A trespasser sneaks up on Hollywood

A trespasser sneaks up on Hollywood

Outsider looking inside

A trespasser sneaks up on Hollywood

On a recent muggy Friday, the director Zal Batmanglij was ranging up and down Georgetown’s brick sidewalks, giving a kind of tour of his past. Batmanglij lives in Los Angeles, but he grew up around here.

There was Montrose Park, where he and his friends used to drink as teenagers; nearby was Rock Creek, which Batmanglij used to run along nearly every day after he graduated from college, during the year that he worked at a shampoo company and daydreamed about the films he wasn’t yet making.

To the north, at the top of a hill, rose a particularly oversize mansion, a conspicuously lavish property in a neighbourhood full of them. “It’s so hard to shoot wealth,” Batmanglij said, gazing hungrily past tall red walls at the expansive property beyond. “It doesn’t show up on film.”

He would know. The East, Batmanglij’s new movie, contains both images of spectacular wealth and, more often, the opposite: abandoned homes, beach squats, railway car interiors. It’s a thriller about an operative for a private intelligence firm, Sarah (Brit Marling, who wrote the film with Batmanglij), tasked with infiltrating a militant anarchist cell that attempts revenge-style “jams” against amoral CEOs and other corporate evildoers.

Batmanglij knows that sensation well, of being within reach of Hollywood without ever making it quite there. In 2011, after several frustrating years, he and Marling became Sundance darlings for their film Sound of My Voice, which they made independently for about $135,000. Manohla Dargis, writing in The New York Times, called it “a smart, effectively unsettling movie about the need to believe and the hard, cruel arts of persuasion.”

Sound of My Voice was about a pair of outsiders trying to penetrate a secretive cult, and in many ways it mirrored the feelings of its creators (Marling also starred in it). Marling and Batmanglij met as students at Georgetown University, and moved out to Los Angeles with a friend, the director Mike Cahill (Another Earth), after school, with vague hopes of making films and absolutely no notion of how to do that.

“I think the early stuff we were writing was really interested in that idea of infiltration,” Marling said. “This world you’re trying to infiltrate, is it bad, is it good, is it celestial, is it ordinary?”

The East, written around the same time as Sound of My Voice, has similar concerns. Much of the film’s drama concerns Sarah’s gradual seduction by the charismatic members (played by Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page and others) of the collective she’s spying on.
But The East, with its comparatively large, $6.5 million budget, likely signals the end of Marling and Batmanglij’s time as Hollywood outsiders. The director Ridley Scott, whose Scott Free produced The East, described Batmanglij as an artiste “whose determination and talent will allow him to do anything he sets his mind to.” The film has the addictive rhythms of a more mainstream and commercial thriller, with the Hollywood stars and studio backing to match — yet another new form of give and take for a director who has so far made group dynamics his primary subject.

Batmanglij, 32, is quick to smile and has a tangle of black hair. His parents are Iranian: his mother, Najmieh, is a successful cookbook author; his father, Mohammad, publishes his wife’s books, among other titles; his younger brother, Rostam, is a member of the band Vampire Weekend and, like Zal, attributes his creative good fortune to the home he grew up in. “If there’s some secret to our success,” Rostam said, “it’s that we learned how to collaborate from our parents.”

Both brothers are gay, a realisation that Batmanglij said he found challenging and liberating: “You have to let go of the fantasy or the projection of your life and accept the life that you are living communally.”

But, Batmanglij added: “It’s awesome to be part of a gay family. Right now, my brother and I can focus on our work, and our parents can support that.”

Communal living is both the subject of The East — in a harrowing scene, straitjacketed members of the collective are asked to find a way to feed one another — and the method by which it was made. In 2009, penniless and without prospects, Batmanglij and Marling undertook a “buy nothing” summer of hopping trains and befriending anarchists. Many of those experiences, like a night in a town Batmanglij won’t specify spent playing spin the bottle, made it into The East.

The film was shot in Shreveport, La., in and around a dilapidated nightclub downtown. The cast and crew cooked together, and sometimes lived together. “One of the nicest things about shooting The East was getting to lie in dirt between takes,” Page said. “That’s like my dream, basically.”

Having the Oscar-nominated Page on the set, Batmanglij admitted, was probably a sign that his days outside the studio system were numbered. “You know, you think it’s so cool to have movie stars in your movie,” he said, “but they become people.”

Batmanglij gestured toward the property where he’d been trespassing. “You can’t have that house,” he said, and similarly “You can’t enjoy what it’s like to make a movie,” because the experience doesn’t present itself that coherently. “When I was a kid, I used to fly in airplanes and just look at the clouds and say I wanted to live in a house in the clouds. But you can’t live in a cloud.”