Zal Batmanglij used to dumpster dive. In the summer of 2009, he and actress Brit Marling spent a couple of months driving across the country practicing freeganism, the practice of reclaiming and eating food that's been thrown away. The trip, mainly an act of self-discovery, left with them a collection of stories they were excited to tell. But what studio would fund a feature about two nomads digging through trash, sleeping in holes in the wall, and kumbayaing with like-minded folk? None. So the pair decided to wrap their stories into an accessible thriller about eco-terrorism. (Go figure.)
Enter: The East. Directed by Batmanglij, and co-written by he and Marling, the film follows an undercover agent for a private intelligence firm (Marling), who infiltrates an anarchist group of ecological activists infamous for punishing the head honchos of large corporations for their crimes against humanity. The film premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, closed the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, and is now out on Blu-ray and DVD.
Complex got a chance to chat with Batmanglij about his partnership with Marling, their fascination with community, and the new generation of filmmakers.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
On meeting Brit Marling for the first time:
"We met in college. Brit was 17. I was 20. My best friend at the time, Mike Cahill, and I made a short film [Lucid Grey]. It won the Georgetown Film Festival and Brit was in the audience. She came up to us afterward and asked if she could work with us. That was it."
On the idea for The East:
"Brit and I were really fascinated by the idea of constructing a meaningful life, and the different ways in which people our age were doing that. When we were on the road, we lived different groups, just to figure out our lives. We met people who were farmers, people who anti-farming, people who live in the squats, people who lived communally, people who described themselves as anarchists, people who were collectivists. We were inspired to make a film about that, but we also wanted to capture it in a 1970s-style thriller. Those types of films were hugely influential to both me and Brit.
"We’re just interested in community. I was interested in it even before college. I remember in grade school having a group of friends and enjoying that sense of community, enjoying living in an imaginary world that wasn’t just by yourself or your sibling but a whole group of people. It’s about sharing that kind of rich world."
"I remember when we were in third grade, my best friends and I at the time putting on a play of The Witches, the Roald Dahl book. That was how we spent our time. I got a real thrill out of everyone coming together to do something collectively, creatively. I still get that thrill."
On becoming a filmmaker:
I’d always wanted to be a filmmaker but I didn’t know that people really made films. I knew that famous people made films, but I didn’t know there was a process to getting there. I grew up on the east coast and I didn’t realize there was a whole community of people who made movies. It was sort of like finding your tribe. I love being on a movie set.
On directors he admires:
"Any director who’s willing to be brave not only in terms of subject matter but also in terms of being emotional and moving you is what inspires me."
"Most recently, Lincoln by Spielberg moved me. I loved that movie. It’s so beautiful, every facet of it. The words are so rich, the screenplay is so beautiful, the direction is evocative, the camera is fluid. It takes you to the edge of your seat. That’s rare."
On the new generation of independent filmmakers:
"Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now, Destin Daniel Cretton's Short Term 12—these are really important movies. The summer before it, there was Beasts of the Southern Wild and Smashed, and the summer before that had Sound of My Voice, Another Earth, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Circumstance. I think there is a new era of filmmakers and it’s about time. It’s just the right time and it’s an exciting group of people who are telling exciting stories."