Ellen Page & Zal Batmanglij – The East

June 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the dramatic thriller “The East,” filmmaker Zal Batmanglij (“The Sound of My Voice”) tells the story of an anarchist group that uses extreme means to hold corporations accountable for their shady practices. Oscar nominee Ellen Page (“Juno”) plays Izzy, a longtime member who doesn’t trust a new woman who joins the collective, but is really an covert operative for a private intelligence firm.

During interviews with me at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, Batmanglij and Page talked about the inspiration behind the script and whether or not they think having debates about important issues like global warming and corporate greed really is enough to spur change.

Zal, you mentioned in the Q&A after the screening that you’ve been dumpster diving. Can you talk more about that since it’s one of the ways the characters in your film are able to survive living off the grid?

Zal Batmanglij: I’ve dumpster dived quite a bit in my life. It sounds really strange when you say it to people, but it really isn’t that strange. There is a lot of food thrown out because it has to be thrown out because it’s passed the “sell by” date. But the food hasn’t gone bad yet and it’s totally packaged. So, there are cartons and cartons of bread thrown out in a dumpster in back of a grocery store. All you have to do is learn how to pick the lock of the dumpster and you have all this food. So, instead of it going to the landfill, it goes to feed you or other people who are really hungry.

Ellen, the film is very open ended in terms of the message it’s trying to deliver about big business and political corruption and knowing what powerful people around us are doing. What kind of issues do you hope a film like this brings up?

Ellen Page: I think the movie is tapping into what people are feeling right now, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat or atheist or Catholic. I think there’s a lot of frustration – frustration with injustice and unfairness in the world; with corporate greed and what we’re doing to the environment. I think this film takes a lot of those ideas in a relentlessly suspenseful way and presents them and allows a lot of these questions to be asked that hopefully then people will ask themselves and their friends. I hope it creates this very ethically murky and complex view of a lot of these issues and how we deal with them. Hopefully people will walk out with new ideas and new questions that they continue to think and talk about.

Ellen, do you consider yourself an activist in real life? If so, are there any issues you’ve been really close to over the years that maybe you’ve felt dialogue and public awareness wasn’t enough to change things?

EP: I would imagine a lot of people feel like that right now. You can’t ignore what we’re doing to the environment. It’s not about how little is being done about it. It’s about how much more is being done to perpetuate the problem like tapping into the Tar Sands in Canada and building the Keystone Pipeline. I don’t think you can look at the world right now and not see incredible injustice done to a lot of people, to minorities, to the Earth. These are things I think about and like to talk about.

But is dialogue enough? I mean, we’ve been talking about the hole in the ozone layer for decades. In “The East,” these characters are taking matters into their own hands and doing something different to confront these challenges.

ZB: We’re going to confront these challenges whether we like it or not. If you were in a garage without any air and turned your car on you’d die because the exhaust is poison. I mean, how many cars are there on the road today? How is that poison not going to catch up with us? It might not be tomorrow or next week, but it will catch up to us. The question is: Do we make a change before there is an emergency? I feel in our culture when all of a sudden there are all these [school] shootings, that’s when we want to do something about the state of mental health or gun laws in the country. But if we had done more to make changes beforehand, then maybe we wouldn’t have all those dead people. I think you have to deal with issues early on because they grow out of control. I think we’re in the midst of a lot of dangerous things right now.

Were you worried at all people might see this film and feel like they should do something as extreme as the characters in this movie? I mean, there were people who saw “Fight Club” and followed that anarchist group’s lead and made their own statements.

ZB: We’re there?

Yeah, even as recent as 2009, there was a teenager who bombed a Starbucks in Manhattan all in the name of Project Mayhem.

ZB: I feel like we’re getting out all our frustrations somehow. Yeah, maybe articulating it can be dangerous because it could give someone a road map, but it also may be a release valve that lets people’s frustrations and energies out so they don’t do eye-for-an-eye justice. I think the people who are actually prone to doing those things will do them regardless of this movie.

Ellen, you’ve talked about how a script this well-written is hard to come by in Hollywood. Some people might’ve though after your Oscar nomination for “Juno” that these kinds of scripts would come across your desk all the time. Is that not how it works after you get such amazing praise for your work as an actress?

ZB: Well, for the record, I think some scripts did come across her desk like “Inception.”

EP: “The East” was just incredibly original. It was tapping into what is in the current zeitgeist of thought and the discomfort we were talking about in the world right now. When you’re given a script that is about things I am already personally interested in, then, yes, you jump at the chance to do it.

The East

June 21, 2013 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page
Directed by: Zal Batmanglij (“Sound of My Voice”)
Written by: Zal Batmanglij (“The Sound of My Voice”) and Brit Marling (“Another Earth”)

If you’ve ever wanted to live off the grid – just disappear one day and survive by adopting an anti-consumerist lifestyle – take a look at director/co-writer Zal Batmanglij (“Sound of My Voice”) and actress/co-writer Brit Marling (“Another Earth”) who did exactly that in the Summer of 2009. They’re little adventure together (dumpster diving and hopping trains) would later inspire them to write the screenplay for “The East,” a high-intensity espionage thriller with an eco-friendly message of sorts. While “The East” only scratches the surface of its eco-agenda, it manages to draw some blood when it matters.

Marling stars as Sarah Moss, a former FBI agent turned private intelligence operative who is assigned to a little covert work by her boss (Patricia Clarkson) to protect the companies their firm represents. There’s an anarchist collective known as the East starting trouble for their clients and it’s up to Sarah to find the individuals responsible and infiltrate their group to gather information.

While the script allows Sarah to find who she is looking for a bit too easily, it’s when anarchist members start to trust her that the drama begins to boil over. Included in the group is Benji (Alexander Skarsgard), a charismatic and enigmatic group leader who allows Sarah (now calling herself Jane as part of her undercover mission) into their lair, much to the dismay of Izzy (Ellen Page), a longtime eco-terrorist who trusts no one.

Nevertheless, Sarah is able to weasel her way in and uncover what the East is doing. For example, early in the film the group holds a big oil company’s CEO responsible for spilling millions of gallons of crude into the ocean (think BP oil disaster of 2006) responsible by flooding his home with petroleum. It’s through these “jams” (attacks that are a bit more thought-provoking than, say, what Project Mayhem does in “Fight Club”) where the East is trying to make a social statement.

What Batmanglij does with “The East,” however, isn’t making any broad declarations about the state of America and what we as a country are allowing to happen by turning our backs on certain problems. Batmanglij points many of them out, but gives his audience a chance to figure it out for themselves. Can the East justify their actions because they’re doing it for the greater good? We may not get the answers were looking for but Batmanglij and Marling find fascinating ways to ask tough questions about issues that are many times swept under the rug.

“The East” was screened at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival.

Sound of My Voice

May 24, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius, Brit Marling
Directed by:  Zal Batmanglij (debut)
Written by: Brit Marling (“Another Earth”) and Zal Batmanglij (debut)

Aside from the fact that most head doctors regard a majority of them as having a few bats in their belfry, cult leaders — whether factual or fictional — usually share similar attributes with one another in their attempt to convince committed followers to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid. From disturbing leaders of the past like Jim Jones and David Koresh to cinematic ones like John Hawkes’ intimidating alpha male in last year’s compelling film “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the men (and, yes, most are men) in these positions of power have some pretty persuasive personalities that allow them to rule the roost.

It’s one of the reasons why when female cult leader Maggie (Brit Marling) is introduced in the independent thriller “Sound of My Voice,” there is automatic intrigue that comes along with the uncharacteristic role simply because it’s not something seen too often in film or the real religious underground. Maggie, however, is more than a blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty. Like any of the leading men who have come before her, the illogical explanations and information she offers to gain the trust of her congregation is believable because Maggie makes believers out of everyone. Part sci-fi phenom, part subtle intimidator, she is the strongest asset of an otherwise indecisive and transparent film.

Meeting Maggie for the first time in “Sound of My Voice” are Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), a couple in the San Fernando Valley whose sudden interest in investigative journalism leads them to a bizarre group of sanitized, hospital gown-wearing devotees and their ambiguous queen bee. Upon infiltrating the cult to secretly record its inner workings for a documentary, Peter and Lorna learn that Maggie, a self-proclaimed time traveler from 2054, has journeyed to the present day to prepare her selected sect for the coming apocalypse. Meanwhile in another part of L.A., an odd little girl spends her time playing alone in her room with black Legos. The separate stories don’t cross paths until much later in the narrative and the big reveal isn’t as clever as one would hope.

“Sound of My Voice” isn’t so much about a cult as it is about a cult leader and her followers’ willingness to accept what she is saying as the truth. None of the cult members beside Maggie are fascinating in the least bit and their mission is about as vague as a modern-day scientologist’s explanation of Xenu and the Galactic Confederacy. If these men and women were gathering in the basement of a house to play Parcheesi rather than sharing spiritual beliefs and putting their fearless leader on a pedestal, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

With a script written by Marling (her inspired sci-fi drama “Another Earth” released last year, which she also wrote and starred in, is infinitely better) and first-time director Zal Batmanglij, “Sound of My Voice” will capture one’s imagination in smaller doses much like an episode of the original “Twilight Zone.” Dragged out into feature form, however, reveals just how little substance there is behind all the strange characters and existential discourse.