The OA’s Brit Marling on bringing mind-bending sci-fi to Netflix

Brit Marling tells us about creating Netflix’s mysterious series The OA

Since making a hell of an arrival as the star and co-writer of Another Earth and Sound Of My Voice, Brit Marling has emerged as one of the most exciting talents around. The news that she and her SOMV and The East co-writer and director had teamed up for a Netflix series was very exciting indeed, and the result is definitely something worth shouting about.

In the eight-part series The OA, now streaming on Netflix, Marling plays a blind woman named Prairie who suddenly reappears after being missing for seven years with her sight restored. She now calls herself The OA and resists telling her parents (the quietly fantastic Alice Krige and Scott Wilson) anything about her experiences. Instead, she recruits a troubled, violent teen named Steve (Patrick Gibson, who is a brilliant discovery) to find a group to listen to her recount her story…

It’s an extremely difficult show to talk about, as Marling and Batmanglij play with the TV format and structure, while every episode takes The OA’s journey, and those of her loyal listeners, in new and shocking directions. We can definitely tell you that it’s great, and that we were thrilled to get the chance to talk to Marling about it…

How did The OA come about?

I guess a couple of years ago…oh no it was even before that, that’s amazing! It might have been over four years ago, we first started talking about the idea of trying to create a long format mind-bender in which we solved the end of the mind bender before we began the very first chapter. We love the mind-bender as a genre but usually in films you spend the first hour setting up the rules and the sci-fi space in which you operate, and by the time you set up, you have a half hour to play in that space, and then you’ve gotta end the movie.

So it seemed like long format was a space that it was really suited to. Then we started talking about storytelling, really, and the power of storytelling, and the idea of a young woman who has an experience that is very hard to relate in a straightforward way, it would be like looking into the sun, it would blind you. So she could only explain it by looking into the periphery of it and by turning it into a story, and that she can’t share that story of what happened to her with her parents or with the FBI or trauma counsellor, all the traditional places where one might seek solace or repair from something like that but she instead opens up to this group of teenage boys. We found it really interesting and moving, the idea that this victim…normally when we see a story like this it’s from a very different angle and the girl is the victim.

Here, something bad happens to this woman but she takes it and her recovery from trauma becomes an experience with agency. She’s telling this story to these boys to recruit them to some end and I think, in the telling, she ends up giving the boys something they need. So those are all the early feelings; teenage boys in the Midwest and the kind of lost boys nature of coming of age right now, with the infiltration of technology and the derailing of the American dream and all these things, then meeting up with a woman who has seen something other and attempts to share it with them.

THE OA

It’s such an ambitious story, in terms of the scope and the emotions, and the themes…is it daunting just thinking about approaching something this big?

Yes! [laughs] There were so many moments during the making of this when I thought “We have really bit off more than we can chew, it’s just so big,” all the time. But I think what’s interesting about it, in the writing, you really end up clinging to the characters you create and the voices you can really understand.

From the earliest seeds, there was always the idea of this character Steve Winchell, who’s incredibly violent, who feels imprisoned by the narrowness of the definition of masculinity in this country and is suppressing all of his more sensitive instincts, but it’s all there and he’s like a powder keg that’s ready to blow at any moment because he’s so sensitive and not allowed to express himself.

And the idea of a teacher who’s in her 50s, a divorcee who doesn’t have any children, who wanted it to be her mission to connect with kids like this but has since given up on that and is just sort of phoning in her job, and the idea that somehow this girl was going to come and help those two see each other and in fact become instrumental to each others’ life and growth and recovery, that triumvirate was always there. And later, as the threads formed, it became three dimensional and vivid, and after a while enough pieces are on the board that they begin to play themselves together.

I really do think that stories just come through you and, at best, the story is like a skeleton under the earth and you’re just there to dig out the skeleton and stand it up and see what kind of prehistoric creature it is! But I think we’re a little bit like that, we’re just diggers and you find other diggers to come and dig out the story with you. You find collaborators and I think together, you sort it out along the way, if that makes sense! But yes, it’s daunting!

It’s kind of a difficult show to describe to people! Was it a difficult project to actually go out and pitch?

In the early stages we tried to make a classic bible that would articulate where it could go, not just in the first season but possibly for many, many seasons. That document just never worked, it was hard to explain it all on the page, so Zal and I took to literally doing a performance. We would just act it all out together playing different parts and hitting highlights of where things would reach in the moment.

We had been doing it on our own for a good three years just building a world, and then we met [production company] Plan B and they really understood it and right away they had great instincts and great notes, and then I think we all stepped back and were like “Who in the world is going to make this? It’s pretty far out!” It’s testing the limits of a lot of things, and it wants to be chapters of different lengths and it doesn’t want commercial breaks…But we went in and we did that play for Netflix, Zal and I just performing it all through, and they just got it. I think they’re very interested in the frontier of storytelling and pushing things to different conclusions, and so they came on board to do it. It was really fantastic there.

They tend to greenlight a series in its entirety, which is really great because it means that you can liberate yourself from the idea that everything has to be upfront in the pilot, because you’ve gotta make this pilot as a proof of concept to mitigate the risk of the investment that follows. What’s amazing about Netflix is they find something, they believe in it, and then they really believe in it and that allows you to then tell a story according to how the story wants to be told rather than having to create a proof of concept in the first hour. You could never imagine a novel doing that. Imagine if you opened Murakami and Murakami was giving you a proof of concept in the first chapter, it doesn’t really work that way!

THE OA

Did you always know that you were going to play The OA?

It was definitely in our minds from the beginning, but the funny thing is, when we were writing together, we really had to forget that. I, at least, had to forget it because, if you didn’t, I think you wouldn’t put yourself in so many compromised or risky situations! You’d be like “That seems a little tricky to pull off; maybe someone else can do that.” You have to forget it because you have to put the character through the paces that the story demands that the character goes through.

Certainly I think once we finished all eight and sat back, Zal put his director hat on and I put my actor hat on and I read the eight scripts through, not as a writer but as an actor, being like “I now have to play this part,” I definitely had a moment of genuine terror. Especially because we had so many responsibilities to fulfil as showrunners just to get through pre-production, and I was like “How am I going to do all that and prepare this part?” I felt pretty genuinely overwhelmed, but I think you eventually find these keys that are ways in and recently a lot of those have been physical keys, using the physical as a back door to the psychological.

In this story blindness was really important, and what it would mean to spend so many years in that dark. I spent time with this incredible man Joe Strecchi who’s been blind since he was 19, and he taught me to cook and he taught me to cane around New York City, and I would do all these things blindfolded with him. Right away you develop a completely different way of being in your body, where touch becomes more important, and smell, and you just move through the universe differently. Sometimes I think beginning from a physical place like that helps you understand intuitively rather than intellectually why your character is the way they are.

Having collaborated with Zal on Sound Of My Voice and The East, do you feel like your working relationship has changed at all?

I think it’s changed in that it’s really deepened. Zal also directed all eight of these, which is such a massive feat, because the show is so sprawling and touches so many places and is so ambitious and there are moments that he has realised in this that far exceeds what I imagined from even our script phase.

You’re extraordinarily lucky if you get to work with someone and you can trust each other to hopefully bring to bear what the script is promising. I think we have a lot of trust in each other and I think we also really push each other. We’ve learned the space in which we can read each other’s pages and be like, “OK, this feels real and this doesn’t,” and there’s no ego in that. I think ego left the building a long time ago, and you reach a place where you know that you’re both after the same thing, which is the story and that you’re just a humble custodian of that thing.

The story is the dictator and the story is in charge and she is going to tell you what she wants and you’d better get her what she wants, you know? She wants this scene, not that, she wants this location, not that, she wants this actor, not that, and it’s nice to have a partner who really believes that you’re just bringing the story to bear and it doesn’t have as much to do with you.

Netflix has kept the details of this series under wraps and you’ve been working for so long on it. How does it feel to have it almost ready to come out?

I think, in truth, I don’t know that I’ve fully comprehended it. I don’t know that any of us have really taken in the implications of global storytelling and what that means. It used to be that you’d release a film and it had to do well at a festival, and it had to do well domestically, and then maybe it would be international, so the idea now that these stories happen globally all at once is really interesting.

I don’t know, I’m not sure what that means yet, but I think it’s exciting and I hope that…I think there’s a very strange part of the process in which you’ve spent so much time with something and then it very much is not yours anymore. You really do make stories to give them away, and they don’t belong to you after that, and it’s less about what you thought you were doing and more about: How does it move people on the various shores it washed up against? So I’m very curious about that, I think sometimes there are a handful of reactions to something where it makes you feel that it was worth everything you gave up.

To tell a story, you end up sacrificing a lot because the time and the mental focus is so intense that a lot of other areas of your life are not getting the same energy that they used to. So you hope that you’ve given all that up to a good end, but you just don’t know until you see if it’s moved people. It’s like the character says, the future is dark, we don’t know!

The OA is streaming now on Netflix. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.