‘The East’ Filmmakers Go From Dumpster-Diving to Sundance Darlings

The filmmakers went on the road with itinerant anarchists for their new eco-terrorist suspense film

"The East" is the rare thriller that hinges on dumpster diving as a plot point.

Thursday night after TheWrap screening of the Fox Searchlight film, director Zal Batmanglij and co-writer and star Brit Marling explained how their experiences living with homeless anarchists provided inspiration for their movie, which centers on a private investigator’s undercover infiltration of an eco-terrorist group bent on increasingly vengeful anti-corporate tactics.

Their exercise in modern-day hobo came before they went to Sundance 2011 with “Sound of My Voice.” The Georgetown grads “couldn’t figure out how to make it work for us in this town,” Batmanglij recalled during a post-screening Q&A at the Landmark Theater with Wrap CEO-Editor-in-Chief Sharon Waxman. "So we decided to go have an adventure. We’d found this anarchist blog, and Brit would read me these beautiful manifestos, and they didn’t have any bylines — no ego — and we were taken by that idea. We decided to hit the road with some backpacks and sleeping bags."

Said Marling, “We learned how to hop trains. We went across the country and back, using Craigslist ride shares as well. It was an unbelievable summer. Behind every grocery store is a blue box with all this [not-yet-spoiled] food… We saw people collect that food and cook three meals a day for 150 people with it, and our minds were blown.”

Also read: Meet Sundance's 'It Girl' Brit Marling

In the movie, which screened at Sundance this year and opens in theaters May 31, the eco-terrorists practices “freeganism,” which involves living off food that’s passed its sell-by date and been dumped outside supermarkets.

Marling plays Sarah Moss, an ex-FBI investigator working for a private security firm who’s enlisted to infiltrate the group known as “The East,” led by an idealistic guru portrayed by Alexander Skarsgård, who first appears as a wild-maned, Manson-style figure. Ellen Page is the trusted sidekick working out some serious daddy issues with her terrorist inclinations, and Patricia Clarkson plays the protagonist’s steely boss.

“We never encountered any vigilante groups like The East on our road trip,” Batmanglij said. "But every single one of the corporate crimes in the movie is based on 100 percent fact and it’s not dramatized. There is a drug on the market that does cause those side effects… And there are kids who died from the cancer they developed from their bath water. There are oil spills. These crimes are all real. So the movie is a way of imagining, how do we make sense of these heartbreaking news stories we hear about? How do we move forward? I think film is a great way to play with going to the furthest side of it. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a prescription for it.”

Added Marling, “Even within the group in the film, they are talking about how far is too far. I think a lot of resistance groups unravel because they have different opinions in terms of the morality of the actions, and do the ends justify the means?”

The pair found the experience of writing and making “The East” far preferable to climbing the Hollywood ladder the traditional way.

For Marling, "Writing is a way to ensure that you have some kind of control, some way to practice the craft that you love without it being wading through the swamp of early-20s ingénue parts in LA,” she said. “You find yourself fighting for these jobs – do I really want to be the girl in the bikini sucking on a popsicle while someone with a chain saw enters the frame?"

"I really did audition for that," she said.