Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page and director Zal Batmanglij on the set of The East.
Zal Batmanglij couldn't make it to Toronto in time for The East's press day, but to make up for it he's carved out some time for telephone interviews.
This is good, because there are a lot of ideas flying around inside his movie. He and co-writer/star Brit Marling have reunited after last year's Sound Of My Voice for a thriller about a security contractor (Marling) who infiltrates a particularly effective group of anti-corporate warriors and finds herself getting a little too caught up in the movement.
Both Sound Of My Voice and The East revolve around secretive communities of people with specific rituals and ways of testing outsiders. In The East, there's that bizarre moment when Brit Marling's character is led to dinner with an anarchist collective and challenged to feed herself while straitjacketed.
Right. How did that play for you?
I was trying to solve the puzzle along with her.
Exactly. That's what I love in movies, when I have to do that.
Sound Of My Voice did something similar, and it felt like a way to pull the viewer into its world, looking for answers in the way characters interact with each other and their surroundings.
Well, The East really does that, I feel.
After the sci-fi trappings of Sound Of My Voice, which revolves around someone who claims to have come from the near future, The East seems more firmly grounded in the real world. Was there a conscious decision to change genres, or do something with fewer fantastic elements?
Well, for Brit and myself, it was really important that we put what we thought were some subversive ideas in the much more user-friendly packaging of a thriller. You know, we love Winter's Bone, but we also love The Bourne Supremacy; why can't you combine those two movies? What says you can't? So we tried. This is our first effort at that. And, I have to say, making it is always tricky because of the things that you asked: at what point do you defer to what style of filmmaking? At what point are you a meditative character drama, and at what point are you a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat sort of thing? That's a tricky negotiation.
There's also the idea that The East's "jams" against their corporate targets highlight specific individuals' offences. It's really unsettling to see that played out.
What's funny is, for its genre, the film is really not very violent at all. There are two guns, and one person gets killed in the whole film. And yet there is something so much more disturbing about seeing [a character] get into that chemical waste than anything that could happen if you just shot him, for example. And I think the reason for that is the idea. You don't want him to get into that chemical waste. I didn't want him to get into that chemical waste while we were shooting it. I was like, "Don't make him get in there!" [laughing] And yet, he did cause that chemical waste. Would people act differently if they had to be held accountable? I mean, what's crazy about what's going on right now is that banks are not held accountable any more, because if the government punishes the banks, the economy collapses.
And somehow the notion that these banks are culpable for creating the initial crisis has become irrelevant.
But that's terrifying. I don't know if you've heard about this latest thing, but this bank - I'm not gonna say which one - was showing countries how to money launder drug money and arms money. And the attorney general was going to prosecute, but he couldn't because the bank would go under and the economy - the world economy - was going to collapse. They're too big to jail. So if you want to commit crimes these days, get into the corporate workforce, because you have a shield. One of the themes that really interested me making The East was [the idea of] vulnerability. Who's vulnerable and who's not? There's a lot of vulnerability inside the group itself.
And the group's made up of some very interesting actors, including Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page and Toby Kebbell, who I have to admit I didn't even recognize. I actually met him last year on the junket for Wrath Of The Titans, and I didn't recognize him in this.
You wanna know something crazy about that? The first time he ever acted in a play, his parents came to see him. Afterwards his dad came up to him and said, "I'm really sorry." And Toby said, "Why?" He goes, "Well, that must have been very hard." And Toby's like, "What do you mean?" And he says, "Well, it must have been hard that you got cut." And Toby's like, "I don't understand." His father says, "We came to see your play, but you weren't in it." And he says, "Dad, I was the lead."
I can believe that.
Cuz he's good. [laughing]
Was it hard to come up with appropriate examples of corporate malfeasance that The East could go after? I'm guessing the miracle drug with horrible side effects is based on the stories about U.S. military servicemen linking an anthrax vaccine to Gulf War syndrome.
It's so good that you know that. So few people know that. [laughing] Canadians.
Well, we read a lot.
All the stuff that The East goes after, none of it's hyperbolized. I mean, The East itself is, but the actual offences aren't. I remember reading one review that was like, "Ah, it's so unrealistic that a drug like that would be on the market." Well, I hate to break it to you but that drug is on the market.
Was there anything you came across in the real world that was too strange to include? Something people would reject as too outlandish?
Well, we went back and forth with the studio for a long time on the drug, because people were like, "Is it realistic that a drug like that would be on the market? Should it be that it's still in testing and hasn't been released yet?" It's one of those things that jams up people's heads, and clearly it jammed up that reviewer's head. They cannot accept it. To accept that such drugs are on the market is to accept that we live in a broken system. And some people cannot wrap their heads around that fact.
You've been touring with The East since Sundance in January. How's it been going?
It gives me such great pleasure - this junket is not boring for me. I haven't had one repeated conversation with anyone about the movie. Not one journalist, not one Q&A. That's very rare. On my last movie [Sound Of My Voice], you knew the questions that were coming, and you just answered them as freshly as you could. But on this, everybody sees the movie differently, because there are so many places to enter the film.
The East offers a variety of perspectives on the concept of what people consider moral, which makes it pretty different from a Bourne movie. Even though that series' heroes come from an ambiguous place, the films' concept of morality is pretty simple. Guys with guns are bad; our hero chooses to be a good guy but might still pick up a gun.
Right, but he chooses good in this weird way that we've all signed off on, which is that he's allowed to kill people if it's for his greater good. The collateral damage that happens in these movies is crazy, and that doesn't affect our moral connectivity with the character, which I see as really strange.
Whereas Sarah is actively trying to minimize harm in The East, even at the risk of exposing her identity.
That's what I like about her. I think it's her faith. She's always trying to help people.
So now The East is off the festival circuit and starting its commercial run. What's next for you?
I don't know. That's a good question.
Do you aspire to go even bigger, or will you keep working at a more modest scale?
I love small films, and I love big films. I love what I call the American auteurs - James Cameron and Chris Nolan. Working on a canvas of that size is pretty awesome, I think. And I would love to try that at some point, but no rush. I mean, I like the idea that they're doing original stuff on a canvas that large, but it takes a lot to get there.
It's always amazed me that every time James Cameron makes a movie - since Terminator 2: Judgment Day and maybe even as far back as The Abyss - it's the most expensive movie ever made.
And because he always gets a return on the investment, no one seems to mind too much.
Well, it's just about the return. Nothing else matters, right? That's the beauty of capitalism and also its sadness. Just like Nolan; every one of his movies has made money, which is crazy. You know, like, even Insomnia, I was shocked to find, made over $100 million. Huge! He's a really good craftsperson. [David] Fincher, too.
And they can do compelling work at any scale. Nolan's Memento is structurally really complex, but it's a tiny, tiny movie.
But it has such ambition. I feel the same way about [Shane Carruth's] Upstream Color - it's brimming with the desire to be a much bigger film. Which I think is really a striking quality. That guy wants to work on a very large canvas.
It strikes me that the hidden systems of Upstream Color have their echoes in the way things work in The East.
Exactly. And everything is shades of grey. I think we have to start accepting that that's the world we live in, and trying to eke out a third way.