When Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling wrote the opening scene of their new thriller, “The East,” they knew it would grab the audience’s attention.
In the scene, surveillance cameras capture the sight of crude oil oozing from the vents of a well-appointed mansion. The incident is a “jam,” an act of creative vandalism, committed by a radical environmentalist group against the CEO of an oil company responsible for a major spill.
The message to the CEO, Marling said, is “if you’re not going to be accountable for the disaster you’ve created over here in the ocean, we’ll bring that disaster to you, and it will be dripping out of your vent onto your thousand-count bedsheets and will be exploding from the drain in your pool.”
What Batmanglij, who directed “The East,” and Marling, who stars in it, didn’t know was that their fictional oil spill would be, in Batmanglij’s words, “all of a sudden in our backyard.”
“We wrote that oil-spill ‘jam,’ and two weeks later the BP oil spill happened,” Marling said.
In “The East,” which opens Friday, June 21, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas, Marling plays Jane, recently recruited by a corporate security firm to infiltrate a mysterious radical group. Jane, taking on the alias Sarah, lives off the grid to make contact with members of an anarchist collective — and mount devastating and subtle actions against greedy CEOs.
The notion behind “The East” started in 2009, before Marling and Batmanglij burst on the scene with their science-fiction drama “Sound of My Voice. The movie debuted at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, the same week “Another Earth,” which Marling starred in and wrote with their college friend Mike Cahill, also premiered.
Marling and Batmanglij were just figuring out how to begin their artistic careers and decided to spend a summer living off the grid.
“We packed our backpacks and hit the road,” Marling said. “We learned how to train-hop, and we lived on organic farms, and met up with travelers, and learned to ride the rails and dumpster-dive.”
“We never went out to research the movie. We went out to live our lives that summer,” Batmanglij said. Returning to L.A. afterward, he said, “when we told people our stories, people didn’t know what we were talking about.”
Marling was impressed with the work done by anarchist collectives and direct-action groups, and that inspired them to think of storytelling the same way.
“We said, ‘We’ve got to just use the best resource that we have, which is each other, and just start making movies,’ ” she said. Out of that spirit came “Sound of My Voice” and “Another Earth,” she said.
With the success of those films (both were bought by Fox Searchlight Pictures, which also is releasing “The East”), Batmanglij and Marling called upon their summer on the road to inspire their next script.
“[We thought:] Why not set an espionage thriller in the landscape of the now?” Marling said.
Batmanglij said they were inspired by their favorite political thrillers of the 1970s, particularly the films of Alan J. Pakula like “Klute,” “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men.”
“We wanted to do something like that with the issues we’re facing today,” he said.
The anarchists depicted in the film are entirely fictional, they said, but the corporate actions being protested were taken from the news.
“All the stuff that was happening, as far as the corporations were concerned, was directly pulled out of the world around us,” Marling said.
Batmanglij said he’s often frustrated by news reports of seemingly intractable problems — hunger, pollution, corporate greed and government inaction. That’s where making a movie like “The East” is helpful.
“The beauty of fiction is that you get to work out your frustrations,” he said.