Interview: Filmmaker Zal Batmanglij On The Outside Looking In For ‘The East’

Most of the time filmmakers will put an immense amount of research before taking on a feature. For director and co-writer Zal Batmanglij, the research was already there as he dove into his latest feature with its star Brit Marling. Long before receiving buzz for Sound of My Voice, Batmanglij and Marling found themselves penniless in the summer of 2009. Out of necessity and curiosity the two decided to embark on a mission to live off the land. Together they found a new perspective on the monotony of life while being on the outside looking in on a consumerism-driven culture. From dumpster diving for food, to hopping trains, and squatting in abandoned buildings, the two couldn’t shake the experience.

Batmanglij and Marling used their experiences and their passion for showing alternative lifestyles to create a gripping spy thriller in The East. The fruits of Batmanglij’s labor resulted in an intense thriller that acts as a talking political piece about the contradictions of living in a modern society. Living off the grid helped the filmmaker to capture collective spy Sarah, a determined young agent whom finds herself infiltrating a strange world of “The East”, a collective that poisons huge corporations with their own medicine. Pulled between two very different worlds, Sarah is put in the very complicated situation of questioning her own morality.

While Sound of My Voice saw Batmanglij question the truth surrounding the power in cults, The East unravels the truth we’ve been engrained with by the powers that be. Zal Batmanglij sat down with The Inquisitr’s Niki Cruz to discuss living a modern life, and living outside of it.


THE INQUISITR: You bought a camera when you were younger. Can you talk about making your earlier movies?

BATMANGLIJ: I wanted to be a filmmaker, so my parents helped me by encouraging me to save my allowance. So I bought my first video camera, and I would make movies, but I never made a movie that I finished until I was in college. There was no expectation but I would make movies every day.

THE INQUISITR: Working with Brit [Marling], do you see your career with her as a progression?

BATMANGLIJ: We wrote our films back to back and they sort of came from the same period of our lives, which is a period of looking for our tribe, and wanting a tribe. We felt that sense of tribalism. Whatever we’re going through now, since we’re still so close, whatever movie comes next will be born out of the fountain of what’s going into these experiences now.

THE INQUISITR: Did writing about this freegan lifestyle put you back into that whole mindset of your own personal experience living off the land?

BATMANGLIJ: Yeah it did. I couldn’t shake that time so we had to find a way to make sense of it. We wanted to write a spy thriller anyway, so we said let’s combine the two together. That’s how the movie was born.

THE INQUISITR: What was scarier? Getting into the freeganism movement or coming back out of it?

BATMANGLIJ: When we went into it we stopped watching films, we stopped listening to recorded music, and we didn’t know what was going on in the media. We didn’t have any access to television. We entered into a capitalist free zone. What replaced it was kissing each other during spin the bottle, taking food out of the trash. We learned how to fix up bicycles; we would fix them up and ride them around the city. When we came back we were shocked by the world that we had taken for granted before. It was so overwhelming. If you go see a movie, not only do you have to navigate the intensity of film, but also it’s inauthenticity. You’re watching other people fall in love or scrape their knees, or get beat up, rather then you doing those things, so when you spend two months kind of doing those things but not experiencing them on screen you kind of feel like films are weird. You also have to navigate 20 minutes of ads before a movie now.

THE INQUISITR: Does any of that carry over into your life now?

BATMANGLIJ: It’s funny how quickly human beings adapt. A part of that is always with me. I’m always sort of very wary and very aware. I remember us going to a Whole Foods to use a bathroom about a month and a half into our summer, and everyone kept looking at us. We thought they all smelled funny because they used so much chemicals in their hair from the shampoo. By the time we got to the bathroom and looked in the mirror, we looked totally different from how they did. Our hair wasn’t showered, and I had a beard. We had these eyes, which I consider these “underground eyes.” I always thought they were eyes that were saying “I hate you” and I realized they were eyes that were fearlessness.

THE INQUISITR: How did those experiences affect you as a director? Did you use digital versus film?

BATMANGLIJ: Anarchist collectives are all about egalitarianism and having no leadership. A film set is all about hierarchy but I always like to think about the circus. In the circus there’s this real sense of tribalism and they’re all on the road together. I don’t think the ring leader is more important than the clown. They all work together, and I think that I felt that on The East. During the nighttime champagne scene, the costumers that would dress the actors by putting heating pads in the dresses and the shoes, because it was so cold. There was such a thoughtfulness there, and it showed that their job isn’t any more important than my job. Everyone was working together to make a common film.

THE INQUISITR: So far in your career the research or in this case experiences you’ve put into films has been unique. Do you think you’ll get to that point where you don’t want to put the research in but still want to make a film?

BATMANGLIJ: I think it’s really important that you don’t get caught up in the way the filmmaking community isolates you and the way your life ends up being. I hope that I get the chance to recharge my batteries, and to be a real person as much as possible.