Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling are back together in new thriller ‘The East’

(Nikki Kahn/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the team behind “The East.”

(Nikki Kahn/ THE WASHINGTON POST ) - Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the team behind “The East.”

Audiences had a surprising reaction to “The East” when it debuted at Sundance Film Festival in January. While a typical moviegoer makes a break for the exits the instant the credits roll, nearly everyone in the theater stuck around for a post-show discussion with the filmmakers and cast.

“I hate Q&As. They make me feel awkward,” said the film’s director and co-writer Zal Batmanglij during a recent visit to Washington, his home town. “So I don’t get hurt if people leave the Q&A, because I understand. But we had a 98 percent retention at Sundance.”

(Myles Aronowitz/Fox Searchlight via Associated Press) - Alexander Skarsgard and Brit Marling in ”The East.”

Incredulous at the high numbers, Batmanglij and his longtime friend Brit Marling, the film’s co-writer and star, thought perhaps people wanted to hear from the movie’s big-name actors, such as Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard. But the same thing happened — without Page and Skarsgard — in Ann Arbor, Mich., Philadelphia and other stops around the country. The lights went up, and the audience remained. Filmgoers might not have agreed on their feelings about “The East,” but they had one thing in common: They needed to talk about it.

That’s no doubt in part due to the moral ambiguity of the film, which is the second collaboration between Batmanglij, 32, and Marling, 30. (They also worked together in last year’s “The Sound of My Voice.”) Marling plays Sarah, an ex-FBI agent working as an intelligence gatherer for a private contractor near Washington. She is assigned to embed herself with an anarchist group called the East that dishes out poetic justice to executives at pernicious corporations. For example, the CEO of an oil company responsible for a massive spill might find his house oozing petroleum. Sarah dutifully labors under her false identity until she realizes that her own company, Hiller Brood, might be as malicious as either the anarchists or the large corporations the collective targets.

“She finds out what is right and what is wrong are completely switched, and we enter this moral gray zone,” Marling said. “[It’s] like the time we’re living in right now. It’s very hard to figure out how to live an accountable life.”

Marling and Batmanglij, who met as undergraduates at Georgetown University, tend toward the cerebral, parsing complicated issues from assorted perspectives. They don’t look very Georgetown these days, Batmanglij in a retro-looking patterned shirt under a blazer and Marling’s movie-star skin looking ethereal against hot pink lipstick. Batmanglij even made a crack about the buttoned-up, bowtied appearance of Washingtonians (“It feels like what someone would wear to a joke party,” he said with a laugh). But there’s something about their earnest and inquisitive nature that still seems academic. They constantly pose questions to each other — or their interviewer — and rarely settle on easy answers. That helps explain why the movie has turned into such a conversation starter.

And yet, for all the film’s dilemmas, it isn’t just an erudite exercise. “The East” is an entertaining espionage thriller with all the requisite nail-biting.

“I thought that we had made something that was more challenging; and it is challenging, but it’s not challenging in a distancing way,” Marling said. “I didn’t realize how much people were going to feel invited into the film and how much they were going to need to talk about it afterwards.”

The plot of “The East” may be fictional, but it’s rooted in a very current reality where intel is gathered by private companies with a bottom line, and anarchists might take McPherson Square hostage in an attempt to picket big business.

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.”

The East

Opens in area theaters June 7. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, violence, some disturbing images, sexual content and partial nudity. 116 minutes.

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