On Saturday, April 27, I was given the opportunity to speak with Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, and director Zal Batmanglij as part of a promotion for their upcoming film The East, a thriller that was shown at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight.
Brit Marling stars as Sarah Moss, a former FBI agent who acts as an operative for the private intelligence firm, Hiller Brood. She is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist collective known as The East by going undercover and convincing its members of her loyalty and genuine participation. However, things change when she begins to fall in love with the collective’s charismatic leader, Benji, played by Alexander Skarsgård, prompting her to question the moral underpinnings of her undercover work.
Prior to writing the screenplay, Marling and director Zal Batmanglij spent two months in 2009 practicing Freeganism, which includes reclaiming and eating discarded food and other behaviors that limit a person’s impact on the environment.
“We didn’t do it for research; we did it for our own lives,” Batmanglij said. “When you all of a sudden break the lock of a dumpster behind a grocery store and realize how much good food is in those dumpsters that has to be thrown out legally, it changes your perception, especially when you start having three meals a day from that.”
During their experience, they got involved with an anarchist collective, in addition to learning various skills employed by active “freegans,” such as train-hopping, squatting and the aforementioned dumpster lock breaking.
Much of that experience along with research into the pharmaceutical industry and inspiration taken from other spy thrillers was incorporated into the screenplay.
“I think that there were some moments that we experienced on the road that entered the film,” Marling said. “We did feel though that all the corporate crimes that happened – those are things that are literally ripped out of the headlines of newspapers.”
The primary target of the anarchist collective in the film is a multinational pharmaceutical corporation, as the modern anarchy movement focuses less on protesting the government and more on protesting against the corporate structure.
“There was a PBS special about a class of drugs that were causing really severe side effects,” Marling said. “The idea sort of came as an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ justice or a group of people who want to hold corporations accountable for this kind of behavior.”
While it may appear that this film is seeking to preach a message about the philosophies of the anarchy group depicted in the film, Batmanglij says the film is not about conveying a message but rather getting people on both sides to ask questions.
“We’re not preaching anything,” Batmanglij said. “We just wanted people to ask questions from whatever side they are [on].”
The East is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity, and will be released in theaters on May 31.