The name Zal Batmanglij is not one which slips easily across the tongue, but nor does it have to, for his films speak for themselves. His debut feature, Sound of My Voice was released to critical acclaim, premiering at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and closing the SXSW Film Festival. That success brought the writer/director to the attention of Scott Free Productions for his second collaboration with writer/actor Brit Marling, The East, also starring Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page and Patricia Clarkson. While attending the UK premiere of The East at Edinburgh International Film Festival, the in-demand director was generous enough to take time out of a hectic schedule on the afternoon of Friday 21st of June to discuss his work.
Geek Chocolate – Watching the film last night, the lighting is beautiful, scenic rather than artificial.
Zal Batmanglij – Thank you.
GC – There was a wonderful shot of the moon in the distance, and then the focus shifts to Brit in the foreground. How did you achieve the look of the film?
ZB – Quite naturally and spontaneously. We storyboarded a lot but we didn’t bring those to set, and my director of photography, Roman Vasyanov, and I were very close. That moon shot you’re thinking of is in the bay in New Orleans, and it’s supposed to be the American east coast, but the moon was so beautiful and the sun was setting and I said “Why don’t we shoot everything backwards so it looks like the sun is rising?”
So we started with her running away, when she changes her shoes and she’s stealing the bike, we started with that shot, so it looked like the sun was just rising when it was setting, and then we ended with the shot of her looking at the moon and it going out of focus. All very naturally and within an hour and a half, the whole thing.
GC – Wonderful. I loved the location, the grove of trees aligned towards the door of that magnificent house. How did you find that, and how much was created?
ZB – We had found a beautiful exterior for the house, and we’d all grown so attached to it that we wouldn’t accept the fact that they kept telling us that we weren’t allowed to shoot there. Finally, it was three days before we were supposed to shoot and we hadn’t found anything, and we went to a farm and we found that grove of trees, and I said “Let’s just build a [stage] flat on the other side of those trees,” and we did, and that was the house. It was just a flat.
GC – I loved the early scene in the box carriage where it suddenly turns into a folk jam. Were the travellers cast as a musical group, or were they just talented individuals and somehow it fell into place?
ZB – Fell into place. The travellers had that sort of kinetic way of being, so it was very natural. I love that scene. There’s actually a longer version of it, I should put it on the Blu-ray.
GC – You know when something like that happens on your film set that things are going to work out well.
ZB – Maybe. But they sometimes happen on one day and they don’t on another day!
GC – Your brother (Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij) didn’t contribute so much of the soundtrack this time?
ZB – No, he had to finish his record. I’m so bummed. If he had done the music it would have been amazing, though I think Harry Gregson-Williams score adds a mainstream thriller element that helps ground the film.
GC – It’s interesting that while in most Hollywood thrillers of this nature it would be the men competing, here it’s Sarah and Izzy who have the pissing contest. On the screenplay credit, your name is listed above Brit –
ZB – No, we’re equal screenwriters.
GC – Who brings the strong female presence?
ZB – I think it’s something that we both really value and admire, and I don’t think either of us thinks about it very much, it seems just natural for us to have strong men and strong women in the stories. Izzy was just always really tough and feisty and Sarah’s boss was always a woman, we didn’t think it was as novel as it is to have a woman spy and a woman handler.
GC – How did Alexander, Ellen and Patricia become involved?
ZB – The script was just a great litmus test. It was bait. The people who bit it were the people we wanted to work with. It’s sort of like, when you’re looking for love, if you’re going after the people who aren’t interested, you’ll end up unhappy, I think, and if you embrace the people who like what you’re doing, like who you are, then you’ll be much happier, and that’s our way.
We had no expectations with the cast, we just sort of thought, whatever the script brings our way, we’ll be open to, and we were lucky that it brought such great people, such high calibre.
GC – Not to put anybody down, as there is not a single weak note in the harmony the ensemble creates, but Alexander’s performance in particular is by turns confrontational, demanding, determined, devoted, tender, vulnerable. He strikes me as being an absolute trooper, up for anything. I certainly wasn’t expecting the “spin the bottle” scene. What was it like working with him?
ZB – It’s nice of you to note his huge range. He does have it and he brought his “A” game to this movie, and I think this movie is really pivotal for him because he’s really his father’s son, he’s really a great actor, and I think that we haven’t always – I mean, he’s great on True Blood, but I don’t think you always get to see his huge range on a show like that, and so I’m just excited for his work in this movie and hope that a lot of people will see it and see that he’s a real serious guy and it was a pleasure to work with him. He was fun. He and I get along really well.
GC – I imagine working with Scott Free and Fox Searchlight offered a lot more resources and scope than on Sound of My Voice, but Fox, particularly their news arm, are often seen as one of the very corporations you seem to be rallying against. Were there any concerns from them about the subject, anything they wanted you to maybe pull back on, or was the bottom line to just be true and make the best film you could?
ZB – I think a little bit of both. I think we were concerned about them making the film more than they were concerned about us making it, and for the reasons that you brought up, but then they wanted to make something provocative and interesting. The people at Fox Searchlight are very different from the news division.
GC – One of the resources I imagine you would have had more of was rehearsal time, which on independent pictures is notoriously non-existent. The scene which particularly struck me is the one where Sarah joins them in the river. It isn’t only about the trust and warmth and intimacy of the characters, it demonstrates the same in the actors, and you said at the premiere last night you were very open to the ensemble finding their own voices. What was your process to turn that group of actors into this functioning ensemble?
ZB – Well we didn’t have any rehearsal time at all. I don’t believe in rehearsal. I think that if you can have the Mike Leigh style of a lot of rehearsal, weeks and weeks, it’s worth something, but otherwise there’s a lot to be said for that first take, that first moment of magic, because even if the full take isn’t that good, there are things, a look, a word, that is really magical in the first take.
One of the two ways that we bonded, my DP, my production designer and I were really close, we worked together for six weeks before the actors ever came on set, and I think when the actors came on they could feel that we were so inseparable, they could feel our playful brotherly love for each other, and our healthy bickering, too, and so they felt very comfortable. It was neither utopian nor was it an unhappy household.
It was very natural, there was a lot of energy towards the story we were telling, and so the actors fit right in and then by chance almost, I scheduled Izzy’s scene in the ground when she’s naked in the ground and the bathing scene you were just talking about as the first and second days of shooting, so the group either had to come together or fall apart, and they came together. We shot the bathing scene in an hour, because Brit was freezing in that water, so we didn’t have more than an hour.
GC – Your executive producer was Tony Scott, whose loss was out of the blue. We all knew his work, but you’re the first person we’ve spoken to who knew the man. What was he like?
ZB – I think his films show us his true side, which was an elegant filmmaker of such great taste. I was watching Spy Game the other day in a hotel and I was getting so much joy out of that movie, every detail is so thought out. What elegance. What thoughtfulness.
GC – There are some performers who you feel have almost the right to be major stars because of their talent, who are always good whatever they do, Angela Bassett, Michelle Forbes, Michelle Monaghan, people who are incapable of giving a bad performance – CCH Pounder managed to be good in RoboCop 3 – but for whatever reason choose not to play the fame game that “A” list status requires, and Brit strikes me as one of those people, somebody who is more interested in writing her own rules than in playing somebody else’s game. You obviously have a very successful friendship and partnership, what is the lady like?
ZB – She is the real deal, in the sense that she is very genuine and she is committed to the work. The work really means something to her, it gives her great pleasure, not any accoutrement from it, not any results besides a good story at the end. She takes her roles really seriously, but I think she’s open to playing things other people write too, I just don’t think she wants to wade through the murky waters to get to the level she should be at in terms of roles. I think writing is a good way to get better at what you do.
GC – Sound of My Voice was originally conceived as a trilogy, and hopefully if The East is as well received as it deserves, a new audience will discover your first film. Would you be able to produce the followups as modestly as the original?
ZB – Yeah, I think that would be the whole goal. I think if we made it again, we would make it like a project for love, that everyone would be invested in it. I’m sure that we could even convince Searchlight that we should do it like that.
GC – Sound of My Voice looks at the cult with the traditional “leader who demands devotion” role, whereas The East as a group have more devolved and collaborative power, a belief and a goal rather than faith and ritual. Is cult behaviour something that interests you or did it just seem the right way to tell these stories?
ZB – Tribe interests me, the idea of family interests me, and so that is really where my focus is. I’m overwhelmed by how alienated we all are these days, the alienation of our time, and I think that families, tribes, cults, they are a way to beat back the alienation.
GC – And which of those two cult models I described best typifies your directorial style?
ZB – Collaborative. I learnt from the anarchists or from the activists or from the intentional communities that I lived with how to make a movie.
GC – In my review of Sound of My Voice, I described it as an enigmatic curio, but I am lost to sum up The East in a pithy phrase. If you had to do it in one phrase, what would it be?
ZB – A thoughtful thriller. I don’t know, I think its moral ambiguity is its most salient quality. It’s a film about trying to carve right from wrong and how hard that is these days.
GC – I have to ask – who came up with the handshake? And I mean that in the dual sense of whose idea was it to have a coded series of gestures to establish identity, and also, literally – who came up with that handshake?
ZB – I don’t know the answer to either question. I know that we forgot to actually come up with the handshake with all the busyness of preparing to make Sound of My Voice, and so two weeks into shooting, on our one day off, Brit came over with twenty You Tube links and we looked at every handshake and we designed it, but then I was like, “Brit, it’s very important that we add a childish element to it that will make the audience laugh when they first see it,” because they’ll think “What the Hell is this?” and then later it will make sense because they’ll realise this is a child’s handshake.
GC – And again, hands are important in The East – did Brit or Hillary Baack know sign language already or did they learn it just for that scene?
ZB – Hillary Baack is hearing impaired, but Brit learned sign language, as Brit is wont to do.
GC – You’re already planning something completely new with Brit. How’s that shaping up?
ZB – I don’t know.
GC – Any hints what it might be or when we might see it?