In the summer of 2009, Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling were having trouble getting Sound of My Voice, the cult drama that would help make the young screenwriters darlings of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, off the ground. Stymied by Hollywood, they hit the road, opting for a route rarely traveled by other recent Georgetown graduates. “We lived on anarchist farms, squatted in the inner city, and hopped rail cars,” Batmanglij recalls. “We wanted to see how other young people were creating meaning from their lives.”
Their tightly plotted new thriller The East, directed by Batmanglij and starring Marling as an operative at a powerful consulting firm who goes undercover to infiltrate a band of anti-corporate extremists, is heady with the idealism of life lived off the grid. Led by Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), a seductive enigma, and Izzy (Ellen Page), a feisty zealot, the group hides out in the remote wilderness in between their guerilla attacks targeting Big Oil and Big Pharma. (Much of the film was shot in Louisiana and the sets, as envisioned by the Beasts of the Southern Wild production designer Alex DiGerlando, possess an untamed beauty.) To win over the radicals, Sarah (Marling) dumpster-dives, fights off the police, and throws herself headlong into dangerous operations that double as litmus tests of group loyalty. Eventually, she begins to feel conflicted as she falls under the spell of this makeshift family of headstrong young idealists.
“What I’m drawn to most as a filmmaker are these tribes that are seen as ‘fringe’ cultures,” Batmanglij explains. “We live in a society where many young people feel alienated, and these family constructs are an antidote to that.” He doesn’t mind that some critics might find the tone of the film to be politically earnest—there are parallels to the Occupy movement and the activist group Anonymous—but he prefers to think of his and his co-writer Marling's approach as a willingness to forsake postures of cool for a shot at capturing genuine feeling. “Brit and I aren’t interested in irony,” Batmanglij declares. “We’ll leave that to other filmmakers of our generation. We’re interested in that Tootsie roll-soft center of sincerity.”