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» View London - Zal Batmanglij Interview

published on June 29, 2013 - 00:48:31 GMT

Zal BatmanglijZal Batmanglij, director of eco-activist thriller The East tells View about working with great actors and writers like Brit Marling, how vital it is to get freshness and spontaneity in scenes, and how magical it can be working with passionate and gifted performers when tackling tense and emotive subject matter in a film.

Where did the project come from, first of all?

Zal Batmanglij: I think that Brit [Marling] and I were fascinated by this feeling of being conned that I think our generation feels. Nothing really was going the way that it had been promised, or had been talked about. I think the economy had fallen apart in the United States, and in other places. We were fascinated by how different people of the generation were eking out a meaningful life, both off the grid and in the corporate space. And how those two things can intersect.

Were there any specific cases that were influential?

Zal Batmanglij: We read about these kids that died of cancer from their bathwater. We read about this pharmaceutical drug which is in the fluoroquinolone family, which in some people causes them to end up in wheelchairs, and it just seems strange. I think nothing epitomised the con more than that. That you could take a routine antibiotic and end up in a wheelchair for years, seemed like a gross injustice. You understand that a certain amount of collateral damage is to be expected in return to save people’s lives. But the drug wasn’t just used to save people’s lives, it was used all the time, because that’s how it would make the most money. It was marketed to seem routine, when it should have been labelled as ‘Use only in extreme cases’. I think that that is the world that we live in, which is driven by profit. At the same time we started thinking about this stuff, it’s the economy, being driven by this huge profit surge in America, but for very short term gains. The long term effects were disastrous, people lost their jobs.

Did you look at any particular movies for influences as well?

Zal Batmanglij: The paranoid thrillers of the seventies really appealed to us, especially Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy of Klute, All The President’s Men, and The Parallax View.

How did you come to cast Alexander Skarsgard and Ellen Page?

Zal Batmanglij: The script was a great litmus test. I think people either closed it and were like, ‘Yeah, that’s not for me’, or they closed it and were like, ‘I have to be in this movie’. And so all the people who were like, ‘We have to be in this movie’, we wanted to meet them. Alex, and Ellen, and Patricia Clarkson, and Julia Ormond were people who really stood out to us. And Toby Kebbell, who’s a stand out.

He’s one of our national treasures, but he’s kind of unsung. I’m not sure people know his name, but they’re starting to know his face.

Zal Batmanglij: That won’t last for much longer. I think he’s like Daniel Day-Lewis. He really leads his characters.

Did Brit create the project knowing she was going to be the lead?

Zal Batmanglij: We just know what character she’s going to play. She was always Sarah, just like she was always Maggie [in Sound of My Voice]. That’s the fun of it.

So your collaborations are going to continue, then?

Zal Batmanglij: I think so.

How much of a rehearsal period did you get beforehand?

Zal Batmanglij: I don’t do any rehearsal.

So in terms of working on the characters with the actors, you just leave it all up to them?

Zal Batmanglij: Yeah. They know what they’re doing. If you collaborate with really good people, they know what they’re doing. I think you should either do Glee-type rehearsal, like serious rehearsal, or none at all. Because there’s a real advantage to that first take, it’s worth its weight in gold. Later in the editing room, you always see it, there’s something. It might be junk, but there’s a look, there’s something, that’s beginner’s luck. If nobody, including the actor, has ever seen it put up on its feet, then it’s really exciting and dizzying for both me and them, to see it come alive for the first time.

So you don’t even do a script reading?

Zal Batmanglij: Yeah, we do a reading. But it’s one thing to read Izzy being surgeried upon, it’s another to see it come to life, with all the characters.

By the same token, do you insist that the actors stick to the script?

Zal Batmanglij: No. Did you ever see the Woody Allen documentary? The four hour one. I actually watched it when we were shooting The East. And I love what he said, because I’ve always done it too, which is, just make it sound real. If you can make it better, great. When people ask us if we feel like it’s preachy, or polemic, I don’t feel like that at all because I always feel like we’re slaves to the story. If the actors can bring something unexpected to the story which they often do, both in terms of their performance but also in terms of language, in terms of what they do and do not say, and do and do not do, then great. Then the story’s happy and we’re happy. I feel no ego in any of this stuff.

Do you have a favourite scene in the film?

Zal Batmanglij: Yes. What’s your favourite scene?

I like the surgery scene, I thought that was great. That’s probably mine.

Zal Batmanglij: The spin the bottle scene’s mine.

When you’re filming the spin the bottle scene, obviously you have to get the bottle to stop at the right place, do you just keep going?

Zal Batmanglij: They played it all night, it was all improv. Toby kissed Brit three times that night I think! He was totally happy.

What was the hardest thing to get right?

Zal Batmanglij: That’s a great question. I thought we really nailed it with the East House, and it was hard. I always wanted Hiller Brood to be just as appealing as the East House, just as deep and thorough. It’s hard to get that where we were shooting.

Did you cut anything out that you were sorry to lose?

Zal Batmanglij: The deer scene used to be much more graphic. More shots of the entrails of the deer.

But that’s it? There were no subplots or anything?

Zal Batmanglij: There were lots of subplots but I’m not sad to let them go, because I think a streamlined movie is better.

You don’t feel pressure to put the deleted scenes on the DVD, if you cut them out for that reason?

Zal Batmanglij: I’m putting them on, because I love deleted scenes. I’m doing that right now, actually.

What are the DVD plans?

Zal Batmanglij: Tons of deleted scenes. There’s a deleted ending.

Can you tell me about the deleted ending?

Zal Batmanglij: No, you have to wait!

What about commentary?

Zal Batmanglij: No, we haven’t done it. I don’t think I’m at that level of directing. I bought the Dragon Tattoo blu-ray because I wanted to hear Fincher’s commentary, and it’s good. But I don’t have anything that interesting to say. I’m just trying to get through the shoots. We’re still at such a low budget level. Like the surgery scene, normally would have taken two days, and in a big budget movie would have taken a week, and we did it in three hours.

What’s your next project?

Zal Batmanglij: I don’t know.

Nothing at all?

Zal Batmanglij: No, I’m not making any more movies ever [laughs].

What’s Brit’s next project?

Zal Batmanglij: Brit is shooting right now, in Romania. She’s shooting a Civil War movie in which she protects her house and her sister from union soldiers who are trying to rape and pillage them. She’s a Civil War action hero.

That sounds amazing, actually.

Zal Batmanglij: It does, doesn’t it?

In terms of your collaboration, what are the differences between Brit the writer, and Brit the actress?

Zal Batmanglij: Very different. Brit the writer is tough, and my teammate. Brit the actress is vulnerable, and one of the actors on set. It’s a different relationship.

When she’s on set, given that she is the writer, is she protective over the script in any way?

Zal Batmanglij: No. We’re just not like that. We just don’t think our stuff’s that great that we’re so protective over it, you know. I’ve seen people who are like that, and I admire it. Tarantino I’m sure is like that, and I admire it. I think that great belief in yourself, that what you’ve done is sacrosanct, or important on some major level is great, I just don’t have that.

It’s interesting to contrast which directors do and which don’t...

Zal Batmanglij: I like going to work every day, and it’s so much more fun to go to work every day when you feel like anybody can strike gold at any time. There’s a sense that keeps us all on our toes.

You were talking about the first takes earlier, have you seen Tom DiCillo’s film Living in Oblivion, with Steve Buscemi? There’s a great bit where they do the rehearsal and it’s amazing, and then they shoot it and can’t get it.

Zal Batmanglij: That happens even on a movie like The East, where there are no rehearsals. Because we do camera rehearsals, and Brit’s just nailing it, and then it comes to shooting, and she’s, ‘What, we lost it!’. A thousand deaths a day. Every day there are a thousand deaths through the day, but also every day you have some sort of inimitable magic, that makes a movie a movie. And makes it so much fun to work with Brit, or Alexander, or Ellen Page or Patty Clarkson. It’s them who bring that magic.

Source: www.viewlondon.co.uk

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