The East, a new high-stakes, big-ideas eco-thriller starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, and Ellen Page, closed out the SXSW Film Festival on Saturday and EW was invited to join director Zal Batmanglij and the cast for the long night of celebration. The evening began at the Four Seasons lobby bar with Batmanglij, a vegan, sitting on a sofa covered in cow pelt. “I honor this animal,” he said with a laugh.
He first met Marling at Georgetown University, and the two, along with fellow filmmaker Mike Cahill, quickly became best friends and collaborators. In 2011 the trio revealed the potency of their creative force with Another Earth (written by Marling and directed by Cahill) and Sound of My Voice (written by Marling and directed by Batmanglij), both purchased by Fox Searchlight. That same year, Marling and Batmanglij sold their spec script The East, about a private investigator (Marling) who infiltrates an anarchist collective and quickly feels her loyalties waver and shift.
The story was in part inspired by a summer the three spent crossing the country squatting, train hopping, and dumpster-diving with various anarchist collectives with names like the Freegans. Batmanglij, 31, had been accepted to film school in L.A., Marling and Cahill had spent time in Cuba making a documentary, and they were looking for adventures and alternative examples for how to construct meaningful lives for themselves. “There’s a certain thrill that comes with learning to train hop or learning to pick locks,” said Marling.
“On dumpsters,” Batmanglij explained. “But also rooftops. A good place to sleep is rooftops in apartment buildings so you pick the lock to get into the emergency stairwell.”
Marling, 29, who is at once elegant and immediately warm, methodically described how one files down the grooves of a key and then uses a butter knife to crack any lock. “Your respect for the world changes a little bit when you realize nothing is actually locked,” she said. We talked passionately about the waste in our culture and the studio ordered plates of quesadillas and pizzas for the table that would go largely untouched.
While Marling spoke about the rarity of strong female protagonists who act with agency but is still feminine– “Clarice Starling is my favorite of all time,” she said of Jodie Foster’s FBI trainee in Silence of the Lambs. “I read that screenplay a thousand times” – Skarsgard and two friends, including the Zero Dark Thirty actor Fares Fares, sat down at the table with stories about their night out and lazy day at the Four Seasons pool. Skarsgard, who plays the charismatic, driven head of the East collective, had traveled to Austin with friends rather than a publicist, a low-key, genial move everyone agreed was indicative of his mellow charm. Ellen Page, who plays another impassioned collective member, joined the group and stood quietly to the side. She seemed shy, but Marling and Batmanglij described her as “radical and lovely.”
Soon we were all piled into four SUVs to be whisked 10 blocks to the Paramount Theatre. Marling’s manager firmly suggested that Marling not carry her canvas bag purse on the red carpet. “But it holds everything perfectly,” said Marling. The producer agreed with the manager.
Behind an L-shaped barricade, a breathless crowd waved True Blood DVDs and boasted how many hours they’d been waiting to gaze up at Skarsgard with grateful eyes. He worked his way up from the back of the line, accepting hugs, signed autographs, taking pictures with young women who had driven into town from Dallas and Houston. “He’s the most accommodating actor I’ve seen come through here all week,” a SXSW volunteer staff member said. “I can’t believe he went all the way down the barricade. No one ever does that.”
As fans waited for Skarsgard, they recognized Page with approving squeals. “Oh my God, it’s Juno! She’s so little.”
Upstairs in the green room, the cast took photos again on a staged red carpet. At one point, two casually dressed women appeared between the velvet curtain, looking to join the party. “Hi, um, we’re looking for the green room, we’re with Fox Light,” they kept repeating to two mystified reps from Fox Searchlight. “Fox Light?” the women repeated hopefully. “Are those Doritos over there,” said one, pointing at the bar. “Fox Light?” After a seemingly endless stare-down, the women were shown the curtain.
Before the screening Batmanglij was welcomed on stage to introduce the movie. He praised the ’70s paranoid thrillers from Alan Pakula like Klute and All the Presidents Men, stressed the contemporary generational pull of a story like The East, and invited the audience to a Vampire Weekend midnight concert afterward. (Batmanglij’s brother Rostam is in the band, and wrote an original piano song for the movie. The band were all at the Paramount to watch the movie.)
Marling had to go back to the hotel and change because her black pantsuit ripped on the red carpet. Only Skarsgard stayed for the movie, watching his nude scenes like a grown up, without flinching or smirking. Afterwards, The East family stayed out until 4 a.m., dancing and partying and drinking Lone Stars at the Vampire Weekend show. “This feels like a vacation,” said Skarsgard. “It’s hectic but I’m with some of my best friends and I get to talk about a movie that I’m so passionate about. I get to hang out with these people and they’re so f—ing amazing.”
When asked the next day about his hangover, and how he might fare during a day of doing press, Skarsgard cheerfully said ”Well, I’m wearing sunglasses.”
The East will hit theaters May 31.