are you willing to go so far that you recognize the true cost of gasoline could be the death of a lot of people, so you stop driving your car so you ride your bike everywhere. And then if you get fired from your job because you can’t get anywhere, are you going to get a job closer to where you live. Ultimately, how radical are you as an individual going to be, given your principles? I mean we can all universally agree on what is bad, but then we also look the other way depending on certain things as well.
Did you ultimately go as far as you wanted to with this film, because it is a wide release and you are trying to get it out there and attract an audience? Were there any compromises?
BM: That’s a good question…but isn’t the ultimate culture jam to make something that enters the world widely and carries some subversive ideas? I’m sure there was a version of the film that we could have made that would have been pushing things to the extreme, but that would have been preaching to those couple of thousand people that are talking about and reading the same things. I think we were all very interested in making a movie that played like an entertaining and exciting thriller and then when the credits were rolling or at any time afterwards also gives the audience something to chew on as well.