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Director Zal Batmanglij spent a summer hanging out with freegan communities, an experience that informs his film The East. (CHRISTOPHER GREGORY/NYT)
Director Zal Batmanglij spent a summer hanging out with freegan communities, an experience that informs his film The East. (CHRISTOPHER GREGORY/NYT)

A pair of film hopefuls heads off the grid in search of fresh thoughts Add to ...

A few summers ago, Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling were frustrated, not to mention broke. Friends, living in Los Angeles, he wanted to be a director, and she an actress. “But I couldn’t even figure out how to get an audition out of Backstage,” the industry paper, Marling told me on a recent trip to Toronto. “It was like a nightmare.”

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Since Marling, 30, looks like a casting agent’s dream – pretty face, cascading blond hair, killer body – that line would be hard to believe, if she didn’t also radiate a furnace’s worth of sincerity and enthusiasm. At the same time, she continues, she and Batmanglij were reading about freegans (people who eschew consumerism, sharing food, housing and resources that most people overlook or discard) and talking to friends who’d dropped out of grad school or investment banks to live on organic farms. “These were ambitious, Type A kids,” said Marling, who herself studied economics at Georgetown and turned down a job offer from Goldman Sachs. “And they were thinking: ‘Something is fundamentally wrong with how the system feels to us – we feel isolated and alienated, and our jobs don’t make sense.’ We were feeling that, too.”

So Marling and Batmanglij grabbed backpacks and headed out. They learned to train hop, spent time in freegan communities and anarchist collectives, and fell in love with that way of thinking. “They were radically intelligent, wild thinkers who were living their principles,” Marling said, eyes wide. “They dumpster-dived for food and cooked for people in their communities who couldn’t make ends meet. They were incredibly well read – there are discourses that go on in squats in Detroit and Pittsburgh that are so intense, they make college stuff look ridiculous. I think because we were so open, people were open to us. So we were profoundly moved by them, and changed.”

When the summer ended, Marling and Batmanglij returned to L.A. She decided that the only way to land good roles was to write them herself. Two of the resulting films – Sound of My Voice, which Batmanglij co-wrote and directed, and Another Earth – ended up at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and created a stir. Yet, neither friend could shake the joy they’d felt on the road. “So we decided to try to craft an espionage thriller that could smuggle across some of what that summer did to us,” Marling said. That film, The East, opens in the United States this week and expands into Canada Friday.

Marling plays Sarah, an operative for an elite private intelligence firm; one of her clients fears an attack from The East, an anarchist collective that carries out secret missions to destabilize big pharma and oil. So, Sarah infiltrates the group, and soon finds herself drawn not only to their principles, but also to their charismatic leader (Alexander Skarsgard). Ellen Page plays Izzy, an East member who doubts Sarah’s sincerity; she, too, was in Toronto, doing interviews with Marling.

“My thinking had been evolving in much the same direction as Brit’s,” said Page, 26, a speed-talker with a girlish voice and pounds of facts at the ready. Reading Fast Food Nation at 15 had already made her revise how she thought about the food she eats. Then, at 21, she took a month off from her lifelong acting career (which includes years in Canadian TV and films; an Oscar nomination for Jason Reitman’s Juno; and roles in films by Christopher Nolan and Woody Allen) to take a permaculture design and ecovillage development course in Lost Valley, Ore. (Note: My fuddy-duddy spell-check is freaking out over these groovy new words.)

“So I had the similar experience of, the narrative that’s been constantly told to you – the way that the system tells you to see the world – gets completely twisted and stretched and pounded down,” Page continues. “It was like, oh my God, so overwhelming, because I was learning a language I should have been learning when I was 2. Why, at the age of 3, can children identify God knows how many brands, but not plants? That is some Aldous Huxley, Brave New World shit. I walked back into society and looked at everything incredibly differently. So when I received this script, I immediately connected to it.”

The experience of making the film mirrored the story. Skarsgard or Batmanglij – “awesome cooks,” said Page, who is now dating Skarsgard – would make dinner for the group, and they’d have dance parties, take long walks, visit the nearby state fair. “We’d all talk all the time between takes,” Page goes on. “And wearing a wardrobe where you’re allowed to lie down in the dirt? That’s my dream. I think one of the most unspoken, sad things about modern life is how lonely and isolated people are. Everyone in their little holes, watching TV. So, to have this experience, where you’re creating something, and you feel this camaraderie of spirit? Awesome.”

“It felt inspiring every day,” Marling chimes in. “I maybe slept two hours a night all through preproduction and shooting, but it didn’t matter, because we were fuelled by something else: each other, and the idea of doing something that felt meaningful.”

For one lovely montage, when the group plays Spin the Bottle, Batmanglij encouraged the actors to improvise. “It was one of Zal’s finest moments,” Marling says, “because he captured something, the collective energy of this group of people, who had actually all fallen in love with each other and were now playing this game as if they had lived together for weeks, because they had. Things came out of that that you could not write.”

But as much as they relished The East’s spirit, Marling and Batmanglij made sure they didn’t whitewash the group’s negative, violent aspects. “This is such an important point,” Marling said, sucking in her breath. “Because of course, at a pharmaceutical company there are also people developing treatments for AIDS and cancer, while lots of anarchists have done bad things. There are good and bad ideas and people on both sides. That’s why it’s so important to try to navigate a new path that takes the best from both. It’s about access to information, and waking people up to their experience. I don’t know that this film has any of the answers, but we hope it provokes a dialogue, to get some new ideas into the mainstream.”

“Right,” Page agrees. “Because not long ago, this was not how I thought. It’s good, and humbling, to remember that. To remember that before that shift happens, you believe the narratives that you’re told. Sometimes, I have to remind myself of that when I’m getting angry at people: ‘Ellen, you loved a Big Mac.’”

“I still kind of do,” Marling murmurs. They look at each other and laugh, and I think, The world these two make is the world I want to live in.

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