In Zal Batmanglij’s political thriller, The East, the third and most commerical film he’s written with rising star Brit Marling, the young actress plays Sarah, the prize recruit for a security firm that protects major, often disreputable corporations. The first big assignment she’s given by her dynamic boss, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson), is to infiltrate an underground anarchist group called the East. This extremist freegan collective has been targeting companies that are callously putting people’s lives at risk with their products or polluting the environment. While gathering Intel, she finds herself attracted to the charismatic Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), inspired by the dedicated Izzy (Ellen Page), and seduced by the communal living, and she wins them over by participating in the group’s dangerous, subversive “jams.” She comes to question the East’s eye-for-an-eye tactics that endanger individuals–as well as her own values. Will she side with Sharon or Benji or take her own path? In anticipation of the film’s release, I took part in the following critics roundtables with, first, Marling and Clarkson, and, second, Skarsgard and Page. I note my questions.
Roundtable with Brit Marling and Patricia Clarkson
Q: Brit, in the press notes it says that before you and Zal Batmanglij wrote the screenplay for The East, you two actually spent time experiencing the freegan lifestyle, including dumpster diving. So how much in your movie is fabricated and what real-life experiences made it into the screenplay?
Brit Marley: The East collective was totally made up, we never met anybody like those people. Although certainly we were inspired by our experiences in regard to their philosophy and how they live–squatting, harvesting food from dumpsters, train-hopping. For a summer, Zal and I did and saw all those things. It is a very hard lifestyle, you can’t romanticize it, but also there’s so much meaning and feeling in it. There’s something beautiful about living as a tribe and sharing everything. I think that’s conveyed in the film [in how we portray the East]. But the culture jams they think up were all made up.
What isn’t made up, oddly, is all the corporate crimes that happen in the movie. There really is a company that dumps coal slurry and arsenic that was ending up in bathtubs and kids were getting tumors. That’s real. That stuff about pharmaceutical companies was pulled from a PBS special about how people were taking certain prescription drugs and having adverse reactions. One woman took pills to prevent a sinus infection ended up in a wheelchair. And the BP spill happened when we were making the movie, so we put that into the movie. You have to feel frustrated when watch the BP oil spill happen, and see that they get slapped on the wrist with a fine that they could pay in a week.
Patricia Clarkson: I’m from Louisiana and my dream is for the really big guys to go down. Because somebody has to. Texas just filed their big lawsuit, Louisiana has so many lawsuits against that damn company. Nobody’s backing down. But you look at what just happened at that factory in Bangladesh, and what we’re wearing may have been made there. So we all have blood on our hands at every moment of our lives, and how do we stop that? And the pharmaceutical companies…
BM: It’s complicated; it’s not like we can be against all pharmaceuticals because of course a lot of drugs save people’s lives. But there are some companies that are driven strictly by profit.
PC: We’re all part of it and it’s hard to give it up.
Q: Do you think you could keep up that freegan lifestyle like Brit?
PC: Could I do the dumpster diving? Could I live like that? No, I’m way too spoiled. I’m 53 years old so probably the only thing I could do is go camping.
BM (laughing): It’s hard to be a vegan in New Orleans.
Q: Brit, did that experience you had as a freegan stay with you while you were playing Sarah?
BM: I still think about it all the time. When you have an experience like that, it changes you and I don’t think Zal and I will ever quite go back to being the people that we were. It really widens your perspective and you can never really close it again. It is hard for any of us to figure out how to lives our lives and be accountable so that we don’t help oppress people in other parts of the world that we’ve never met or thought about. It’s hard to break away. Modern life can be really alienating and I’m frustrated by things and I think a lot of what we wrote in the movie is a reflection of that.
Q: The East is a group of anarchists, yet we see throughout the movie that it can be very oppressive in some ways. There’s a certain amount of conformity that shows, yet they’ve got these ideals in regard to freedom and individualism. Talk about creating these characters within this collective.
BM: I guess it’s true that whenever people come together in a group, a kind of groupthink takes over. Even if you’re on the fringe or the outside and promoting freedom of behavior [and individual thought], you still tend to assimilate with the people around you. So in the group, there’s a similar way they dress and talk about things. I think that stems from their politics. What I find interesting about some of these anarchists is that their activism manifests itself not through direct action but in the way they live their lives. They get off the grid, don’t use standard energy sources, harvest their food from what our culture sees as waste. None of it– the make-up or clothing or things–are the trappings of this culture. But you’re right that this can become, in and of itself, its own rule book. I think some of that comes from the strong focus and persistence of their mission, which is to wake up people. And part of that includes trying to live in a way that keeps them awake themselves.
Q: It’s interesting that the characters in the film on both sides came from privileged backgrounds.
PC: Yes. At a certain point everyone assimilates; you all kind of reach the same high or low water mark, eventually. We do all kind of merge with our surroundings, and our surroundings will ultimately dictate our actions.
DP: Do you think that when Sharon was Sarah’s age she was much like Sarah, but made a conscious decision to go to the right instead of the left?
PC: Possibly, but I think she’s always kind of been who she is, which is a woman on a journey to reach the top. I think she made a conscious decision and was willing to do whatever she had to do to get there.
Q: Brit, when you were writing Sarah, did you devise her moral compass first and then work from the inside out?
BM: Yeah, I think what’s interesting about what Patricia just said about Sharon, is that there’s a desire for Sarah to follow her to the top. Sarah looks up to Sharon for having the tunnel vision and persistence to get to the corner office and be the head of the company. I believe that’s where Sarah’s mind is set on reaching, but her moral compass is set in a different direction. She doesn’t realize it until the moment she calls her boss and says, I think a bunch of innocent people are about to hurt, and Sharon says to not interfere because they aren’t their clients.
PC: I think our moral compasses can be reset at any moment. We all think we have a very set moral compass. I like to believe I do. But then, tomorrow I could wake up and be on the front page of the New York Post!
DP: There’s a quote in the press notes in which the filmmakers say that The East “isn’t an ‘issues’ movie or a ‘political’ movie.” I disagree–it is an issues movie, in terms of what you just said about accountability. Can you expand on that?
BM: We didn’t think we could make something didactic, because we didn’t know any of the answers. Often when you’re making an issues movie, it’s because you have an idea for a solution. We didn’t, although we may indicated some mechanism for the cure. However, we believed it was interesting to make something that provokes the dialogue that we’re all having, just talking about these things. I think that’s all we were hoping to do. That’s why they’re saying the film is a thriller rather than an issues movie. We didn’t want it to be a polemic, we wanted it to be about emotion. For instance I think there’s a real mother-daughter relationship between Sharon and Sarah, and in the rooftop scene in which Sharon rushes off in a helicopter, we want you to see, more than anything, the daughter looking up at her mother, and feeling unsure.
DP: Talk about how Sharon, her surrogate mother, and Benji, her lover, pull Sarah in opposite directions.
BM: We’d always thought that the movie relied on Sharon being as charismatic and sexy and alluring as Benji. These two forces in her life had to have equal power or the movie would feel weighted one way or the other. She has to be as drawn in by both.
DP: After a break, do you think Sarah would go back to the East if she weren’t attracted to Benji?
BM: I think she goes back because she wants to figure things out. Is this person that I’m in love with willing to compromise or change? Is he open to changing from the way he sees the world and meeting me halfway? Sarah is very interested in a lot of his and the East’s perspective, but she feels differently about the means to the end. Benji believes in an eye for an eye, that’s just the person he is. Sarah doesn’t think that harming even one person is okay while in pursuit of some kind of awakening. I think she goes back to the house to find that out and realizes very quickly that he’s not going to change.
DP: If she didn’t love him, would she have gone back to the house anyway? Would it be the same if only the others were there?
BM: I think she would leave her job and go her own way, but I am not sure if she would go back to the collective.
DP: She does show that she has her own way.
Q: What was that mansion location like?
BM: That house was crazy. It was in the middle of downtown Shreveport, with cars going by all the time. It looks like a mystical mansion in the woods, It was a former alternative lifestyle nightclub, all black and gold paint, but the production designers who designed Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zal and the DP transformed that place.
PC: I was hoping when I was approached to do the movie that it would shot in New Orleans. But I was told it would be close, in Shreveport. I love Shreveport but people don’t understand that if you’re in Shreveport, you might as well be in New York, because the distance between New Orleans and Shreveport is just vast.
BM: It is vast, but we chased Patricia. I don’t know how Zal got to her agent, but it was just like, please will she do this movie? I’d been the biggest admirer of her work from High Art days. When Patricia said she would do it, Zal and I jumped up and down and ran around and screamed. We were so excited. We had a really good time together.
Q: Brit, You get to develop projects that you are in, which not a lot of actors do. If you don’t like the scripts that you get you can just sit down and write one tailored to you.
BM: It’s so competitive out there. There are so many fiercely talented female actresses.
PC: I was having that exact thought two days ago. There are so many talented women in our business. Young, middle-aged, older. The span is astonishing.
BM: I write out of necessity thing. I’ve got to write not only to get yourself a job, but also because of all the woman whose work I love. Julia Ormond has a small but pivotal role in The East and she really makes you believe that her character has been poisoned. There are not enough women writing for all the great actresses like Julia, who should be doing really challenging, cool stuff.
PC: Sadly, if you look at the movies that are playing, eighty percent of the cast is men, and there are only roles for one actress, maybe two. Certainly the independent world is different, but it’s hard find roles that suit us. But, Brit, you know you are a shining star, and that most women who look like you aren’t writing their own scripts.
Roundtable with Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page
Q: Had either of you seen or heard of Brit’s work before hearing about this project?
Ellen Page: We were both huge fans of the previous movies she made with Zal, Sound of My Voice and Another Earth, and her performances were just astounding. And then to know the story of how she and Zal entered this industry was incredibly inspiring. I love their work, and the moment you meet them, their passion and their creative intent and their purpose for telling stories is palpable and infectious. I wanted to be part of their body of work.
Alexander Skarsgard: I was already a fan when I read the script. I was going to go to New York right after we wrapped a season of True Blood, but I would have three months off so I was reading scripts for that time. I got this and it was such an amazing, intelligent script. It wasn’t clear who the good guys and bad guys were, it was very murky, and I felt it raised some interesting moral questions. Where do you stand and how far are you willing to go for a cause? I always want to take on projects that are fun and feel new. It’s a discovery, you know, rather than feeling repetitive. That gets me creatively excited. I read it on the fourth of July, when I was in San Diego, and was blown away by it. I called my agent that day and said I wanted to meet Zal and Brit. They work in LA, so I jumped in my car and drove up to Los Angeles that day and met with them. I didn’t know them personally, but after meeting them and feeling their energy and enthusiasm, and hearing their story about their backgrounds and how they got started, I just felt, Please let me work with you guys!
Q: Brit and Zal lived the freegan lifestyle for a while. How much did that spill over onto the set?
AS: A couple of the members of the East were played by real anarchists from New Orleans. They came up to Shreveport and lived with us and were part of the group, basically. They were in the film, playing themselves in a way. Those are people in the group who don’t look like they’re from Hollywood.
EP: They have real tattoos.
AS: Three of them were up there with us for two months, living with us, and it was fantastic. When we did that sequence, when Sarah returns and we’re all dancing, it was such an amazing night. The ones living with us brought their friends up that night. Freegans, anarchists, who would sing and play. They were great musicians. They had this recorded song they wanted to use in the film, and they would stop, pause, play. It didn’t quite work. Then between two set-ups they just started playing and we started dancing and Zal saw this, and he was like, “Fuck the take, let’s do it for real.”
Q: What is your character Benji’s perspective on the fact that you have this anarchist organization that espouses ideas of freedom and individuality, and yet there’s a groupthink, a conformity that they have?
AS: Benji’s a leader although he’s very adamant about there being no leader in the group. He hates cult leaders, because that means you follow someone blindly; whatever they say you believe and you follow. So he tries to avoid becoming that. That’s why when Sarah, talks about him and his followers, he’s says, “Well, I don’t have any followers. It’s a true democracy. We vote on everything.” I think to him it’s all about figuring out the best structure and how to be efficient and to do the most damage–and by doing that, the most good.
Q: Ellen, your character Izzy’s attitude is: conform to the group or be cast out. Where is she coming from and how does she justify what she does?
Ellen Page: I think a lot of the time in groups that I’ve been around, the lifestyle itself is just what people really, truly believe in. They really believe in living as they do and creating no waste and taking accountability for their actions. So of course it creates this sort of conformist aesthetic. Obviously Izzy went through a huge, huge shift, as I think a lot of people do who wind up in these environments and have this kind of philosophy. I think she has profound guilt and anger, and that’s what becomes externalized. But I don’t think that ever takes away the validity of witnessing atrocities and then wanting to do something about it. I think there’s a validity in what these people are angry at. Yes, a lot of it is personal and internal, and obviously there’s an emotional connection to it [including Izzy with her rich father] but I think as a human being you can’t separate yourself from what you know is wrong.
AS: When it is personal, that sort of opens your eyes. That’s true in Izzy’s case and Benji’s as well. Money changed not only his relatives but also corrupted him, and that scared him.
DP: Why do your characters–especially Izzy who is very suspicious at first–come to accept Sarah?
AS: I think Benji is intrigued pretty early on. There’s something about her. As I said, with his personality, he could easily become a cult leader, and that’s why he’s so adamant that they vote on everything. And he’ll ask everyone in the room for their opinions. She shows up and is tough and asks difficult questions that he can’t answer. He likes and respects that.
EP: Izzy is at first obviously extremely confused and reluctant to accept her. Who the hell is this girl and why are we letting her in here? But then when it comes to the moment that they need someone to help them in an extremely intense operation that could have terrible consequences if they are caught, and she not only volunteers to do it but does it with great success. When Sarah helps them pull off the jam against the pharmaceutical company Izzy is won over.
DP: That’s the practical reason she accepts Sarah, but doesn’t she also develop an emotional attachment to her?
EP: I don’t know how emotional it is. I think it’s emotional only in the sense that others have said they’d step up to the plate and then let them all down. People act like they’re committed but when it comes to breaking the law they won’t follow through with it. And to have her be so committed and follow through with it for the cause – obviously she has an incredibly emotional attachment to the cause–that wins Izzy over because that’s what she cares about the most.
AS: For Benji, I think there’s a deeper and more meaningful reason for him why he wants Sarah there. That’s revealed at the end of the movie.
DP: How would you summarize your characters?
AS: Benji does things in the way he believes will have the most impact–the most effective way. I think just being passive and being sedated is what scares him most. For him, any kind of awakening is good.
EP: Izzy is pretty militant. The more civil disobedience the better. She’s pretty angry and thinks and thinks the group should take it to the next level. She believes in eye-for-an-eye justice.