In support of the May 31, 2013 release of Fox Searchlight’s The East co-written and directed by Zal Batmanglij, I had the pleasure of speaking to Marling regarding the dramatic thriller about a group of environmental anarchists targeting corporations engaged in cover-ups of their criminal activities.
I find it so interesting that you haven’t taken the ‘normal’ path. You’ve done these films that are just amazingly outstanding independent movies. Why have you gone down this road?
Brit Marling: “You know, it’s funny. So much of it just came out of necessity. I really wanted to act. I thought that was an interesting thing to do for a living and I know on the surface acting seems caught up in a lot of…you know, when we think about all of the magazines and premieres – and that is certainly a part of that profession – but on a more stripped-down level, there’s something really beautiful about spending your life working on your empathy and your ability to listen and to be present and to not be phony. I think those things seem like such good things to do, but when I tried to go back to acting, all the parts for women are so bad. When you’re a young woman, you’re trying to break in, you’re…”
…usually the romantic lead or the girlfriend.
Brit Marling: “Yeah, exactly. They’re always going to be defined in the relationship to the man in the story; you’re never going to be driving the action of the film. You’re expected to wade through a swamp of awful filmmaking and playing bad parts in order to get to the good ones. I just felt like I couldn’t do it, and I was very lucky that I had two friends in college who were filmmakers. The three of us started writing stuff together, and then we made Another Earth and Sound of My Voice. And we were so fortunate to get those played at Sundance at the same time.
Then we got to make this movie, which we got a little bit more money and partners in [Fox] Searchlight and an incredible cast. I feel like we’ve been really, really, really fortunate, and I think maybe the main thing that allowed it all to sort of begin was the decision to not wait anymore for permission. I think when you’re a young person and you want to do some form of art, you feel like somebody needs to validate you. You feel like someone’s got to say it. You’ve got to audition and win the part to know that you’re great or to know that you can do it. And I think that at some point I was just like, ‘This doesn’t make any sense. This isn’t a way to go about it.’ We know how to pick up cameras. We know Final Cut. We know how to make movies. We should just make stuff and sort of believe in ourselves and if we fail along the way, that’s okay. That’s just part of it.”
I find it more interesting that you’re an actor/writer rather than an actor/director. Do you feel you write things that are more challenging for yourself than what another writer might have done?
Brit Marling: “Yeah, sometimes I think the greatest challenge is to act in something someone else has written because you’re sort of locked in by the constraint of their words.”
And their vision.
Brit Marling: “Yes, and you can find beautiful things in that. I feel like I’m trying to develop my ability to tell stories, but there are some master storytellers and you read things that they write and you’re like, ‘Ooh, I’d love to be a humble servant in that story.’
But it is a pleasure to write because I think a lot of actors get pigeon-holed into something. They do one part really well and become widely known for it, and then that’s it; everyone wants to see them that way. And so the great thing about acting is that I’m consciously always trying to turn in the opposite direction from where I’ve been before. I think that’s why you want to be in it. That’s the great challenge of it.”When you’re writing, do you picture yourself actually acting it out? Or is it more like, she’s still a character and you’re still you?
Brit Marling: “That’s such a good question. Usually when we’re writing, whether with Rhoda in Another Earth or whatever, it’s kind of like a fantasy… There’s an image there of a person and I don’t feel connected to that person yet. I feel neutral about it. In The East for example, I spent as much time in the writer’s chair feeling the story through Izzy’s perspective as I have from Sarah’s. So there’s a kind of neutrality about all of it.
I think in order to write a scene well, you have to really sit in that character’s body and look out through their eyes and have their mind and heart. So you are Izzy confronting her father for the first time about his crime, and you’re writing the theme from that perspective with all of Izzy’s terror and love and shame and fervor. And then you put away the writing part of it and now you’re like, ‘Okay, here’s my part. These are the things I say and these are the things people say to me, and how do I feel about that?’ And then that sort of specific creation happens, which is hard, and scary sometimes, because you feel like, ‘Did I write something that I can’t do?'”
Do you ever feel almost more connected to a character who you’re not playing that you’ve written?
Brit Marling: “Oh my gosh, those are things that you think about. Yeah, it’s so funny. I felt really connected to Izzy [played by Ellen Page]. It really was amazing.”
Brit Marling: “She’s really fascinating and that’s why it was so incredible to have someone like Ellen realize her, because on the page she could just seem angry and Ellen brought such a sensitivity. There’s almost a tremulousness when she comes to her father for the first time. This girl who has been very strident and intense, you suddenly see how vulnerable she is. Ellen gives a really deeply beautiful performance in this film.”
It’s a fantastic cast. What I was really amazed by is that while you don’t really get to see a lot of their backstories, you’ve given us enough that we know who these people are and we’re fascinated by them. How did you manage to pull that off?
Brit Marling: “Zal is such a great writing partner. It’s a great thing to work with a partner because you pitch each other’s stories back and forth and you see what sounds good and what doesn’t. It’s sort of a way to get through the bullshit quickly. Because if you pitch them something that doesn’t really work, you can see your partner’s eyes sort of glaze over. If it works and you’ve got them, they like lean in, so you’re like, ‘Ah! I know that that’s good.’
And so we did that with a lot of the characters. We would just pitch each other things back and forth. Like, ‘Okay, Benji comes from here, his parents were like this. This was his early childhood experience.’ And if Zal falls asleep while I’m telling that, then I know it’s not working. And if Zal kind of leans in, or the same thing if Zal is giving me a version of how Luca came to be on the road, or how Luca met Benji. We create these massive worlds with all this backstory, and then it’s funny because you’re really just taking a sliver of that world and putting it on the screen, but you have thought through everything. You know where Izzy grew up. You know where she went to college. You know what her college dorm room looked like. You know the first argument she had with her father. All of that is just the molten lava that’s moving beneath the story, and only some of it comes up.”
It’s interesting because you have to create that in your mind or we’re never going to get her as an audience.
Brit Marling: “Yeah, I think that’s true.”
You have to thoroughly create a character who’s fully fleshed out or else we’re going to know that you just wrote a cookie cutter character there – one that you don’t even care about.
Brit Marling: “Right. I think you have to think about the future of the character. Like, ‘What is going to happen now? What would’ve happened to Izzy if she had kept going in this group? Where does Luca’s journey take him? What happens to Sarah next?’ It’s nice to think of the whole trajectory, I guess.”
It’s such a fascinating group of characters you’ve created, and it’s so interesting that you and Zal went off the grid before you even thought about doing anything like The East. I was talking to Zal about dumpster diving, because to me that was the one part of your experience I don’t know if I could do. But as he was explaining it to me, it made much more sense.
Brit Marling: “I felt the same way. The first time I thought about it, watching other people do it, I was just like, ‘I don’t know.’ But the funny thing is, is you start to realize that in our culture that any time there’s a real visceral response to something, I now start to ask why the visceral response? What’s behind it? You learn to pick the lock on the dumpster. You open the dumpster and when you start to know the times of when things are being moved out and how it works, you open the dumpster and there’s like apples and carrots and packaged bread and packaged rice, things that have a sell by date that have to just move out but are still very good, totally edible. You take that food with a group of people, and you cook it in a squat and you feed 100 people – plus people in the neighborhood who are just having a hard time making ends meet – and you can eat.
Suddenly, when you’re watching a kid who would have gone to bed hungry that night in this country get a meal and be fed, suddenly not diving the dumpster starts to seem crazy. And you’re like, ‘Wait, this is a total perspective shift.’ The difficult part of the time we’re living in is of course the laws are designed to protect things, people have gotten sick from food they’ve taken out of the dumpsters and so that’s why they’re locked, because then a lawsuit happens and the company gets sued. You understand why everything is the way it is. The dumpster’s kind of the perfect metaphor for the weird paradox or wrinkle in time or little wormhole where perfectly good resources are turning into waste. How do you fix that? How do you address that problem? I don’t know the answer to it, but we’re interested in the question.”
How difficult was it for you to go back to your own life after experiencing that?
Brit Marling: “So hard.”
I would imagine. I don’t know how you did it.
Brit Marling: “Yeah, it was really hard.”
And to be an actress with all that brings with it, that must be an incredibly difficult transition. How do you wrap your head around those very disparate worlds?
Brit Marling: “It’s a weird … that’s such a good question. I still think a lot about it. I think if I ever reached a place in acting where I wasn’t getting to do the kind of work that felt really just soul satisfying, I think I would probably go be an organic farmer and write bad poetry on the side. I don’t know. The only thing that holds me to the world of entertainment is the idea that stories are really powerful impacting vessels for culture and the fact that you and I can sit here and have this conversation because of this movie, that’s amazing. I love talking to you. I love listening to the things that you’re saying. That makes it exciting and feel like something of value to do. But I’m not married to any of it.
I think because of that experience, one of the things I was saying to Zal the other day is there’s a look in the eye that a lot of the anarchist or direct action kids have, and in the beginning I think maybe I mistook that look for hostility. It’s like an intensity and a fierceness in a gaze. Later I realized that that look was actually the look of somebody who is not afraid. It made me realize how afraid I had been – afraid of failure, afraid of not doing something good, of making a mockery of my life. Living in these collectives, living in a group and living off the waste of this country and turning it into bounty, all these things made us radically less afraid, and suddenly we came back to L.A. and we just started making our movies because we didn’t care if they were good or bad, if people liked them or didn’t like them.”
They were your creation.
Brit Marling: “They were about the effort of making something with a tribe of people, and the pleasure of waking up every day and creating. So the theme is true of this movie. We really managed to bring that vibe, even of this size, and with actors who have been working for a long time and are more known.”
Do you have that gaze? Did you develop it after being with them? Can you look in the mirror and see it?
Brit Marling: “I think I am less afraid than I was before and I think every time I start to get afraid I try to drop out and take a step back. The tricky thing is that when you live in this culture – the W Hotel [where this interview took place]of it all – you’re absorbing so many strange signals that it’s hard to hold onto that feeling that these kids had on the road, where they would hop a train and go someplace and they’re living with a kind of freedom that was unparalleled. And I try to always go back to that. I try to consciously remember to not be afraid. It’s a hard thing to do because a lot of the messaging you’re getting from billboards about what women should look like, from people around you in the industry, it’s a lot of fear messaging. It’s kind of how the system keeps going. ‘Be afraid of what’s going to happen to you at the airport. Be afraid of what’s going to happen if you don’t do these things or dress like this or be this way.'”
Be afraid of eating out of a dumpster.
Brit Marling: “Exactly.”
Without divulging any spoilers, did the ending change over the course of writing the script?
Brit Marling: “We had the hardest time ending the movie and it was because there isn’t exactly an answer yet. I think that the movie ends with [the fact]she has to chart her own third way. I think where we are right now, it’s about trailblazing. A path doesn’t exist yet for where we should go. The idea is to hopefully leave the audience with a sense of if you have knowledge about what’s happening, that’s the mechanism for the cure, but then you’ve got to go drive the path.”
-By Rebecca Murray
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