AAP staff report
The new espionage thriller from Zal Batmanglij depicts the anarchist and freegan collectives around the country in a different light, as a corporate spy tries to find terrorist ringleaders. “The East” (Rated PG-13, Fox Searchlight Pictures) is due for release on May 31, 2013.
In “The East,” former FBI agent Sarah Moss (Brit Marling) is a brilliant operative for the elite private intelligence firm Hiller Brood, whose top objective is to ruthlessly protect the interests of their A-list corporate clientele. She is assigned to go undercover to infiltrate an anarchist collective known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations.
Living amongst them in an effort to get closer to their members, Sarah finds herself unexpectedly torn between two worlds as she starts to fall in love with the group’s charismatic leader (Alexander Skarsgard), finding her life and her priorities irrevocably changed. Determined, highly-trained and resourceful, Sarah soon ingratiates herself with the group, overcoming their initial suspicions and joining them on their next action or “jam.”
The film also stars Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez and Patricia Clarkson is a suspenseful and provocative espionage thriller.
But living closely with the intensely committed members of The East, Sarah finds herself torn between her two worlds as she starts to connect with anarchist Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) and the rest of the collective, and awakens to the moral contradictions of her personal life.
Zal Batmanglij directed and was co-screenwriter Brit Marling. The two met in 2009 as aspiring film students at Georgetown University, and had settled in Los Angeles to create the Sundance Film Festival sensation “Sound of my Voice.”
The film idea started with learning about ‘Buy Nothing Day’ and they expanded it to an entire summer. They took the idea as a call to action and hit the road with backpacks and bedrolls to spend a summer living off the grid.
Like Sarah, the protagonist of their new film, “The East”, they hopped trains, crashed in tent cities and abandoned buildings with groups of other young nomads, and became acquainted with a growing subculture that had rejected conventionality.
“We discovered anarchist and freegan collectives all over the country and lived with some of them for a while,” Marling says in the production notes. “We got to know people who had interesting ideas about how you might live your life – learn to grow your own food, to fix your own car, to defend yourself, to live in small communities, share things with each other, teach each other how to become radically autonomous beings again. We weren’t thinking at the time that a movie would come out of the experience. We were just living our lives and the story gradually began to take shape.”
For several months they lived and traveled with strangers who shared their own disaffection with contemporary consumer culture.
“The people we met were really awesome, warm and welcoming, but tough,” says Batmanglij. “We got three vegan meals a day by dumpster diving. At first I did think, am I really going to eat like this? But I got into it as time went on.”
“Going weeks without spending a dollar is an amazing feeling,” the director says. “Everyone should try it. We didn’t see movies. We weren’t listening to recorded music. Everything was happening organically from the group. The spin-the-bottle game in the film came from an experience we had. Thursday nights that was what we did as a way of entertaining ourselves.”
There were aspects of the transient life that took some getting used to, admits Marling. “I was a bit repelled at first about things like getting into a dumpster to look for food. But like Sarah, we learned there are packages of bread that have been thrown away because they’re past their sell-by date, but nothing is wrong with them. Much of our culture’s ‘waste’ is actually bounty. We slept 20 people to a room in sleeping bags on the floor. There were no showers, but after a while you learn your hair begins to clean itself.”
“We had amazing experiences,” she continues. “One night, we all got on bikes and went downtown to play a citywide game of capture the flag — jumping over parked cars, running through restaurants, scaling parking garages. Then everybody stripped naked and got into a fountain in the pouring rain. It was a different way of seeing the world – everything is public space waiting to be reclaimed, reimagined.”
She remembers waking up on a city rooftop early one morning surrounded by other travelers in their sleeping bags. “Across the way in a sky scraper was a guy in a suit at his desk on a conference call. I was rolling up my sleeping bag on the rooftop adjacent and I caught his eye. We just stared at each other. There was only 6 feet between the buildings, but the gap between the way we were living our lives was so wide. Sarah, our main character, is living in both worlds and trying to straddle the gap.”
At the end of the summer, Marling and Batmanglij returned to their lives in Los Angeles, gradually decompressing from weeks lived on the road. “That was one of the best summers of my life,” says Batmanglij. “When we got back, it was as if we had come out of the dream we’d been living. But we found that what had been normal life for us before now seemed bizarre. To have your life turned upside down like that is transformative.”
Marling and Batmanglij began to fashion their experiences into the screenplay that would become “The East”, the story of Sarah Moss, a corporate spy who infiltrates an anarchist group in order to destroy it, but finds herself questioning the forces that put her there in the first place. And as they wrote, they noticed the real world was beginning to reflect the ideas they were weaving into their story.
“When we finished the first draft, a lot of things were happening in the country,” says Batmanglij. “When the Gulf oil spill happened, we had already incorporated an oil spill into our story. Then the economy tanked and the country went into a recession. The ill will toward corporations and the financial industry was growing. The Arab Spring phenomenon began. People started to say the script was so timely. Then, as we started pre-production, the Occupy movement erupted.”
Batmanglij and Marling had put their fingers on a growing wave of cultural discontent. “The East” came into being through our personal frustration with rampant consumerism and all the contradictions of living in modern civilization,” says Batmanglij. “But there were a lot of other people out there who followed the rules, went to college, studied econ, thought they would get jobs in finance. Everything that they believed was so solid had evaporated. We, like a lot of young people, thought, this is what modern life adds up to? THE EAST asks what the alternatives are.”
In early 2011 Marling and Batmanglij hit the independent film jackpot when their first feature, “Sound of my Voice”, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, creating an immediate sensation. The two had transformed their summer adventure into a riveting espionage thriller, with the kind of gritty detail and authenticity that only first-hand experience could supply, yet infused with the same lyrical vision that informed their first film.
“It was so original, a spy movie that was both about important ideas and also was very entertaining,” says the producer. “I loved the authenticity that was rooted inside of it; it was clear they had done deep research. All of this made it feel very contemporary and daring. What would a spy be investigating today? What does it mean to be an anarchist right now? We decided not to sit around and talk about it forever in development—it was a movie that had to be made right away.”
Batmanglij admits he had some doubt about making this film in Hollywood. “I had paranoid, activist thoughts about it being bought and shelved,” he says. “But Michael Costigan was a huge champion for us. He loves movies so deeply. When he read “The East”, he got it in ways that we didn’t even get it. He helped us articulate what we were trying to say.”
Batmanglij describes the form of “The East” as a braid, with a trio of distinct threads. “We’ve woven together three different genres,” he explains. “It’s an espionage thriller with parts of a love story. Then there’s the coming-of-age story, as Sarah awakens to the possibilities of life and trying to decide what is right and what is wrong. We’re constantly negotiating all these different threads, braiding them together, so at the end it comes to a tight knot.”
The blending of genres creates a powerful contrast that intensifies the impact of the film, according to Marling. “We’ve chosen to tell a love story within an espionage story. The movie is entertaining to watch, compelling and full of twists and turns, but it’s also set against a backdrop that is provocative and resonant for the time we’re living in. It certainly asks a lot of very good questions.”
Batmanglij says he expects that in the future more people will be using tactics similar to those of the activists in “The East” to get their message out. “When the Pentagon papers came to light, it took the New York Times months to release them. All WikiLeaks has to do is put a video on YouTube and it goes viral, reaching millions. The modern whistle blower just videotapes something and puts it online.”
The filmmakers say that The East isn’t an “issues” movie or a “political” movie. “It is first and foremost an espionage thriller and journey story that pushes its characters into difficult dramatic territory” says Batmanglij. “Yes,” agrees Marling, “how far would you go to avenge your sister’s death at the hands of a corporation? If your Father was responsible for harming people he had never met, would you be able to hold him accountable? If you are obsessed with the letter of the law, how far could you go to protect the man you love if his lifeblood is anarchy?”
The filmmakers’ devotion to authenticity extended to hiring people who were living the lifestyle and Hernandez valued being able to spend time with them to help understand Luca. “They call themselves freegans because they don’t pay for anything,” he says.
“The East” was shot on location in Shreveport, Louisiana, over six weeks. With the bulk of the action taking place in the collective’s home base, the filmmakers were on the hunt for a dilapidated mansion that could be customized for the shoot by production designer Alex DiGerlando and director of photography Roman Vasyanov.
Batmanglij says, he, Vasyanov and DiGerlando were so close, the production team began to call them “the Brothers East.” “We were inseparable. What we wanted to undertake was very ambitious, especially with the short prep we had. This is a movie that could have had a much bigger budget because it has a lot of action elements, but we wanted to make it in a very authentic way, with as small budget as possible. Alex and Roman were key to that.”
Contrasting with the resourceful practicality of the anarchists’ freegan lifestyle, the filmmakers tried to infuse the setting with a fairy-tale ambiance to reinforce themes they saw in the story. “It reminded Alex a lot of Beauty and the Beast,” says Batmanglij. “Beauty comes to a crumbling mansion and falls in love with a beast: Benji.”
Eventually, though, the conditions took a toll on the cast and crew. “The characters are squatting in an abandoned mansion,” says Marling. “It’s a very intense lifestyle and we all lived that during the making of the film. There was no heat or air conditioning. If it was cold out, it was cold in the house. We sometimes slept 30 people to a room, huddled together for warmth.”
But the hardships created an intense bond between everyone working on the set. The director tried to create an atmosphere off set that would feed into the group’s onscreen camaraderie as well.
Batmanglij grew up in Washington DC and studied anthropology at Georgetown University. He was a directing fellow at the American Film Institute. He currently resides in Los Angeles.
“The East has an interactive web site, wearetheeast.com and an exclusive poster premiere at blackbookmag.com.