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Who is Brit Marling and Why Is She Such a Badass Filmmaker?

Written by: Wade Sheeler, Special to CC2K

Here’s Black Maria’s Wade Sheeler on the independent filmmaker Brit Marling. 


You probably recognize her. Even if you’ve never seen any of her films, she has the long blonde hair, lithe figure and Millennial stare that are American Apparel and Roxy’s stock and trade. Her most high profile roles were in the low profile Arbitage and Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep, neither box-office hits by any stretch.

And while she assumed these roles with the competency of a young but well educated actor, these are her moonlighting gigs. She was offered the lead opposite Tom Cruise in the sci-fi Oblivion, but turned it down, as she did the low budget torture porn franchise that auditioned her, which ultimately turned her off from the Hollywood Machine altogether.

Marling is first and foremost a producer-writer. She has currently helmed three scripted features and a documentary, and her latest screenplay is about to lens any day. This is Brit Marling, the auteur, and her creations are mesmerizing, fully-formed meditations on what it means to be young, directionless and searching for answers. But above all, they’re crowd pleasers that only need a wider audience to firmly establish her as the successful filmmaker she deserves to be.

 Marling graduated with a degree in Economics from Georgetown University, where a summer interning with Goldman Sachs yielded her just enough information to know this was not the life she was meant to lead. Two of her best friends that she graduated with, Mike Cahill (an ex-boyfriend) and Zal Batmanglij, drove ‘cross country to Los Angeles to see if, with no contacts or prospects, they could make a “go” of a career in the movies. Several auditions and meetings later, they realized they were true outsiders with no real chance of breaking into the industry in positions that would at all reflect their true skills and abilities. That’s when they started developing and writing their own stories.

Right after college, she and Cahill had lived in Cuba for two years, where they were inspired to produce their first film; a documentary Boxers and Ballerinas that follows these two occupations in Cuba and in Miami, as four different people’s struggles in both the US and Cuba helps tell a greater story of racism and politicism across all boundaries. It’s a raw and emotional piece of verite, which may not reflect the future trajectory of Cahill and Marling, but it definitely gives clues into their politics and their understanding of the human condition. For Marling, her work as co-director and writer on Boxers and Ballerinas obviously taught her how to tell a story and focus the viewer’s attention.

Back in LA, with the street cred of Boxers and Ballerinas behind her, she and her two roommates, Cahill and Batmanglij did the unthinkable. They produced and released two films in one year on their own dime. Both films screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and were picked up by Fox Searchlight. Marling wrote and stars in both. Another Earth, directed by Cahil, is the more experimental of the two, and tells the story of a promising high school graduate, accepted by MIT, who after a night of celebratory drinking, drives her car into a family of three, killing the pregnant wife and the child, putting the husband into a coma. Four years later she is released from prison, and obviously, scarred emotionally. She finds the man she made a widow and poses as a maid offering free housecleaning. She digs deeper into his life, and whether it’s love or guilt, begins an affair with the man whose life she destroyed. What makes this scenario work, and the one element that really illustrates Marling’s gift as a writer, is that it’s a actually a low-budget science fiction. Another Earth has been discovered, and enters into our solar system. As more becomes known about this identical planet, and communication increases, we discover everything on Earth 2 is a twin of Earth 1. So, Marling’s character, as well as the family she destroyed, exist as well on this second earth. Now, the ramifications of her duplicitous and somewhat insane plan have merit. The end shot, which some viewers and critics found confusing, is, upon careful reflection, powerful and well placed.

Sound of My Voice, which Batmanglij directed, is a much stronger film, with a more assured directing style and lean and polished script. A troubled young couple (Christopher Denham, Nicole Vicius) who are self-styled documentary filmmakers (could be a bit of autobiographical license) infiltrate a small cult with the objective of exposing them for frauds, but can’t help getting pulled into their propaganda. Marling plays the leader, who claims to have arrived from 2054, and is here, in the present, to educate and prepare those who will listen,  for the oncoming apocalypse. The great mystery at work, and it is a top-notch mystery, is whether Marling’s character is who she says she is. There’s just enough misdirection, ambiguity and doubt that the viewer never feels for certain. And the couple, slowly falling apart as their documentary gives way to haphazard cult commitment, is surviving on shakey enough ground that their involvement becomes believable and frightening. As with the final shot in Another Earth, there is third act twist in Sound of My Voice that could be seen as ambiguous, but is in reality a very fitting end to a well told tale.

Between production of the two films, Marling and Batmanglij somewhat went “off the grid,” and whether for research purposes, or an authentic dissatisfaction with the American dream, became “freegans,” the movement to live off the land, using everything that can be found from other people’s trash for food, clothing and shelter. This experience inspired the team’s best and most recent film, The East, an eco-thriller that has Marling’s signature “indie edge,” but with a script and story that is higher in concept and an unrealized significant box office potential.

Marling is Jane Owen, a bright career driven operative for a private intelligence firm that weighs the possible PR damages their corporate clients can withstand if the truth behind their seamy underbelly is revealed. Jane is assigned by her supervisor (Patricia Clarkson) to infiltrate the underground anarchist organization, The East, that launches attacks or “jams” as they call them, against these big corporations to reveal inherent corruption. In order to find The East, she becomes a “freegan,” hanging out with itinerant teens until a self-inflicted injury gains her access to the East’s resident physician. Once within their realm, she witnesses strange rituals (very similar to those illustrated in Sound Of Her Voice’s cult) that reveal the terrorist groups’ self-described “selflessness” (for example, feeding one another at dinner when they are all strait jacketed). Once Jane has completely won the East’s trust, she is taken to participate in the groups “jams’” including ones that have reveal specific acts of retribution for the members. Their cult-like leader, played with” l’enfant terrible” abandon by Alexander Skarsgard, begins a flirtatious game with Jane, always keeping her off balance. As the group’s jams become full fledged acts of domestic terrorism, Jane has to figure out how far she can go, and where her true allegiance lies.

As with all of Marling’s work, The East carefully examines moral ambiguity and the true nature and attraction of crime, dissention, political, social and philosophical morality. These are heady subjects, but as has become increasingly apparent in Marling’s work, her stories use the devices and trappings of 1970s political thrillers, while maintaining a firm footing in her own contemporary indie style.

Since The East, Marling has been busily involved acting in Danny Boyle’s BBC series Babylon, and two other films, yet to be released. A still unproduced screenplay, Boar, is on the horizon. Marling has been quoted as saying she prefers acting in other peoples’ works rather than writing and producing her own original creations. One can only hope this is a momentary lapse, as her abilities as a young visionary and gifted auteur are singular and extremely necessary in the current milieu of independent film.

Author: Wade Sheeler, Special to CC2K

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