Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij left a positive impression on me a few years ago at South by Southwest. Not only with Sound of My Voice, their first full-length feature film together, but also in person during the brief time I spent sitting down with them. That is a movie that raises quite a few questions, and it was obvious they had every possible answer to these questions in mind. Both on screen and off, the two filmmakers displayed between them a clear confidence and shared interests.
With their second collaboration, “the eco-terrorist” thriller The East, the two came to town for a press day near their old stomping ground, Georgetown University. Marling and Batmanglij met for the first time there, and it was fitting interviewing them close to the campus after having discussed their college and city experience a few years ago in Austin. Despite having found a nice little home with Fox Searchlight and having more money to work with now, the duo remain the same, sharing a similar interest in certain themes and the type of stories they want to tell.
Here’s what The East co-writer/star Brit Marling and co-writer/director Zal Batmanaglij had to say about their latest film and their collaborative process:
Structurally, both Sound of My Voice and The East are fairly similar in how they follow characters who infiltrate a group and get more involved than they expected. Was that connection between the two intentional?
Batmanglij: I think they’re sister films. We wrote this movie before we made Sound of My Voice. They’re ideas that were in our minds and still interest us.
Marling: Infiltration and espionage is interesting as a metaphor for what we all feel in life, with how we present ourselves and cherry pick parts of who we are to gain access to certain worlds and connect with certain people. I’m still interested in espionage and going undercover. Acting is kind of a deep cover. I mean, you spend three months as a character, trying to convince yourself you are this person, so that you can convince viewers you are that person. I think [my character] Sarah is doing the same thing.
Knowing you’re going to act in the film, how does that inform the writing process?
Marling: It’s funny. Sarah is so different from me, I was nervous when we finished writing it. Zal and I spend this intimate time together where we write together but then split up to where he directs and I act. Those two things do not meet up on the set. We are very distant from each other when compared to the writing process. When we did that split, I took the script for the first time thinking of playing it. I thought, “Oh shit, I don’t know if I can even pull this off.” Sarah is tricky, because she is lying to everybody. At what point do you get an honest connection?
Batmanglij: And she doesn’t think she’s lying to everybody.
Marling: She doesn’t. She thinks she’s always right. I think I finally found a way into her.
So when you’re on set, Brit, you’re no longer wearing your writer’s hat?
Marling: We’ve been over-writing it so much that once we’re on set it’s up to how Zal is feeling. If something is not working, he’ll come over to say what needs to be changed or that we need to throw out the lines and improvise, to see what comes out of playing.
Batmanglij: Brit is deep into the character at that point. We hope the script works. If the script doesn’t work, then we’re hoping the actors and us can make it work. They all respect Brit, but at that moment they see her as a fellow actor.
Do you always know on set when something isn’t working or do you sometimes not find out until editing?
Batmanglij: You always know. It’s a question of whether you’re leaning in or sitting back. Whether you’re right next to the camera or watching it on the monitor, if the scene is working, you feel yourself leaning in. When it’s not working, you just glaze over and start thinking about something else. If you’re ever thinking about something that’s not related to the movie, then the scene isn’t working. You can’t afford to not think about a detailed movie. There are thousands of details to think about on a movie, so your brain needs to work on multiple channels. That doesn’t mean if you’re ADD you can’t make films, and they’re probably better at making films. The moment you’re not thinking about the scene, it’s not working.
A lot of directors say those little things that bother you, at the end of the day, don’t really matter much to an audience, and you let go of it years later. Has that been your experience?
Batmanglij: Every day, but that’s just an anxiety of making a movie. You obsess over things that you feel are controllable or you’re not getting, because you don’t want to deal with the reality there’s so much emotional stuff you’re not in control of. The actors have control, or the thing you wrote doesn’t quite have flight, you know? It doesn’t really matter what someone’s hair looks like or if the sound is perfect. Every director who’s made a couple of movies knows that, because you can replace the sound. Or, like, any one shot is not that important, because they all add up together. At the time you become obsessive, and maybe that obsessive quality is what makes you a good director, hopefully you mature. For me, at least, I hope I mature or clock myself obsessing over a surface detail.
As a performer, do you go through the same?
Marling: As an actor, I think you’re in a different headspace, where you’re not seeing the whole picture. You’re so sunk in your part. When you’re preparing you’re doing all these notes, living in the world of the story, making observations to yourself, building memories, and creating an alter-ego hopefully strong enough you can kick yourself out. That’s very detailed work, but the trick is to light that book [of details] on fire. You need to throw out those details, show up on set to play and hope the groundwork is there to support you. When you play, you don’t want to walk on a tightrope wire with a safety net, because you have to free fall. That’s a hard thing to do, but it’s a very different process from what Zal goes though.
Batmanglij: The moment you obsess over something — how your hair looks, the lighting, etc. — you’re…
Marling: I don’t think about that at all. That’s all for him.
Batmanglij: That is what a director does. A director really doesn’t deal with performance that much, especially if you deal with great actors. Their work is the performance. What you’re helping them with is all the stuff they cannot be in control of.
Having mentioned the desire to play on set, with a budget and schedule like The East’s, is there a lot of time for that?
Batmanglij: We have one third of the Silver Linings Playbook‘s budget.
Marling: No. I have to tell you, I have had a wild belief about Zal ever since the first short films he made at Georgetown. Even as his biggest fan and admirer, I was shocked by what he was able to do on set. We were shooting a movie that needed three times the amount of time we had. We shot this in 25 days. There were moments where I looked at the call sheet in the morning and thought, “There’s no way he’s going to pull this off.” I thought the movie was going to greatly suffer, but every day he managed it. Every day it was watching someone conduct this chaotic orchestra, making transcendent music out of it.
As an actor, I knew there was shit going on that would’ve, at any moment, sunk the whole film. He’s holding all of that back; it’s like his body holding a dam. The actors get to feel like they have 20 hours to do a scene instead of 30 minutes, and that’s a tremdenous gift. Not all directors do that. Not all directors think about making a space feel safe enough for actors to open up, to let strange and vulnerable creatures pop out of them. Zal thinks as much about actors as he thinks about any other part. He creates that situation, which is why he gets great performances. When you watch that scene of Peter and Maggie breakdown in Sound of My Voice, there was so much going on that day. There was no time, trains going by, and anarchy amongst the cast ready to go… It’s a rare talent.
So are you good at masking all the stress, or do you freak out a little?
Batmanglij: I think you can freak out a little bit. I wasn’t freaking out in, “Oh, we’re not going to make a movie.” I mean, Brit, you’re very kind for saying those things, but I think we were very lucky with these actors and crew. They were all making the same movie, loved coming to work, and there was no attitude on our set. Yes, there was no time and things could’ve fallen apart, but they didn’t, because people liked what they were doing. On our 80-person crew, there wasn’t a bad egg among them.
Coming off Sound of My Voice, did you gain more confidence behind and in front of the camera?
Batmanglij: Yeah, but not confidence in the, “Oh, this is my second feature!” It’s still putting one foot in front of the other every day. It doesn’t matter if you have 80 people behind you. What matters is the people in front of you, which is that safe place for the actors. I felt confident I can get through a day of work, but the question is, how do I do it with grace? It’s one thing to be able to run 10 or 12 miles, but it’s another thing to make it look effortless. Technique and style is what’s important. The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable the actors are and the better the movie is.
Looking at most first-time filmmakers, they generally start off with small, contained character stories. You’ve both made thrillers with more than five locations. Was that a challenge you both wanted to set for yourselves?
Batmanglij: I don’t think we thought about it that much. It’s funny, I’ve seen two small movies lately brimming with the desire to be on much bigger canvases. Did you see Upstream Color?
I did. I like it quite a bit.
Batmanglij: Yeah, I like it a lot. Whether you like it or not, it’s clearly a movie brimming with possibilities and ideas… That guy should be working on a Christopher Nolan sized canvas. You can tell he wants to.
Funnily enough, I just spoke to him last week. He said he’d never see himself making one of those movies.
Batmanglij: Yeah, he tried to, but he didn’t do that. He wants to, but he doesn’t want to deal with all the headache. I don’t blame him. I mean, I’m not saying he should do that, but he wants to be on that canvas. It’s funny seeing Memento, because that is a dense, rich four million dollar movie.
Do you ever see yourself wanting to work on a bigger canvas, with 30 or 100 million bucks?
Batmanglij: 30 is nothing. We’ll take 100 million dollars!
[Laughs] So you’re not taking meetings for those movies yet?
Batmanglij: You have to earn your way to do that. That’s very, very hard to do. I don’t want to make a 100 hundred million dollar movie I have no stake in. We want to make a 100 million dollar movie that we have created, in the way James Cameron or Chris Nolan does. It’s so inspiring when high-quality auteurs are writing and directing those movies. That’s pretty cool.
How do you feel after two features? Is there a sense you have your foot in the door to possibly make those movies?
Batmanglij: We don’t even feel like we’re building [to something]. We just want to get better.
Marling: I know what you mean. I ask myself the same thing, but, “The door to what?” There’s no room I want to go into except the one we’re in. The things that are made within the system are…interesting. I guess, I’m mostly interested in becoming better at writing and being more honest and more able to communicate the things we’re talking about. I want to put those feelings into stories and close the gap between how long it takes to write, finance, and to make movies. It’s funny, there isn’t another room I’m trying to get into.
Batmanglij: You want to stay in this room? [looking around the hotel room]
Marling: I want to stay in this room.
The East is now in theaters.