I make no secret about the fact that after just three films as a star and co-writer, Chicago-native Brit Marling is one of my favorite people making movies right now. Since her double-shot debut at Sundance 2011 with ANOTHER EARTH and SOUND OF MY VOICE (both of which she co-wrote and starred), she's done a handful of solid supporting acting gigs in films like ARBITRAGE and THE COMPANY YOU KEEP, but it's her self-generated work that continues to earn her much-deserved attention.
Without anybody knowing, she actually made another film with director Mike Cahill (who directed and co-wrote ANOTHER EARTH), called I ORIGIN, of which almost nothing is known. The much higher-profile THE EAST, directed and co-written by SOUND OF MY VOICE director and co-writer Zal Batmangliq, opened in New York and Los Angeles last weekend and expands into more markets (including Chicago) this weekend.
What has always impressed me most about Marling (aside from the ridiculously creative filmmakers with whom she keeps company) is her ability to write about subjects in ways that spark discussion. Questions of morality and mortality, questions about personal guilt and corporate responsibility, questions about ourselves in the past and the future fill her movies and her mind, and when one of these works is finished, the experience is only half over. Then begins the dialogue, and if you're lucky enough, the conversation will include Marling herself.
In the last couple of years, I've been lucky enough to interview Marling three times, as well as moderate two Q&As with her, one for ANOTHER EARTH and one for THE EAST, about a group of eco-terrorists who have a unique way of making corporations pay for their bad behavior. Marling plays a private security agent who infiltrates the group (known as "The East"), which includes members played by Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgård. From all of these encounters with her and both of her filmmaking partners, I feel like I've gotten to flex my film analysis muscle quite nicely. It's really enjoyable when a discussion of movies grows into something much bigger, and that always happens with Marling.
Enough prologue. Let's let Brit Marling and Zal Batmangliq (who enters the room a couple of minutes into the conversation) speak for themselves and their exceptional new movie, THE EAST. Enjoy…
Brit Marling: That was fun last night, Steve. Thank you for it and thank you for always do your homework. It’s always so thorough. It’s always just such a nice conversation.
Capone: Honestly, I feel like that’s the least I could do, just be prepared.
BM: You are alone in that.
Capone: I'm not sure that's true, but that is what I get paid to do, so I might as well. I don’t want to embarrass myself. Before Zal comes back, you mentioned this movie that you made with Mike [Cahill]. I couldn’t find anything about it anywhere. I felt ill prepared when you when you brought that up.
BM: [laughs] Not at all. We were totally off the grid about it. In fact, I wonder if I’m even supposed to be talking about it.
Capone: You told a whole bunch of people last night, so the word is out.
BM: Yeah, we shot a little movie together, but it was made independently, so it was totally, awesomely outside the system.
Capone: Yeah, way out. What are the plans for it? Are there plans for it?
BM: No plans, which is awesome.
Capone: So we'll probably never see it, is what you’re saying.
BM: I think you will.
Capone: I think people would want to see that.
BM: It will find its way into the world.
Zal Batmangliq: What’s that?
BM: Mike's movie.
ZB: Oh, Mike's movie is going to be something out of this world.
Capone: Is there a title? Can we say a title?
BM: There is no title. It’s really just totally off the grid.
ZB: It is totally off the grid.
Capone: I went and looked it up after the Q&A, saw nothing about it, and said, “Okay, this doesn’t exist. They’re just messing with me.”
BM: No, no.
ZB: It’s shot. I’ve seen some of it. It’s mind blowing.
Capone: There was one thing we did not talk about last night. I just came back from Roger Ebert’s film festival a couple of days ago, and I know that he was a huge fan of ANOTHER EARTH in particular and had some great things to say about you in both films, as a writer and as an actor. He said, “Marling emerges as a gifted new talent.” He compared the film to Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS. I think he was three-and-a-half review for that one. Then on SOUND OF MY VOICE, again he said that you had an "understated presence.” He actually said something that I think is the ultimate compliment you can pay to any actor or filmmaker, which is he couldn’t wait to see what you did next. Do you have any memories of that review in particular?
BM: It’s an interesting thing, I tend not to read stuff, positive or negative. I get so much pleasure out of the conversations about the film, especially on a movie like this. You saw last night, the things that people ask about and the dialog it provokes are so exciting; it’s almost why you make the film. It’s because you’re interested in a world and you want to talk about it and you’re kind of laying the grounds for talking about something. But every once in a while Zal or Mike will read me something that they have read and something that they were particularly moved by, and of course it’s deeply moving, especially someone like him who has seen a lot of movies and has been watching them thoroughly and with a practiced eye and heart for a long time. If you make an impact on someone like that, it makes you feel encouraged to keep going. I certainly felt that.
ZB: Yeah, I remember reading the ANOTHER EARTH review by Ebert and being so moved by it, because the movie had just come out, and people are waiting to weigh in. He’s the first person to have one a Pulitzer for movie writing, and to have someone like that identify that film and identify your work, I remember it was huge.
BM: Huge. The other thing about it is when you’re making outsider art, like we were making these movies completely outside of the system and the system is very nervous about what is and isn’t legitimate and what is or isn’t going to be accepted. So when someone who is widely regarded as having an opinion that is carefully thought through and matters and is thoughtful, when they embrace the work and it then brings other people to the work; that’s a tremendous gift he’s giving.
ZB: Even if he liked ANOTHER EARTH more than SOUND OF MY VOICE.
Capone: I haven't taken an official survey, but seems to me after talking to people about those two movies, choosing a favorite seems to depend on which on they see first. I know that’s the case for me, SOUND OF MY VOICE was always a little bit more of a favorite of mine.
BM: That’s so interesting. I never considered that.
Capone: I know that some people saw them back to back at Sundance, but in my case they were separated by a few months.
ZB: I’m just some one who likes both of them. [laughs] They're actually wildly different films, which is so funny. They have a lot of the same sort of freshness and essence, but they're difference.
Capone: As you did with those films, you took what is a very familiar genre and you shape it into a character study. The movie isn’t about what it’s about; it’s about Brit's character. It’s about this crisis of identity and faith and all of the things we talked about yesterday. That’s the heart and soul of the film, and everything else is--not un-important, but I feel like the thing you care about the most is what’s going on in her head and in her heart.
BM: That's so wild to hear you say that. That’s exactly right,
ZB: But we also love WINTER’S BONE and we love THE BOURNE IDENTITY, so the question is “Why can’t you have both?” What says that you can’t have both? I remember one review someone was telling me about. I haven’t actually read it, but they were saying that they were making fun of Benji [Alexander Skarsgård] for being very Bruce Wayne. It’s like “Yeah, of course.” It’s inspired by the myths of our time. The idea of the orphaned heir turned vigilante, it’s something that’s appealing and something we grew up on, why can’t we have that in a sort of “indie” film?
That same reviewer is probably all up on Nolan and loves Nolan; it’s so funny that that’s allowed within the genre parameters. It’s almost like cross dressing: men can not wear women’s clothes, because some huge genre break has happened, you know? What’s the big fucking deal? And it’s the same thing with a movie. My favorite movies of last year were THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, AMORE, and LINCOLN. Those were my three favorite films, and I think they are three films that are about the same thing, which is justice. “What is just, and how do we get there, and how do we make sense of this world?” I would love to have that mash up, like “Why can’t you put all three in my movie?” Or at least “Why can’t you mix DARK KNIGHT and AMORE?” And that’s all we are doing is trying. That’s what we feel, that we are trying. I think it takes a lifetime to get really good at filmmaking.
Capone: You mentioned that the ideas of these movies come from conversations that you have. What were the conversations that didn’t get made into movies that were just too out there? Why is this the conversation that gets a plot added on to it and characters, as opposed to the other conversations? What was it about this particular discussion?
BM: Tell me if this is not true, but I feel like there’s a real democracy in the ideas. Some ideas when you come and talk about them with each other stick. It’s like throwing spaghetti against the wall to see if it’s ready; they either stick or they don’t. And the stuff that is thin or surface layer or at first seems appealing, but doesn’t hold weight over time is dismissed. What’s funny about filmmaking is that it’s going to go under the pressure and duress of such time.
We put so much weight on it that the fossil, the fuel at the center has to have so much energy in it and so much life, because you’re going to compact it for five years. You’re going to write the script, then get the financing, then you’ve got to make the movie, which is the shortest block. Then you’ve got to make sense of it in the editing room, then you’ve got to go get it into the world. That whole endeavor is so intense that if the idea doesn’t have a fuel cell for that, if it isn’t just like this crystal of an idea, it doesn’t work. And with this movie, we couldn’t shake the idea of this group and this girl who has this experience in that, and we kept coming back to it. So even as you try to kick the idea out, it haunts you, and you can't let go of it.
ZB: It has such a fuel cell that we together could go make this movie again.
BM: Oh totally.
ZB: I really could. Not remake it, but like tell a version of this story again or continue telling it. It has not lost any interest for me, and what’s cool about this press tour is that we really haven’t had the same conversation very many times, and usually with these things, you just say the same things over and over again. But it’s because there are so many points of entry on this movie.
Capone: It doesn’t help that a lot of times the people on your side of the equation have been given talking points for the press. “This is your script. Try to work these answers into your responses.”
ZB: But that’s the beauty also of the people we're making this movie with. They've been good partners and they trust us.
Capone: In the different conversations that you’re having about THE EAST, are you learning things about the movie that you didn’t even realize were there?
BM: Just a moment ago, this guy was saying “It’s interesting that Sarah is a moral, political person. I don’t really know exactly where she is on the spectrum, but then she goes in and she has what is a very human experience.”
ZB: With people who have very different values than she does.
BM: Yeah, but it’s the human interaction that takes away the political and makes it all personal, and of course you know these things, but when you hear them articulated better than you’ve even said them--cleanly, simply--you’re like “Oh wow, yes.”
ZB: My high school English teacher saw the movie in D.C. a couple of days ago, and he sent an email to Brit and I that was really sweet and he said, “It’s a movie about vulnerability and how really the only people who can truly be in danger are the vulnerable, and that’s what this movie is about.” He was like, “Whether it’s Eve or Izzy or any of those characters…” I never thought of the movie like that.
BM: And what Benji is really saying to her when she comes in is, “You can’t handle any truth until you get vulnerable enough to receive it” and “Does Sarah want to go on the journey of getting vulnerable enough to get to the truth?” For someone like her, it’s like the hardest thing anyone could ever ask you to do. Askher to shoot a gun or run the marathon, that she can do.
ZB: Or take a paper clip and undo it in her mouth.
BM: She can do it all. But ask her to get vulnerable, and that’s hard. I think that’s really where we are right now as a culture. It’s become increasingly hard for us to be vulnerable, and that’s dangerous, that’s so dangerous. That’s why I’m so attracted to acting, because it’s like a profession of vulnerability. It’s like waking up every day and trying to become a professional at being vulnerable.
ZB: A professional vulnerable.
Capone: It must have been fun to come up with some of the group's rituals and their iconography. I will say this, the scene at the table with those spoons, I knew exactly what she was supposed to do. I don’t even know why, but as soon as I saw the scenario I’m like, “They are trying to foster the idea of a communal-living experience, there is only one way this is going to work.”
BM: Steve is probably the only person that’s come up with that.
ZB: She’s so proud of herself when she reaches the soup.
Capone: I know. I thought “She’d be smart enough to figure this out, but maybe it’s not about intelligence; it’s about being in a situation where you depend on other people." But talk about just coming up with some of the nuts and bolts of how the group operates, both in terms of their symbols and rituals. How did you come up with that stuff?
ZB: I love scenes in which we as the audience are trying to put together the pieces. A scene that really works well or a movie like SIXTH SENSE that does it really well, any time it works well, one or two people can figure it out right from the start; so you’re in that group.
Capone: Not always, but with that one particular scene…
ZB: But one or two people can, whoever that is, and then the next group get it at the halfway point, and then the majority are rewarded with what it is at the end. But what’s cool about that period is that, especially something like the soup scene, people’s brains are working the whole time trying to put together these connections, so it reveals more about themselves, the viewer, than it does about the film or the filmmaker or the characters. It really sutures the viewer to the character, because if some of the things they 're feeling are what she is feeling, it really works out, and I feel like Brit often does capture that. So it was a real pleasure for us to come up with that scene and then to see it work. The actors really got it to work rhythmically. I love that scene.
BM: I think a lot of it too was starting with philosophy and then backing into image systems and practical actions, like they believe in not wasting, so how do they get their food? They are also moving around a lot, so they can’t really have a garden of vegetables, so how are they getting their food? Okay, they're scavenging for it. Who is going out and doing that? They have some technological interaction with the world, but do they want newcomers to see that? No, it’s just Tess in the basement. So a lot of like how they work as a group came from thinking first about their philosophies and finding practical applications of that.
ZB: And the characters tell you, also, like the Doc was a very clear character to us from the beginning.
Capone: You mentioned last night that you had this experience where you lived off the waste of the rest of the world for a time, but you chose to come back from that and you chose to live the way most people do. Do you every look around yourselves at any point or while you’re making the movie and feel guilty or feel that something is different, something is changed because you went through that?
BM: All the time. All the time. It’s such a tricky thing. I still lie awake in bed at night sometimes and think about going back there. I don’t even know what that means exactly, because I don’t know that we ever found “it.” But going back to the road and to keep looking for it… I don’t know that we ever found the permanent collective to live in, to be in. I think some people have found something that worked for them. We found a lot of things that moved us very deeply, but I don’t know if there was ever a harbor to actually finally anchor the boat in, and maybe if we had, that we would have stayed there.
When we came back to L.A., we took a lot of that experience in terms of direct action and just making stuff and creating collectives and used that energy to make films and to do them in a “living off the waste” kind of way. So a lot of the feeling, the philosophy of it did enter the way we ended up making work, so I don’t know. I feel changed by that experience. I feel that I’m just different from it, and then there’s a certain difference you can’t really come back from even.
ZB: And the flipside of it is, we try to find that in ourselves. We have this movie coming out in like five or six weeks, and I try to let go of that and be like “Who cares?” Okay, not “who cares,” that’s a wrong thought, but trying not to define ourselves by it, by all the pressure, by all of the excitement, by the fear, by the anxiety, by the neurosis, by the elation, just touching it and letting go a little bit and trying to take the things that we felt on our summer, which was a feeling of great peace and a feeling of not having that kind of pressure on us all of the time. I want to cultivate that in my everyday life and I feel like that summer has allowed me to. But I don’t take things as seriously as people want me to.
Capone: We talked last night about working with these sort of name actors now, but have you considered, moving forward, a door has been opened in terms of who you might get to work with? Brit, you as an actor have already seen a lot of that.
ZB: With the best actors in the world.
Capone: I was going to say, “Is your career going to be playing the daughters of these great elder statesmen of Hollywood?”
BM: [laughs] I’ve had some pretty great mythic parents. I’ve been very lucky.
Capone: Just the idea of “We could actually go to people that we have admired all of these years and ask 'Do you want to work with us?' and you can show them things that they're probably going to respond to.
BM: What’s weird is I haven’t really thought about it like that.
ZB: What’s weird is that we don’t think about stuff that much. We think about our stories and get excited about our stories.
BM: You know what it feels a bit like? When you made up stories with your friends in a fort when you were a kid, and the pleasure you got out of the pretend games you played in the fort. When we sit and bat story ideas around, that’s what it’s like. We’re not thinking of “How much is the movie going to be made for?” or “Who are going to play the parts?” You are just getting so much energy off of telling each other the story and “Can he scare me? Can I make him cry?” It’s like “What can we do for each other?”
ZB: But also this experience of making THE EAST has humbled me in terms of, I did not think that Juno [Ellen Page] was right for Izzy, right? And so when that idea first entered the world, I was like “No.” And then I sat down with Ellen Page and within five minutes of meeting her, I thought “Shame on you, Zal, for not understanding that she’s a very good actress and that Juno was a character,” and that this person is deep and adventurous and excited to be human in this world and would be a great addition to any rebellious film crew you'd like to put together.
I've learned that I never imagined Ellen Page playing Izzy, and today I can imagine no one else other than Ellen Page playing Izzy. So I want to save that same humility for when we cast our next films, which is, “Let’s see where we are at. Let’s see if people want to work with us, but let’s see if we meet other really cool people.” What’s weird is that so many actors have not gotten the chance to do things that they would be really good at, because nobody saw that in them or believed that in them. So I don’t want to be a part of that problem.
Capone: It’s been exciting seeing Christopher Denham [one of the stars of SOUND OF MY VOICE] in all of these other films and TV shows recently.
BM: He's so good.
Capone: He’s awesome, but it was fun seeing him in ARGO.
BM: He’s so good in ARGO, too.
Capone: Just in terms of acting jobs, what have got coming up, anything you can talk about?
BM: There’s a movie called THE GREEN BLADE RISES, though I wonder if it’s still called that. A.J. Edwards directed it, and Jason Clarke and Diane Kruger are in it with me, and it’s about Lincoln from age eight to ten, and his mother who dies when he’s very young and then this new mother that comes in to raise him and how these two women sort of shaped his life. We shot that in the fall and I think A.J. is editing that now. I play the mother who dies.
ZB: Lincoln’s father married a woman who looked a lot like his first wife, so Diane Kruger plays the new wife.
Capone: Got it.
BM: And then I did the mystery project with Mike [I ORIGINS], and now I don’t know. There’s something coming up, but I don’t know if it’s real yet. It’s so tricky, one never knows when one can talk about these things.
ZB: That will be an exciting movie. You’re going to be great in that one.
BM: I’ll call them and figure out if I’m allowed to talk about that yet, but then I’m excited to write. We're writing something right now--two things at the same time, actually.
Capone: Once again,.
BM: Yeah, so we’ll see if something comes up.
Capone: We'll will save you a space at the theater when you’re ready to come back.
BM: Thank you. [Laughs] That would be an honor.
ZB: That would be awesome.
BM: Thanks, Steve.
ZB: Thanks for your support. It means a lot to us.