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The Brothers East
THE EAST was shot on location in Shreveport, Louisiana, over six weeks. With the bulk of the action taking place in the collective's home base, the filmmakers were on the hunt for a dilapidated mansion that could be customized for the shoot by production designer Alex DiGerlando and director of photography Roman Vasyanov.

Batmanglij says, he, Vasyanov and DiGerlando were so close, the production team began to call them "the Brothers East." "We were inseparable. What we wanted to undertake was very ambitious, especially with the short prep we had. This is a movie that could have had a much bigger budget because it has a lot of action elements, but we wanted to make it in a very authentic way, with as small budget as possible. Alex and Roman were key to that."

DiGerlando, who also created the bleak landscape that dominates the apocalyptic fable BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, used organic elements to highlight the contrast between the collective's simple, natural world and the clinical, corporate environment of Hiller Brood. The designer was able to accomplish a great deal despite the production's tiny budget, says Jocelyn Hayes-Simpson. "Alex is a bit of a genius. It all came from his imagination and hard work. He had a vision for how we could pull off these sets and a great team surrounding him. It helped that he and Zal were on the same page from the day they met."

DiGerlando pulled images from his own copious design files, "The world of the anarchists is a designer's dream," he notes. "There's so much texture and mystery and beauty woven into the place where these people live. We wanted to make the movie as authentic as possible, so we talked to people who hop trains and dumpster dive and live in squats. We used a lot of their ideas to tweak and refine what we did."

Contrasting with the resourceful practicality of the anarchists' freegan lifestyle, the filmmakers tried to infuse the setting with a fairy-tale ambiance to reinforce themes they saw in the story. "It reminded Alex a lot of Beauty and the Beast," says Batmanglij. "Beauty comes to a crumbling mansion and falls in love with a beast: Benji."

In fact, the designer explored a number of fairy-tale motifs as he developed the look of the film. "Benji is the master of this mansion. He's brokenhearted and he's sequestered himself away, but Sarah breaks through into his space," says DiGerlando. There's a 'Through the Looking Glass' element about going from the hyper-sophisticated Virginia world of condominiums and office parks into a magical forest fortress. I saw elements of 'Peter Pan and the Lost Boys' in the collective. And there's Sarah, who doesn't have parents in this story. Every fairy-tale heroine is an orphan. It's an interesting filter through which to look at the movie."

After an extensive location search, the designer selected the Ogilvy Weiner Mansion in Shreveport as the East's ramshackle headquarters. Built in 1896 by a prosperous grocer named Ogilvy, it was the family's opulent home for several decades. In the 1950s, it was converted into an upscale nightclub called the Florentine, attracting a high-profile clientele that included John Wayne, Elvis Presley, Ethel Merman and Bette Davis. By the '80s, it had fallen into disrepair and become an alternative lifestyle nightclub -- and then a place for squatters. Most recently it was acquired by a couple who intend to a turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. The filmmakers were fortunate enough to find it before they began renovations. "I couldn't go into a historical landmark and rip out the walls to show the lathing. With this house, that was already done. We were able to paint whatever we wanted, knock down walls, add walls, cut holes in the floor for trap doors," says DiGerlando.

The mansion had no working electricity, so Batmanglij, Vasyanov and DiGerlando wandered the halls with flashlights, brainstorming ways to make it an otherworldly hideout. "We spent forever deciding what color the walls were going to be," Batmanglij says. "There was a tree that had fallen into the kitchen and we liked that idea, but we decided it wasn't the right tree. The next day we came in and Alex had replaced it with the perfect tree. It was that level of obsession with detail."

"Without electricity, we had to use a lot of candles and lanterns all over," says DiGerlando. "Roman really helped make this not feel like a haunted house from a horror movie. He chose candles and lanterns with different color temperatures. Some were kerosene and some fluorescent that gave off a very green light that is more modern and plastic. And some lanterns have a more antique look that goes into gray. Everything in this movie seems to straddle the time periods."

The finished space transported the actors to a world perched precariously between nature and civilization. "Alex's team made every room into a work of art," says Marling. "We loved the idea of an anarchist collective living in a house built by a steel or a lumber fortune and letting it decay around them. The wallpaper is faded and peeling. Trees grow in open windows and vines come through broken parts of the roof. The forest is reclaiming it. The space transports you."

Whenever possible, the director and cinematographer chose to use natural light. "Roman could light a whole scene with a candle and it would look amazing," says Hayes-Simpson. "He grew up using digital technology, so rather than learning on film and having to adapt, he really knows how to use the medium to the best effect. There wasn't anything we threw at Roman that he couldn't do and make everything look beautiful. There was a giant thunderstorm one night and we lost all power. Roman ended up shooting with a generator and lanterns."

Eventually, though, the conditions took a toll on the cast and crew. "The characters are squatting in an abandoned mansion," says Marling. "It's a very intense lifestyle and we all lived that during the making of the film. There was no heat or air conditioning. If it was cold out, it was cold in the house. We sometimes slept 30 people to a room, huddled together for warmth."

But the hardships created an intense bond between everyone working on the set. "On the second day of shooting, we had to do the group bathing scene," Marling remembers. "It's like 'Hi, nice to meet you all, so I guess we are all going to get naked and wash each other now?!' That's a hardcore icebreaker. And not unlike our experiences on the road, everyone starts out nervous, but the insecurities disappear, and a strange powerful intimacy forms. Not out of seeing each other naked, because that wears off after take 3, but out of creating a space free of judgment where one can be imperfect and loved. Basically the exact opposite of what the billboards lining Sunset Ave make you feel."

The director tried to create an atmosphere off set that would feed into the group's onscreen camaraderie as well. "Some nights, Alex and I would cook dinner for the actors who were rehearsing and then we'd all eat together," he says. "It was just a really nice feeling. Hopefully that comes off in the finished film -- that sense of electricity that I felt when we were shooting."

On the last day of shooting in the East house, the company filmed a dance party scene with a group of musicians from New Orleans. "We were all dancing," says Marling. "It was total unbridled fun. At one point, Ellen was on the piano and she stage-dived off into everybody's open arms. It was a nice way to end shooting there before we were thrust into Hiller Brood's marble lobbies and business suits."

While Marling and Batmanglij worked closely during the creation of the script, on set the dynamic changed. "I'm in awe of what he does as a director," she says. "A director has to be an expert at everything: production design, sound, music, performance, and he has to hold everything in his mind at once. This shoot was sprawling and Zal remained the calm center of the storm, righting the ship when things seemed to be falling apart. It is a gift to get to work with a director I trust so deeply."

Their bond made it possible to make a complicated, sometimes epically scaled movie in a limited time frame with a small budget. "They know each other inside and out," says Hayes-Simpson. "They have a very specific point of view of the world and the kinds of stories they want to tell. Because they've had about two cents to make their movies in the past, they have become the most innovative creative team I've ever met. They didn't come up through the studio system, so they just had to find ways to get their movies made. They are in the vanguard of a whole new generation of filmmakers that are really inventive with their resources."

Costigan agrees, saying he has rarely seen this kind of scope in an independent film. "We were able to subvert all kinds of expectations," he says. "The hardest things to pull off, like the jams and the train sequences, became the most exciting. This wasn't a movie where people looked at their watches at the end of the day and just went home. People were really living it."


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