Interview with The East director Zal Batmanglij

Sound of My Voice director Zal Batmanglij was in Edinburgh to discuss his latest film The East and we caught up with him ahead of the film's premiere.

After making his feature film debut with last year’s Sound of My Voice, writer/director Zal Batmanglij is back with The East, a potent and thoughtful thriller that reunites him with writing partner and star Brit Marling. Telling the story of a corporate spy who goes under cover to infiltrate a group of eco-terrorists, The East arrived at the Edinburgh International Film Festival with a lot of buzz – and didn’t disappoint – so we caught up with Batmanglij to discuss The East and Sound of My Voice…

How did you come to do The East?

Brit (Marling) and I were fascinated by our generation, that feeling of frustration that our generation felt and we were taken by corporate space and by the exact opposite, which was living off the grid. We were fascinated by how those two spaces would intersect in the story of someone, a corporate spy, infiltrating eco warriors.

Did you do a lot of research into these kind of groups?

Well we had lived in groups ourselves but it wasn’t research for the movie, as much as just research for our own lives so that had been the inspiration.

How did that come about?

Well, we had just been reading about these groups so thought let’s stop reading about it and let’s start…you know, these are people our age, we’re nice people…let’s go meet them.

There is some quite unique imagery in the film, like the dinner scene with the straight jackets and feeding each other. How much of that came from your experiences and how much was made up?

Spin the bottle came from our experiences. We actually played spin the bottle, with those rules, and that was a really nice experience. The straight jacket scene was something we made up but was based on things we had experienced, like the idea of selfishness versus selflessness.

And were some of the characters in The East based on people you had met?

Oh, I’ve never been asked that question. Can you imagine? No, they weren’t, but they were inspired by people we knew, from our own lives, from the road. Little bits and pieces put together in strange ways.

Did you have to do any research into the corporate side and the undercover part?

We were fascinated by the idea of private intelligence rather than the FBI or CIA and like what the moral implications were of private intelligence and what the whole experience was like.

Did you meet with anyone?

We had a former spy but he was CIA. He was a great consultant to us but we didn’t meet anybody in the corporate space, at least I don’t think we did.

I assume the character of Sarah was written with Brit in mind but how much of a conscious decision was it to make her boss a woman as well?

Yeah, that’s a great thing. I think it was just obvious to us that her boss would be a woman and that relationship between two women would be interesting. But I didn’t realise that we had just never seen it before, the idea of a female spy and a female handler. Usually even if we see a female spy, we see male handlers so to me it seemed so natural, so it wasn’t conscious and yet it was in a way.

So this film and Sound of My Voice both feature someone going undercover into some kind of group. Is there something that specifically appeals to you about that?

Yeah, I think that we wrote those movies at the same time. Before we had ever made Sound of My Voice, we wrote The East and that was what we were going through in our own lives, I think we wanted to infiltrate the movie industry so that was something we were interested in.

Even Another Earth, she infiltrates this man’s life as someone she isn’t…

Someone brought that up to Brit the other day and she was like “Oh yeah, you’re right, I didn’t think about that”.

Speaking of Brit, how is the process working with her? How does that go?

Great, we’re writing together, we’re very much in the trenches together and sort of partners in crime, do it every day and try to sort of wrangle it into something that exists and then we try to unearth it. Then when we get greenlit, and we’ve been lucky to have gotten greenlit twice, I go to do the work of preparing to direct the movie and Brit does the work of preparing to be Sarah or Maggie and so we go into our separate corners and then we meet back on set but it’s not the same relationship, it’s a little bit lonely. I miss my partner but she’s joined the cast now.

Does she step back completely from her role as a writer, producer…

Yeah, I think she comes in to produce when we need producing on set which sometimes we do at night or on the days of or whatever but yeah, as an actor she’s committed to being the custodian of her character because if she doesn’t do it, no-one else will. So she focuses on that, you can spend a lot of time focusing on that, she doesn’t need to be distracted by anything else.

How does the writing process go? Do you work on the characters first…

I think we do a little bit of both. On The East for example, the oil spill was in the CEO’s summer house was our first way of understanding the group so we imagined that oil spill and how did they pull it off? What are the consequences? The oil company doesn’t want to go to the government; they want to go to a private company to deal with this, take care of it in house. So that’s how we started understanding the story.

We’ve talked about Brit but how did the rest of the cast come to be on board?

Ellen came on board because she just read the script and loved it and so she wanted to meet with us and I was fascinated to meet with her because I had liked her work but is she Izzy? Then when I met her I thought oh my God, she really is an activist and so thoughtful and so interesting I just had to work with her.

Was there anyone you had sought out specifically?

No, I kind of just let the script be a litmus test and see who it brought our way. It was like bait.

How did the cast, like Alexander Skarsgard, take to it? Were they all just interested right away or did they take any convincing?

No. Alex and I went to go eat a couple times together to meet each other and get to know each other because it’s a big deal to do a movie with someone and as Alex has said in an interview before, do you want to spend the next couple of months of your life with these people? And so he had to decide that and I had to decide that and I think quickly we came to like each other.

Going back to Sound of My Voice. Are there are any plans to revisit Maggie?

I love that character so yeah, and I love that world.

I think a lot of people do.

You do?

Absolutely. I rewatched it recently and it’s fantastic.

I love that movie too.

Have you written anything for the character?

For Maggie? Yeah, we had planned the next two films, I don’t know if we’ll ever make them but we had planned them.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the ending, it’s quite ambiguous.

What do you think happened at the end?

I kind of thought she was the little girl’s mother and at some point had to give her up and became a drifter.

Yeah, a lot of people think that.

What other interpretations have you heard?

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the IMDb message boards for Sound of My Voice, but they are out of control.

I try to avoid it.

You should go, there are theories in there that will blow your mind.

Really crazy stuff?

Really crazy stuff. Like the red hat and all this stuff.

People like to take the smallest of things and just run with it…

I like it though. Sound of My Voice certainly leads to it. Lends itself to it.

After that film came out and gained a lot of fans, was there any pressure on you to take on any bigger projects?

No I don’t think from Sound of My Voice, I think maybe from The East. It speaks more to the people who are interested in the mainstream stuff.

Yeah, and it was produced by Ridley Scott. How did that happen?

The person who ran his company saw Sound of My Voice and had the same kind of reaction you had and wanted to meet me. I didn’t know who he was or what he did but a couple of days later he had gotten a copy of The East and he was like Ridley and I want to produce The East.

So to wrap up, what are you working on next?

What do you think I should do next?

Who knows, superhero franchise maybe?

Superhero franchise? (Laughs) That’s what everyone says.

Seriously though, a Sound of My Voice sequel would be nice…

Yeah, I would love that.

The East opens June 28th in the UK and you can read our review here.

Tagged Under

Interview, Festivals, EIFF