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Interview: Brit Marling and Director Zal Batmanglij Talk ‘The East’, Their Writing Process and Acting Notebooks

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brit-marling-the-eastThe East is a new thriller from writer/director Zal Batmanglij and writer/actress Brit Marling that has Brit as an undercover agent at a private intelligence firm. She infiltrates a group called, The East, who has been targeting companies that pollute the environment. But, the longer her character is with the group, the the more she begins to sympathize with what they are doing.

The film also stars Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page and our friend Shiloh Fernandez and it’s a really good film. If you’re looking for something that’ll give your brain some food instead of mindless summer action, definitely check it out.

I’ve talked to Brit three times and Zal twice and they are just such nice and normal people. Even more so now with all of the success they’ve had. They’re both incredibly smart and I love their films.

In the interview, we talk about writing the film and how they work together during that process, how Brit keeps acting notebooks for each project she’s working on and how they got the great cast for the film.

The East is currently playing in Los Angeles and New York. It opens wide this weekend.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes 

Zal Batmanglij: The East took 9 months to write. We didn’t sit at the actual laptop with Final Draft open until 6 weeks before the end of that 9 months. So we don’t write until the very, very end, the tippy, tippy end.

Is it just like you’re taking the entire time?

Zal Batmanglij: Well, we take notes but we tell each other the story. So we think of it as more like storytelling process.

So, it’s verbal?

Zal Batmanglij: It’s verbal. It’s verbal but it’s also like you’re looking to get the dance in your partner’s eye. You know? When their eyes sort of light up and they lean in rather than when they’re glazed over and they’re like, “Oh, what’s for lunch?”

Do you have a big board and post ideas everywhere?

Zal Batmanglij: No, it’s all… I wish. Sometimes I see… I go to other friends who are writers houses and they have all these things and I think, “Oh, that looks so cool.” They do something so chic for a living. But no, we just tell each other the story.

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Paul Shrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, said he had a similar process. He was saying that he would just talk about it over and over again as if he were around a campfire and then eventually you sit down once it’s clear in your head. Is that kind of the process you guys go through?

Zal Batmanglij: Yeah, we should be able to sit here and either one of us tell you the story from start to finish for an hour and a half and have you guys in totally rapt attention. You know? If we can’t do that, then it’s never gonna be a movie someone’s gonna pay money to go see. [Brit walks up and sits down] I was just saying about our writing process, that I wish… I always wanna have a big board with lots of…

Brit Marling: The note cards.

Zal Batmanglij: The note cards. But we never…

Brit Marling: I wish we could do that.

Zal Batmanglij: We’ve tried, ok? Because… I said I’ve seen it in different people’s houses and it looks so chic.

Brit Marling: Or you see it in movies and it looks so cool. It’s like note card out your movie, but we never know how to do it. Maybe someone should teach us.

Zal Batmanglij: But, yeah, you’re right, there’s so much stuff that is nonverbal and that’s the beauty of movies and that’s why they’re not novels. But the story part of it you should be able to tell people and hold their attention, get their eyes to dance a couple of times.

What do you guys learn from each other every time you take this journey of sitting and playing a story together from scratch?

Brit Marling: I learn a lot. We learn a lot maybe about each other. You know? Because I think it begins with the ideas that you’re interested in, the things that are happening in your life, the observations you’re making about your deepest, most personal relationships. I think a lot of writing together comes out of trusting each other enough to talk about your deepest fears and your great confusions and from that space, slowly the winds and the temperature and the pressure and the humidity starts to swirl around the eye of some storm that you’re interested in.

I learned something good which was that the… initially the straight jacket scene had been about a parable Zal had told me once that had really moved me years ago and the parable was about heaven and hell and how heaven and hell is the same banquet table with the same food, the same feast, and everybody is chained up in both heaven and hell. But in heaven, the people feed each other with the spoons and in hell they’re just going for it themselves and they can’t get to the food. And that parable really left an impression on me. We went to write a scene later about Benji and I was like, “The parable. Benji says the parable.” Write all this down. And we came back to it and Zal was like, “It’s the right feeling but it doesn’t work. It’s not cinematic. How do we make this a cinema scene and not a novel?” And then we cracked the thing of actually making the parable a real moment, of putting people in the straight jackets and having the soup in front of them and having that be a moment that we show rather than tell. That was something he taught me.

Do you guys ever have a situation where you’re just really arguing about a specific scene and one of you has to give in?

Zal Batmanglij: We’ve only argued about something once in the two movies we made and that was never in the writing phase.

What you were going to have for lunch?

Zal Batmanglij: No, it was something on The East. But we… it’s funny, the writing part of it is so clear when it works and when it doesn’t. The moment you have to argue your point…

Brit Marling: It’s not working.

Zal Batmanglij: It’s not working.

I would think when you’re writing it you would wanna say, “You can’t do that, you’re giving them too much,” and I could see you guys just butting heads, so it’s weird that you… that that doesn’t happen.

Zal Batmanglij: Yeah, it’s weird because we do that in real life all the time. In our 6 day writing week, we spend 3 of those days just doing housekeeping and we argue plenty in that.

Brit Marling: I guess it’s because a good story is a good story. It has some sort of democracy to it. Like, everybody leans in usually when it’s a great story, that’s why the ones that are truly great are touchstones for everyone. We can all know them and tell them to each other. So if in the writer’s room it works, then nobody needs to argue about it and then those things sort of stay in.

Zal Batmanglij: I don’t think we’ve ever argued about a story point.

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Do you find that you have any rituals?

Brit Marling: I make a new notebook for everything and I have some sort of fixation with that where I buy a notebook and I buy, like, glue or, like, and I rip things out of magazines and images and I paste it all together and I have to kind of, like, start the notebook as a way of organizing everything that comes inside. And there’s some process of that that relies on deciding on an image or something to begin it with.

Does that help you for acting wise as well?

Brit Marling: Yeah, I also have acting notebooks.

Zal Batmanglij: She then makes a notebook for the acting, yeah. Those are beautiful and sometimes I’m like, “Oh, those are really beautiful.”

Brit Marling: I’ve taken to throwing those away though because they can kind of become a crutch where you bring that book to set and you keep looking at it as if it’s gonna save your life and you really need to just light that book on fire and let go, so…

Then the day you start filming you throw it away?

Brit Marling: Yeah, that’s my new trick. I literally put it in the garbage can.

Is it more fun for your parents now that you’re doing these movies like Arbitrage where as great as The East and Another Earth is, it’s gotta be more fun for your parents to go, “There’s my daughter in a scene with Richard Gere.”

Brit Marling: They totally like that. I mean, I think they loved Another Earth and they were excited by it, what happened that year at Sundance and stuff.

I think also they, you know, parents worry about their kids and they wonder if they’re ever gonna be able to… they’re gonna be able to live their lives and support themselves and be… for whatever reason they think that if you’re screaming at Richard Gere in Central Park that that’s somehow closer to stability, which I’m not sure, honestly.

Does the notebook stretch back to your studio art days?

Brit Marling: Yeah, I think probably. I was studying Econ and Art in school and I think maybe something about the painting and the… I don’t know, something about that… I think there’s sort of a brain wave space you get into when you’re making a piece of art which is you stop thinking and you’re just feeling your way through it. And maybe there’s something about setting off on the beginning of a new character or endeavor that you’ve kinda gotta get into it by not looking at it directly. I think making something lets you do that or reminds you that it’s a creative endeavor, that you can’t open the script and think about it like it’s a math proof that you’re just gonna work your way through. You know? It’s something more, I don’t know, like, closer to meditation than to a rigorous problem that you could solve.

When you’re writing a character do you know from the beginning that you’re gonna be playing the role or is that something that happens along the way and does that… do you think that changes how the character is written?

Zal Batmanglij: No. I mean, we know that Brit’s gonna play… like we knew Brit was gonna play Sarah. We wouldn’t waste our time if we didn’t know who she was gonna be.

Brit Marling: Yeah, it’s, I think, yeah. I think it’s also part of it too is maybe out trying to think of something that we haven’t seen in a female role before. Maggie was so much fun because we got to ask ourselves the question of what does a female cult leader look like. I haven’t really seen that, I don’t know what that is. And we would talk about it. “Well, is she… how does she lure people in? Is it because she’s an ingénue and sort of innocent and people tumble into her venus trap? Or is it because she’s sort of intense and domineering? How does a woman hold a group’s attention?” That was a real puzzle for us to figure out.

All of your female characters that you guys write together are so strong and it’s not something that you see in a lot of films. It’s very rare to see a female character where you can actually see that person in real life as somebody that could exist and not a cliché.

Brit Marling: That’s so nice to hear you say that.

Skarsgard is really good in this. He also looks like Charles Manson in one scene and all of a sudden you’re like, “He cleans up really well.”

Brit Marling: Yeah, we like the idea of those transformations and of the play of identity and how much you feel you know about somebody based on what they’re wearing and whether they’ve shaven or not shaven and how they’re doing their hair. It’s crazy that we’re taking so much… we make…

Zal Batmanglij: We’re relying…

Brit Marling: Yeah, we make so many predictions about who that person is based on their presentations.

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