And another fact that is particularly unsettling: “What is to-the-letter true and was never dramatized or hyperbolized by us was the crimes the corporations committed,” Batmanglij said. “There are drugs that are on the market that cause disastrous side effects.”
Despite the big-issue lessons, the co-writers don’t see themselves as activists so much as distributors of little-known data. They use storytelling to edify.
“I remember when I read ‘Fast Food Nation,’ I was like, ‘Oh, thank you for giving me access to this information I just didn’t know,’” Marling said. “Now I’m not going to go to McDonald’s anymore. So sometimes I feel like these things are just about someone putting the information in a format that reaches people.”
Other hot-button issues during post-film chats were scenes involving the East that might look outlandish to the typical moviegoer. At one point, the group members eat dinner while wearing straitjackets, and later they pass the time playing spin the bottle. There’s also a group bathing scene.
Marling and Batmanglij encountered some of this behavior while traveling around the country four years ago. They visited anarchist farms and permaculture centers; they slept in parks and learned to make bump keys, a kind of universal lock picker, to access hotel rooftops and grocery store dumpsters after meeting freegans. And even then, far away from the reality of daily life, they were posing questions about the moral implications of their actions.
“You hit all these paradoxes,” Batmanglij said. “If we opened up the dumpsters and gave all that food away, then nobody would be going through the front door of the grocery store, but that food is being thrown away anyway, so is that stealing?
“I don’t know the answers to these questions, that’s why I can’t be an activist. I’m just a question person.”
The adventure supplied plenty of fodder for “The East,” but it wasn’t a work-related trip so much as a couple of friends traveling the country in an unorthodox way.
“It was just life happening, and that’s what you have to do, actually. Forget about what you’re going to write,” Batmanglij said. “You just have to make sure you keep living your life, challenging yourself, putting yourself in unusual experiences, thinking about what you’re interested in doing and going there.”
And just like that he had stumbled onto another quandary. Thinking a moment, he posited to Marling:
“You know what we have to work on really hard? Live like people live. This is not how people live,” Batmanglij said, gesturing to his surroundings inside a Ritz-Carlton suite. “And it’s so easy for it to become easy, because it’s just the way it’s done.”
The filmmakers certainly weren’t following the traditional path on this trip. They chose to forgo the fancy hotel experience the night before in favor of staying in Georgetown with Batmanglij’s parents, a chef-and-cookbook-author mother, and book-publisher father (his brother Rostam is member of the band Vampire Weekend). The pair nodded in agreement, chancing upon their first easy answer.
“That’s why so many filmmakers start making movies about filmmaking,” Marling responded. “Because that starts to be what they know.”
Opens in area theaters June 7. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity. 116 minutes.