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They Are The East
Although THE EAST was only his second film as a director, Zal Batmanglij found himself leading a cast of esteemed actors including Oscar nominees Ellen Page and Patricia Clarkson, Emmy winner Julia Ormond and "True Blood" star Alexander Skarsgard. All of them signed on, according to Michael Costigan, for the opportunity to participate in a movie based on ideas they believed in.

"We gambled on the chance that other people would feel the way we did about this movie," he says. "Everybody knew from the get-go that we didn't have much money or many days to make it. You could see a deep level of commitment at the first table read. I think everybody was amazed, looking around the table, seeing and feeling the impact of all this incredible talent coming together, even in an anonymous hotel conference room in northern Louisiana."

The leading role of Sarah was conceived and written with Marling in mind. "Brit was always the anchor," says Batmanglij. "She's an amazing person to work with and she sets a tone that all the other actors pick up on."

Costigan believes the film's leading lady is star material. "When you see Brit onscreen, you see an actress with a rare mix of intelligence, a grounded realism, and a luminous screen presence," says Costigan. "From the first moment I saw her in SOUND OF MY VOICE, I thought she was very compelling, an actress and presence who kept you riveted to the screen."

At the beginning of the film, Sarah represents the status quo, according to Batmanglij. "She's career obsessed and that gives her life its meaning." A conventional young professional, Sarah makes herself over as a freegan traveler to infiltrate a group of anarchists who are 'jamming' against corporations they deem irresponsible. "And they've been tremendously successful," says Marling. "How did they pull this off? It is pretty sophisticated. Sarah goes in to answer that question."

Infiltrating The East is her maiden undercover assignment for her employer Hiller Brood and Sarah will do whatever it takes to prove her worth and impress her boss, Sharon. "Sarah is a bit like a thoroughbred racehorse," says Marling. "She's incredibly well-trained and ready to run the race of life. She's in the starting gate and when it lifts, she's off and running. But she has blinders on that keep her from realizing that she's running in a circle, until she encounters this group of people who force her to see the world and herself in a new way."

Sarah's point of view begins to change as she becomes more and more emotionally invested in her targets. "In the beginning, she's infiltrating a group of terrorists who are doingillegal things," according to Marling. "They need to be brought to justice. But when she spends time with them, Sarah, being a brave, intense person herself, begins to forget who she is and to identify with their desire for radical accountability. Living in deep cover, it's hard to hold on to who you really are, much less what you believe in."

Her growing relationship with Benji, the group's unofficial leader, begins to cloud her judgment. "Early on, she asks him if he thinks she's not tough enough for the truth," says Marling. "He says I think you're not soft enough for it. After a lifetime of being told she needs to be tough, suddenly someone says, if you want to get to the truth, you actually need empathy. Right there, she begins to fall in love with him, but she fights it, because it gets in the way of her work, which is gathering information that could eventually put him in prison for years."

The East is a collective of committed activists from all walks of life, each with their own personal reason for being there and each fulfilling a specific need in the group. "Of course, the actors always bring another layer to their characters," says Batmanglij. "For example, it's hard for me to think of Benji without Alexander Skarsgard. He arrived with the attitude that he was wide open for exploration. For actors to come in saying, we're ready to get our hands dirty, is a great thing for a director."

Skarsgard, best known to American audiences as Erick Northman, a centuries-old vampire on the HBO hit series "True Blood," is a respected actor in both his native Sweden and the United States, responded strongly to the script and the filmmakers. "It's a very well written script with rich, real characters," says Skarsgard. "I was especially intrigued by Benji, by his background and how he got to where he is. When I met with Zal and Brit, the only question I had was whether or not I wanted to spend three months in the woods with these people. I definitely did. They're really special, both of them, super intelligent and extremely warm."

Benji is a child of privilege who has grown into a man of inflexible principles. First among them is an eye for an eye. "He is more militant than some of the other members of The East," the actor says. "He is willing to go a little farther to achieve his goals. There is no leader in an anarchist collective, but Benji is the driving force behind some of these 'jams,' as they call their missions. To him, this is a revolution. The fact that he believes so firmly in something is alluring.

"The film has a point of view, but it's not preachy," Skarsgard continues. "There's a lot of action in it, which makes it fun to watch, and it raises interesting questions, as well. Who are these people? Is what they're doing right or wrong? The question is, morally, where do you draw the line?"

The chemistry between Marling and Skarsgard is palpable -- the characters must maintain their respective strategic advantages while keeping their volatile attraction under control. "Sarah is drawn to and repelled by this person," Marling says. "We had an amazing time working together, because he's so open. We challenged each other to try to find something that felt true."

While writing the script with Batmanglij, Marling says one thing she didn't take into account was that Sarah is in virtually every scene of the film. At the end of long days spent under grueling physical and emotional conditions, she had to slip back into writer and producer's mode. "There was not a single day that I wasn't shooting," she admits. "At night, Zal and I were discussing what scenes were coming up next and then rewriting until three in the morning. It was an intense time. We both gave a pound of flesh to the movie in a profound and amazing way."

Ellen Page plays a fervent true believer of the group named Izzy. An Academy Award nominee for her star-making turn in the 2007 comedy JUNO, Page says she was drawn to the ideas that inspired Marling and Batmanglij to write the script.

"This script was like nothing I'd read before," says Page. "I was so moved by Izzy. As people and as artists, Brit and Zal have so much trust, honesty and enthusiasm. They care so deeply and that creates a special energy on set. I was grateful to be there every day."

Izzy's passion for justice and her anger at the unfairness she sees all around are a driving force for The East. "She's trying to help people get justice and to help the Earth," Page says. "Every living thing gives us life, so how can we not want to respect that and protect it? The ethics of all of it become very muddled"

Marling was touched by Page's absolute commitment to her role. "Not to give too much away, but Ellen shot her most difficult scene on the first day," she says. "She did it with a bravery that was astounding. The whole cast was determined to do everything as bravely as Ellen did that day."

Page is eager to see how audiences react to the goals and tactics of the group. "Their actions pose a lot of ethical questions," she notes. "Ultimately, they care deeply and want to end the inequality that allows some people to live comfortably at the expense of others. I think that's a really difficult truth for people to deal with."

The group members, as diverse as they are, share a common bond: disillusionment with the lives they came from. Other than that, they represent many different worlds. "Some are trust- fund kids," explains Marling. "Eve is hearing impaired. Thumbs is an ex-soldier, Tess is a hacker, and Luca has been living on the streets. Doc is a former med-school student. But they all have a reason they have left the 'normal' world."

Some, like Doc, played by Toby Kebbell, keep one foot in their past, allowing them to easily insinuate the group into the circles of power they left behind. A promising doctor, who joined The East after a widely used antibiotic he prescribed for himself and his sister caused disastrous side effects, Doc went to an elite boarding school, then Harvard and Stanford, explains Batmanglij. "He is from a wealthy family, but chooses to live with the group. He still uses his real identity as a sort of Bruce Wayne cover that allows him to go out into the world."

Kebbell is a past nominee for the BAFTA Rising Star Award who starred in WRATH OF THE TITANS and ROCKNROLLA. "Toby Kebbell is a fantastic actor," says Batmanglij. "He came so prepared. He took it to a whole new level. Toby even spent time studying medicine and helped come up with realistic props for Doc to use."

Kebbell gives the director kudos for being willing to listen to the ideas he brought to the table. "In fact, he loved hearing about them," says the actor. "I did a lot of research, reading Gray's Anatomy and basic medical texts like St. John's Ambulance. There were moments where I needed to look like I had actual medical knowledge and my research really helped me out. I didn't have to pretend. It was just what I knew to be true."

Shiloh Fernandez, who plays Luca, the street kid who brings Sarah into the group, was initially attracted to what he saw as a unique new approach to filmmaking. "It's a modern thriller with a lot of heart," he says. "The East is giving these big companies a taste of their own medicine, so to speak, and promoting their jams on the Internet, so that more people are aware of the truth of what's going on. For the YouTube-Occupy generation, it's pretty relevant to see people rising up and deciding to fight for what they believe in this way."

The filmmakers' devotion to authenticity extended to hiring people who were living the lifestyle and Hernandez valued being able to spend time with them to help understand Luca. "They call themselves freegans because they don't pay for anything," he says. "They live in this tent community. Everybody pitches in to help the collective. The fact that they live this way helps bring a real truth to the movie. It is possible to live a fulfilling life without all kinds of things. I believe that what we usually look at as benefits can also hold us down."

As strongly attracted as Sarah becomes to her undercover life, she is just as connected to her life outside the collective, especially to her boss, Sharon, played by the accomplished Patricia Clarkson. "Sharon represents all of Sarah's aspirations," says producer Jocelyn Hayes-Simpson. "She's successful on her own terms. She's the boss, and she still has a family and a life outside work. She's powerful and smart and in charge. Who wouldn't want to play the woman every girl wants to be and be slightly evil too? Patricia had a lot of fun doing that."

It was very important that Sharon be seductive and appealing, rather than just another corporate drone. "The character needed to be as charismatic as Benji, because her role pulls Sarah in the opposite direction," Batmanglij says. "Patty is very convincing. She was seducing people left, right and center on the set!"

Clarkson was delighted to take on the role of Sharon, who she describes as "glamorous, intelligent and formidable." "She is CEO of Hiller Brood, a powerhouse with a lot of people answering to her. She helps corporations avert public disasters and she's very good at her job."

"I think Sharon sees a lot of herself in Sarah," Clarkson adds. "She puts a lot of faith in her. And Sarah delivers, but perhaps not in exactly the way Sharon expects. There are so many surprising elements in the film, but the heart of it is the transformation of this young girl, which is always a great story."

Sharon is also a role model and something of a mother figure for Sarah. "Her love and approval mean everything," says Marling, who created a backstory for her character that involved losing her mother at an early age. "It becomes really complicated when Sarah starts to fall in love with Benji and his way of seeing the world, because it's in direct conflict with what her 'mother' expects from her. They have a pretty intense confrontation. Patty was brilliant. She's an actor who is so in the moment that if your attention wanders, her presence will suck you back in."

Discovering great young writers like Marling and Batmanglij was an exciting experience for Clarkson. "They're both so enchanting and so talented," she says. "And it was lovely to act with someone as present as Brit. Their writing is fluid and potent and topical. It's almost a new genre of film, a hybrid, which is part of why it's so great. It's suspenseful, it's emotional, it's romantic, it's mysterious. I think audiences will be swept away by it."

Also playing a small but pivotal role in THE EAST is Julia Ormond. She plays Paige Williams, vice president of product development at McCabe/Gray, an international pharmaceuticals company that is the target of one of the group's culture jams. "Julia came to our set just for two days and she came so well prepared. She just picked up her shovel and started digging with the rest of us."

According to Ormond, the prolific British actress whose recent credits include THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON and a recurring role on "Mad Men, "the film has a real modern, anarchic energy. It's a particularly resonant tale for people who are disturbed by corporate irresponsibility. All the characters are interestingly distinct from one another. It pulls you in as you discover each person's story."

Ormond particularly responded to the character of Sarah, the kind of feisty, smart girl she says she sees too little of in films. "I'm very impressed that Brit is writing," says Ormond. "She has said she started because she didn't like the roles she was being offered an actress, so she creates the kinds of characters she wants to play. She and Zal have written female characters that are fuller, more diverse and more real than what you usually see. They're tougher, but that doesn't mean they're not sexy or vulnerable or passionate."

For Batmanglij, the actors' performances are wonderfully satisfying elements of THE EAST. "The actors were so excited to come to work every day that Shreveport was like summer camp," he says. "The line between work and play blurred, but everyone took this project deeply seriously. On the weekends we would all sit around and practice the more complicated group scenes."

"Anarchist groups are about lack of hierarchy and a film set has a lot of hierarchy, but we were able to fuse those things," he continues. "Everyone did their jobs, but there was a sense that we had become a tribe."

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