I think all of us have these moments where we’re faced with a huge choice and we know it’s a huge choice at the time, and then we wonder about the ghost of our life that went in the other direction.
If you ever have the good fortune of engaging in conversation with Brit Marling, to whom everything seems really magical, which in turn makes everything magical to you, you are bound to lose yourself in that intimate and enlightening exchange. It’s like staring into a nightlight starburst.
In 2011, Anthem witnessed firsthand Marling’s star burst onto the Sundance Film Festival, which had played host to a coterie of fresh faces, including the “other Olsen sister,” Elizabeth. But no one could possibly hold a candle to a triple threat who seemingly crash-landed, fully fledged, like some sort of Hollywood marvel. Marling staked a claim with two low-budget sensations: the sci-fi romance Another Earth and the cult thriller Sound of My Voice, both of which she co-wrote, co-produced, and starred in. Then she left Park City—if not yet a star, at least destined to become one.
Marling’s backstory seemed almost tailor-made for a Sundance breakout headline. The long and short of it being that she had traded in her soul-sucking analyst job at Goldman Sachs in New York City and uprooted to parts unknown—the Dream Factory—with the filmmaker friends she had met while attending Georgetown University: Zal Batmanglij, director of Sound of My Voice, and Mike Cahill, director of Another Earth. They would pool their talents for a shared devotion to story.
The seven-part limited series, A Murder at the End of the World, marks Marling and Batmanglij’s fourth collaboration—and the follow-up to their woefully short-lived The OA—which concerns Emma Corrin’s Darby, a gifted hacker-turned-amateur detective who, alongside her sleuthing partner, Bill (Harris Dickinson), obsessively combs the American West trying to crack a cold case. Sometime later, after gaining notoriety for her investigative efforts, she’s invited to an Icelandic retreat hosted by a tech billionaire (Clive Owen), at which point one of the guests is found dead.
Marling, who co-created, co-wrote, and co-executive produced A Murder at the End of the World, also makes her solo directorial debut, helming the tone-setting first episode and two others, including the standout sixth episode. The supporting cast also features Joan Chen, Alice Braga, Edoardo Ballerini as an AI assistant called Ray, and Marling, who plays a pioneering hacker.
FX’s A Murder at the End of the World is currently rolling out episodes exclusively on Hulu.
It’s great to finally reconnect with you, Brit. We haven’t spoken since Another Earth.
Then we can say we go way, way, way, way, way back. We go like a decade back!
And I love your new show. I was completely spellbound. I cried watching it.
Did you really? Where did you cry? I need to know!
Episode six in particular. FX gave me all the episodes so I did a marathon. I actually had to take a pause after episode six just to soak it all in. That’s the penultimate episode so there was definitely a part of me also that wanted to hold onto the show a little while longer.
Wow. You’re moving me so much. [Brit removes her glasses.] Look—I’m getting teary-eyed!
Before we get into everything else, I want to share something with you, and maybe this chat won’t feel impersonal. I have this ticket from the Another Earth premiere at Sundance ’11.
Oh my god… That was the screening that began my career! I really got to become a storyteller from that screening at Eccles [Theatre] and the audience response that first day. I literally think I still have a career from that moment. That’s so moving that you still have that ticket.
I think this stub is a great shorthand for saying, “I so admire your work.” This is the receipt.
That is the actual receipt, and most receipts these days are digital. You have a physical, tangible, legitimate receipt. It’s so moving to me that you were there, and also that you’ve followed the work since the very beginning. You know—we make these things in the dark, we really do, in this vacuum. So you just don’t know if they’re going to move people or connect, or if you’re the only crazy person thinking these ideas and nobody else is gonna care. To hear you say chapter six in particular, it’s one of my favorite chapters as well. But it was the hardest to write and the hardest to make and the hardest to edit and the hardest to put out into the world. So to hear that chapter touched you, you can’t imagine how much that means to me. That chapter was our soft spot.
That one really stands out because tears don’t lie. Just to go back to what you were saying about how your journey started at Eccles, I remember the story you shared with me about a certain producer who had come up to you after that screening teary-eyed, telling you how much the movie had moved them. I think this is a producer you had known peripherally.
Yeah, and really admired because she had made so many films that moved me. It was Lynette Howell. I still tell her whenever I see her: “That reaction you had at Eccles is with me to this day.”
For any storyteller, that kind of exchange must fill you up immeasurably with gratitude and this connected feeling that you’re really onto something here.
It really did. I mean, you just gave it to me now with the way you spoke about episode six. If I’m going to be really honest, I think I gravitate towards storytelling because when I was growing up, I had a hard time in the real world. Stories were like my life raft. They were how I got over the rough seas. I think it’s a way of communicating and a way of existing that felt safe and beautiful to me. So when you’re making these things, the desire is always to connect, you know? If you make something and it doesn’t land, you feel terribly. But when you make something and it connects with somebody else, you immediately feel like you have this shorthand with that person, like you’re thinking about similar things together. I think it was James Baldwin who said something so beautiful. I’m not gonna get the exact quotation right, but the sentiment that always stuck with me was this sense that you feel like you’re in the void, like you’re all alone in the world. Then somebody writes a piece of fiction and it’s like a hand that’s reaching out to grab your hand. And when you make that contact, you feel less alone. I have felt that over the years reading certain novels or watching certain filmmakers’ work. But I also feel that with the audience when I meet someone who’s seen something and they tell me something that I didn’t even know was in it or they talk about the way in which it impacted their life. That, for me, is the only reward to keep going because, otherwise, this job is too hard! [laughs] It wouldn’t be worth it.
Another thing you had brought up was how you, Zal [Batmanglij], and also Mike Cahill, are always trying to go wherever your imaginations take you and figuring out a way to make that with a get-more-for-less approach. Does it feel like you’re at the place now where you always wanted to be in terms of having the resources, including larger budgets? In the end, did the practical realities catch up with the epic ambitions you had since the very beginning?
That’s such a beautiful question. It’s really interesting to hear you say that because for both Zal and I with this story in particular, we felt that it was so important it feels of a certain level of filmmaking. Oftentimes, science fiction stories about men are underwritten at these huge budgets and we think they’re more valuable or valid because they have huge financial resources behind them. So we felt like we can’t tell a story of this young woman who’s a detective and not have the weight of production design and beautiful landscapes. We have to believe that she’s important and that female detectiveship is important because even the production design and the costume design are telling you this person matters, this story matters, and we can take young women seriously. Of course, we’re always up to our same old tricks, too. [laughs] When we were shooting in Utah—Darby and Bill’s love story where they drive across the American West trying to solve this cold case together—we were a small crew. It was just a couple of people with Charlotte Bruus Christensen, our amazing DP, operating handheld by herself. Sometimes, when you pare down to these smaller crews, you can really find the intimacy and that magic and the ability to be spontaneous. When you have a huge apparatus, if all of a sudden there’s this incredible sunlight coming over the top of the canyon, you can’t just stop, turn the camera around and be like, “Let’s put the scene out there,” and grab it. When you’re a really big apparatus, it’s hard to be that flexible. So we try in everything we do to retain that spirit of being able to move more easily. But certainly, this one was at a level that allowed us to build a completely fictional hotel. It’s just two locations in Iceland that are the entry and exit points. Then we built half of that circular hotel on a soundstage. We redressed it and flipped it to be the other half. Having [production designer] Alex DiGerlando be able to have the resources to build that hotel makes all the difference because the hotels we were scouting just could never quite make you believe in the truth of this story.
At the very core of it, the writing and the way you masterminded the story is so compelling. I’m stealing this from the show: “The software is more important than the hardware.” The hardware could be the apparatus, as you so eloquently worded it. Things got noticeably big in this work. But the software is the thing that’s always inside of you, where the important stuff are emanating from. I just felt like that quote really echoed what you guys are doing.
Wow. I’m gonna now steal that back from you. See—this is why these things work! You found something new in that line that I didn’t know was there, and now I’m gonna take from you what you saw. You’re right. Even the words soft and hard are important. We’re in a culture that only values hard: hardware, hard right angles, linear thinking. Soft, we don’t value as much: intuition, the ephemeral, the things we can’t see. Darby, someone that was more in her literal, linear, logical mind, goes on this investigation that requires an investigation of herself and her first love and her first loss. She’s prompted to get back in touch with her softer side, which I think is absent in the world in general. It’s part of why in all of the things we’re up against that the story tries in its own way to contend with—the climate crisis, these extremes in our culture that technology’s producing—our softer side is absent. If we could just have the strength, you know? Because that’s what it requires. It’s harder to experience those softer things. It’s harder to make space for that. It requires a lot of courage now. But I think Darby finds that courage and I think it’s why she’s able to ultimately solve the puzzle. She needed her software side, as you would say. [laughs]
You’re the original. There are no snap-to guides and that’s always been the case. W just featured you and Zal in their Originals portfolio. In 2017, you covered Interview, where they titled that piece Original Angel. I also read an interview with Emma [Corrin] in Empire where they called you original. So to call you original isn’t original, it turns out. But still true.
If I think about the stories that have moved me the most, whether they’re stories people tell you in real time or it’s a story that unfolds at the cinema or in a book, the thing I value most or crave the most is someone showing me or articulating for me something that I haven’t thought before or seen before, giving me a fresh lens with which to look at something that helps me understand it better. So I guess that’s what I feel drawn to as a writer and a filmmaker, and even as a performer. I think Emma and Harris [Dickinson] and Clive [Owen] and Alice [Braga], all the performers that worked inside of this, were so capable of that. They take the text and find a way in performance to offer you a fresh angle that is the truth about how you’d actually respond to something in a moment rather than how you think you would respond. And I can think of a moment in chapter six when Harris does that so beautifully. Without giving anything away, when he’s met with a moment of violence, his response to that is so genuine and so real and so not what I would have thought it would be. It’s the truth. I guess I seek to do that as a storyteller as well, and I think Zal seeks to do that. I think that’s why we’ve been able to meet on so much fertile ground for so many years. We are always trying to draw that out of each other to get to that space. Sometimes, your first idea is inherently sort of clichéd and you gotta get past that to the deeper things you’re trying to say. Then deeper still and deeper still to try to get something that feels like it hasn’t quite been articulated yet.
We couldn’t talk about this show without also discussing alternative intelligence, as you say. And to borrow from the show again, Ray isn’t an artist, but he’s a better study. We can benefit greatly from AI. Did you use AI in any capacity during the making of this?
It’s funny because when we were coming up with this four years ago, we wanted to tell the story of a technology billionaire and maybe make him an AI designer, and that wasn’t something people were talking about. People in Silicon Valley were certainly thinking about that, but if you just talked to people around, they’d be like, “Is that what he should be, or should he be designing rockets that go into space?” There are other things people were thinking about then. But we were really interested in it. It felt fresh. We wanted him to be an AI designer. It was so funny because in the course of making the story, so many of the things we had written as science fiction came to pass. We wrote about deepfakes being presently available on your phone—your ability to type in anything for anybody and turn it into their audio. Four years ago, you did not have that ability on your iPhone. But by the time we were in ADR, where you record the actor’s voice again to fix something in the storytelling, deepfakes were so prevalent that you could write a deepfake line of Clive’s voice. So Clive came to do his ADR and he was like, “Did I say that already?” We were like, “No, that’s a deepfake!” And of course, this is what the strikes are all about. We’re starting to have the ability with technology to just imitate, replicate, mimic in narrative and in performance all these things. Artists have to be protected from that. When we were writing about this, not that many people were thinking about it. It was really interesting to see a lot of these things come to pass, including, in fact, Darby mixing Coke and coffee. When we wrote that into the script, people were like, “That’s disgusting!” [laughs] “Gross.” But that’s her signature drink! And when we were in the edit, Coca-Cola came out with a Coke and coffee drink. In our edit suite, the refrigerator was filled with Darby’s drink. So it was weird. A lot of things oddly ended up coming to pass.
Now you’re reminding me of Emma’s Empire interview again. In addition to calling you an original, they also thought you seemed psychic in the way you can feel things around the world. Maybe they’re onto something, you know? Maybe you have the ability to identify details hidden from the normal senses. Maybe you have extraordinary traits not yet defined.
[laughs] I dunno about that! But you know what? I think we are all capable of that. This gets back to your beautiful thing about software. I think we’re existing so much in our hardware side—the constant maintenance and protection of our hardware—that we don’t spend enough time on our internal software. But I think all of us have that kind of intuition or sensitivity as human beings, and it is just a matter of getting quiet enough and still enough and in our bodies enough to feel it. And it’s one of those things that you can never say for sure, but I think we all have that ability. The more time we spend with technology and the less time we spend really present inside our own bodies, the more we lose track of those softer, harder to define intelligences that we all have.
If we wanna talk about certainties, you had Covid to contend with on this shoot—a very real outside force that’s shaping the way in which you work. I understand that caused delays because people were getting sick. I wonder if that might’ve infused a sense of urgency in the creation of it because the themes maybe felt more present danger. Not to push things along because the window is closing, but because Covid makes it feel like the end of times.
I’m taking multiple things from you, just so you know. I had never thought of it that way. I thought of it a lot in terms of the more obvious thing, which is that we were met with a lot of practical challenges. Sometimes, I’d be up the night before at two in the morning rewriting a scene that was gonna start shooting the next day and everyone was gonna be there at 6AM. I had to rewrite a scene without one of the major actors in it because they had Covid. Having to work like that in filmmaking is always hard, but having to work under those kinds of pressures was really challenging. So I didn’t think about it in terms of what you said, which is so much more interesting: this feeling that exists in the world right now where everything feels fragile like there’s no ground. And every time we gain a bit of ground and we think we can stand on it, it’s quicksand. I think we all felt that in the pandemic. We’re feeling it inside the climate crisis. We’re feeling it in the unraveling of democracy, and the challenges that people are facing with depression and isolation because of so much time spent inside social media, which feels like it’s connecting you, but isn’t really connecting you. I think making something in the pandemic put us at the knife’s edge of that feeling. Given our human vulnerability in the face of all of these things, I think we have to find a new place of humility and listening in order to navigate all the things that we are inside of. So I think you’re right that the footage has this. I think I felt that when we got in the edit. Once you’re in the edit, you’ve taken a break and all the challenges of shooting it are gone. Now you’re dealing with what footage you have. Usually, the early cuts make you feel really bad because you’re like, “Wow, we have a long way to go.” But in the early cuts of this, we were like, “Oh, but it’s there.” I think part of what was there was the intensity and the focus required to make it because we were making it in ice storms, in dust storms, in record heat in Utah, with all of us facing the pandemic at every turn. I think it created this energy like, “What stories are we gonna tell under these circumstances when it feels like you’re not just telling a story you feel like telling, but a story you must tell? A story that can somehow contend with what we’re up against?”
There’s a piece of narration from Darby where she says, “I sometimes wonder, would it have been better not to go? I think about it like a coin toss, where life can go one way or another.” That comes out of your writing so I’m reminded of your journey. You were at a pivotal crossroads at one time. The narrative that the media ran with during your breakout was how you had left your analyst job at Goldman Sachs to make films with these two filmmakers you met at Georgetown. Do you still think about how different your life might’ve been, or is that a distant memory? These are things you play with and themes that recur in your writing.
Oh my god, I know. I think about that all the time. It’s so beautiful of you to bring that up. I might just be that kind of person—always wondering about the fork in the road and which path you choose. I sometimes think, “What if I had stayed at the investment bank?” or another very likely version, which is that there was a point in time when I was out in LA working as a camerawoman on a docu-reality series and it was so hard to make rent every month. And we were writing stories, but nobody was interested. I’d been doing that for years and I was like, “This isn’t working.” I started taking in applications for law school. I was like, “I’m gonna go become an environmental lawyer. I’m gonna be an activist. I’m gonna be on the frontlines of the climate crisis.” That was a path I almost took. Then right as I was filling out these applications, we got into Sundance.
You just gave me chills!
So we went that way, you know? But I think about these other forks in the road. There’s that beautiful and incredible [Jorge Luis] Borges short story, The Garden of Forking Paths. I think about it all the time: the sense of your life being a series of tree trunks branching out on to finer and finer limbs, and as you make progress in your life, the limbs become more fragile and farther out. Now it’s harder to go back to the trunk and make a new choice in another direction. I guess I gave some of that—whatever you wanna call it, like pathos—to Darby. I think Darby thinks about that a lot, too: “What if I hadn’t picked up those silver earrings? What if I hadn’t said yes when Bill asked me to go on the roadtrip? What if when he asked me to be present with him and actually feel some of what we were feeling, rather than race along the case, I’d been able to do that? Would he still be with me? What if I hadn’t said yes to going on the retreat?” I think all of us have these moments where we’re faced with a huge choice and we know it’s a huge choice at the time, and then we wonder about the ghost of our life that went in the other direction. But I can say that, at this distance, I feel pretty satisfied with the choices I’ve made thus far. I don’t wish to be somewhere else. I wonder about it, but I don’t wish to be there. I feel like storytelling still has a lot to offer the world. I think human beings are the animals that have survived because of stories. Telling stories is how we’ve made sense of our reality and made meaning, but also how we’ve encoded in our narratives ideas about how to survive, or even thrive. Given all that we’re up against, all of which we’ve obviously created, we need stories now more than ever to help make sense of it and try to find new ways of being or new ways of finding value that allows us to exist more in concert with our ecology and with each other. So I hope I made the right choice. If we talk again—hopefully not in another ten years!—we can see if either one of us has changed our mind.
You made the right choice. And I know you know that—it’s my way of saying thank you for all the meaningful work. This goes without saying, but you’re so incredibly well read and well spoken. You’re also one of those people where I think, “She could literally talk about any subject for hours.” Were you always this hungry for knowledge? How did you become you?
I think I was always pretty inquisitive. I went to a really big public high school. There were like 4,500 kids. These were big classes and you’re sort of at sea in that environment. And I found out about a lot of things late. I met Zal when we were in college, as you know, and I remember driving through DC with him and there was a song on the tape deck player, or maybe it was a CD. I remember he put on a song and I was like, “Wow, this is so cool. What is this?” He was like, “Uh, it’s David Bowie?” I was like, “Who?” [laughs] So my upbringing was very small and somewhat sheltered. I didn’t have access to or know about any of those things. It was a long time before I would find those authors or those books. When I got to Georgetown, I had a friend who was like, “God, Brit, why do you do all the reading for all these classes? You don’t have to read all this stuff. You can just take some notes.” But I loved to read everything because I think I was so desperate to learn. I just didn’t have access to those resources growing up in the same way. So when they gave me a list of books to read, I was so grateful for the list. I was like, “Yes, give me the list. I’ll go to the library.” I felt such pleasure from reading all these things. Maybe that sense of hunger is still there. I feel that when I encounter a new writer. I feel this opening of mind. I felt that the first time I encountered Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. What she was thinking about in her science fiction in the nineties is everything we’re up against now, trying to make sense of how to survive these environments. It’s like, “How did see know?” So yeah, I guess I still feel that hunger. I still feel my own limitations as well. I still feel, all the time, very aware of the things I don’t know, and so I keep reaching out with hunger to try to know more. I think I also feel very aware of how limited our time is on earth in these bodies. I felt, since I was a little kid, an acute sense of that, I don’t know why. I do feel sometimes in a bit of a race with time like there are more stories I wanna tell than I know there is time to tell them. It sort of feels like, “I gotta make use of each one of these days because they’re slipping through my fingers.” They’re precious, you know?
The remarkable thing is that your hunger spawned stories that are now blowing other minds wide open. It’s like passing the baton of your knowledge. There’s true evidence of that.
You may not believe me when I say this, but this encounter and this conversation has given me so much energy to keep going. So when I go to sit down and write the next story and I hit the wall of self-doubt—“Should I make this? Is this any good?”—I’m gonna remember this. I’m gonna be like, “Brit, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s gonna be okay.”