Brit Marling packs an environmental punch in a fast-paced, well-written spy movie
Published: June 12, 2013
Directed by Zal Batmanglij
Opens June 14 at the Charles Theatre
In the opening of The East , night-vision footage of the inside of a CEO’s mansion shows masked figures dressed in black; they appear in the hallways briefly, then disappear; in the next shot, we see black oil slowly seeping out of vents, dripping down walls, covering the floors. Ellen Page’s voice sounds, “When it’s your fault, it shouldn’t be so easy to sleep at night.” At first blush, The East might strike you as a eco-horror film, like Barry Levinson’s recent The Bay. In actuality, it’s an espionage thriller centered around a terrorist cell, known as the East, that targets unethical corporations. The East coordinates what they call “jams,” concerted, documented attacks on fat-cat CEOs who helm companies that pollute communities. Co-writer Brit Marling stars as an undercover agent, employed by a private security company, who infiltrates the cell with the ultimate goal of dismantling it. As she becomes embroiled with the group, she loses touch with the cushy suburban-D.C. life she leads when off the clock. The East succeeds because of its well-structured, engrossing character development, but its jabs at industrial pollution and lack of accountability hit hard too. City Paper spoke with Marling, who, along with college buddy and director Zal Batmanglij, spent a summer living off-the-grid, an experience which inspired much of the film’s content.
Brit Marling: Hey! How are you?
City Paper: I’m good. How are you?
BM: I’m here in D.C. When we were passing on the train through Baltimore, I was wishing I could get off and stop. I spent some time there when I was shooting a movie and I like Baltimore a lot.
CP: Awesome. So I read that you and director Zal Batmanglij, one of your friends from Georgetown, worked on the screenplay for The East together.
BM: Yeah, this is the second film we’ve made together, we’ve been working together for a while. A couple years ago, Zal had just graduated from film school and was figuring out how to make the next step and how to begin as a director. And I was very frustrated, I had sort of left the banking world after having studied economics and moved to L.A. to act and was finding that all the parts were terrible, and I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do next with my life. [Zal and I] were reading a lot about the freegan movement and about anarchists, and we were meeting people who were frustrated with where things are and how the system is and not being able to change things as radically as they want to. And so [we went] on the road, just living our lives, and hung out with different freegan collectives and anarchist groups and just kind of hopped back and forth across the country. It was a really impacting time. Later, when we ended up back in L.A., we wrote other things and made other movies. It was a couple years later that we couldn’t shake the feeling of how moved we had been by that summer and by some of the folks that we met. So we met and we thought, Well, maybe we can smuggle some of these thoughts into an espionage thriller [laughs].
CP: So the “jams” that the group runs in the movie are pretty shocking. I’ll reference the first one you show, with the oil coming out of the vents, is that kind of anti-corporate terrorism something you think could actually happen?
BM: I don’t know. The movie is obviously totally fictional. It’s not like we met any groups of people who were doing these things, it was just coming out of our imagination. But I think with the feeling behind it—you know, everyone was horrified by the BP oil spill—and as horrifying as what happened in itself was the response to it and how little was really done to hold BP accountable. I mean, they got slapped on the wrist with an enormous fine, but it’s a fine that for that company is totally doable. And they just go on as if it’s business as usual. You could feel there was a lot of frustration about the inability to hold these corporations accountable for this egregious behavior and the destruction of the environment and harming people. So this group is sort of wish fulfillment, you know, this idea of these young people, in a clever way, in a visual way, sort of striking back.
CP: Would you characterize the film as more of a character study? Or would you characterize it as an agenda movie at all?
BM: I don’t think so. Because I don’t think we have an agenda, but I think the movie’s raised a lot of interesting questions. I feel like a movie’s job primarily, or at least a movie that I’m interested in, is that I want a movie that entertains me and I want a movie that shows me something that I’ve never seen before. We tried to make a movie that did both of those things, that shows you a world that’s probably unfamiliar to a lot of people and that does it in the context of an espionage sort of thriller. And I think it gives you something to think about in the end. It’s interesting, being on the road with [the movie] right now, the audience response is exciting and overwhelming. People are engaged, they’re excited to talk about it, with us and with each other. And that’s a really nice feeling, because I think more often than not you go to the movie theater, you watch something and you’re entertained, but you’re ultimately left empty, without being moved by the experience. So I think that’s what we were hoping to do—and not be at all didactic.
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