Over the course of the last five months, Brit Marling has found herself telling the same story, over and over and over again. The tale of summer 2009, the one she spent living as a freegan drifter, has become the key anecdote connected to her new espionage thriller, The East — which features Marling as a spy for hire named Sarah Moss who infiltrates an eco-anarchist collective that is injecting terror into its extreme public advocacy. In the meantime, she's finding out that the spotlight tends to project a distortion.
"Of course, people don't understand. Even when I talk about that summer now, or when people write about it, it's with a certain degree of remove and frivolousness, as if it's like a cocktail-party story," says the 29-year-old actor and screenwriter. Marling has long, almost translucent blonde hair, very blue eyes, and a thoughtfulness that gives weight to her every word; she shakes her head, yet keeps a smile, frustrated with (but maybe not surprised by) the infinite loop of subtle condescension that sharing her personal story has engendered.
Then she sighs, shifting in her seat at an overly large round table in a Soho hotel restaurant. "But that was your life, that happened to you, and you were moved and opened and changed by it," she says. "And it's hard for people to understand that."
Marling's life has taken a lot of unexpected turns over the last decade. She graduated from Georgetown in 2005 and moved to Los Angeles the following year to pursue a career in show business — despite the overwhelming evidence that doing so is a crazy risk that leads mostly to a life of misery and rejection. At least she had company in the struggle, as her creative partners and fellow Georgetown alums Zal Batmanglij and Mike Cahill (three years her senior — they were student filmmakers when a 17-year-old Marling introduced herself to them after they won the Georgetown Film Festival with a short film) joined her for the adventure.
Cut to four years later, when Marling and Batmanglij were underemployed and creatively stymied, trying to kick-start careers in L.A. with dead-end jobs in TV production and dark edit bays. The only auditions Marling could get were for the archetypal blonde in torture porn flicks — and the blonde always dies. She chose to study screenwriting instead. Intrigued by the anarchist texts they had been reading on the internet, the duo began hopping trains, falling in with communes, and learning to scavenge for food.
"I think so much of our culture is about being afraid, and that keeps you in line," she reflects, casting the adventure as an emancipation of sorts. "And the moment that you realize that there's not really anything to be afraid of, that you could eat three meals a day out of a Dumpster and that you could live in a squat and that you may actually be happier, you can become pretty bold in what you do next."
Re-energized by the trip, Marling starred in and co-wrote both of what would become the trio's two breakout films, both of which screened at Sundance in 2011: the cult drama Sound of My Voice, which was co-written and directed by Batmanglij, and the Sundance-winning philosophical sci-fi mystery Another Earth, which was Cahill's project (both films got picked up for limited release). Production began on Another Earth without any real funding in early 2010; the three were living and shooting at Cahill's mom's house in Connecticut, where they paid no rent.
The filmmakers carry a rare sort of animation and enthusiasm that might seem unlikely given the serious, meditative, and frequently intense tenor of their movies. Marling explains that they grew tired of waiting helplessly for a chance to pursue their goals in what was a largely permission-based industry — now, just a few years later, digital technology has shifted the power structure — and it's no coincidence that the trio's flurry of acclaimed films have all come from within. They aren't stepping stones, but passion projects.
"We're trying to catch a fish with its own energy source," Batmanglij says, offering up a broken metaphor that still somehow makes sense. In his early thirties, he's tall and fresh-faced, with an infectious excitement for his work. His smile is constant, unbroken. "We're trying to find something that is solar powered. Because it has to sort of constantly be given this energy. I spent the last five years working on this movie, start from inception to now... We're trying to find other ideas like that. If you told me I had to go remake Sound of My Voice in France, I'd be so excited."
Even before those two movies were released, Marling — who has also starred in films directed by Robert Redford and Nicholas Jarecki — and Batmanglij began working on what would become The East. The film poses difficult moral questions about the consumer economy, the ethics of capitalism, and the behavior of large corporations. The first impression of the group — also called The East — which is led by a charismatic Alexander Skarsgård and an intensely driven Ellen Page, is of a grungy, whacked out pseudo-cult of fundamentalist warriors. But it soon becomes clear, to both Marling's character Sarah and the audience, that their grievances are not just legitimate, but deeply uncomfortable truths.
Among the targets of their carefully plotted and publicly flouted revenge schemes: a coal company that so sullies a nearby reservoir that it melts holes in children's brains and a pharmaceutical company that sells drugs they know to be dangerous and debilitating. The East's tactics are brutal — literally, giving them a taste of their own medicine — but that's almost beside the point.
"Look, there's some pretty ugly eye-for-an-eye stuff that's sanctioned in our government," Batmanglij says. But movies, he insists, aren't prescriptions; a kinky sex scene doesn't serve as a recommendation that people should try whatever acrobatic or illicit thrill that they see on screen.
"I don't believe in the death penalty, and that's sanctioned eye-for-an-eye, so I'm not someone sitting around preaching eye-for-an-eye justice, but gosh, what do you do when the drug company in the movie is based on a real drug company, and a real drug exists that has those side effects?" he asks. He seems genuinely unsure of the right answer. "Who's responsible? People take that drug and some people have ended up in a wheelchair because of it. Is that fair? Five pills and you're in a wheelchair. Is that fair?"
It's a rhetorical question, but try this: Have you heard of the pharmaceutical company Rambaxy? In early May, it was found guilty for faking test results to pass FDA inspections; its executives knew that their HIV drugs were dangerous and potentially deadly. The company sells $1 billion in generic pills in the United States alone each year; it paid a fine that equaled six months of sales. No one got charged with a crime.
The East, as depicted in the film, is a tiny sect of isolated radicals who feel like it's them against the world. But something changed just as The East was weeks away from production: The Occupy Wall Street movement began. The low flame of resentment — that smoldering suspicion that the game was rigged and nobody with any sort of power gave a shit, the same desperation for something new that had turned Marling into a tireless Obama campaign volunteer and a year later drove her to the woods — had sparked and combusted.
Marling speaks with a deep admiration for the protestors who powered Occupy, expressing frustration at a news media that she thinks covered it with a certain remove and cynicism, and wonders why reporters didn't spend more time in the trenches trying to understand its members. "Whatever you think of Occupy, they forced people to talk about something that nobody was talking about," she says.
Given the timing, that specific moment in history played no part in the writing of the screenplay for The East, but that's sort of a technicality. The populist street protest was driven in large part by the same freegan idealists with whom Marling and Batmanglij had traveled, and it is no leap to say that The East would be Occupy's more violent and extreme comrade.
"It's interesting to me how sometimes the fringe or a group of people that seems 'other,' they often have a lot of ideas or perspectives that would be really beneficial to the status quo," Marling proclaims, toeing the delicate line between sympathizing with extremists and being pragmatic. "Regardless of what you think about The East or its politics or its methodology, I think everyone can agree, whether they're on the right or the left, there are a lot of things that do not work about the current system. I think everyone looks at the banking crisis or the HSBC thing or the BP oil spill and is like, 'WTF?'"
Singling out greedy, crooked bankers and indefensible environmental ruin isn't all that radical, in and of itself, but consider Marling's background: Not only did she graduate from Georgetown with a degree in economics, she was also offered a job at Goldman Sachs during the high-flying mid-aughts. She had completed an internship at the bank and impressed enough to earn a lucrative offer, which came in an email that she read while in an internet cafe in Cuba, where she was with Cahill (then reportedly her boyfriend) making their documentary Boxers and Ballerinas, which focused on four young children whose dreams are stalled by the United States' blockade on the country.
She turned them down, and here she is, nine years later, tearing off the emperor's clothing instead of luxuriating in his company. The radicals of The East see those banker types as the dark underwriters of the dystopian America that they reject, and Marling has seen behind the curtain. She told The Independent in 2011 that during her internship, she suffered a "profound break," and "began to question everything."
"The assumptions you use to make models in macro and microeconomics are that the population is constant, that resources are infinite, and that people's happiness increases the more things they buy. And then you enter the real world, and all three of those things aren't true, and they're also why the system doesn't work on a fundamental level," she says in a burst that would make any Democratic primary voter swoon and the halls of D.C. think tanks echo with horror. "How is the idea that growth is everything and growth is king and that's how we measure progress, how can you continue to grow indefinitely on a planet with dwindling resources and a climate change problem and an exploding population? We can't. Growth can't really measure success forever."
What's even more crucial than Marling and Batmanglij's shared comprehension of the intricacies of GDP and the Keynes-Reaganomics debate is the shorthand that they have developed over the past decade. In an industry that arbitrates writing credit, their cooperation almost sublimates ownership.
"It took us nine months to write The East; we didn't start writing it on the computer until seven and a half months into it," Batmanglij reveals, a smile creasing his face when it's noted that, well, that is a seemingly insane feat of memorization for a movie so intricate. "We just told each other the story. Human to human. That's what it is, a story."
He continues, plucking a half-squashed blackberry from a room service tray to demonstrate the fragile nature of any project in its infancy; its juices drip between his fingers: "We pass it back and forth and we love it, and we trust each other and we learn to trust each other so we don't know where did this thing start? It didn't start with either of us kind of, it just has been and we've just been its custodians. And pretty soon it gets so big that you don't feel that it belonged to anyone. It just exists. That's when it gets exciting."
But what, exactly, excited them? The idea of tearing into the economy and exposing its rotten core? How, then, can Marling and Batmanglij sit in a trendy hotel in Soho, adjacent to a room stocked with Coca-Cola products, promoting a film that was produced by Fox Searchlight, which is a division of the media monolith News Corp? How can they advocate for such a fundamental rethinking of American priorities when they are an active part in a tragically flawed system?
"I think there are no easy answers," she concedes. "I think this movie is totally about the moral gray of the time we're living in, and how hard it is to navigate that and to feel like you're being responsible and accountable to your morality on a day-to-day basis. But at the same time, this movie was made at a corporation and a corporation is just a group of people and a group of people, when they come together in any fashion, can do really powerful, positive, productive things."
She continues, adding, "So it's not a movie about corporate villainy at all — it's a movie in which the villain keeps changing and the antagonism keeps shifting, and I think that's sort of the time we're living in."
Their commune friends might say that such an excuse is bunk, that it's all or nothing, full emancipation from capitalism or an inescapable share of guilt when society suffers its eventual meltdown. But unless you're willing to cast away all material possessions and abandon your family, that austere life is no solution. Blissful ignorance can black out the conscience when necessary, utility reigning over empathy thanks to the self-perpetuating limits of a world that is both richer and poorer than ever.
Just last month, a sweatshop in Bangladesh suffered a collapse that killed 1,000 people who were toiling in criminally unsafe conditions to make clothes that we wear without a second thought in the Western world. Several companies agreed — under immense public pressure — to sponsor new safety precautions at factories; many others, like The Gap and Walmart, have refused to sign on to such accords. Is that news enough of a tragedy to create a clarion call for change, to seriously hurt the companies that won't take a stand?
"I think about all that with my sneakers: Would I be wearing my sneakers if I actually saw the small hands that had made them?" Batmanglij asks himself, though he seems to already know the answer. "People don't really believe that their computer or sneakers are made by small hands, a child's hands, or a person who is living such a miserable life. They somehow think that no, that person has a tough life, but it's an OK life. But if they actually saw just a video of the person who made your sneakers, if that was available on YouTube, I don't think you'd buy those sneakers."
Awareness is the first step, but it's hard not to feel helpless in the massive world economy. How does one person not buying a pair of shoes make even a whisper of a dent in a multibillion-dollar machine? How can they exist in the real world without contributing to its destruction? They'd love to know the answer. Making socially conscious films — Marling's other projects include Redford's The Company You Keep, which examines the consequences of a Weather Underground bombing, and Richard Gere's Arbitrage, a drama about a Ponzi scheme — is a start, especially in an industry that continues to favor big-budget comic book films. She and Cahill just partnered on another film, a medical drama called I Origins, which tackles its own set of social complexities.
The East is all about radical action, but both Marling and Batmanglij understand that reality dictates a more temperate individual approach to the world's problems. And again, it all goes back to those glorious few months spent Dumpster diving and sleeping on rooftops.
"Maybe one of the things I figured out that summer was that if I kept my life really small, if I didn't need that much, then I could have a freedom," Marling says. "Then I didn't have to be enslaved to a high rent and a pool and all kinds of possessions. The smaller I lived, the less likely I was to become enslaved to having to maintain a life. But that becomes complicated once you have a family you have to support. There are no easy answers to any of that stuff for sure."