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» Cinetalk Interview: Zal Batmanglij

by Katherine McLaughlin, published on June 26, 2013

Zal Batmanglij on the set of The East

I was first introduced to the work of Zal Batmanglij when I saw his debut feature film Sound of My Voice at Sci-Fi London. It went straight into my top ten films of 2012 so when I was offered the opportunity to interview him about his latest film The East I jumped at the chance. We sat down in a London hotel over tea and coffee to discuss his career.

Kat: I feel like filmmakers and screenwriters like yourself and Brit Marling have had a really positive impact on the industry. Well drawn characters, smart dialogue and relevant subject matter is so important and so rarely done right. Can you talk about your writing process and where you draw inspiration from?

Zal: Brit and I, as children, not knowing each other both had what’s called a gem maker. It’s a machine where you put in the rocks and it tumbles them for weeks and weeks and it turns them into gems. I could never make a gem, it’s really loud and I never had the patience. But Brit made gems, she had the patience. I feel often our relationship is like the gem maker. We put in the rocks, we select them together and we turn them between each other. We put ideas in, we like to talk a lot and we don’t write that much. If we were so into writing we’d be novelists. We like telling each other the story.

Where have you drawn your inspirations for The East in particular? I’m assuming news stories. And it’s especially timely with the Edward Snowden story breaking as we speak.

We had no idea it would be so timely. We were very influenced by the frustration on all sides. Whether it was people who were so frustrated that they lived off the grid, or were feeling frustrated as they had taken finance or banking jobs looking for a promise of stability, and then in 2008 their jobs had fallen apart. It was unbelievable. In 2002, when I graduated college it was unimaginable that someone going the banking route would have less stability than a filmmaker.

Why is it called The East?

I was very taken by Frank Baum, when he was writing Oz, he made the wicked witch of the east. Baum felt Washington was screwing over Kansas and I was very taken by that. But I was also very taken by the idea that the east coast of the US is a centre of power and privilege and turning away from that centre of power and looking at the other east, the far east and the middle east. It was about privileged kids from New England turning against the west and its ideas.

Return to Oz terrified me as a kid…

Oh my God! That film really stayed with me. The scene at the end where she has to choose the objects. I wonder if JK Rowling was influenced by that?

She may well have been… good thinking! Speaking of writing you seem to have a clear objective in your films but you also entertain and have a moral stance. I did a bit of twitter stalking and you posted Brit Marling giving a speech in Georgetown in which she talks about “artists of morality”. Is that something you’re aiming to achieve with your filmmaking and in The East?

Yeah, I think The East is a story where Sarah (Brit’s character) is trying to carve right from wrong and today that’s a very tricky business. It’s hard on a daily basis.

And she learns as she goes along. There’s a certain naivety to her even though she’s very intelligent.

But to our own lives too. It’s funny how many people I encounter and they’re really mixed about Snowden. They don’t know how to feel about him or what he’s done.

How do you feel about him?

Well… I feel that activists are incredibly brave. Snowden may never go back to the country he’s from.

They are. I think your film asks whether you should take that responsibility and what the price will be.

I don’t think The East says everyone should become an activist. It’s saying appreciate activism and its place in the world. I don’t want to be an activist. I’m not brave enough, but I certainly want to support activism. You put your friends and family at risk when you do stuff like that. You have to have a certain personality to do that kind of thing.

Like someone like Veronica Guerin, who had a family and met such a horrible end for fighting for what she believed in. I certainly couldn’t do that.

Or Karen Silkwood – I love Silkwood – I suppose the ending of that is very different to Veronica Guerin. Who directed Veronica Guerin?

I think it was Joel Schumacher… and yes Silkwood is great too. I love Meryl Streep. So in your personal life is there any time you’ve felt the need to stand up and call something out for being wrong?

When I was a kid I remember clearly the times I didn’t stand up for a friend being bullied. You’re just grateful it’s not you. Then there are other times when I did. In grad school a teacher was bullying another filmmaker and I said enough! He was really mad and it caused a lot of trouble for me but it was worth it.

In adult life bullying goes on just like before…

Yeah I mean did you see Glenn Greenwald on Meet the Press? He was bullied by David Gregory asking “do you think you should be prosecuted for what you’ve done?” I think that’s a bullying question. It’s very intimidating.

I wish we could chat politics all day but let’s get back to your film otherwise I’ll get into trouble. As far as The East goes what films influenced you? It has a very seventies feel to it.

The paranoid trilogy by Pakula heavily influenced me, so that’s Klute, All the President’s Men and The Parallax View. But also other Pakula movies like the The Pelican Brief and even more recent films like Michael Clayton and the Bourne movies I thought were stunning. Making the CIA bad guys was very fresh at that time. I love those movies.

Matt Damon said he was embarrassed about the Bourne Ultimatum didn’t he?

I wouldn’t say it’s an embarrassing movie. I think it’s hard because you have the pressures of the studio who want to copy it over and over again to guarantee the box office and that same thrill. I’m sure the artists involved want to keep pushing themselves. I think that’s life isn’t it? Trying to achieve that balance?

Yes, it’s difficult to achieve that balance sometimes. Moving into your film world… you work with a very exciting bunch. Can you tell me about the people in your film family?

Brit of course is my beloved partner. I would like to continue making movies with a lot of the actors. Toby Kebbell…

When I saw Kebbell appear I thought yes! He’s one of the most talented actors to come out of England…

He’s so talented and great in The East too! I’d like to make a big movie with Alexander Skarsgard – I’d love to make a big spy thriller with him. I’d love to make something else with Julia Ormond and Patricia Clarkson…

I love her too!

In The East Patricia and I didn’t even get to really know each other. I think we worked together for four days and now we’re just starting to become friends. And then another major part of my film making family is my production designer Alex DiGerlando – who is one of the best production designers of my generation. He designed Beasts of the Southern Wild – the most original looking movie I’ve seen in a long time. I would like to make every single movie I make with him. If I could work with Andy Weisblum every day of my life I’d be in heaven – he’s the editor – he’s my friend and very talented. Roman [Vasyanov] and I will definitely make films together again. I also don’t want to close up the film family either. I’m interested in collaborating with others.

There’s this fresh new bunch of indie filmmakers coming along, which ones are piquing your interest?

Did you see the trailer for the new Swanberg film? Drinking Buddies?

I didn’t… I don’t generally watch trailers before viewing a film, but I’m excited for it. I love his films.

Oh ok, that’s smart considering what you do for a living, makes sense… but maybe you should see that one it looks really good!

Ok I will! Which new voices in the last five years do you think are getting it right?

A guy named James Ponsoldt - he made Smashed - which I think is an extraordinary movie. He’s made a movie called The Spectacular Now which looks amazing. We were mentors together at film independent – which puts on the Indie Spirit Awards - they had a film lab and we were mentors to a bunch of new directors. We team taught one day and I was taking notes when he was teaching as he’s so smart and sensitive. He’s making a film called Rodham – about Hilary Clinton and Bill Clinton in their early twenties. I really believe in him. He’s very sensitive but it’s not wishy washy. It’s elegant and full of integrity. Of course the Borderline guys are our friends, Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin. Afterschool I consider a different generation – it was such an inspiration to me – it was the real first film of our group of filmmakers. Speaking of all the great filmmakers leads me to all the great actors…

Which leads me to ask about the casting of Toby Kebbell…

Of course I was blown away by his work. When you see Control and Clash of the Titans you can’t believe it’s the same guy. He talked with such seriousness about his role. I mean I feel we play for a living, we don’t really go to work, but he talked with such integrity about The East. The antibiotic in The East is based on a real drug so he did some research about certain people being poisoned by it and how their lives are changed forever. I got goosebumps talking to him about it – he gets it in a way I don’t even understand. I never talk to the actors about their characters before we shoot. I want to be surprised. I trust them. He didn’t play a victim – he just played a person. I was sure I made the right choice but also… the places he will go!

The East is released in the UK on 28th June 2013

Source: cinetalk.co.uk

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