The East – Zal Batmanglij interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ZAL Batmanglij talks about some of the issues surrounding his new film, The East, and why he chose a pharmaceutical company as one of the main targets of the film’s anarchist movement.
He also talks about working with leading lady and co-writer Brit Marling, what he feels about multi-global corporations and the need for accountability and why he sometimes feels like we’re all living in The Matrix.
Q. You and Brit Marling are fast forming one of the most fascinating relationships in Hollywood. How did you meet?
Zal Batmanglij: We met in college. I had made my first short film with my best friend, Mike Cahill, who went on to direct Another Earth. We co-directed our first short film. And Brit saw that at a film festival and she approached us a week later and said: “Can I work with you guys?” And we said: “Yes!” And the rest is history.
Q. And the idea for The East then formed in 2009 when you decided to hang out with anarchists?
Zal Batmanglij: Yeah, we hung out with anarchists, we hung out with Freegans [those who practice reclaiming and eating food that has been discarded], we hung out with farmers… we hung out with all sorts of people who were eeking out meaningful lives.
Q. What made you decide to do that in the first place? Was it so that you could draw on their experiences to inform the films you wanted to make?
Zal Batmanglij: No, we’d sort of given up [on making films]. We’d written Sound of My Voice but couldn’t get it made, so we started our journey with our heads bowed low. It was more about just trying to see how people were living off of the grid. We were fascinated by that idea of living off the grid.
Q. Is that lifestyle something that appeals to you, having tasted it?
Zal Batmanglij: Very much so. It was one of the best summers I ever had.
Q. So, what surprised you about it?
Zal Batmanglij: Oh man, how much our bodies and minds crave to live like that… tribally, without all this bullshit, without a computer, without a phone, television and films and music… that’s recorded. How we very much want to live communally.
Q. So, how would you describe The East? Would you describe it as an optimistic film in its world view? Or a pessimistic one?
Zal Batmanglij: I don’t know. I think The East is one of those things where it needs the viewer to close the loop. So, it depends on how you’re viewing it. I mean, in the light of all the Edward Snowden news I think the end of The East is kind of chilling. I mean, she could have been a whistleblower like Snowden. She worked for a similar company, had similar access to similar lists of operatives all over the world. But she chose to take that list and go recruit them into a private army. I think we shot it happy-go-lucky, the coda, but it’s actually very chilling. I only thought about that recently.
Q. What made you decide to go for pharmaceutical companies as one of your targets?
Zal Batmanglij: Oh, that’s a great question. We’d heard about these drugs, these Fluoroquinolones – that’s the family of drugs. You have to look them up on the Internet. They’re very powerful antibiotics that are commonly prescribed in the UK and the US, all over the world, actually. But for some people, they totally devastate their lives. A mum took a couple of pills. She was a healthy mum of three but she ended up in a wheelchair. She can’t carry her kids anymore. She can’t do anything. If you go on the Internet, there’s like page after page of people… actually just recently, do you know the site Indiewire? In our Indiewire review the journalist said that he thought that The East was like a pure adrenaline rush but that it suffered from a dramatic illogic because a drug like that would not be on the market. And I don’t know when this happened, but someone forwarded me the link to it, but there’s comment after comment after comment of people saying: “We were poisoned by this drug. What are you talking about?”
So, I think that’s very fascinating. I think it’s fascinating that the critic – and I don’t judge the critic – but it’s fascinating that in a blithe review that he writes, he doesn’t even do any research to see whether it’s true or not. He just assumes: “How can something like that be on the market?” And that is what’s cool about The East for me. The idea that, and I’m guilty of this too, why do we believe that the system is benevolent and has intelligent design. The system is happenstance and it’s arbitrary and it doesn’t even work very well. The economy keeps nose-diving and people keep resuscitating it using emergency measures. I mean, if our economic and political system was a person, it wouldn’t be a very healthy person.
Q. And that system is driven by the need to make a profit at the end of the day…
Zal Batmanglij: Right! So, am I saying that that pharmaceutical, the Flouroquinolone, should be banned? No! Look, if you knew that an antibiotic you were going to take could possibly cause permanent nerve and brain damage, would you take it?
Q. You’d think twice, depending on why you were being prescribed it…
Zal Batmanglij: I’d take it if it was life or death. But if I knew that it could make me end up in a wheelchair, I don’t think I’d take it. There are lots of antibiotics that don’t have permanent side effects, so why not take one of those? And yet these permanent side effects are on the bottle. That’s what’s so crazy! The pharmaceutical company doesn’t lie. It’s all there. You just can’t believe that that’s an option. Here’s another example. They had this drug for quitting smoking and it caused a lot of people to commit suicide so they had to push it off the market. Imagine if you took a drug to quit smoking because you wanted to prolong your life but you ended up committing suicide? It’s funny, we’re laughing, but it’s crazy!
Q. Were you ever worried that you might have these companies coming after you?
Zal Batmanglij: To sue me?
Q. To deter you from making the film…
Zal Batmanglij: We never really talked about. But I think that’s why a reviewer like that gets away with something like that. We didn’t call too much attention to it. I’m doing it now because other people have. If you read the comments on that Indiewire, it’s fascinating. My jaw dropped. I didn’t realise that many people had been affected by it.
Q. So, do you think that multi-national corporations are the new enemy then? Does there need to be more regulation of them and more accountability?
Zal Batmanglij: No. I don’t think the film is anti-corporate. I think the film is pro-accountability. This film was made by a corporation. But it was made by people, who are Fox Searchlight at least, are very accountable and wanted to make a film that was accountable. So, I’m not here spewing anti-corporate rhetoric. I do think that multi-national corporations allow this weird, wilful ignorance that seems very necessary for profit these days. It’s strange.
Q. But judging by the response that review got, there does seem to be a need for more people to be aware of these types of things. Do you think anarchist groups are the best way of doing that?
Zal Batmanglij: Yeah… well, no. I don’t think they’re the way. They are the only people standing up to it. I mean, look at what’s happening with Snowden. How do you feel about that?
Q. I have mixed feelings… It’s good to have whistleblowers but it can be dangerous…
Zal Batmanglij: What’s dangerous though?
Q. It can put other people’s lives in danger…
Zal Batmanglij: I always thought that everyone was reading all the emails and the calls. I just assumed that was a part of… if you’ve ever seen a spy movie, they’re doing that kind of stuff all the time.
Q. But even in those spy movies, the consequence of their actions is to put other people’s lives in danger…
Zal Batmanglij: Yeah [thinks about it for a moment], I don’t know. You mean the lives of spies? Well, that’s what Sarah [in The East] thinks, for sure. It’s why she doesn’t want the list to be published. She could have done what Snowden did but she went the other way around. She took it and decided to make a private army herself out of those operatives. It’s kind of chilling.
Q. You mention spy movies. I read you were very influenced by films like All The President’s Men and Michael Clayton when making The East…
Zal Batmanglij: Yeah. I think those movies are great. Did I want to set out to make one of those movies? Not really. The East is original if you look at it. It’s really weird. David Elstein said in his review, it’s just a weird movie. It’s got its freak on and it’s true.
Q. So, how easy was it to get made in this current climate?
Zal Batmanglij: Very because Sound of My Voice, our first film, did well and Fox Searchlight then wanted to make The East. So, we never really thought twice about it.
Q. So, are you not noticing how difficult it is right now to get independent films made? There have been a lot of comments about how hard they are to finance and distribute…
Zal Batmanglij: No, I mean I felt that for years trying to make Sound of My Voice – from 2008 until… for years. From 2007 to 2010 I had no luck. But sometimes you get lucky.
Q. Are you working with Brit again?
Zal Batmanglij: I’d like to.
Q. But nothing fixed or planned?
Zal Batmanglij: We’re thinking of things… ideas are percolating.
Q. Can we talk about the cast briefly? How open were they to embracing the anarchist lifestyle? How method did any of them go?
Zal Batmanglij: I think that they were all very curious. Ellen [Page] and Alex [Skarsgard] were very curious. Toby Kebbell, our Brit, lived in the actual house at night [laughs]. It has no electricity that house – we brought the electricity in.
Q. Did you give them long to bond before shooting began?
Zal Batmanglij: Just a couple of days. We didn’t have much money. But they bonded over the course of the shoot because there was nothing to do. We were in Shreveport, Louisiana, there were no nightclubs to go to. So, at night we hung out with each other and on the weekends Alexander and I would cook and the rest of the gang would get together and sort of practice things like the soup scene or dancing and stuff.
Q. I read someone else describe you as the type of filmmaker who makes movies that display a social conscience. Is that a description you agree with?
Zal Batmanglij: I don’t know. That’s for other people to decide. But I do think it’s important for us to wake up. I think you have to ask yourself – you personally – are lives really in danger when Snowden says that there’s a huge widespread spy network going on… an eavesdropping network going on in the United States and the UK. Or is that something that the government is feeding the media and we’re taking in: that it somehow causes lives to be placed in danger? I mean, that seems like a pretty big… in the old days, that was a pretty basic news story. I mean, a pretty basic big news story, like All The President’s Men. Like, the president was up to no good and has been lying and then he gets impeached and leaves. But now, with these major news stories – we’re just so afraid of the consequences of our eyes opening. Have you seen The Matrix films? I just feel like it’s The Matrix films where we’re afraid of unplugging the thing and getting out of the matrix because the matrix itself is so comfortable. I feel that at least in myself.
- Read our review
- Zal Batmanglij interview (exclusive)
- The East Photo Gallery
- Watch the trailer