Screenwriter and actress, Brit Marling, and screenwriter and director Zal Batmanglij, stopped by KPBS to promote their new thriller, “The East.” They talked about their careers and the surprising inspiration behind the FBI drama and gave advice that is relevant to all San Diego State students.
The Daily Aztec: What was the inspiration behind “The East?”
Brit Marling: A couple of summers ago, we packed some backpacks and learned to train-hop and went back and forth across the states. Lived on different organic farms and met with different freegan groups and anarchist collectives. We were really moved by the experience of that summer.
We came back and started telling stories. The two of us still couldn’t shake the experience of that summer, so we started writing about it as a way to make sense of it, and we thought it would be fun to embed it in an espionage thriller.
DA: How would the two of you describe freeganism?
Zal Batmanglij: Freeganism is the idea of changing your perception. We normally perceive stuff in dumpsters as waste and because it’s headed for the landfill, it’s worthless. If you can just change your perception and just see that the dumpster as a paradox, you will see that there is actually a lot of good food that has to be thrown out in order for more food to come in and build the shelves at the supermarket.
If you see the food in the dumpster as a free bounty rather than worthless waste, then you can start eating three meals a day out of dumpsters all over the world.
DA: You practiced freeganism for two months. Would you ever do it again?
ZB: Yeah. I’ll do it this summer … Can you imagine? Ha-ha.
DA: While still an independent film, this is the biggest movie you’ve directed. Was it a different experience behind the scenes of “The East” compared to your first full-length feature, “Sound of My Voice?”
ZB: It wasn’t that different of an experience because it doesn’t matter what happens behind the scenes. What matters when making a movie is what’s in front of the camera. I thought we had really quality actors in both movies. Everybody came to the set with their A-game. They were ready to make a great movie and tell a great story.
Behind the scenes, it was a little different in the sense that there was about an 80-person crew on “The East” and there was a 15-person crew on “Sound of My Voice.” “The East” felt even more like summer camp than “Sound of My Voice” because no one knew what was going to happen in my first movie. We were just making it as a way to make a name for ourselves. With “The East,” we all knew we were making something interesting and it was a movie that was going to be released in theaters.
DA: In “Sound of My Voice,” you worked with relatively unknown actors like Christopher Denham, who would eventually go on to be a supporting player in “Argo.” While “The East” has some up-and-coming performers in the ensemble, are there any specific actors or actresses who aren’t famous that you’d like to cast in your future movies?
ZB: I think it’s really important that with any cast, you mix in some familiar faces, because there’s something really fun about that to see famous actors in new roles. Ellen Page has done all sorts of things other than “Juno,” but we remember her as the sweet girl from that comedy a lot of the time. It’s fun to see her as the hard-line anarchist in “The East.” I’d love to work with more familiar faces and put them in less familiar spaces.
Also, I think it’s important to bring in the new blood. It’s similar to Ivy League schools. In the ‘50s, they would say that the third of the school is for the wealthy and the elite. Then they’d say a third of the school for people who were really bright and came from modest means, who deserve to be in a school that’s great. I think that’s true of every (film) set.
Toby Kebbell (Doc in “The East”) is not an unknown actor, but we’re not as familiar with him as we will be. He’s an amazing actor and the cream really rises to the top in acting. I felt very lucky that he joined our cast.
DA: You both have worked with some very famous movie stars. Which well-known actor or actress do either one of you want to work with in future projects?
ZB: Robin Williams.
BM: I would love to work with Vanessa Redgrave. I find her work transcendent.
DA: Brit, you’ve been involved with a science-fiction drama (“Another Earth”) and a psychological thriller (“Sound of My Voice”). In the future, what kind of genres would you want to explore, whether as an actress or a writer? You once said you want to work on “So You Think You Can Dance” in the future.
BM: I’m dying to do a dance movie. I’m also dying to do a comedy. Maybe I need to fuse those two genres together.
ZB: A dance comedy? I’m in. With Robin Williams and Vanessa Redgrave?
BM: A dance comedy with Robin Williams and Vanessa Redgrave is the next project.
DA: Is there anything else you’d like to add for students at SDSU?
ZB: There’s a huge, free resource that all students have access to besides food waste in the dumpster. That is each other. There won’t be another point in time in your life when you have that much access to that free resource, which is other hungry young people who will join you in order to make something.
I wish people felt more empowered to tap into that resource and to see that bounty. As we said at the top of this conversation, it’s all about perception. In the struggle with people to make something creative, don’t see that as, “I wish we could make ‘The Wire’ or ‘Inception.’” Instead, see it as “Wow! We have each other and we can do anything.”