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» Female First Interview: Zal Batmanglij

by Helen Earnshaw, published on June 27, 2013

Zal Batmanglij / The East

Zal Batmanglij is back in the director’s chair this week with his second feature film The East - a movie that sees him reunite with Brit Marling to pen the screenplay.

We caught up with the director to chat about the movie, the response that he has received so far and what lies ahead.

- The East is being released here in the UK this week so can you tell me a little bit about the movie?

The East is about a young woman who works for a private intelligence firm and she is conservative and religious and she remakes herself as the exact opposite in a bid to infiltrate a group of anarchists who are committing direct actions against corporations.

- You have penned the screenplay as well as being in the director's chair so where did the idea for the film start?

I co-wrote it with the leading lady Brit Marling and for us it started with the idea that we were seeing a lot of generational frustrations. I think our generation felt frustrated in a way that was that was unique and palpable and we wanted to capture that.

We thought the idea of a person from the corporate space and people from living off the grid that naturally comprised two extremes of the generation.

- And I was reading that the film was loosely inspired that a ‘buy nothing’ summer that the pair of you spent travelling around so how much did that experience influence this story?

It gave us a real insight into people who were living off the grid. Because we experienced ourselves living off of the grid we were taken by the freedom of that experience and wanted to explore that in this story to.

- You also penned the screenplay with Brit Marling, who you have worked with before, so how do you find the whole co-writing process?

I find that it is the only way to do it because otherwise it would be so lonely (laughs). It think if I was interested in writing on my own I would be a novelist, - then you could write about yourself and that would be it you wouldn’t need anyone else.

In film it is always collaborative and so to me it doesn’t make sense to not be collaborative in one of its most critical arenas - which is the screenplay.

- Seeing that you did write the script together was Brit Marling always going to be your leading lady or was it something that developed throughout the writing process?

I think that we think about ‘oh what is an interesting character to play and what is an interesting story to tell’ and the two go hand in hand.

So I think that Brit was always Sarah, just like she was always Maggie in Sound Of My Voice.

- Brit, Alexander Skarsgaard, Ellen Page and Patricia Clarkson are all on the cast list so can you tell me a little bit about the casting process and what you were looking for?

We also have two Brits in there as well as Julia Ormond and Toby Kebbell are in there as well - both of them are amazing.

The beauty of the script was it was like a litmus test and we were looking for people who responded to the material unequivocally and were excited to be part of the process and wanted to make a film in a collective way; in a way that the movie discusses.

Alexander, Ellen, Patricia, Julia, Toby and all the other fine actors were like that.

I think that people who read the script either closed it and said ‘this is not for me’ or they closed it and were like ‘I have to be in this’. We were interested in the people who felt that they had to be in there.

It is like looking for love; some people chase people who are least interested in them but we weren’t interested in that.

- The movie played at Sundance earlier this year and it seems to be doing really well so far so how have you found the response to the film?

So far it is going really nicely. We took the film to ten American cities and the audiences were engaged in every city because they wanted to talk about the ideas in the film.

I was most struck in Philadelphia where there were a lot of young teenagers in the crowd with their parents and the lively discussion that ensued afterwards was heart-warming.

We have had really nice conversations with people. There is a lot of room to have a lot of different interpretations with this movie and so we are not asking someone to adopt a certain with of thinking we are asking people to be more thoughtful on all of these subjects.

- Parts of this film are shot in quite confined spaces so how much of a challenge was that? You also shot with an Alexa camera so what benefits did that bring?

I didn’t find the production design challenging because I had such an amazing production designer in Alex DiGerlando and an excellent DOP that everything felt very organic.

I hadn’t shot with the Alexa camera before. The reason that we chose the Alexa above all of the other options was that it could so well in low light.

We shot a lot of stuff at night with just torches - the scene was lit with torches or candles - and it was beautiful.

- We have already talked about some of the issues that this movie tackles so how did the studios respond to it when you pitched the idea to them?

We didn’t pitch it to them as they came to us. I guess that they had really connected the script; the people at Fox Searchlight are very interesting and progressive group of people.

- So how exciting was it for you to have the studio come knocking on your door?

It didn’t feel that exciting because I thought ‘I want to make this movie on my own’, so I was trying to assess these collaborators and what is was going to be like to collaborate with them; it was great.

They become your partners. We had just made a movie called Sound Of Your Voice where we had had no partners apart from one silent investor. So it is a very different kind of filmmaking.

- I was reading that you wrote both Sound Of My Voice and The East pretty much back to back and both movies do tackle very similar themes. So how were you able to separate the themes and ideas for both stories?

To us they didn’t feel that similar; now of course I see that there are striking similarities between them.

But to us they are stories and they are both stories of infiltration, stories of coming of age and deciding what you believe in. But they are very different stories to me.

- This is only your second movie so how have you found you movie experience so far? And what drew you into this industry?

I am trying to just digest it all. I have whiplash and I can’t really make sense of anything just yet (laughs).

I guess it the one consistent thing in my life was that sense of magic that film provide - I still remember the movies from my childhood that I loved.

I loved Terminator 2 as a teenager and Sound of Music when I was a kid. I also loved Requiem For A Dream as a college student and Mulholland Drive. And I have loved Lincoln as an adult. They are all the same as they are all good stories and extraordinary actors.

- Finally what is next for you?

I don’t know, something good. I am working on something at the moment but I don’t know if that is going to be next.

The East is released 28th June.

Source: www.femalefirst.co.uk

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