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Injecting Corporate America with a Taste of Its Own Medicine: A Discussion with THE EAST’s Zal Batmanglij, Ellen Page, and Patricia Clarkson (Q&A Screening)

 eastposter

(Updated July 9, 2013)

From oil spills to drugs with adverse affects to polluting water with toxic waste, The East is the ultimate revenge fantasy against corporations with no moral fiber, hence most of Corporate America today. The East is like a smaller budget indie version of Fight Club, where Freeganism replaces nihilism. The Occupy Wall Street movement, the fight against GMOs and Monsanto, and even a quote from Ethan Hawke display the ideas in The East are capturing the nation.

Director and co-writer Zal Batmanglij and actors Ellen Page and Patricia Clarkson were at the Landmark May 31 for a Q&A after the screening. They discuss the origins of the script, Freeganism, and what drew the actors to these roles. Below are videos from the Q&A.

“The East” is an anarchist group of, what the government would deem, environmental terrorists. In the opening of the film, masked figures infiltrate the home of a CEO of a big oil company, and drench the home in oil. We see it spill out of the air ducts while Izzy (Ellen Page) narrates the group’s anthem:

We are The East. We don’t care how rich you are. We want all those who are guilty to experience the terror of their crimes. It’s easy when it’s not your life. Easy when it’s not your home. But when it’s your fault, it shouldn’t be so easy to sleep at night. Especially when we know where you live. Lie to us, we’ll lie to you. Spy on us, we’ll spy on you. Poison us, we’ll poison you.”

Sarah (Brit Marling), a former FBI agent, works for a private intelligence company run by Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) and she’s tasked with infiltrating the group to bring them down. Sarah successfully infiltrates the group, is pulled into their world of Freeganism and a touchy-feely hugging way of life, and slowly begins to understand these outlaws and their plight, almost like Stockholm Syndrome. Sarah then must make a difficult choice between her job, and this group of anarchists who have a very valid point for their fight.

The anarchist group has similarities to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the government labeled “environmental terrorist” group that is the focus of the documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. Like that film, The East poses the intriguing question: is violence the answer against corporations who are raping and pillaging the earth and killing people with their products and drugs? Or is there a better way? That is the question the group, and Sarah, must ultimately answer for themselves.

[SPOILER ALERT]

In one of the key scenes, the group infiltrates a party of a pharmaceutical company and poisons the executives with their own drug by injecting it into their Champagne. The drug has very adverse side effects, which one of the party attendees later experiences.

Dan Gorsky, Ellen Page, Zal Batmanglij, Patricia Clarkson at the Landmark

Dan Gorsky, Ellen Page, Zal Batmanglij, Patricia Clarkson at the Landmark

During the Q&A following the film, Batmanglij said that all of the corporate crimes in The East are based on 100% fact. The pharmaceutical that causes those devastating side effects exists. The oil spill is of course real, seen time and time again. And corporations regularly dump toxic waste and chemicals into water systems, seen in the film by one of the group getting revenge on someone close to her by forcing him to take a swim in toxic water his company advertised as safe. This issue is also seen in films based on true stories like A Civil Action and Erin Brockovich.

Batmanglij went onto say 40% of intelligence work is outsourced to private companies. That changes everything because CEOs like the Sharon character care more about the profits from quarter 3 to quarter 4 being higher, than any ethical or moral foundation, like government agencies like the FBI and CIA are supposed to be based on.

In the film, corporations hire Sharon’s private intelligence company Hiller Brood to investigate The East. The moral and ethical problems are shown when during one of the attacks by The East, a CEO calls Sharon for help, but since the CEO’s company isn’t paying her, she sees no need to help. Therein lies the problem with private intelligence companies investigating alleged criminals instead of the government.

Corporations, no matter how dirty they are, no matter how many laws they have broken or people they have injured, are able to curtail any opposition to their company, and investigations will be based on the highest bidder. It’s bad enough corporations have the money to lobby our government to set laws and policies that favor them over the good of the people and our environment. Now corporations are policing these laws through private intelligence companies like Hiller Brood in the film. Sebastian Abbot discusses in his article “The Outsourcing of U.S. Intelligence Analysis,” how even our government is outsourcing intelligence work to private companies.

Patricia Clarkson on her character Sharon, "this was a finely etched character, it was cut on glass. It intrigued me as an actress to just lose every ounce of blood I ever had."

Patricia Clarkson on her character Sharon, “This was a finely etched character, it was cut on glass. It intrigued me as an actress to just lose every ounce of blood I ever had.”

Patricia Clarkson discussed what appealed to her about the character of Sharon, the villain CEO of Hiller Brood:

 The reason I wanted to be a part of this film is because – I’m always playing emotional characters, dying characters – this was a finely etched character, [who] was cut on glass. And I thought, I need to be there.

I loved the moral ambiguity of Sharon. I like playing powerful women. I might not agree with her ways and means and I might not have her sentiments. But I do relate to someone who has fought to rise from the ashes and I know what that is. I was passionate about this character.

I’m a news junky. I’ve seen many many CEOs and I was deeply touched by the BP scandal because I was born and raised in New Orleans, and I watched that CEO of BP day in and day out. And I actually went myself down into Louisiana into a boat with my mother who’s the president of the City Council and I saw it first hand, the death and destruction of our beautiful land, a land that was black, literally and figuratively. And I saw a man who stood out in front of our country, everyone, all of us, and said, ‘It’s fine. It’s going to be ok.’

What makes that person that person? I had this epiphany. People think that they’re shape shifters. I think people remain those people forever. And they are those people day in and day out. It intrigued me as an actress to just lose every ounce of blood I ever had.”

east ellen and brit

Ellen Page on why she chooses the films she does, “It is extremely important to me to be involved with projects where the girl is in charge of her own destiny and is honest and well written.”

Ellen Page said about her character Izzy:

As an actor it was just absolutely a thrill to play, I mean this woman who’s incredibly passionate and angry and frustrated, that I think, at things that a lot of people are right now. [She] decides to take accountability for her own life, eye for an eye justice for those who have committed atrocities and continue to exploit the world and those who are disenfranchised.

Of course it’s a testament to Brit and Zal’s script, the fact that her journey is so profoundly emotional. Despite what you feel about the external goings on, one would hope that could be a way for the story to hopefully enter the audience, because obviously her personal anguish with her father is to me fascinating, and what makes the story.”

Both Clarkson and Page’s comments are a testament to writing intriguing characters for actors. If you write emotional, or in the case of Sharon, cold and emotionless, interesting characters, talented actors will sign on. In a recent Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything,” where celebrities respond via Reddit forum to questions from the public), Ellen Page answered a question about choosing her roles:

Considering there are so few roles for women and the roles that do exist can be so narrow in their idea of what a woman can be, it is extremely important to me to be involved with projects where the girl is in charge of her own destiny and is honest and well written.”

Writing strong female characters is important, and is many times lacking from so many screenplays.

Zal went onto discuss how he and Brit came to write The East. They spent the summer of 2009 traveling, interested in how young people were constructing meaningful lives for themselves. They were fascinated by the “Freegan” lifestyle they came across.

east group

Freegans embrace community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed.

Freeganism is the practice of reclaiming and eating food that has been discarded. Freegans and Freeganism are often seen as part of a wider “anti-consumerist” ideology, and Freegans often employ a range of alternative living strategies based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.

Freegans ’embrace community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed.’ (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeganism)

Zal commented on Freeganism:

We wanted to explore America’s underworld, and Freeganism. During that summer, we ate three meals a day out of food made from dumpsters. That sounds intense but then you realize there’s all this great packaged food – we would hit nice dumpsters, like the Whole Foods dumpsters.

This one collective we lived with, this group would get up at five thirty in the morning, they would go to the Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, they’d get some great food, bring it back in a garbage bag, and another group was waiting to take the food and make breakfast. And by eight in the morning there was breakfast for 120 people. And they did that not only for breakfast but lunch and dinner.”

east zal and brit

Zal on the writing process with Brit, “We don’t let ourselves type or get to the computer for months.”

Discussing his writing process with Brit, Zal said:

We don’t let ourselves type or get to the computer for months. So what we do is we look at each other and tell each other the story. And if the story is working, your partner will lean in, and her eyes will dance and you’ll be like, ‘Oh good.” And when it’s not working, she might be like, ‘Can we go get a smoothie’ or ‘What’s for dinner?’ And so you know it’s not working. So we spend months [doing this].

It’s sort of embryonic at first. You just have to pass it back and forth, and you have to really trust each other. In a six day writing week, we spend three days just doing housekeeping, like ‘How are you, what’s going on in your life, what’s upsetting you, what’s scaring you, what’s making you happy, what’s exciting you,’ and we learn to trust each other. Then you can pass these embryo ideas to each other. Then the weeks turn into months.

Then by month 4 or 5 we start acting it out. And you know it’s working when the characters just start doing stuff that you never intended, but once the characters are flesh and blood, they just start telling us the story, and we just become custodians.

And then in the last sort of 6 weeks, we furiously type it. But because you kept yourself away from the computer and from writing, then you are just hungry to get it down on the page.”

The East definitely captures the feel of the nation and young people today, of the outrage over the complete and utter disdain of all values and moral obligations by Corporate America. In another recent Reddit AMA, actor Ethan Hawke was asked the question when discussing his new film The Purge, “If you could commit any crime, aside from murder, which crime would you most like to commit and why?” Hawke answered:

If I could do anything without repercussions, I would become the world’s biggest bad ass, most fierce environmental terrorist. I would make all the bastards who profit from destroying our planet regret the day they were born. Think natural-born vigilante.”

Even though Hawke is not associated with The East, that answer is fascinating in how he really captures the outrage against Corporate America felt by people today. This has been illustrated by people rising up in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and by the online protests against Monsanto and GMO’s. There’s even an app for smart phones now, Buycott (http://www.buycott.com/), which allows you to scan the barcode of any product and see if it conflicts with any campaigns you sign up for in the app.

Kraft

KraftMnC_Ingred Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese contains Yellow 5 & 6, ingredients that other countries have outlawed due to their harmful effects (click to sign the change.org petition).

The Buycott campaigns range from “Say No to GMO – Monsanto Products” which says to avoid companies like Quaker Oats and Post Foods, to a similar “Demand GMO Labeling” which says to avoid Cascadian Farm Organic products because their parent company Small Planet Foods donated over $1.1 million to defeat Prop 37 (which would have required companies to label Genetically Modified Organisms or GMO foods), to “Boycott Kraft Foods” for using food dyes Yellow 5 & 6 (ingredients in their most popular Macaroni & Cheese) that other countries have outlawed due to their harmful effects, to “Avoid Koch Industries” because of how the evil Koch Brothers actively lobby against the environment and democracy. With the Buycott app, you can take a stand and choose which companies to support with your dollars. Also, there are many change.org petitions that are making corporations change their ways — you can read about their victories in an effort to start your own change.org petition: change.org/victories.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Like these positive movements to fight the atrocities perpetrated by Corporate America, The East ends with Sarah rejecting the violent ways of the anarchist group, and finding a more positive way to change things. Yes, Sarah was changed by them, her ideals, what she thought was important, but she also took their ideas and found a better more positive solution.

As Munich showed us, violence is cyclical and not the answer. If we use violence to fight our enemies, then we become like them. When the protests of the ELF weren’t accomplishing enough, they turned to arson and started burning down buildings. While they said no one was ever hurt because they took precautions to ensure no one would be there, violence like that is not the answer – at some point an accident will happen and someone will be injured.

And while our government incorrectly labeled the ELF as “terrorists” at the behest of Corporate America instead of “arsonists” and continues to protect large corporations, the only answer is to continue to fight and protest peacefully, to spread the information, and to open the public’s eyes. That is what the filmmakers suggest in The East.

 

VIDEOS FROM THE Q&A

Q&A Video #1

Zal discusses intelligence work outsourced to private companies. Patricia discusses playing a morally corrupt CEO.

 

Q&A Video #2


Ellen discusses her character Izzy. Zal discusses writing the film with Brit.

 

Q&A Video #3

Zal discusses exploring America’s underworld. Ellen discusses getting started as an actress in Canada.

Permanent link to this article: http://cinematicinspirations.com/2013/07/07/theeast/

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