The filmmakers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij have what they call a “garden.” It’s not an actual garden, however. It is what Batmanglij described in a recent interview as a “garden of ideas that exists between us.”
“Some of those seedlings we’ve been cultivating for years, since our early days of sitting on skateboards in one of our bedrooms in Silver Lake and talking to each other,” he said last month, sharing a booth with Marling in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel. “We were ready to cut one of those blooms and plant it.”
The latest product of that garden is their new series, “A Murder at the End of the World,” premiering with two installments Nov. 14 on FX on Hulu. The seven-episode show has a conventional, almost trendy hook: It is a murder mystery set at a remote Icelandic luxury retreat for some of the world’s most influential people, details reminiscent of buzzy recent films and shows like “Glass Onion” and “The White Lotus.” But with its time-jumping structure, uniquely eerie tone and warnings about artificial intelligence and climate change, it is also unmistakably the work of the idiosyncratic creators behind “The OA,” “Sound of My Voice” and “The East.”
However even they were surprised by the protagonist they ended up with, a Gen-Z amateur detective named Darby Hart, played by Emma Corrin (“The Crown”). A true-crime author who grew up trying to crack cold cases on internet forums, Darby and her sleuth skills are tested when a guest ends up dead at a gathering hosted by a tech billionaire (Clive Owen) and his former coder wife (Marling), where a remarkably advanced A.I. named Ray (Edoardo Ballerini) serves as an assistant to the guests.
“All of a sudden this outlier poppy in the corner, Darby, showed up, and said, ‘I represent the times,’” Batmanglij said.
Marling, 41, and Batmanglij, 42, talk in metaphors and big ideas. This makes sense if you’ve seen their body of work, which includes surreal sagas about grand topics, among them the afterlife and the end of the world, often featuring characters who consider themselves soothsayers.
They have been planting their seeds for decades. They met as students at Georgetown in 2001 and started collaborating a couple of years later when Batmanglij invited Marling, then a summer analyst at Goldman Sachs, to participate in a 48-hour film festival, making a short film over the course of one weekend.
The experience convinced Marling, the class valedictorian who was a double major in economics and art (with a focus on photography), to leave her business ambitions behind. “We had found this profound space together,” she said. “We basically have been telling stories in one way or another much in that fashion ever since.”
Their first co-written feature, “Sound of My Voice,” was directed by Batmanglij and featured Marling, her long blond hair giving her an ethereal look, as a mysterious cult leader who claims to be from the future. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 alongside “Another Earth,” which Marling also starred in and co-wrote with another Georgetown friend of theirs, Mike Cahill. Both films sold and Marling was the de facto star of that year’s festival. But after their Sundance success and despite bigger offers from Hollywood, she and her cohorts opted to recommit to their indie mission.
“We had this instinct of not doing those things, like not playing the girlfriend of the movie star in this sort of empty action film,” Marling said. “And to instead be like, ‘No, let’s keep telling our stories. Let’s keep getting better at telling them.’”
Marling and Batmanglij followed up “Sound of My Voice” with “The East,” starring Marling and Alexander Skarsgard, about a woman who goes undercover with an anarchist group committing acts of eco-terrorism.
Their biggest platform yet came in 2016 when their series “The OA” debuted on Netflix. Marling played a formerly blind woman who arrives home, after a mysterious disappearance, having regained her sight and calling herself “original angel.” She tells the story of her life — which involves Russian aristocracy and a mad scientist experimenting on people with near death experiences — to a group of high schoolers and a teacher, showing them “movements” that can supposedly help them jump dimensions. In the even more ambitious second season, which debuted in 2019, there were plot lines about tree internet and a mind-reading octopus.
Critics found the series fascinating and flawed, but it had a passionate following. When Netflix canceled the show after the second season, fans started a hashtag campaign and one even staged a hunger strike outside Netflix headquarters in Los Angeles.
“It had scope and ambition and was, by design, not the lowest-budget project around,” said Cindy Holland, who was the streamer’s vice president of original content at the time. “It became clear that it was going to be unsustainable as an ongoing project in that form at Netflix at the time, and it was a fairly sad experience for all of us, including the audience.”
Marling said she sees the unexpected end of the series now as almost prophetic. “‘The OA’’s cancellation was a harbinger for a transformation for something that was afoot in the industry,” she said.
“The space had been disrupted, a bunch of creativity and market energy had rushed into that space,” she continued. “But now it was going to calcify or solidify into something that in many ways was a broken business model and much worse than what had been before.”
She and Batmanglij are still convinced they will finish the story of “The OA” at some point, in some form, but they decided to move on to what would become “A Murder at the End of the World.” The pair wrote the episodes — some together, some separately, some with other writers — and took turns directing. The show’s themes seemed to get only more relevant as they were making it.
“It was really eerie, actually, to see with this one the number of things that when we had set out to write it four years ago it was science fiction,” Marling said. “When we talked about any of this stuff with people, we had to explain what is a deep fake, what is an A.I. assistant, what’s a large language model — how does that work? And then by the time we were editing it, to see everything come to pass.”
In an interview, John Landgraf, the chairman of FX networks, called the show a “Russian nesting doll of an idea” — a comparison Netflix also used regarding “The OA.”
“There was a very rigorous depiction of technology and the physical world,” he said, explaining that the concept appealed to him because it promised a “very grounded, well-researched depiction that nevertheless had a very big set of abstract and imagistic and emotional ideas attached to it.”
While fear of the apocalypse hangs over much of the Marling and Batmanglij canon, including “A Murder at the End of the World,” their work rarely feels dystopian.
There is also a twinkly-eyed belief in the good of humanity lurking underneath the techno-terrors, and the need to pay attention to feeling over just data.
“They want to be putting positive ideas out into the world,” said Alex DiGerlando, the series’s production designer and longtime collaborator. He said this optimism manifests in various ways on set — any time they are met with a potentially disheartening scenario, he said, they find a way to see the bright side.
Among the roadblocks they hit while filming “A Murder at the End of the World” were supply shortages, Covid outbreaks and disruptive storms. Marling got hypothermia during their monthlong shoot in Iceland. (The hotel’s interiors were built on a soundstage in New Jersey.)
“I was kind of blown away, to be honest, by how indefatigable they were,” Landgraf said. “They just literally did not, would not quit on anything until it was the very, very best they could possibly make it.”
Marling said that the intensity of her and Batmanglij’s commitment takes root even before they share their ideas with anyone else.
“We make the world so real between ourselves at first, that it’s literally like a third place that exists,” she said. “It has a floor and a door, and we can open the door and invite people in.”
Floors, doors, gardens — Marling and Batmanglij might mix metaphors, but what’s clear is that they see their stories as tangible objects that they nurture together with a willingness to embrace the unexpected.
“We don’t have a favorite plant or tree or seed or sapling in the garden,” Batmanglij said. “We treat them all with so much love because sometimes it’s the one that you don’t water at all that starts blooming.”
Content Source: www.nytimes.com