Zal Batmanglij grew up in a house where creative collaboration was part of everyday life. His mother is celebrated Persian cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij; his father, Mohammad, owns a publishing company that puts out her books, among other titles. He also photographs the food for her books. “For months, my mother will cook in our kitchen and my father will take pictures of the food,” Batmanglij says, laughing. “Then they’ll spend hours on the computer looking at the photos. My mom will be unhappy and they’ll have to shoot it again in the morning.”
With that successful process as his model, perhaps it’s no wonder that Zal and his brother Rostam are in successful, long-term creative collaborations of their own. Rostam is a member of the indie band Vampire Weekend; Zal collaborates with writer-actress Brit Marling. And their output is impressive. The duo cowrote, and Zal directed, two films shot back-to-back: Last year’s Sound of My Voice, about a cult leader, and the current eco-terrorism thriller, The East. Both played Sundance and were distributed by Fox Searchlight, and both star Marling. (Rostam even pitched in last time, writing the score for Sound of My Voice.)
Zal (from now on referred to as Batmanglij) spoke with Co.Create about the collaboration he and Marling have developed, how it’s like meditation, and why they spend months telling each other the story of a movie before they ever write it down.
Eleven years ago, Marling was a freshman at Georgetown University. She went to a student film festival where she saw a short directed by Batmanglij and Mike Cahill. “I remember she was leading the standing ovation,” says Batmanglij, who recalls Marling coming to him and Cahill a few weeks later. “She said, Can I work with you guys?’”
It turned out that Marling’s parents also collaborate, as real-estate developers, says Batmanglij. “Britt’s parents work together and my parents work together. They love each other and they work together. We both grew up in households where that’s the model, so to us it’s the most normal thing on earth.”
She and Batmanglij got down to collaborating on their own five or six years ago. They keep going, Batmanglij says, because there has been significant encouragement. "We like all the work we put into our partnership. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to learn to trust someone and let someone trust you. What’s hard is getting naked,” he says, metaphorically, “taking off your clothes, really calming down, and being honest with someone about your story, their story, the story you’re telling together. A lot of stuff comes up.” Batmanglij is clear. “We feel like we’re just getting started.”
“When working with a partner, you have to learn to be really still, get rid of all that noise.” Sounds a lot like meditation, right? Batmanglij thinks so. “At first there’s a lot of noise. Then slowly, if I haven’t meditated in a while, at minute 15, finally, I get something like calm. And then right before 20 minutes, which is when I usually end, I finally get a little bit of peace and quiet and stillness. But if I meditate three or four times a week for two months, then I can easily sit down and get quiet right away.”
Collaboration, Batmanglij says, is often like that. “There’s a lot of noise between two people. It’s a manifestation of your own fears, I guess. Also, it’s all the things that are going on in your life: Who are you in love with? Who are you mad at? Who’s mad at you? Who’s in love with you? Who have you been kind to? Who have you been unkind to? In a six-day week, [Marling and I] spend three days doing what I call housekeeping…. It’s not gossip, it’s the next level after gossip—it’s more like getting to the real, and then getting past the real.” He explains, “With friends, we gossip and catch up, right? With really good friends, we get real. With partners, we get beyond the real to that other, still space.”
Marling and Batmanglij have done that hard work to get to that other space. “Brit and I were on a plane the other day.” They were visiting 10 different cities with the movie The East, and on this one flight they were seated across the aisle from one another and they were doing their thing. “We were going back and forth, [talking] across the aisle. We were, like, meditating on the plane. And the flight attendant kept coming by and having to say ‘Excuse me’ because we were being so animated. They were gracious—they saw that we were working. But it’s years and years of six-day weeks that got us to this point.”
In a way, it’s all about feeling at ease. If you’re not at ease, Batmanglij says, all sorts of things can happen that are unproductive for the collaboration. “You shut down, or you act out. You get nervous, all sorts of things. You do all sorts of weird things.”
And yet, all of that, years of getting comfortable, isn’t the actual work, it’s the groundwork from which to begin. “You can’t just express yourself and it becomes a movie. You have to get beyond that. You don’t just get comfortable. That isn’t the work itself. That’’s the infrastructure, that’s the railroad. Then you have to build a train and put cargo on it and have it go from one person to the other.”
A constant exchange of ideas is the key to their collaboration. “We don’t write. We tell each other the story for months. [On The East,] we spent seven months telling each other the story. Sound of My Voice was much faster, but it was the same process. We take notes during that, but there’s no writing at the laptop on Final Draft.” And there’s a very clear reason for that: “It’s a story,” he says, “it’s not a piece of writing. A novel is both a story and a piece of writing. A movie is a story and a piece of filmmaking. So the care that I would put into writing I put into making the film but not into writing the script.”
By withholding the writing, at a certain point they are champing at the bit to get it down. “By that time, you know it inside and out. Brit can go to the coffee shop and tell Dolores and I can got to a bar and tell Ron and they have both been told the same story. Then the last six weeks, when we’re writing, it isn’t painful; it’s pleasurable. It’s sort of like fasting and then eating."
They’re constantly going back and forth over tiny details of the story. (Remember: building the train.) “We try and get to a place where we start acting it out—not, ‘Oh we’re acting it out now!’ but [doing it in a way that] happens naturally, like it’s coming through you. Then you start doing things you have never anticipated. [SPOILER ALERT] In The East, she was never supposed to get into the water. I was [playing] the dad and Brit was Izzy, and one day I guess I was good enough at saying ‘I’m sorry, and she just walked into the water. Then we were like, Oh, fuck, how did we not know that? Of course she walks in.
“That’s why we don’t fight in our work. The goosebumps tell you you’re on the right path. When you want to go get a smoothie or have dinner, you know you’re on the wrong path. Our goal is to get to a place where time collapses. Brit and I used to work in what we called the dark hours—early in the morning before work or at night after work. We were tired, but when you collapse time, when you get in such a groove, it doesn’t matter. You don’t even notice time go by. It’s like you’re meditating.”
[Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures | Zal Batmanglij Photo by Myles Aronowitz]