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Netflix surprise-dropped its latest sci-fi original series, The OA, with just four days’ notice and little-to-no fanfare. Aside from a creepy trailer and a bare-bones logline, all anyone really knew about the project is that it marked the first foray into television for indie filmmakers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij.
The duo co-wrote many of the eight episodes, Batmanglij directed each installment and Marling starred as Prairie, a young blind woman who returns to her hometown after a mysterious seven-year disappearance — with her eyesight restored.
Co-creators Marling and Batmanglij spoke with THR by phone — but although the conversations took place separately, the longtime collaborators often echoed one another. Below, the duo discuss their novelistic approach to TV, several of the series’ many twists (though they’ll go deeper into the most talked-about plot point in another piece), and whether they’re looking to make a second season.
Did you have any say in the top-secret release strategy?
Zal Batmanglij: I guess the beauty of Brit and I not being too well-known is that no one really cared! We relished in that. We asked actors for the most part not to make announcements when they got cast, and we had a Braille logo that we used as The OA logo, so when we were filming in New York state there weren’t signs that talked about the show. We just tried to make it something that was off the radar and I guess Netflix liked that too.
Where did the genesis of this story come from?
Brit Marling: I think there are probably so many different things in there, but I’ll try to tell you the ones that still stick out in my mind from that time. One thing that happened many, many years ago is we’d met a young woman who had a near-death experience. It was a very harrowing story — she described the sensation of leaving her body and being outside of her body and looking down at herself in the hospital room, and she described the sense of peace she sort of felt. The only lingering thing in her mind … was do the people that I love know how much I love them?
I started reading a lot about [near-death experiences], and I think it was fascinating to realize that there isn’t any real scientific metric for any of it. It’s really a lot about first-person accounts of what they feel they went through or what they feel they saw. When somebody who is tone-deaf flatlines, dies for seven minutes, and comes back with perfect pitch, what’s going on there? What does that mean? That felt like a really rich springboard to jump off into the kind of science fiction-fantasy premise of … what is on the other side? Where are they going? Is it the same place? Is it different places?
That was always there from the early days, as was the idea of a maximalist, surrealist story being braided with a minimalist story that was very much of the world we all know — the Costco and the Panera and the public high school. We spent time in the Midwest hanging out in classrooms, meeting kids and talking to teachers and hanging out at sports practices and at the gym. I think we became interested in the idea of what it means to come of age right now in this country. In what ways are the narratives that young people are consuming supporting them, and in what way are the narratives failing to help prepare them to come of age and meet the world we’re living in now? All this stuff swirls around, and somewhere in the eye of that storm and pressure a story begins to form. Your job is trying to figure out how to put it on the page and then on the screen.
Batmanglij: We wanted to take what we love about a novel and the novelistic experience and put it on the long-format series experience — not having all the characters in the first hour, not having all the chapters be the same length. Could you imagine if the chapters of a book were all the same length? It would be funny. So we thought to ourselves about those constraints. Also, novels are often about something. They have an intention that the writer is trying to get across, and I think both Brit and I felt that we wanted to do that too. We wanted to try to say something that we believed in. The history of television is about sort of numbing your mind and putting you in a place to buy things — because that’s what it was, to buy and sell things. Of course in this new era of television that’s no longer true, but we’re still sort of married to that old way of doing it. We wanted to try something new.
How did you plot those uniquely structured episodes?
Marling: It’s great when the story or the content can dictate the form rather than the other way around, which is I think what we’re used to. We’re used to figuring out how to invent within the boxes we’re given. If you’re now telling stories in a space where people can binge-watch them, where nobody’s selling ad space in between, all of a sudden you have to say to yourself, why does it need to be this length, or why do all of the main characters have to appear in the first hour, or why does it have to feel episodic? It’s like suddenly you’re really free to let the story actually build its thesis. It’s an exciting time to be telling stories, I think.
Do you think The OA is a hopeful show?
Marling: I think it’s hopeful because I think at its core, it’s the idea that storytelling is a very powerful way to create community and create tribe where there wasn’t one before. In the beginning of the story, there’s five desperately alienated people in Crestwood, in the boys’ realm, and the same in the story she tells. The captives have gone mad and are in despair. I think in those spaces, storytelling becomes this force that binds and unites through ritual, through the deliciousness of what happens next, through the desire to talk about shared narratives with people, and I think that is ultimately a hopeful thing for how we can connect. How we can connect in this time rather than disconnect from each other and from ourselves?
Batmanglij: I believe in meaning over nihilism. A lot of filmmakers I respect a great deal, their films end with a thesis of nihilism. Irony and nihilism are very popular means or threats in creative work these days, but I don’t believe in those things, and I don’t think the world is random and indifferent and nasty. I think it has elements of those things, but I think just as much there is meaning. For me, I think that meaning is in the relationships between people, especially unexpected people, and also in believing in something, in having some faith. If something is clear-cut, then you’re not having faith in it. That’s the thing with movies — if it shows you everything, then you’re just suspending your disbelief and you’re believing whatever the filmmakers are showing you. But if all the electricity goes out at the end of a story and you’re just left in it, you can [interpret with] what you bring to the table. I think every reaction is valid. Being outraged is valid. Being moved to tears is valid. Laughing is valid. Those things are all fair. I think they’d also be all the things we’d really experience if we were in the presence of something amazing, awesome, different.
How did you settle on using a school shooting as the inciting incident for the final performance of the movements?
Batmanglij: It’s a topic that we read about a lot. We read about people being held in a basement in captivity, and we think how can this exist in the same world that we live in that we go day to day without living in captivity? These are hard things to reconcile, and that was Prairie’s experience. She experienced something horrific and traumatic. I think the natural version of that for the boys, the same version of that unimaginable trauma, is the school shootings that we hear so much about. I think it’s the logical version of violence in their life — hyper-unexpected, unimaginable violence.
Marling: When we followed the threads of the story we were telling to its conclusion, it appeared and it felt honest. It felt like the face of nihilism and disconnection and absence of meaning or narrative, of even masculinity gone awry. It felt like that force and it felt like the natural place for this season to end.
The truth is, when I really think about it, I think we built this narrative to get to that moment and there isn’t much … that any of us can add to it further or even say about it. We all gave a little piece of ourselves to get to that moment and have it be real and have it hold meaning, and I think that’s why it enters a wordless space. The end of it is about wordlessness. It’s about a place and a feeling and about the time we’re in right now that I don’t think words can touch, or if they can, I’m not a gifted enough writer to reach them with words. I that’s why it is what it is and I think the story in that moment finally speaks for itself.
Does that ambiguity mean this is the end of the story, or could we see a second season?
Batmanglij: I think this is a story that’s carefully planned. I don’t think any of us have thought about a second season right now because we’re exhausted, but yeah, when we started, Brit and I spent two or three years conceiving of a whole world before we brought it to anybody, before it ever left our bedrooms. Things are going on there.
Marling: I think from the very beginning when we were on our own daydreaming a story, we definitely thought how can we construct something that, many seasons out, has a satisfying end? So there is an end and there is an answer to every riddle and nothing is done to just be sound and fury going nowhere. It all goes somewhere. And as to whether or not we get to tell that, I certainly hope that we do. There is a place that season two already begins in our minds and a place in which it ends.
All episodes of The OA are now streaming on Netflix.
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