Brit Marling feels drawn to life's biggest questions because everything is a mystery to her. It's what she and her long-time co-collaborator Zal Batmanglij find to be the most intriguing aspects of the world and humanity. Probing the deeper meaning of why was the reason they wrote their now-canceled 2016 Netflix hit "The OA." But now they're back, and this time stronger than ever, asking the same questions that propelled them into success with the "The OA."
In their new FX series "A Murder at the End of the World," which stars "The Crown's" brilliant standout Emma Corrin, the duo explores the world of online amateur sleuthing using technology all the while pondering all of the big questions about our morality, ethics and artificial intelligence. It may sound intense, and it is, but ultimately Marling tells me in our "Salon Talks" chat that she views the world in its complexities but also is deeply interested in the humanity of that. "The world has always felt more charged somehow," she said. "And so I'm interested in the mundane, but I'm always interested in how the mundane meets up with the metaphysical."
Marling may be drawn to mysteries but she's pretty open about her intricate creative process and her deep love of the acting, writing and directing craft. It is so apparent when she talks about "Murder at the End of the World" or "The OA" that she has an endless well of ideas that challenge the very formulaic television format. She and her co-creator are successfully experimenting and subverting all the genre expectations as they move through genres like sci-fi and murder mystery with an ease that inspires creatives and anyone pondering life's biggest questions.
Watch Brit Marling's "Salon Talks" interview here or read a transcript below.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You created “A Murder At the End of the World” with you creative partner, Zal Batmanglij. You both talk a lot about this metaphor of a garden of ideas that you have for all your creative ventures. Can you just tell me who planted the first seed for this show?
It's funny, when you've been working with someone as long as Zal and I have been working together, you really genuinely forget who plants the seed at first. Maybe because ideas take a long time to germinate, but also because we tend to the plants so mutually that you don't even know how they started or where they started. You just know they're growing in the garden there.
But I do know the feelings or the ideas that were there as the idea first started to come together, and I think part of it was that we were just really interested in amateur sleuthing. I found that world fascinating, and we started watching documentaries and reading books about how people would find each other online, and these communities would form. A lot of times it was people who hadn't really found purchase in the place they were from, whether that was a sort of outcast, punk teen who couldn't find his place at school, or a disbarred lawyer or a cop that had been kicked off the force, or a housewife who just felt like, "I spent all my day with my kids, but at night I want to be alone in my attic solving these puzzles."
It was an interesting collection of people, and oftentimes they would as a group solve these cold cases that had been unsolved for decades. That just seems such a positive force of the internet, such a beautiful version of collecting people and giving them a common mission and everybody working together to solve something that couldn't be solved. I think that idea just stuck in our minds, and then Darby Hart as a character sort of grew out of that.
Speaking of Darby, you have Emma Corrin playing this character and they're great in this role. You have talked about how you don't really have a desire to write strong female leads. How do you then subvert this trope when you're working with characters like Darby?
I wrote that op-ed for the New York Times a couple years ago, and I guess the headline's sort of deceptive because it's like, “I don't want to be a strong female lead,” which sounds like I don't want to be a strong female, but it was really that I felt a little, I guess, frustrated by the limitations of the kinds of roles I was seeing come out of Hollywood at that time, which was sort of this idea that if you wanted to be a strong female protagonist, then you can just be an assassin and be a trained killer, and that then is strength.
"I like to think that if I sat down and focused on it, I could do just like a straight-up kitchen sink drama ... but I don't know that the world has ever felt like that to me."
It just kind of felt like both ideas of women were thin, whether it was the thin idea of the woman as victim who's just dead at the end of the first act, or whether it was the woman suddenly being given all the weapons and killing people, so then she's the perpetrator. But then that was also kind of thin and it was like, "Where are the roles that feel like the women that we know?"
I wrote that op-ed thinking about some of those things and trying to challenge myself to how do you write characters that feel more robust and complex and that are strong, but maybe strong from a point of listening well or having incredible empathy, or how do we show those characteristics as also being strong rather than too soft or fragile? I think Darby in part was our continued exploration of trying to find that space because Darby's brilliant and she comes up with things that will blow your mind and she's tough and she's courageous, but you also see her in moments be incredibly fragile or vulnerable. I think having that contrast hopefully just feels like a more well-rounded, genuinely three-dimensional female character.
I absolutely do feel like she feels like that three-dimensional character that you're talking about to me, that she really [homes] in on a lot of what you're talking about, this empathetic character, this kind character, but also a drive to do good. Could you speak to that a little bit?
One of the ways that Darby may be different from other detectives we've seen is when Darby comes to the crime scene, I don't think she's the traditional, let's say male cop who comes with the badge and stands over the female victim and is immediately kind of most interested in the serial killer's mind like how did this killer pull off the dark art of what happened here? The mystery often then is a chess game between the cop and the killer, and they're trying to outmaneuver each other, and it's all about the battle of their wits.
I think Darby coming at it from a different angle comes to the crime scene and is more interested in the victim because the victim is probably closer in age and gender to Darby than not, so I think she feels an empathy there often and comes at the investigation from thinking about the life lost and that woman's experience or any person's experience really, rather than just thinking about it from the perspective of the killer, which is maybe a nice turn of events — involves more empathy, more listening, and kind of just a different quality maybe from what we've seen.
Another central focus of the show is artificial intelligence. There's been contentious labor issues surrounding artificial intelligence in the entertainment industry. What are your opinions as an artist who's writing about AI and technology?
I mean, the SAG strike resolved today, which is such a momentous day and so cool that the WGA and SAG both were able to stand up and really demand the protections that artists need. In the case of AI and the entertainment industry, I think sometimes what can happen is technologies out in the lead and things just happen, and then we are all kind of in its wake, following to see what's going to occur.
A lot of artists have been really rightly worried about this kind of over-commodification of storytelling where it's not about a group of humans making a work of art together that also functions as a work of commerce, but instead it just becomes how do we make these stories as widgets as fast as possible, as cheap as possible for as many people as possible?
"Where are the roles that feel like the women that we know?"
This kind of factory model that also was really underpaying everybody, keeping everybody outside of the success of these shows on these streaming platforms — I think people really saw AI as this next step towards that commodification where you just start to strip away human authorship and human performance. An AI model is basically like a large language model; it's basically taking all the works that have been authored before in the past and using that as a dataset and then chopping it up and as a statistical algorithm, deciding what is the most likely next word or paragraph or how would you end this story? And so the algorithm's authoring it, but it is authoring it off of everyone's previous work. I think that's complicated both because everyone's unpaid for that, but also because the history of storytelling is a misogynistic, racist, homophobic endeavor, so if we start making our stories from that body of work, then how are we evolving things forward?
I think in general, probably Zal and I were interested in writing this show in part in talking about the sort of tech billionaires’ futile landscape, their fiefdom and how much power they have and how much power we are surrendering in some ways as we take in the smartphone and take in social media and take in deepfakes and all these things and kind of let the technology drive our lives rather than maybe philosophy being the driving force or ethics or morality or collective thinking of some kind, and technology following behind that maybe in some way.
What do you feel that the show is trying to say about technology, if you were able to sum it up?
I think the tricky thing is I think it's hard to sum up, and I think that's maybe why we wrote the show as an attempt to just sort of sit in the questions. We were talking about amateur sleuthing earlier and how cool it is that people all over the world can find each other on the internet and be crowdsourcing the solving of these cases which they can solve because they're applying more hours to it across different people. They're applying different perspectives rather than a lone detective working on something. So all those things are such a positive; that's really beautiful.
At the same time, I feel like my smartphone, it's impossible to not become addicted to that and to watch how my interactions with social media are changing what I value, what I think about my ability to focus or concentrate. Constantly these forces have real positives, real negatives, and there's no answers. There's just an attempt to sit inside the questions of how are these forces shaping our lives and what does it mean and what are the ways in which it's really beautiful? And then what are the ways in which it's maybe more complicated?
Another atmospheric, heavy aspect of the show is actually its setting and the place that it takes place. What role do you feel shooting in Iceland and also the bunker in the hotel – what roles do they play in the show as well?
It's funny because we knew we wanted it to be in a remote landscape, and we knew we wanted it to be cold and sort of intense. We'd written Scandinavia and then we went to go find where we could actually do this, and we went to scout Iceland. Have you ever been to Iceland?
If you can go, go. I was just blown away by the landscape and the people there. There's something about that place that just feels maybe because the weather is really intense and the majesty of the landscape is so striking, but it feels like people live much more in concert with ecology there, but they're not as separated, and that was an amazing feeling to be around. And then it also really became a character, I think, in the story because when you first encounter this tech billionaire’s dazzling hotel built in the middle of these snowy mountains, you're like, "Oh, it's so beautiful, it's so luxurious." Then of course as the story progresses, you're like, "Wow, this is really far away from any other part of civilization and you can't exactly hike out of here." There's nothing, there's no place to go, and the elements are ferocious.
We were talking earlier about showing human fragility. I think you really see all the characters be tested by the environment and by the elements and how for all of our technology, our helicopters and our this and that, we become really fragile when dealing with an ice storm that goes for days on end.
I mean, you were certainly tested. I heard that you had hypothermia while filming this. Can you talk more about what that experience is like?
It's so intense. I thought hypothermia was just getting in the shakes a little bit, but actually your cognition sort of starts to shut down because your blood is leaving everything to just go to your heart to keep your heart pumping. So that was tough. But you know what? I think it was actually also in some ways really informed the rest of the storytelling in this way because I mean, Darby gets hypothermia in the story at some point, so I could actually tell Emma what it was really like to get hypothermia. But I think also probably an important lesson for me to be reminded we're not invincible in the face of sometimes we act without, I think, the proper respect towards the beauty and the ferocity also of nature of which we are a part. It's probably good and important to get checked every now and again and just be like, "Oh, yeah."
Humbled. I have tissue-paper thin skin, and I can wear all the down coats in the world, but being 14 hours outside on a frozen lake is a lot.
Why was this the right move for you post-“The OA”?
"Every time you remember something, you kind of re-author it, and the memory becomes different."
It's funny. I mean, I guess to go back to the metaphor you brought up earlier about the garden. I think when you like telling stories, you kind of, they're like children and you like all your children however they express or come out. This story is different in a sense that I think “OA” was more overtly metaphysical. It's dealing with near-death experiences and people who are saying that they're angels and angelic technologies. It's more obviously metaphysical and fantasy. In this story, I think the way it started to form in our minds, it didn't need that. It also didn't want that. It sort of felt like trying to still give something the feeling of the metaphysical, but with your hands tied behind your back a little bit.
There are no time travelers or anything that's that far out, but I think we talk about time in an interesting way in the story, and we try to do this braid between the present and the past where you feel how much the present actually reshapes the past as you go back and remember it and every time you remember something, you kind of re-author it, and the memory becomes different, and then that comes in and animates the present in a new way. So we try to think about it as telling a story about time that was more circular rather than thinking of time. That became the sort of metaphysical element, but the rest of the story was more obviously grounded.
When talking about both projects, “OA” is obviously sci-fi, this is more murder mystery. What is that like for you kind of switching gears when it comes to genre and subverting these genres and then working in them? And then why is mystery appealing to us?
I think about that a lot, and I wonder if that is because not everybody loves mystery but some people really love it, and I love writing in that space. I mean, the “OA” is a very different story, but it is also still a mystery. And I think that that is because life feels like that to me. Life on a day-to-day basis feels like a capital M mystery that you're trying to get to the bottom of. Who are we? What are we doing here? What are the answers to big questions? And it also feels like a thriller because at least in my own life, I always feel like the forces of antagonism are great, and I am not able as a protagonist to fully meet them. And so that's a big requirement of the thriller is for things to have a little thrill and be scary. You kind of got to feel like you're really up against something.
Both Zal and I tend to be attracted to those genres more. I like to think that if I sat down and focused on it, I could do just like a straight-up kitchen sink drama, just like a family drama, just like happening in a house, but I don't know that the world has ever felt like that to me. The world has always felt more charged somehow. And so I'm interested in the mundane, but I'm always interested in how the mundane meets up with the metaphysical.
Talking about the “OA,” how do you find that courage to move on post such a big cancellation, especially since it still has fans, it still has fans calling for it to return. How do you move on, how do you find that courage to make something new, something that's just as beautiful?
"Shows do come back ... so maybe there will be a time where the climate of the industry reaches a place where that flower can grow again in the garden."
It's hard. To be honest, it's so hard to see a story end early, and I think one of the things I try to think about when telling stories is to always really stay inside the joy of the process because that you can be inside of and not control, but you can live it and the results you have no control over.
I think Netflix is amazing because there was this moment in time when it was taking really wild bets, and so bless them for making the “OA.” Very grateful for that experience. Who knows, I mean, shows do come back. “Twin Peaks” came back at some point, so maybe there will be a time where the climate of the industry reaches a place where that flower can grow again in the garden.
But I think a lot about how the only way to really survive doing this kind of work is to try to embed yourself as much as possible on the actual joy and act of making it and of getting to talk to people about it and less about necessarily the aspects of it that are just so wildly out of your control.
“The OA,” it dropped all at once on Netflix and then “A Murder” is going to drop weekly on Hulu. What do you prefer as a creator, and what do you feel like is the right experience for the viewer?
I really think it depends on the story, and I'm so glad you asked this because when we made “OA,” we knew we were on Netflix and we knew it was a drop and so we tried to make something that really deliberately felt like an eight-hour film and could be binged, and that could be an experience you could have of it.
With this one, we were really deliberate because it's a murder mystery, it has to be chapter by chapter, and each chapter has to feel kind of pearled, like it has its own beginning, middle and end, and that you're leaving it on a cliffhanger or a question of mystery every time so that people have a week to kind of think about it, debate about it, ask each other who they thought done it, and then a week later you get some answers.
I know you binged it. I know probably some other people down the road will binge it once it all comes out, but I think it was really designed to be sort of parsed out a week at a time because there's a lot of layers in there and there's a lot to think about.
You and Zal said you would be returning to “The OA” at some point. Would you stay true to the five season arc that you had built out, or has the story changed?
I think the fundamentals of it haven't. We had mapped out a sort of beginning and middle and end of these five parts, and I think that architecture still holds. Of course, as the world changes, you have to change with it and let new things in with it. But I kind of think of stories as like earthquake-proof buildings. You have to have some poles in the ground, but they have to have some flexibility to move with the times a little bit.
I am sure that, I mean, we're all different people already than we were when we ended “The OA.” Just what we've all been through in the last couple of years with the pandemic and we're all different from who we were then, and that would of course enter the story, but I think the heart of it remains the same, and the revelations hopefully remain the same.
"A Murder at the End of the World" streams new episodes weekly on Hulu. Watch a trailer via YouTube.
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