Two summers ago I was knocked out by the DIY micro-budget science-fiction film Another Earth and the thoughtful, creative integrity and energy of its makers, writer-director Mike Cahill and writer-star Brit Marling.
When I interviewed the two back in 2011, I was further impressed and inspired by their story:
Marling, an economics major, had met film students Cahill and Zal Batmanglij at Georgetown. Eventually they all ended up living together, writing and making movies, including Another Earth and the time-traveling cult story Sound of My Voice, which Marling also starred in and co-wrote with Batmanglij. At Sundance in 2011, that one-two combo of Another Earth and Sound of My Voice made Marling the darling of the festival.
Interviewing Marling that summer, I spent half my time gushing to her about how much I admire that sort of pure, collaborative dedication to making art over making it in Hollywood. I spent the other half enjoying chatting with someone on a film press tour who seemed so genuinely thrilled to be there talking about her film; not just answering questions, but enthusiastically participating in a (albeit short) conversation about ideas. Marling came off as just as excited and curious to engage with us as we were to interview her.
In the two years since Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, Marling has gone on to co-star with big names like Richard Gere and Robert Redford in Arbitrage and The Company You Keep. And while still made on a limited budget, The East was co-produced by Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony and co-stars Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page. These were no longer kids planning and making films in their backyard–would they be changed by the bigger stage and resources?
I’m happy to report they were not. If anything, the still delightfully curious and charming Marling and Batmanglij seem even more committed not only to making small, thoughtful films, but to exploring alternate ways of living in our modern society.
The East follows Sarah (Marling), an undercover agent for a private security firm that’s hired by big corporations to protect them against eco-activism (or eco-terrorism, depending on your point of view). Sarah infiltrates an eco-activist cell called The East (led Skarsgård and Page) that perpetuates acts of environmental karmic payback against corporate leaders; such as dosing Big Pharma VPs with their own, possibly unsafe, drugs; or forcing corporate polluters to swim in the carcinogenic run off waste from their factories.
The East’s actions, born of idealistic anger over corporate malfeasance and legal immunity, inhabit a grey area: the group is not setting off bombs, but it is damaging, even destroying human lives. Through Sarah’s journey, the film (which also stars Julia Ormond and Patricia Clarkson) likewise navigates murky moral waters.
Unlike Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, The East has no science-fiction elements, but as with those other films, it explores notions of right and wrong and human interaction (and alienation) with no easy, clear-cut answers.
I and several other writers sat down with Marling and Batmanglij a few weeks ago in Chicago to talk about The East, but of course our conversation quickly veered off into weighty matters of morality, politics, and what it means to live today in our society.
The East is playing at select theaters across the country.
The film and the main character of Sarah really makes the viewer question his or her allegiances and sympathies between the corporations and the eco-activists. What made you want to explore the moral ambiguity of modern America, with our fracking and corporate-sponsored wars?
Brit Marling: At the start, Sarah feels that she knows what justice is and what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right and wrong. As she has this experience undercover and infiltrates this world, she finds that it’s a very complex moral grey zone. It’s hard to know what you can stand firmly behind.
Zal Batmanglij: We live in a morally super-grey world. Generations ago, it was easier to see things more clearly, in terms of what’s right and what’s wrong. But maybe that was just a myth. But I think that it’s very hard today to know how to get out of certain situations we’re in. I am constantly reading things that I don’t know the answer for. We have all these paradoxes about how to be in the world.
The East is a very complimentary to Sound of My Voice, since both are about an outsider’s journey into an enclosed community.
Batmanglij: Both Sound of My Voice and The East were written around the same time, so there’s spillage over both. We were really interested in identity and fascinated by the idea of deep cover as a sort of metaphor for how we all feel in our 20s as we try to figure out who we are. For example, here today we put on these hats of film makers, and you guys put on the hats of journalists, and we go through these rituals together.
Though it was written at the same time as Sound of My Voice, The East was made later and is a bigger film, production-wise.
Batmanglij: Yeah, it was always meant to have more moving parts, but wasn’t meant to have a bigger budget. We thought we could do all those moving parts at a super low-budget, using the hyper-reality of real life.
When you made Sound of My Voice, there was this sense of artistic collaboration and the intensity and integrity of that struggle. Does that change with a bigger film? Creatively, do you have more or less flexibility, time, and freedom?
Marling: We didn’t have that much time, and it’s such an ambitious film with lots of locations, a big cast and some huge stunt pieces going on. The film was shot in about 25 days, so it didn’t feel that different from Sound of My Voice in the sense that we were still moving fast all the time. Still every day on set when I’d look at the call sheet, I’d think, “There’s no way we’re going to make this day,” and then Zal would miraculously pull off these entire days where great stuff would get done.
I don’t think we ever strayed too far from how we started making films, which is about this sense of, “We’re going to roll up our sleeves and do it, and everybody is gonna wear a lot of hats, and everybody has to come to this project because they love it.”
That energy creates a kind of tribal feeling, whether you’re making it for a hundred thousand dollars or a few million dollars. If everybody is coming to the set not because they’re getting a paycheck or for a career move but because they feel the story has meaning, then for that period of work it gives their life a sense of purpose, and that energy on set is contagious. We feel it even now when talking about this film with people—it doesn’t feel like you’re selling something, it feels like you’re having a conversation that you want to have with people about a subject you’re interested in.
Brit, you’ve spoken before about how you began writing these films to create your own space, your own niche because you didn’t want to play the sort of parts usually offered to young actresses in Hollywood.
Marling: When I first started acting, I was shocked. You watch movies all your life and see men and women and assume it’s all balanced. It’s not until you start acting in them that you realize women are always going to be in a submissive position. You’re always going to be passive. In the script your character asks a lot of questions, but you never say anything. Your job is to serve up the scene so the male protagonist can say his piece.
It took me a while to realize that from an acting perspective, and then of course, I started writing. I got very lucky in that both Mike Cahill and Zal are really interested in strong women. When we sit down to write something, we do talk about the idea of trying to write a girl who acts with agency, doesn’t have all this stuff just happening to her, but is somehow driving the action of the film.
It’s a hard thing to do because you find yourself as you’re writing putting her in passive positions because that’s what you’ve been raised on. So we think about it and talk about it all the time. Even as we start something new now, we still have to remind ourselves and talk about it, because you forget, so you always have to always be cognizant of it.
Batmanglij: Imagine if Sarah was a guy. Then he’d be handsome, and you’d have totally different sexual elements to contend with. You don’t want to get into a space where you’re like, “I’ll imagine him as a guy and we have all these possibilities, then we’ll just switch it back to a girl.”
Marling: Then she’s just strong in the way that men are strong. We want to explore what a woman is like who’s strong in the way that women are strong. We don’t actually know what that looks like because women haven’t been writing those characters.
Batmanglij: Or in Thelma and Louise where it’s written by a woman and then Ridley Scott directs it. In the case of that film, it created a great balance and it was something that people could digest at the time. But imagine if Kathryn Bigelow had directed it.
Marling: And we seem to have gone backwards from that moment. I was reading something recently where an interviewer was asking a young girl if she was a feminist, and the girl was like, “Oh no, no, no, I’m not a feminist,” as if that word has somehow gotten dirty.
Batmanglij: People who are not feminists or environmentalists are on crack because you’ve got to be, you’ve got to care.
Marling: And you have to care about women, who are still very oppressed, not just in this culture but all over the world.
We follow Sarah as she’s assimilated into the group’s new way of living and connecting with others. That feels remarkable at a time when it seems we all–Left, Right, Republican, Democrat–seem to be living an a very disconnected, “black and white” world.
Batmanglij: That is the true quality of our times right now. We have more access to diverse opinions than ever before, and yet our opinions are more reified than ever before. Bill Clinton said last week at a speech I attended that the latest American affliction is these days we can’t even stand to be around people who think differently than we do.
And it’s so true. We cannot be around people who think differently from us. It was a shock to me when I saw the racial hate when Obama got elected the second time—it was on Twitter, from kids, from teenagers. I couldn’t believe people would talk like that on their Twitter account in a public way. I realized that I must live in a super-sheltered space if I can’t even understand where that’s coming from.
Marling: The idea of this sort of tunnel vision is because the world has become so complex, such a moral grey zone, that nobody wants to really look at it.
It’s like a thoroughbred racehorse with the blinders on. You just keep running around the track but never take the blinders off and just keep going in order to win. It’s a weird moment if you allow yourself to take the blinders off and engage in a conversation and really listen to other people instead of just talking.
What’s interesting about this movie is that it doesn’t seem to matter if people are on the far right or the far left or anywhere in between. Everyone seems to agree right now that something is amiss with corporate greed. Everyone feels the BP oil spill was handled badly. Nobody thinks it makes sense to use dispersant in order to get rid of the oil for photographs. The dispersant is a worse chemical in many ways than the petroleum.
It’s all gotten weird and muddled, and that’s why it’s interesting to talk with people about this movie who are on both sides of the political spectrum. It seems that the one thing everybody can agree on, if there’s anything to agree on, is that it’s a frustrating time. Certain things have gotten so powerful that they’re almost unassailable. How do you make people accountable?
Batmanglij: We’re out of whack, out of sync. Something’s wrong. For us, it comes back to being frustrated at the computer. The story about kids dying of cancer from arsenic in their bath water is true. You read about it, and your heart is broken, and you think, “How can this be in America?”
One aspect of the group The East that goes against the grain of modern society is the depth of their connection to one another. In the Internet Age, we seem less and less connected physically and socially.
Marling: One of the most shocking things I’ve found about the movie is that people are really unsettled about the group bathing scene. That’s crazy. I was playing a video game the other day for the first time, and it’s so violent. People are dismembered and nobody flinches. Then you have this scene where people are just in the water, touching each other, and people can’t handle it. It’s so much about our time–we’ve become so afraid of intimacy and so afraid of contact and looking someone in the eye. We’re just retreating to the Twitter/Facebook portal where I’ll talk to you, but from over here.
That was one of the most amazing thing about the summer we spent a couple years ago on the road, traveling and living with groups in this vein. They were so connected to each other. At first, it was weird to sleep with ten people in a room like this, to wake up one morning and see someone else in your sneakers. Then at some point it crossed over, and you were just so glad to have a community and a tribe and stop thinking about yourself. It was an amazing thing to just let go of “you.” There are no mirrors, so you start to forget what you look like. The “you” sort of dissolves into a group, which can sound a bit like Stockholm Syndrome in a story like this.
Batmanglij: It can sound a little New Agey or like a cult, but I don’t think of The East as a cult. A cult has a spiritual reference to it, and clearly Sound of My Voice is about a cult. But The East is more political. Yes, they do weird rituals…
Marling: Which are about bonding and connecting. It’s about thinking about each other as much as you think about yourself.
Batmanglij: I think that she’s a person of faith in a very traditional sense of the word, and she maintains that the whole movie. The movie ends with Sarah saying, “Amen,” but I think that she comes to regard her faith in an entirely different light by the end of the movie. She believes in a new way.
Which is more forgivable: To do the right thing for the wrong reasons or the wrong thing for the right reasons?
Marling: It’s so hard to say. I tend to think that the means cannot justify an end, but that’s because of how I’ve started to live my life. I used to think that what you did for a living was separate from who you are, but it’s not. The thing that you do daily is who you are, so I am very preoccupied with the idea that if you do a certain series of actions in order to get some end, you are going to become that person along the way. Even if you think the end is noble, you can’t avoid the way you got there.
Batmanglij: Or vice versa. I think that doing the right thing is important, even if the end result is wrong. I really believe that.
Batmanglij: Is it cheesy if I say this, talking like this? When we have screenings and talk to you guys, the questions that get asked, the ideas that get brought up that I hadn’t thought about. It’s neat to make something and then have it meet the world. If we just put these plays on for each other, that’d be a nice life, we’d be happy with that. But it gives us such great pleasure to talk to people about these films.