When writer/director Zal Batmanglij recently visited San Francisco to promote his latest film, The East, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in a roundtable discussion with the talented director. His second collaboration with star and writing partner, Brit Marling (the two previously worked together on the criminally under-seen Sound of My Voice), The East centers on “The East,” an underground collective of eco-activists whose direct-action brand of protest takes the notion of “ends justifying means” to the extreme. Starring Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, and Ellen Page, The East expands nationwide this week.
Question: How like the characters in The East are you?
Zal Batmanglij: Very. I’m much like them. [laughs] What do you mean?
Q: It’s a movie about dissent that can only happen in a certain echelon and that’s what I find intriguing about it. It’s an upscale defiance.
ZB: The term “yuppies” is about young, upwardly mobile professionals, right? It suggests a certain middle-class desire to aspire [to status and financial security]. But these kids – Benji wasn’t from the middle class. He was from the upper-middle class. There was no upwards to go to. He had enough money to last the rest of his life, without [the need] to work the rest of his life. So when he decides to get rid of that money, it’s both a slap in the face of people who want to get to where he was already, but it’s also a way of saying, “I don’t believe in the system.” I think it’s a worthwhile thing to explore in fiction – the idea that people have this thing other people want and decide to give it up.
Q: Isn’t there an element of ingratitude to that position?
ZB: Maybe he should have done what Bruce Wayne did, take [the money], drive a Lamborghini during the day, and use that money at night to become a pimped-out vigilante.
There is an [element of] ingratitude to it.
One of Michael Haneke’s first films, The Seventh Continent, when it screened at Cannes, the audience freaked out because at the end of that movie, they take their money and flush it down the toilet. The imagery of just seeing money being flushed down the toilet was so vile to people. We’re so used to people being killed in movies or tortured in weird ways like in the Hostel films, but seeing money flushed down the toilet or seeing an heir being ungrateful really bothers us. The question is, “Why?” We just wanted to explore that. We didn’t have an opinion one way or another. That’s one of the cool things about making these movies is that we get to have a conversation.
There’s a young woman who wrote in her blog that Izzy (Ellen Page’s character) seems so ungrateful because a lot of people would kill for the chance to have an Ivy League education like she did and she just totally trashed it. It’s a worthwhile opinion and I have to say it’s not one we thought about when we wrote the movie, but I’m glad it’s a conversation we’re having.
Q: This is your second collaboration with Brit Marling. Can you talk about the screenwriting process? Who writes what? Did you lock yourself up in a room for days or weeks to write a draft? And why did you decide on eco-terrorists instead of another political group, right or left, to drive the plot?
ZB: One of the tricks to our writing is limit our access to the actual computer and/or writing software. The East took about nine months to write. We spent seven and a half months just telling each other the story much like we’re having a conversation now. We’d tell each other the story every day for about two hours. We’d just work on the story six days a week. Those last six weeks? We were just dying to write it down. We didn’t want to let it go like water I’m holding in my hand and you want to pour into a cup. It makes the writing process a lot more fun because you feel this incredible need to just get it out there and this burning desire that hopefully translates into [the final script]. It’s like cooking with a lot of passion. When you read a script or taste a meal, it has that sort of energy to it.
We choose to set it in this world because it was a world we had been exploring and we thought, “How come no one’s set a thriller in this world?” This world would be a great place to set this thriller.
Q: As a fan of Sound of My Voice, it didn’t take long to realize they’re cut from the same cloth. I’m wondering for you as a writer and filmmaker what the evolution from one project to another was like.
ZB: We wrote the movies back to back before we even made the first movie, so they do have a sort of fraternity to them. They were written around the same time, [what we call] our blue period. It was a time when we were really interested in infiltration ourselves. Brit wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be a director. No one was giving us permission to enter those worlds, so the idea of infiltrating the filmmaking community was very appealing. I’m sure that trickled into the stories, but we didn’t do that consciously. That’s just something we can say now [in retrospect].
Q: You and Brit did a lot of research, a lot of hands-on research into the culture, correct?
AB: We actually didn’t do a lot of research. We went on the road exploring America’s underworld, but we didn’t know we were going to make a movie out of it. It wasn’t research. It was just living life. It was an adventure we had. I think people like to think we did research, but we didn’t. The experience so rattled us. It’s still rattling me even though it was five years ago, the summer of 2009, so we had to make a movie as a way to make sense of it.
Q: What were some of the things that surprised you?
ZB: Every day was a surprise. For example, you hear about dumpster diving, but then you put it into practice and you realize look at the back of any grocery store … what’s a supermarket around here?
Q: Safeway or…
ZB: Right, so at the back of a Safeway’s or a Trader Joe’s there’s a dumpster and they have to throw out all of the food that’s past it’s sell-by date. There are all these packages of bread and all these packages of peanut butter … all sorts of stuff, apples, whatever and they put it in the dumpster and it’s on its way to a landfill where after all the energy it took to make that bread, to grow the wheat, to package it, to ship it… just think about how much fuel was used to ship that bread to your San Francisco’s Trader Joe’s and then it’s just thrown into a landfill. If you just pick the lock [on the dumpster], there’s bread there that’s seen as waste. When you see that’s it not waste, but bounty, all of a sudden your whole way of seeing the world changes.
Q: The East seems to have an optimistic hope that, if presented with all the facts, people will do the right thing. Is that a belief you share?
ZB: I’ve never heard it asked that way before. I don’t have any answers. I’m not in a place in my life. We haven’t reached the red phase where we have answers. I just have a lot of questions. The point of this movie was to raise questions, to raise awareness, and present facts. What blows my mind is when we show it to certain audiences and they have no idea that a pharmaceutical product can cause these disastrous side effects exists on the market. It blows their mind. People really believe there’s a righteous hand – the government protecting them – but the government is just trying to keep up with corporations that are so powerful. They’re only powerful because they make so much money and that’s how we measure power in our society. I think people knowing about these things is very important.
At the end of the day, the movie is just supposed to be a thrill ride and a way to share this information, but I don’t think it’s supposed to wake everybody up. Let that be for the conversations you have afterward. I often joke that this is the kind of movie you should see with someone you’re sleeping with because you should wake up the next morning and talk about it. That would be the dream.
Q: Can you talk more about the connection between your experiences [on the road] and the characters in the film?
ZB: We never encountered a group that ate soup with straight jackets on. That’s totally made up, but we definitely met, lived with, read about, and admire direct-action groups, resistance groups. Those definitely exist. There’s a whole underworld in America of those groups, all communicating with each other. They’ll see each other in Sacramento and a month later they’ll see each other at an anarchist bookstore in North Carolina. They hop the trains. They travel all across this country for free, constantly bumping into each other because they’re all travelers. That’s true, not imagined. We took that world and imagined an eye-for-an-eye justice group. That [type of group], I’ve never encountered. That was a way of dealing with eye-for-an-eye justice and accountability. It was accountability that we wanted to explore. Our legal system has a lot of eye-for-eye justice, right? If you kill someone, the government may potentially kill you.
If you poison someone with a pharmaceutical [product] that you’re making, how are you held accountable? The East imagines that. The corporate crimes are based 100% on fact, not even exaggerated a little bit for dramatic effect. There is a drug. It’s the most commonly prescribed antibiotic that can cause face blindness. They could end up in a wheelchair and not just for the duration of taking the drug, but for years. There are all sorts of side effects from that drug. The kid who got into a bathtub filled with arsenic, got brain cancer, and died? That’s all real. It’s from a New York Times article. How those people who profit from that death and devastation are held accountable is where the fiction comes in.
Hiller Brood is [also] based on a real company, a real private intelligence company. The government sometimes hires those companies to do intelligence work. The fluid movement between corporate space and government now is in full swing. You can be on the board of Halliburton and then you can be working for the United States controlling Halliburton contracts. That happened [under Bush-Cheney]. The crossover between the private sector and the government is where we live in now.
Q: How did you decide on the specific “jams” (direct actions)?
ZB: I saw a grandmother being evicted from her house by police force and I imagined the East would love to evict a banker and his wife with her yappy dog out of their million-dollar house. We didn’t go with that. We went with things that were the most emotional for us, an oil spill at the summer estate in the Hamptons of an oil company CEO felt really primal. Two months after we wrote that [opening], the BP oil spill happened, so we were like, “Okay, we’re onto something.”
When I read about this drug that’s on the market making so much money yet has all these side effects, I was like, “Wait, isn’t there some kind of regulatory system [to handle it]?” Actually, it turns out there’s really no effective way to chronicle side effects. The government has some sort of web presence. They say only 3% of people affected by side effects from medications report on that website. There’s no oversight for this. It’s hard to believe. The drug companies pay all of the studies the government uses to decide whether to approve a drug. The government pays for very few studies. That felt very emotional. When we see that story [involving the arsenic bathtub], it just breaks your heart.
That’s how we chose them. How broken were our hearts?
Q: Earlier on, you said you didn’t have answers, just questions, but the more we’ve talked, the more it seems you have opinions about them. I’ll concede the movie doesn’t take a hardline on who’s right or wrong, but I’m curious as to how you disconnect yourself from that.
ZB: I’m just stating facts. There isn’t much wiggle room. For example, in the course of making [The East], we chose that drug to focus on the drug manufacturing [angle] in the story. Since then, the FDA’s put a black box warning on that drug. I don’t think that’s enough, but it wasn’t there when we started writing this and it is there now. PBS News Hour has done a story on that drug. The New York Times has done a story on that drug. None of this stuff existed when we first started writing [our screenplay]. I just think of that as just the land of facts. It’s hard for us to imagine things that aren’t sanctioned in the mainstream. It’s hard for us to accept them as real. Just like Jennifer Lawrence is a movie star now, but it was hard for a lot of people to imagine that three years ago. You need the sanctioning, but there were a lot of people back then who did believe in Jennifer Lawrence. They invested in her and they’ve reaped the rewards.
It’s hard to see things clearly before they’re sanctioned by the population, by the group. Yes, I’m really passionate about the crimes I feel are being perpetrated against ordinary Americans. Do I think there should be eye-for-an-eye justice against those people? No. Do I have any answers? Do I think government should be paying for drug testing? Maybe. Actually, I’m not in a place to give you answers. I’m not that smart. I don’t know enough about things. I haven’t figured out a solution. If I knew how to fix these problems, I certainly wouldn’t be in a roundtable with you guys. I’d be in Washington, D.C., trying to enact change. No offense. I think we’re asking a lot of questions. I’d love to debate the person who argues that they should have used bottled water for bathwater.
I’m sure the other side of it is that all drugs are going to have collateral damage. These same drugs save millions of lives. I’m all for that. They do save millions of lives. I say this to everyone who brings it up at a Q&A when they ask what they should do: “Look it up on the Internet. If it has temporary side effects that are in line with what you’re taking it for, take the drug. If it has permanent side effects, think again.” There was a drug to help people quit smoking. It caused people to commit suicide. They had to take a drug off the market. It’s not that they don’t list these side effects. They do. We just need to be more education about these things.
Q: When do you know when to stop editing yourself?
ZB: You don’t, really. That’s something that I’m learning to do. There are certain parts of the movie that are probably over-edited. It’s hard to tell since you get so far down the rabbit hole. There are other parts that are just right. You just hope that the movie plays.
I can tell you that on Sound of My Voice, we showed friends a rough cut on our computers. They said they hated the chapters, to take them out. I remember we did a version where we took the chapters out and sent that new version to Sundance. One day, I just woke up in the middle of the night and thought, “People don’t know what the f— they’re talking about. That movie without the chapters is too overwhelming.” So much shit starts to bleed together. You need those chapter callouts. I drove to the Sundance office and asked the secretary to break the DVD we just submitted to them. That’s a good example of an over-edit that you realize [wasn’t a good call]. You have to follow your gut.
Q: I was curious as to why you emphasized Sarah’s Christianity. It’s been a while since I saw that in a film.
ZB: I get annoyed when people have a [radical] experience in movies and they completely change. I thought it was cool that the movie open with Sarah being a person of faith and ends with her being a person of faith. A lot has changed. Even her sense of her faith has changed, but she still has parts of herself that haven’t changed. It’s not about a woman who loses her religion, but about a woman who finds her faith, finds the right path for herself. The movie also deals with all that morally grey space we’re in. I call it neon gray.
Q: What’s next for you?
ZB: I don’t know. I think Brit and I would like to write something else together.
Q: Are you [two] still thinking about doing a Sound of My Voice web-series?
ZB: I’d love to. Two more films are planned. There was an ending as to who Maggie is. We planned all of that out. It’d be great to make it. I don’t see us making it any time soon. There isn’t a demand for it. Not enough people have seen Sound of My Voice. Maybe later if our films get more traction then people will go back to Sound of My Voice and there will be a demand for it, but not right now.