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.