Zal Batmanglij and his writing partner, Brit Marling, look to be promising filmmakers on the indie circuit. Zal and Brit’s debut was the wonderfully challenging and original Sound of My Voice, directed by Zal and starring Brit as a cult leader who claims to have traveled back in time. It is a great film, one that made my top 10 of 2012 – check it out if you haven’t seen it yet. Their new film is The East, a political thriller which sees Brit infiltrate an anarchist group, with a cast including Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård and Patricia Clarkson. Zal and I spoke about what inspired his past two films, his and Brit’s creative process and if the studios have been knocking on his door yet.
The East is partially based on yours and Brit Marling’s real life events before you became successful. What exactly did you take and learn from the anarchists that you met?
We were fascinated by the frustrations of our generation. Both in the corporate space and in its exact opposite – which was off the grid – so we had lived two months off the grid and been really overwhelmed by how stunning of an experience it was and how natural it felt. That element is in The East.
You’ve based this on a lot of real life stuff that seems to be getting overlooked. Was it your intention to make this a political statement, to help the audience realise that bad things do happen unpunished? What was most shocking about the side-effects you read?
Yeah the drug is based on fluoroquinolone which is a family of antibiotics which are very common. To think that antibiotic is one of the most commonly prescribed drugs and for some people they take five pills and end up in a wheelchair for years and years just seems ludicrous, right?
Yeah, I agree. Is there anything else in the film that’s based on real events?
Yeah the kid’s dying of cancer from the arsenic in their bathwater was shocking to us.
Wow, that’s quite graphic.
It is quite graphic and sad. It’s all money, it’s all driven by money. No one wants to hurt kids, no one wants to end up in a wheelchair from an antibiotic but there’s so much money being exchanged.
You said you were finding the tone in editing, what did you finally settle on?
We were editing The East during the press for Sound of My Voice. I think the score makes the film feel much more like a familiar thriller than it actually is without that score. It’s actually a very quiet film.
Was the score mainly what amped it up-
Not amped it up but to make it feel more familiar to make the story more accessible to more people.
I’ve been curious about this for a while. Sound of My Voice is very different and so is The East, what are people’s reactions when reading your script?
I don’t know. [laughs] What do you expect that they are?
I don’t know either. To me they seem like good stories but I can see why studios might be put off financing them because there’s nothing finite in them, there’s no irony-
Yeah, you’re right, there is no irony. Brit and I both aren’t fans of irony. It’s funny because [Searchlight] Fox came after us for The East. We didn’t necessarily want to make this movie with anybody, let alone a studio. I guess it appealed to them but then again they’re a smart bunch at Searchlight.
Did they interrupt much with The East or did they let you have your creative freedom?
I think a little bit of both. I think in some degrees they gave us a lot of creative freedom but in other degrees they were involved in every aspect of the filmmaking. That’s just how they make films, that’s just what they do, that’s their jobs. You have to let them be involved too because that’s how they get meaning out of their lives.
What advice would you give to someone who’s trying to break into the indie circuit?
I don’t know, I think the films that have done the best have been the most original. Another Earth, Sound of My Voice, look at Beasts of the Southern Wild, look at Lena Dunham… I don’t know.
Is it a sort of thing that just happens?
Yeah… I don’t think any of those films were designed to do well critically or in the marketplace. They just had to be made by the people who were making them and people really gravitate towards that. They like things that don’t feel like they have an agenda. The only way to pull that off is to not have an agenda and make your work. If you make the work and it’s interesting and it is original, people will come.
Is that how you collected the cast that you did?
We collected the cast by using the script as a litmus test, it was our bait if you will. If people connected with the material – like you were saying, how do people react to our scripts – if the script spoke to them then being in the movie would speak to them and that would make us feel good.
There wasn’t a traditional casting room who tested for it?
There were for the smaller parts, not for the leads no.
As I said earlier, you have open ideas and no irony, how do you write with that in mind or do you just write?
We try to avoid the computer in writing for as long as we can. In the case of The East, we told each other the story for seven months. Going back and forth, telling each other the story. At some point we start acting it out. I don’t know, I don’t think irony comes that naturally to me, I don’t understand it. It seems like a huge way to distance yourself from things. I don’t get it. I’m much more interested in sincerity. That’s of course setting yourself up to fail in so many ways because it really turns people off. I couldn’t care less.
You and Brit just told the story to each other, does one of you focus on the dialogue or is much more collaborative?
No, we tell each other the story. For some of the morning it’s hers, for some of the morning it’s mine, but I don’t think either one of us does one more thing more than the other because then it would feel imbalanced when you’re telling the story. It’s not like she tells it without the dialogue and I tell it with all the dialogue [laughs]. No, by the third or the fourth month we’re acting out the movie because it’s so frustrating not writing it down.
Brit Marling and yourself are confident, competent writers. Sound of My Voice – one of my favourites from last year – is open to interpretation, it is different and it’s just interesting. What are you trying to achieve when writing your screenplays, what do you want to come across that the audience will see and love?
No, the things we were feeling when we were making The East were very conscious, like feelings of our generation. What were the people in the corporate space feeling? I think we were feeling that our generation was conned. The economy in the States and all over the world in some ways fell apart in 2008 and all these slick banking jobs for a second their underwear came down, they looked kind of sad and pathetic, you know? [laughs] It gave away the whole feeling of the system being broken and fake. I think we had this conned feeling and we were interested in how the corporate space intersected with its exact opposite, these people living meaningful lives off the grid.
I wish there had been more of a reaction. It seems now that people have forgiven the banks a little bit.
I think it’s like if someone has rare sickness and they get a fever and they have to come to terms with the fact that they have this rare illness, they’re dying, but then the moment the fever clears up they’re like ‘I don’t have to actually deal with this rare illness for a while, I’m going to be oblivious to it for a while and live life’. I think that’s what everybody’s doing, they’re pretending the system isn’t broken, like we aren’t dying but we are.
That’s what I’m hoping when The East comes out here. That people will start to take notice and capitalism does actually cause quite a bit of problems and you can’t ignore the fact that people are doing it for money.
Yeah it’s like people don’t want to come to terms with that. I think the film does leave people shaken. A lot of people in the States have come up to me and said ‘wow, this film has changed the way we think about things’.
So far you and Brit have made two original films in two years and Brit made a third in Another Earth. Where do you get your ideas from? How do you come up with such original ideas?
I don’t know. [laughs] We tell each other stories that interest us. We start with stories from the news, like ‘can you believe that fluoroquinolone drug? That some woman took them for an infection and now she can’t even hold her children because she’s so weak and she can’t even recognise her own face in the mirror’. We start telling each other a story like that and then say ‘what if she could seek revenge on the people who made the drug?’ There’s something so smug about people in the corporate space. When they see a woman like that they’re like ‘oh, we’re so sorry! Yes, with some people these side effects do happen but maybe you have something else that caused it’ and they fuck with her. We just imagined ‘well, what if we could fuck with those people back?’
Haha that’s a good idea. When you said revenge then, I don’t know why, I had a Quentin Tarantino Django Unchained moment in my head.
Yeah! I think that Tarantino’s story are so palpable and so primal and they appeal on some level to me, big time.
You wrote these two back-to-back, do you have any others that you’re writing that you’d like to get made?
Yeah, this past December, Brit and I started writing a new movie so we’ll see.
Can you give us any details on that or are you bound to not give anything away?
It’s still embryonic, we’re still telling each other the story. But what I get excited about is that it’s our first screenplay we’re writing after we’ve made two movies. Even The East we’d written before doing Sound of My Voice so I’m curious to see as to how that will pan out.
Who would you say are your personal influences?
Well I love James Cameron, I love Krzysztof Kieslowski, I love Alan Pakula – he’s a huge influence on me -, everyone admires Steven Spielberg – I loved Lincoln -, I like Michael Haneke, I really admire Paul Thomas Anderson, I thought Black Swan was devastating so I love Darren Aronofsky…
So quite a lot of influences then?
Well they’re all the people I admire, I’m not sure how much they influence me. In some ways, I feel like the things Brit and I do are very original.
Do you agree with what Steven Spielberg has said lately, by the way?
Yeah I think him and Soderbergh are speaking to both the studios and the filmmakers, asking both to be more bold and more original. I wonder if we can be.
I hope so. Are you going to continue on the path of challenging the norm and challenging conventions and making challenging films?
I don’t know. [laughs]
Now that you’ve made two successful indie projects, have the big studios started phoning you yet?
Do you think I should do it?
I don’t know. I think it could be quite interesting what you’d do with a big budget but it would depend on it being an original thing or a comic book film?
Something inbetween those two things. [laughs] I can’t even say it out loud. I’m debating whether or not if I should do it which is why I wanted your advice.
Well… It’s hard to give advice without knowing exactly which one it is.
I think it could be potentially interesting, it might lead the way for you to make more original films with a bigger budget so it could be a good opportunity.
Yeah that’s true. I thought about that in great detail, that’s true, that’s very true.
Would you say that you have an original story that could be a blockbuster in your head?
Yes, I really do.
You’d love to do an action film wouldn’t you? It’d be really interesting to see a Zal Batmanglij action film.
Starring Brit. [laughs]
There you have it. An interesting up and coming director who could helm a major film if he decides to take it or not. Only time will tell but I’m anxious to find out myself. Until then go watch Sound of My Voice and then The East. The East is released in UK cinemas on the 28th of June 2013. Read our full The East Review.