Zal Batmanglij on 'The East'

Martyn Conterio

American filmmaker Zal Batmanglij teams up once more with rising star and screenwriter Brit Marling for The East, a spy thriller that takes a look at hacktivism and how anarchist groups are taking their fight to the Internet.

We met up with the director to chat about his working relationship with Brit Marling, global corporations, and why he’d quite fancy making a summer blockbuster one day.

GFW: Given the subject matter of The East, are you a politically active person, and does the film represent your own concerns with the world?
Zal Batmanglij: I think we’re all politically active, to some degree. The East wasn’t so much about politics but the dissatisfaction of our generation and that feeling of being conned. We started this in 2009 and the economy had collapsed in 2008. The system didn’t work. People felt cheated.

Was there a specific book or magazine article that sparked your interest in the subject matter, or was it purely from this feeling of generational angst you and Brit Marling felt around you?
I’ve heard other filmmakers talk about reading an article or book, and we weren’t so much like that. We’d take in articles but it was more about the mood ... The story was more about a way to explore the frustrations [of the economic collapse and angst].

Given the anarchist group in the movie attack several corporations with their ‘jams’, do you think there’s such a thing as a responsible or benign global corporation?
I don’t know … I don’t think all corporations are inherently evil. I think there is an ability within a lot of companies to hide because there’s a lack of accountability. Who is accountable? Everybody is trying to protect their jobs and not consider the larger implications.

How do you and Brit collaborate together on the scripts? Does she earmark the lead role for herself?
We start with a character we think could be interesting to tackle and we go from there. There’s no question of whether she’s going to play that character or not. The character in my mind is played by Brit, and that’s how we tackle it ... We pass [the writing] back and forth, but not with a computer or email or on paper. We pass it back and forth verbally. Like you and I are sat here now. Our writing day would be like this… with us talking and telling each other the story. So it’s nine months of talking and about six weeks of writing.

Brit Marling. 

I’ve really enjoyed your treatment of genre, both in Sound of My Voice and The East. This is a serious-minded spy thriller with a female lead. That’s not really done too often, if at all.
The thing you never have is that if there’s a female spy then you never get the female handler. Here you have the female spy and the female handler, played by Patty Clarkson.

Are you totally conscious of taking generic tropes and playing around with them, or is it something that comes up in retrospect, in the finished film?
It evolves naturally. I’m interested in portraying interesting women and I didn’t realise how provocative it is to do that. You realise how few movies there are like that.

Was it a clear decision to push further into the mainstream?
I think because of the subject matter that it needed to be talked about more. With Sound of My Voice, it took a more non-linear path. What’s cool about Sound of My Voice is that it plays dead a bit and then you come closer to it and then it bites you.

You mentioned Patricia Clarkson. What was it like working with her?
We gave Patty Clarkson the job over the phone. When she came to the set she really wanted to meet us before we started shooting, but we were so busy shooting, we couldn’t. But she insisted. So we finally went to meet her and picked her up one night after shooting and she said, “No one told me you guys were 12 years old!”

Ellen Page, centre. 

Is it intimidating or scary working with famous actors like Ellen Page, Clarkson or Alexander Skarsgård, or are they all nice?
I don’t know if they’re nice … it’s not like they were not nice, but if you feel like you’re intimidated to direct the actor then you’re not ready for the job. Although a little bit of fear is important going into the process. I never thought of Ellen as a movie star when we were working, I thought of her as her character.

Will you push further and further into the mainstream or even into Hollywood proper?
Maybe you’ll see me directing a big action movie!

I want to see you directing something like The Avengers 3. Would you ever be interested in that level of filmmaking?
Sure. When I was a kid, comic books were my favourite thing. I dreamed of making the X-Men movie. There was no X-Men movie when I was a kid or even comic book movies. I guess there was Tim Burton’s Batman, but that was seen as silly, not representing the filmmaking of the time. Now you’ve Chris Nolan’s movies that are seen as defining of their period.

Are you and Brit going to team up again for another flick?
I’d love to. She’s a great person to work with.

Have you actually started something?
We’ve started writing, yes.

Is it top secret at this stage?
Yes, I keep it secret even from myself. I don’t talk about it because it’s not ready.

'The East' is in cinemas now. 

Images via Substance

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