About the Production
In 2009 aspiring filmmakers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, who met as students at
Georgetown University, had settled in Los Angeles, when they decided to set off on a singular
adventure. The pair, who would go on to create the Sundance Film Festival sensation SOUND
OF MY VOICE, wanted to build their next project around alternative lifestyles.
"We had read about 'Buy Nothing Day' and tried it -- there was something liberating
about not buying anything for a day. So we thought we might try a buy nothing summer. We'd
heard about the freegan movement -- people desiring to live simpler, more community based
lives. We wanted to know what that was like first hand," says Marling.
They took this idea as a call to action and Batmanglij and Marling hit the road with
backpacks and bedrolls to spend a summer living off the grid. Like Sarah, the protagonist of their
new film, THE EAST, they hopped trains, crashed in tent cities and abandoned buildings with
groups of other young nomads, and became acquainted with a growing subculture that had
"We discovered anarchist and freegan collectives all over the country and lived with
some of them for a while," Marling says. "We got to know people who had interesting ideas
about how you might live your life -- learn to grow your own food, to fix your own car, to defend
yourself, to live in small communities, share things with each other, teach each other how to
become radically autonomous beings again. We weren't thinking at the time that a movie would
come out of the experience. We were just living our lives and the story gradually began to take
For several months they lived and travelled with strangers who shared their own
disaffection with contemporary consumer culture. "The people we met were really awesome,
warm and welcoming, but tough," says Batmanglij. "We got three vegan meals a day by dumpster
diving. At first I did think, am I really going to eat like this? But I got into it as time went on."
"Going weeks without spending a dollar is an amazing feeling," the director says.
"Everyone should try it. We didn't see movies. We weren't listening to recorded music.
Everything was happening organically from the group. The spin-the-bottle game in the film came
from an experience we had. Thursday nights that was what we did as a way of entertaining
There were aspects of the transient life that took some getting used to, admits Marling. "I
was a bit repelled at first about things like getting into a dumpster to look for food. But like
Sarah, we learned there are packages of bread that have been thrown away because they're past their sell-by date, but nothing is wrong with them. Much of our culture's 'waste' is actually
bounty. We slept 20 people to a room in sleeping bags on the floor. There were no showers, but
after a while you learn your hair begins to clean itself."
"We had amazing experiences," she continues. "One night, we all got on bikes and went
downtown to play a citywide game of capture the flag -- jumping over parked cars, running
through restaurants, scaling parking garages. Then everybody stripped naked and got into a
fountain in the pouring rain. It was a different way of seeing the world -- everything is public
space waiting to be reclaimed, reimagined."
She remembers waking up on a city rooftop early one morning surrounded by other
travelers in their sleeping bags. "Across the way in a sky scraper was a guy in a suit at his desk on
a conference call. I was rolling up my sleeping bag on the rooftop adjacent and I caught his eye.
We just stared at each other. There was only 6 feet between the buildings, but the gap between
the way we were living our lives was so wide. Sarah, our main character, is living in both worlds
and trying to straddle the gap."
At the end of the summer, Marling and Batmanglij returned to their lives in Los Angeles,
gradually decompressing from weeks lived on the road. "That was one of the best summers of my
life," says Batmanglij. "When we got back, it was as if we had come out of the dream we'd been
living. But we found that what had been normal life for us before now seemed bizarre. To have
your life turned upside down like that is transformative."
Marling and Batmanglij began to fashion their experiences into the screenplay that would
become THE EAST, the story of Sarah Moss, a corporate spy who infiltrates an anarchist group
in order to destroy it, but finds herself questioning the forces that put her there in the first place.
And as they wrote, they noticed the real world was beginning to reflect the ideas they were
weaving into their story.
"When we finished the first draft, a lot of things were happening in the country," says
Batmanglij. "When the Gulf oil spill happened, we had already incorporated an oil spill into our
story. Then the economy tanked and the country went into a recession. The ill will toward
corporations and the financial industry was growing. The Arab Spring phenomenon began.
People started to say the script was so timely. Then, as we started pre-production, the Occupy
Batmanglij and Marling had put their fingers on a growing wave of cultural discontent.
"THE EAST came into being through our personal frustration with rampant consumerism and all
the contradictions of living in modern civilization," says Batmanglij. "But there were a lot of
other people out there who followed the rules, went to college, studied econ, thought they wouldget jobs in finance. Everything that they believed was so solid had evaporated. We, like a lot of
young people, thought, this is what modern life adds up to? THE EAST asks what the
In early 2011 Marling and Batmanglij hit the independent film jackpot when their first
feature, SOUND OF MY VOICE, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, creating an immediate
sensation. The film and its makers captured the imagination of Hollywood insiders, including
Michael Costigan of Scott Free Productions. Costigan, whose resume ranges from big budget
mega-adventures like PROMETHEUS to acclaimed art house fare, including CYRUS, STOKER
and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, was impressed with the up-and-coming auteurs and went out
of his way to meet them.
"Zal has such confidence as a director," Costigan says "From the first frame of SOUND
OF MY VOICE, the way he told the story, his great eye for casting, the way it was edited and lit,
I knew I was watching something extraordinary and very original. I asked him what he and Brit
were working on next. They gave me the script for THE EAST and I read it that night."
Marling and Batmanglij had transformed their summer adventure into a riveting
espionage thriller, with the kind of gritty detail and authenticity that only first-hand experience
could supply, yet infused with the same lyrical vision that informed their first film.
"It was so original, a spy movie that was both about important ideas and also was very
entertaining," says the producer. "I loved the authenticity that was rooted inside of it; it was clear
they had done deep research. All of this made it feel very contemporary and daring. What would
a spy be investigating today? What does it mean to be an anarchist right now? We decided not to
sit around and talk about it forever in development-it was a movie that had to be made right
Batmanglij admits he had some doubt about making this film in Hollywood. "I had
paranoid, activist thoughts about it being bought and shelved," he says. "But Michael Costigan
was a huge champion for us. He loves movies so deeply. When he read THE EAST, he got it in
ways that we didn't even get it. He helped us articulate what we were trying to say."
Costigan invited fellow producer Jocelyn Hayes-Simpson, whose impressive indie credits
include INFAMOUS and I'M NOT THERE, to join the production team and she enthusiastically
came aboard. "The script has everything I am interested in," she says. "It wasn't preaching any
particular point of view at me. The politics behind the material is explored in an even-handed
"I also loved seeing a female protagonist who is a spy," she adds. "And Zal is a magnetic
personality. His vision for the film was so compelling. I couldn't not be a part of it."
Batmanglij describes the form of THE EAST as a braid, with a trio of distinct threads.
"We've woven together three different genres," he explains. "It's an espionage thriller with parts
of a love story. Then there's the coming-of-age story, as Sarah awakens to the possibilities of life
and trying to decide what is right and what is wrong. We're constantly negotiating all these
different threads, braiding them together, so at the end it comes to a tight knot."
The blending of genres creates a powerful contrast that intensifies the impact of the film,
according to Marling. "We've chosen to tell a love story within an espionage story. The movie is
entertaining to watch, compelling and full of twists and turns, but it's also set against a backdrop
that is provocative and resonant for the time we're living in. It certainly asks a lot of very good
Batmanglij says he expects that in the future more people will be using tactics similar to
those of the activists in THE EAST to get their message out. "When the Pentagon papers came to
light, it took the New York Times months to release them. All WikiLeaks has to do is put a video
on YouTube and it goes viral, reaching millions. The modern whistle blower just videotapes
something and puts it online."
The filmmakers say that The East isn't an "issues" movie or a "political" movie. "It is
first and foremost an espionage thriller and journey story that pushes its characters into difficult
dramatic territory" says Batmanglij. "Yes," agrees Marling, "how far would you go to avenge
your sister's death at the hands of a corporation? If your Father was responsible for harming
people he had never met, would you be able to hold him accountable? If you are obsessed with
the letter of the law, how far could you go to protect the man you love if his lifeblood is
"I think Zal and Brit have found a way to tell really important stories through genre films,
and when you combine those two things, it's very powerful," says Costigan.
And that is what Sarah struggles with. "What does she believe in?" asks Batmanglij.
"What is she willing to do about that? Are the anarchists doing evil things or are they modern day
Robin Hoods? Is she helping terrorists commit crimes or bringing down freedom fighters seeking
Next Production Note Section
Home | Theaters | Video | TV
Your Comments and Suggestions are Always Welcome.
© 2015 23®, All Rights Reserved.