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Of the many twists in the first season of Netflix’s latest mystery sci-fi series, The OA, there’s one in particular that certainly has people talking. If you’ve watched, you know exactly what it is: The fact that in the fourth episode, Brit Marling’s Prairie and Emory Cohen’s Homer discover that the key to healing the sick — and to ultimately ascending to another trajectory of existence — is an otherworldly dance sequence called The Movements.
The Movements also play a key role in the season finale, which sees the group of teenage misfits (and their equally adrift teacher) stopping a school shooter by perfectly performing the Movements that Prairie taught them as she told them the captivating story of what happened during her seven-year disappearance.
THR spoke with co-creators Marling and Zal Batmanglij, who both said they completely understand the instinct to laugh as the Movements are revealed. In separate conversations, the longtime collaborators explain the meaning behind them — and why you shouldn’t call them “interpretive dance.”
When did you know that these Movements would play such a key role in the series?
Marling: The movements were there from the very beginning. The seeds of the show [were] near-death experiences, Midwestern teenage boys and possibly angelic movements. Those three things were the Venn diagram we were trying to get to the center of. I think in some ways the show is really designed around them. I think it’s about a lot of different things. I think part of it is that the feeling I get in my own life and certainly the feeling I got when we were on our research trip, it seems like we’re all living a little bit from the neck up. We’re just in our heads, and technology has only exacerbated that. We’re just spinning, whirring brains and we can’t even shut off to sleep anymore, we’re checking our phones for text messages in the middle of the night. I think that the Movements felt like a call to returning to the body and other intelligences that we have abandoned that are possibly greater than the linear, rational thinking of the mind sometimes.
[Choreographer] Ryan Heffington is an artist who we’ve both admired for the better part of a decade who’s always been creating really brilliant work out here in L.A., and what I’ve always felt when I go to his shows or his performances is that he is tapping into something other, something of a wilderness inside people that feels true to me, and I think that when he designed these movements for the story and the show that he was giving that gift to all of us. All of the actors who trained in it, in the beginning, [we] had the response that some of the audience had. We’re a bunch of actors, we’re not dancers, we’re not even necessarily particularly athletic, some of us, and we’re just showing up in our sweats in a room. We’ve all just met each other and now we’re going to move our body in ways we’ve never moved them before? And we’re going to do it in front of each other?
In the beginning, you’re embarrassed, you’re ashamed, you laugh a little to make it feel OK, by by the time we were doing those movements for two or three months on end, something otherworldly starts to happen in your own body and starts to happen between people who are doing them.
Something happened on set at the end of five — it wasn’t even written in the script. There’s this moment when OA and Homer are having this pretty basic lover’s quarrel. She’s like, “You ran away to Havana and you cheated on me, I don’t trust you, you betrayed me,” and he’s like, “But baby, I love you still,” and she’s like, “No, I don’t forgive you,” and then he touches some place of profound pain to show her how ashamed he is, and she forgives him, and they do all of this without any dialogue at all. They do all of it just moving through these movements, and somehow you understand it all and you understand it even more immediately than if they had used language. I think movement is like that. It’s one of the most primal, immediate, ancient forms of communication, and I think this woman has this traumatic experience and whether it was all true or part true or metaphor for a deeper truth that is hard to get at with facts, she [introduces] this technology to the boys and it has a profound effect on them and it bonds them and motivates them and liberates them in some way that maybe nothing else could have.
I think the whole range of response to [the Movements] is beautiful and is right and I understand it all because I had that range of response in learning them myself.
What I feel is that your job as a storyteller just to, in that moment as best as you know how, try to tell a legible story. And each time, hopefully get a little bit better at making it legible, and the response is up to the audience. I feel all responses are fair game. Some of the things that have moved me the most in the world are things that other people have not been moved by at all.
We live in a time that’s really complex and really scary and the way we’ve protected ourselves against that terror is by putting on a cloak of irony and cool and cynicism, and those things are effective. I think it’s hard to let too much of it in. But there’s something about this story for whatever reason, the way that it came into the world and all the people who worked on it to make it, it gave us all permission to be unguarded for a moment and raw and the opposite of cynical, and I feel like that’s something that I can really stand behind.
Those are the kind of stories I feel like I am also seeking out. I’m tired of the view of the suburbs where it’s tongue-in-cheek and condescending and belittling to those spaces. I grew up in those spaces! Real things happen in the Costco and the suburban tract housing development. I think for us it was about going to those spaces and finding out what is heartbreaking and sometimes metaphysical and sometimes horrifying and sometimes beautiful and just rendering that.
What do you think about the reaction to the Movements?
Batmanglij: I think it’s unfortunate when serious reviewers call it interpretive dance because that’s rude to the art form. You wouldn’t call Moonlight an interpretive filmmaking experience. That’s where dance is at, Ryan Heffington is one of the foremost artists working in that space. I think disparaging something you don’t understand, while a very normal thing, I expect more from serious people.
But I think people laughing at it and stuff, that’s good. That’s part of it. I think if aliens came to Earth, we would laugh. If there was an alien technology, we would laugh. I think anything truly different, it doesn’t just cause awe, and I think a lot of people feel awe when they see the movements — but probably just as many people feel the giggle inside of them and I think that’s OK. I don’t think there’s any specific way to feel.
I think about edamame. The first time I ever tried edamame, I thought it was gross. I didn’t understand the hairy skin. It didn’t taste good to me. Now I scarf down a bowl of edamame when I sit down at a restaurant and I don’t think twice about it.
Calling it “interpretive dance” might be reductive…
Batmanglij: That’s not reductive, it’s inappropriate. It’s not interpretive. What is it interpreting? It’s OK to not have the language for something because it’s never been done before in a narrative situation. But that’s not what that is called. That’s not interpretive dance. It sounds funny when you say it like that and sure, it is funny. Funny is not wrong.
I think if there’s anything 2016 has taught me, it’s that we have a real hard time with women in our society, we have a hard time with the feminine. And so what are the Movements other than a more feminine thing? It’s really hard for us. We don’t like it. We don’t think it’s serious, and that’s a larger conversation to have. But I feel great and there shouldn’t be any prescribed reaction. People can have any reaction they want to it. Even calling it interpretive dance, it’s fine. I just think it’s inaccurate.
What is the finale other than hypermasculinity meets hyperfemininity? And it causes us to laugh because we never think the feminine can stand a chance against the normalized masculine. It’s a ludicrous idea for us as a society. That’s just my interpretation. My interpretation is just one of many, this is something in the world now. People can react to it any way they want. When I read a visceral reaction that’s so violent a reaction, I think, “Ah, interesting, something’s happening here.”
All episodes of The OA are now streaming on Netflix.
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