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Brit Marling on A Murder at the End of the World and Finding Her Rhythm as a Writer

For multi-hyphenate storyteller Brit Marling, writing is like harnessing a beating heart.

Marling, who only days earlier had been nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for “A Murder at the End of the World,” describes to RogerEbert.com a writing process that seems almost visceral.

The eventual words on a page, Marling explains, come from a sort of heartbeat that’s waiting to be born. As a writer, Marling sees herself as a midwife whose job is to birth a story that has been there all along.

Listening to Marling on Zoom one Monday night, it’s clear why she, a Georgetown University alum who was once recruited by Goldman Sachs for investment banking, wound up in Los Angeles, not Wall Street. She almost transcends the computer screen as she speaks about her work in a way that is somehow equal parts brilliant and approachable. She transitions with ease from an anecdote that seems to pour from her soul to an enthusiastic nod and point toward the lens as we add our two cents. Nearly two decades into her career, she is anything but jaded as she takes us through her own story.

Perhaps it was Marling’s guiding heart that led her down the path to becoming an actor, writer, and filmmaker. In the case of her latest project, the Hulu miniseries “A Murder at the End of the World,” Marling served as all three at once.

For this year’s Women Writers Week, RogerEbert.com spoke with Marling about making the leap from Washington, D.C. to Hollywood, immersing herself in Gen Z culture for “A Murder at the End of the World,” and what makes a truly good tale.

Cailin Loesch: You met two of your longtime collaborators, one with whom [Zal Batmanglij] you co-created and co-wrote “A Murder at the End of the World” while you were studying at Georgetown University. And I just think that’s the coolest thing ’cause I like to imagine you guys switching back and forth between partying and making these award-winning movies together. [All laugh] Take us back to the beginning of those relationships.

Brit Marling: Sometimes that is how it went: sometimes we were at a party and then we would go shoot something, or sometimes we would decide we needed to shoot a scene set at a party and then throw a party and make everybody be the background in the scenes. At the time, Georgetown as a school was maybe more known for economics and international relations and people going to Capitol Hill or working at a bank after they graduated.

Hannah Loesch: That’s sure how I thought of it.

Marling: Exactly. So I think it was sort of odd for this community of rebels who were interested in filmmaking to form. Mike Cahill and Zal Batmanglij and I started making little movies together. There was another group that was doing improv at the time, and Nick Kroll and John Mulaney and Jacqueline Novak came out of that world. It ended up being a series of years in which we were all very inspired and excited by each other’s writing and creative talent and desire to just make stuff from our imaginations. The first ever Georgetown Film Festival happened during that time, which kind of spurred people along. Then we moved out to L.A., and at the beginning Mike and Zal and I were very much waiting for the industry to notice us, trying to audition or get jobs in all the traditional ways. And then after a long time of hitting our heads against the wall, we were finally like, “Wait, why don't we just go back to making films the way we used to when we were at Georgetown?” And so the first couple of films that we made that went to Sundance came very much out of the spirit of begging, borrowing, stealing, pleading, whatever we had to do.

CL: It is funny ’cause they do say don’t work with friends and don’t work with family, but it’s worked out very well for you. [Laughs] Do you feel like you’re in a different zone in your relationship hanging out as friends versus when you’re working? Or is it just all intertwined?

HL: It’s inspiring to be surrounded by like-minded people who have the same interests. That was my favorite part about going to college too. 

Marling: And you guys know very intimately what it’s like to work with family! My parents work together, Z’s parents work together, and so I think we both grew up with that model of how much fun it is to collaborate with people that you love, you know? The experience of being alive and the things that you see and do together folds into the work you make. And vice versa. For us, it’s always felt like a natural fit, like I’m sure it has for you. 

CL and HL: Of course!

Marling: And also the way you both finish each other’s thoughts and sentences and you can feel each other out. Zal and I have that with each other at this point. We’ve been working together on various things for over two decades. One of us can say something and the other just picks up and knows exactly what that person’s thinking about, what the past references are. There starts to be sort of a shared language that allows you to get to the nexus of the idea more quickly than if you were starting from scratch with somebody you just met yesterday.

CL: Your career really began with “Boxers and Ballerinas,” which was a documentary that you directed. And since then, you've also co-created, produced, and written shows and movies, and also acted in them. At what point did you decide you wanted to make films, and then at what point did you decide you wanted to act?

HL: And what came first? [All laugh] 

Marling: That’s such a good question. I think maybe I always had a storyteller within me, but I didn’t know how to access it or what that meant. And I think the first and most obvious thing that I found was acting. You tell this story with your body and with your emotions and your feelings. It was very hard, though, to find my way to the kinds of parts I wanted to play. So then I started writing in order to write those parts for myself. And then we started making those films. But we were making them outside the system. You had to become a producer to make the thing that you had written for yourself to act in. So by the time you get to the end of that line, you've learned a lot of skill sets. [Laughs] And once I had learned them all, I didn’t wanna give them up. Directing “A Murder at the End of the World” is sort of coming full circle, as you said, back to where I started. It feels like now I finally have all the pieces of the puzzle and I'm putting it together. It's a good feeling.

HL: I love that. Let's talk more about “A Murder at the End of the World.” The story follows a Gen Z hacker and an amateur sleuth. Cailin and I are kind of on the border between either being the youngest millennials or the oldest Gen Z-ers. [Laughs] And sometimes when I go on TikTok, I see these middle schoolers and teenagers and it’s like they’re living in a completely different world than we did even ten years ago. Did you have a process for immersing yourself in that Gen Z culture?

Marling: It’s true that now even a couple of years makes a big difference! My sister’s two years younger than me and her relationship with technology and the ease with which she can operate inside certain software programs is so much better than mine. And then when you go back 10, or 20, or 30 years farther, it’s a completely different level. We were really trying to do our homework to get that feeling of a Gen Z amateur sleuth and their relationship with technology. For Darby, the computer is like an extension of her mind. At one point someone takes her smartphone phone away and she’s like, “Okay, you're literally taking half of my brain.” And I think that's true for Gen Z, but also true for all of us now. I think we all kind of operate in this way where if I lost my phone, it would be like losing my journal, my calendar, all my friends, all my photos, and my camera. I think even though I am a millennial, it was easy to identify with that feeling of how much we’ve come to rely on technology and how intimate that relationship is at this point. 

CL: When I go to the gym I always lose service, and sometimes for that hour or so, I’m genuinely freaked out.

HL: You’ve lost your right arm.

CL: I'm like, “What if something happens?” I don’t know what’s going on! [All laugh] It’s good in some ways when you see these younger people who have a certain kind of smarts, a certain skill set that others just don't have. But at the same time, to be so connected has its pitfalls, too.

HL: It’s almost like with social media and everything like that, everybody is an amateur sleuth.

Marling: Oh my gosh. It’s so true. That’s part of where this idea came from, like, wait a second, anyone with a smartphone and access to the internet is a detective now. I mean, Darby’s using the flashlight on her phone as a way to navigate through a darkened house, and using a GPS to find the house, and using satellite imagery to locate stuff, and using the internet and Reddit and the sort of hive mind community she’s built on there. And it’s all coming through this one device, and there was a time when we didn’t have it. I don’t think any of us remember it anymore or how we operated, but [that time] did exist, you know? So hopefully that makes the audience really identify with Darby and her desire to solve things and to puzzle through things to the end. And the ease with which she can do that given the tools in front of her.

HL: I think about this sometimes. I’m like, “We were alive during the MapQuest era.” Like, people literally printed out instructions when they were going somewhere. And now that’s hard to imagine.

CL: I actually don’t think I could have done it. But you just have to adapt to what you have at the time. Darby is a great example of that.

HL: So, we’re longtime fans of Clive Owen’s, so I have to ask you to kind of take us behind the scenes of creating this reclusive billionaire character of his. How did that all come to be? And did you have Clive Owen in mind from the beginning? 

Marling: He’s a longtime favorite of mine, too. I mean, come on. “Children of Men.” Not only has that film become more and more true, it was so ahead of its time. That performance is so powerful. Or his work in “Gosford Par” and “Closer” I mean, he’s just so incredible. Getting to work with him on this was such a dream because you realize that the reason he always stands out in everything that he does is because his preparation is so ferocious and his commitment is so complete. And that’s why he’s very careful about what he signs onto. Because once he signs on, he really gives himself over to the part. We used to do these Zoom sessions on Sundays or we’d meet in person and we would talk for hours about the scenes coming that week. We’d go through them and really take them apart. And because he has done all his homework as an actor, he’s bringing so much to the table in terms of what does or doesn’t feel truthful in his character’s behavior or what he would or wouldn’t say. He just makes every scene that he’s in better than it was. Sometimes that’s about looking at the scene with the writer and director, and some of it’s about what he just does on the day [of shooting] where you're like, “Oh my God, I never would’ve thought of that.” I mean, I cannot say enough about him. I would just like to write things for him forever. 

CL: It’s so good to hear when you’re a fan of somebody’s work that they are good to work with, too.

HL: And it shows on screen.

CL: It’s probably just because I’m not an actor, but when I imagine what it would be like to write for yourself as an actor it feels almost scarier. I guess because I would know how I am different from that character, or I would be like, “In this scene I’m exposing my own vulnerabilities in a way I wouldn’t be if I was acting somebody else's work.” How do you look at it?

Marling: It’s interesting because I think in the beginning I saw writing as a means to an end, and I just wanted to act. And still, when the right part comes my way, I feel so excited to pour myself into it for the reasons you’re saying, which is someone else has imagined something and it has parameters and I have to step into that. And I can’t change the parameters, really. I’ve gotta go deep rather than expand horizontally, if that makes sense.

CL: It does.

Marling: You gotta go deep under the words, deep into the character, to make them feel real true. I felt that so much when Nick Jarecki came to me with “Arbitrage.” I was like, “Wow. This girl.” I haven’t seen this woman in cinema yet, but I know who she is. I know who this person is and I can do it. It’s not like me, but I know how to step into sides of myself and add other pieces and find it. But then there’s also something really beautiful about writing for myself sometimes. Like when there’s a facet of myself that is under-explored and I want to give myself permission to do it, but can’t in the real world. Like Maggie from “Sound of My Voice” was very intense and biting and cruel—sometimes just brutally cruel to people. And I’m not like that day to day, you know. [Laughs] But I definitely have those capacities inside me. And it sometimes feels delicious to get to explore that, those other instincts, within the safety of a fictitious story and set.

HL: With your recent Writers Guild of America nomination, I feel like it’s a good time for reflection on your career as a whole so far. And you have a very interesting story in that you were actually recruited by Goldman Sachs for investment banking early on. [Laughs] And then obviously you took this major detour into storytelling. You’ve told stories in different mediums in many different ways. What have you found to be the most important component of a good story?

Marling: Oh, wow. [Laughs] You know what’s so interesting? I’m going back to writing right now, and every time I go back to writing, I always get this, like, fluttery feeling in my heart where I’m like, “Oh my God, I don’t know how to write.” And I used to be so embarrassed by that. And then I read an interview once with Nicole Kidman, who I think is one of the world’s truly great actors, and she said, sometimes I come on set and even though I’ve done this thousands of times I'm like, “I don't know how to do this. Like, how do I act?” I think there’s something about that that's really incredible. If you can hold onto it—if you do not become jaded, if you always feel every time you’re entering a story or coming on set like it’s the first time—there’s a wilderness to it. You don’t know if you’re any good at it and you've gotta work hard to try to find it. And I feel that about writing. I’ve been tooling on a couple of different stories recently, and the same feeling comes when a narrative falls into place. It’s hard to explain. For a while you’re just feeling around in the dark, and there are different moods and feelings and characters and some snatches of dialogue come. Or there’s a little bit of a setting in a world or a place or some situation you want to explore. And they’re all just kind of fragments, you know? Then suddenly something will come and it will be whole. You asked what makes a great story. I think it’s this thing. It’s you finding something in the dark that has a beating heart that’s waiting to be born, and you’re still in the dark, but you can hear the heartbeat and your job is to just birth it, you know? Every time I’ve gone to start a new one, I’m like, “I don’t know what a story is.” Who knows? And then every time you find a beating heart in the dark you're just like, okay, my job is just to be a humble servant to that story and to let it come through me. That’s such an abstract answer. [Laughs]

CL: It reminds me of when you described working with Clive Owen, how when you did the Zoom meetings and talked about the characters, he always knew how to get to what feels truthful and what doesn’t. Because at the end of the day, storytelling is truth telling, right? That’s like the beating heart you described. If you have that, everything else can be built around it.

Marling: Oh my gosh, yes. And that’s why when you get to work with truly extraordinary actors or directors of photography or production designers or costume designers, the truly extraordinary ones are all people who put their egos aside and can help find the beating heart to deliver that thing to the audience. And Clive is so wonderful at it, and Emma [Corrin,] and Harris [Dickinson], everybody in this cast. We got so lucky. And you know, as a writer-director, you’re not always right. But when you get really great collaborators, they’ll be like, “Oh, it’s over here,” or, “It’s a little bit this,” or, “It’s a little bit that.” And they help ensure that the pulse is robust all the time, and that you never drop the story’s rhythm, that you’re always being true to what that initial rhythm was. You’re all in tune listening for the same thing that you heard the very first time you heard the story. Oh, it’s such a lucky thing when you get to work with good people. There’s nothing like it.

 

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