As a film-obsessed pre-teen growing up in France, Zal Batmanglij’s dream was to export the children’s program Choudenshi Bioman to the States. “People ask you when you’re a little kid, ‘Do you want to be a fireman or a ballerina or something?’ I said, ‘No, I want to bring Bioman to America,’” recalls the 32 year-old director at the Crosby Street Hotel. “But someone beat me to it. They called it Power Rangers.” Luckily, Batmanglij got a video camera when he was 12, and never stopped making movies — though he never finished one until he met his future best friend and fellow filmmaker, Mike Cahill, at Georgetown.
The two collaborated on their first two shorts, Substance and Lucid Grey, the latter of which Batmanglij notes was “about a couple who goes to a college party and has various sexual encounters separately, and then come together and break up realizing all sorts of things about their lives.” It won the top prize at the university’s film festival, and attracted the attention of then-17-year-old aspiring actress Brit Marling, who gave them a standing ovation from the front row.
When Batmanglij, an anthropology major, was later accepted into the American Film Institute he brought Cahill and Marling out to Los Angeles with him. “I just didn’t want to go to school by myself and they were my best friends,” he says. “It seemed crazy to move out to LA from the East Coast but we did it and then we became other’s family.”
This familial connection bled into the work, which started with Batmanglij’s thesis film, a 35mm short called The Recordist, which starred Marling. “We had such a healthy, fun experience, it just seemed right, so we were like, ‘Let’s just keep going,’” he explains. Marling and Batmanglij wrote their first feature, Sound of My Voice, about a cult-leading, basement-dwelling Angeleno woman “from the future” who becomes the obsession of an undercover documentarian and his girlfriend. When they couldn’t get it made the two hit the road on a 2009 summer odyssey — catching out on trains, dumpster diving, joining collectives, taking rideshares across 14 states — that would change the way they approached the film industry.
“What we learned on the road was that there’s this free abundant resource at our disposal which is collectivist action and the moment we harnessed that energy we made Sound of My Voice so quickly our heads were spinning,” says Batmanglij, who takes on the persona of an animated life coach when talking about the “amazing” power of this underground world. These positive vibes led them to seek out other young people who were hungry “to do something creative and interesting” and they made the film (with Marling as the star) for $135,000. The film premiered at Sundance and earned a Best First Feature nod at the Independent Spirit Awards.
“What we try to do is seduce the audience as much as we seduce the characters,” he says. “You want to get the audience to be like, ‘This is not that weird.’ The moment they say that they start freaking out because it’s changing their way of thinking,”
Batmanglij and Marling traveled back to Sundance this year to premiere their second seductive feature, The East. In it, Marling stars as Sarah, a private sector undercover specialist who left the FBI to work for a firm which protects Fortune 500-type firms from corporate terrorism by infiltrating activist groups. Things get tense when she’s tapped to go inside the film’s titular collective run by the scruffy, rich kid-turned-radical Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and his surly lieutenant Izzy (Ellen Page). The East (so-called for its reference to the coast where their old monied targets reside and the foreign connotation of the non-western world post-9/11) is on the security network’s radar for pulling off “jams” like serving a pharmaceutical company chief her own bad medicine in spiked champagne glasses or Izzy forcing her energy exec parents to bathe in slurry water that’s causing kids to die in their bathtubs from arsenic poisoning.
“Security culture creates a place where you don’t really know anyone’s true intentions in these groups, and I don’t think we ever met a real vigilante group,” says Batmanglij, who is still in touch with many of the people he met on the road in 2009. “But what’s funny about The East is that the group is fictitious but the crimes they commit are all based on real stories and it’s not exaggerated by one iota.”
Even less exaggerated is the tone of the film. To create a sense of paranoia in Sound of My Voice, Batmanglij forced his DP to maintain a strict tea colored palette. For The East, says Batmanglij, it was less about color, and more about “certain ideas in terms of tone. So I was very fascinated by the thrillers of the Seventies like The Parallax View, or All The President’s Men or Three Days of the Condor. I wanted to create a film that didn’t feel like Black Bloc, necessarily. I wanted it to feel like an anarchist fable.”
Staying true to form, when Batmanglij tours the film around Europe later this year he plans to backpack around the continent. “I’m going to take a small backpack, and I’m going to have clothes enough to walk into a movie premiere — maybe a couple t-shirts and some jeans —but I’m going to just walk, and find collectives,” he says. “I know now that collectives are the warmest place to be embraced. I’m going back as a filmmaker, but who cares what I do for a living. This group told me they’re doing a protest in Turkey so I kind of want to find some ride shares, make my way out there. I think that it’ll be fun.”
Illustration by Aiyana Udesen