Creative Soulmates Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij on Life After ‘The OA’ With ‘A Murder at the End of the World’

When they’re breaking a story, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij — a creative team who’ve been together since their first short film in 2007 — tend to work in the bedrooms of their Los Angeles homes. “We live in small houses on the Eastside,” Marling says during a visit to New York, “so we don’t have room for offices or studies.”

In the first of many times one of the pair picks up the other’s ideas and runs, Batmanglij jumps in. “It feels like pantomime to have offices with assistants, and the assistant asks you if you want a bottle of water — the performance of it,” he says. “Take it back to when you were a kid, building a fort.”

More from Variety

In the months before the pandemic, Marling, now 41, and Batmanglij, now 42, were doing some fort-building — trying to pin down an idea they’d had the year before, and make it work as a story — when they stumbled upon a character who compelled them. “Zal and I always have a garden of ideas,” Marling says, “and there were other things that were plants that have been growing for 10 years. Then, Darby sprung up. She existed so robustly between us.” And, suddenly, “A Murder at the End of the World,” revolving around the amateur detective Darby Hart, became the plant to which they were devoted. They’d intended to pitch the project the week the industry shut down (ending up doing so over Zoom in April 2020), and began writing chapters that year ahead of a 2022 shoot.

The new FX series, which is launching on Hulu on Nov. 14, is a testament to their shared sensibilities — and a milestone, too. Marling and Batmanglij have been collaborators on some of the most intriguing independent films of the early 2010s, including “Sound of My Voice” and “The East,” and through a much-heralded and unjustly (they’d contend, as would millions of fans) canceled Netflix series, “The OA.” Their new show — the first time Marling, a writer and actor, has stepped behind the camera as director — represents a porting-in of their considered, cerebral style to their most accessible story yet. It’s an Agatha Christie-inflected whodunit, one that sparks with ideas about the bleeding-edge concerns of AI and message-board true-crime sleuthing. And it promises to bring a whole new audience into the delicate, strange worlds these two auteurs build in their bedrooms.

Marling, who became friends with Batmanglij when they were undergrads at Georgetown, was a double major in photography and economics. Meeting in the lounge of a Manhattan hotel in a baggy brown houndstooth suit and black Adidas Sambas, alongside her co-director who’s in a trim black suit and matching baseball cap, she’s as comfortable talking about shot selection as she is about the economics proofs she had to work up as an undergrad. “When it really works,” she says, “it’s about coming up with a distillation of complex ideas to the simplest number of variables.” In other words, Marling spent her college years winnowing down the complicated and theoretical to the simple, elegant and true.

Both Marling and Batmanglij speak in easy, unaffected complete paragraphs, and both have a way with deploying metaphor. (Stories emerge from their garden, which abuts the creative space that is their fort…) So it’s no surprise that Marling’s recollection of her college coursework makes for an apt description of the task she and Batmanglij set for themselves with “A Murder at the End of the World.” Here, Darby Hart (Emma Corrin of “The Crown”) has been brought to the eerily remote Icelandic hotel built by a master of the universe of the tech world, Andy (Clive Owen, with Marling playing his wife in a supporting role — one she can’t discuss due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike). Darby became a minor-key internet celebrity after writing a book about solving a cold serial killer case as a teenager with her first love Bill (Harris Dickinson), from whom she’s estranged. Imagine her surprise when Bill, now a controversial artist, is among the guests at Andy’s gathering of geniuses, along with Marling’s Lee, a onetime programming genius and hacker, who’s stepped away from her work; an environmental activist; a roboticist; an astronaut; and still more icy, suspicious personalities.

Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij photographed for Variety at the PMC Studio in Los Angeles on Monday Oct. 23
Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij photographed for Variety at the PMC Studio in Los Angeles on Monday Oct. 23

A burst of violence, while the guests are snowed in, compels Darby to return to her detective instincts — all while the retreat, a creation Andy has hewn out of microchips and nihilistic fear, seems an increasingly hostile setting, with its snowdrifts echoing the bleached-out landscape of the American West where Darby first learned what people are capable of. This is a murder mystery with clean narrative lines and elegant twists, wending its way through the technological chaos of recent years.

That chaos — the ways in which the future of consciousness seems increasingly unpredictable, even as it closes in — is close to the bone for any Old Millennial creator. Gesturing with her iPhone, Marling notes, “I love seeing cool images on Instagram as much as the next person.” (Shortly after our interview, I check out her account, where she commemorates the Iceland “Murder” shoot with a rocky landscape photo and a caption recollecting “i got hypothermia. then covid. twice.”) “But I’m also seeing the ways in which social media is literally changing my ability to imagine.”

And yet the smartphone — maybe not the Instagram app itself, but the promise of connectedness at the heart of the social web — has made Marling a filmmaker. “It’s so important to the feeling of the duality of it all,” she says. “I have a lot of concerns about what the smartphone is doing to my mind, but I haven’t given it up, either.” She compares herself to Darby, the oddball loner who found, in online crime-solving, a community. “I grew up feeling very disconnected,” the Chicago- and Orlando-raised Marling says. “I sometimes wonder, if I had been a part of Gen Z, would I have found that connection sooner? How much it means to be met by somebody, and seen and caught earlier on in life.”

For her, it took until college. And for both directors, making the internet aspects of “A Murder at the End of the World” feel real became a passion project. “Nothing takes me out of a story more than the fake websites,” Batmanglij says. “So we had to fight tooth and nail to get all that stuff real and authentic. So it’s even that level of detail —”

“Which is also storytelling,” Marling concludes, finishing Batmanglij’s sentence.

This two-headed director feeling — the sense that these two communicate best through one another’s words, or through an ongoing and endless conversation — continues throughout our interview. Describing the genesis of the series, each party credits the other’s research: “Zal came into one of our bedrooms, I can’t remember which,” Marling says airily, “but he’s like, ‘God, I was doing some research on the history of the whodunit.’” He had uncovered that the genre burst into popularity during the 20th-century interwar period, “when everyone was looking around, like, ‘OK, shit’s fucked up — who done it!’” Meanwhile, says Batmanglij, “Brit was at the same time talking about how so many murder mysteries start with the annihilation of a young woman. That becomes the catalyst, the fuel for the whole narrative thrust — and the guys come to solve the case, and they put themselves in the shoes of the killer.”

The series plays off both insights. It sets a mystery in the cataclysmic world Elon Musk-esque tech billionaires have made. Marling frames the greater enigma of the series like this: “Democracy is unraveling, the climate emergencies are full-blown, and how did we arrive at this place? Who’s responsible?” And it makes its sleuth someone who feels un-Poirot-ishly physically vulnerable, who relates to the victims, not the perps. It retains the intimacy, delicacy and slight peculiarity of some of their other work, too — most notably their only other TV credit, “The OA.” On that show — created by the two of them, with Batmanglij directing most episodes — Marling played Prairie, a woman who returns after having disappeared for years, claiming to have been to another dimension and to have returned with new powers, including the ability to use elaborately choreographed movements, rather like interpretive dance, to heal trauma. Fitting this vision into what she calls “a utility — light, water, Netflix” was, Marling says, “unprecedented. I land in airports anywhere in the world. I was just in Norway, in a fjord in the middle of nowhere, and people started doing the movements at me.”

Murder at the End of the World
Brit Marling and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen on set.

The duo arrived at Netflix as emerging, well-respected indie talents, with their most recent film, the 2013 eco-terrorist thriller “The East,” having grossed a respectable $2.4 million domestically; when they departed the streamer, they were known the world over. But fitting their vision into a massive organization could still be a challenge — not least for creators whose hearts are firmly planted on their sleeves. “It’s not like we have one intimate face, and then we face the corporation and put on warrior clothes,” Batmanglij says. “We actually try to cultivate and invite that kind of intimacy with all the people we work with.” But Netflix in the mid-to-late-2010s — “The OA’s” two seasons ran in 2016 and 2019 — may have been iterating too rapidly for that.

“This happens a lot in Hollywood, where a window opens and incredible creativity rushes through,” Marling says. “‘Orange Is the New Black,’ ‘Stranger Things. — these were all wild, risky bets. And I think we knew that window was going to be a window, not a door. It was going to close. That’s what technology is doing in every industry — it comes in and it disrupts.” “The OA’s” cancellation was greeted with an outcry from fans — the most devoted of whom staged hunger strikes — but Marling seems ruefully unsurprised in retrospect. “And then at some point Wall Street’s like, ‘We’ve got to have a come-to-Jesus moment.’ The business model has to change in order to deal with the fact that we’re operating at a loss constantly. And we were caught up in that correction.”

There’s a balefulness to both Batmanglij and Marling about how “The OA” ended, even if — true to brainy form — both see a business case study in the story of Netflix’s role in the streaming ecosystem. Batmanglij asks me to guess how many people watched the show. When I say 15 million, he remarks “Way higher,” then nods when I up my guess to 30 million. (Netflix had shared in a presentation, a month after the first season debuted, that 24 million viewers had watched.) “What’s crazy is at any other time in history, if a piece of IP had that weight behind it, that’s so valuable,” says Marling. “The mistake is actually on Netflix for not being able to figure out, in its model, how to monetize that. Because that number of people caring so passionately about a show that many of them are hunger striking or dance protesting — just from an economics background, that’s money.” When I remark that both seem to think like entrepreneurs, Marling replies with no small amount of gravity: “Every time we go to bat with stories, we’re building a corporation from scratch.”

Before there can be the corporation — the company of actors, the rich and elegantly appointed sets, the shoot in Iceland — there needs to be an idea. And Marling and Batmanglij took time with “Murder,” ripping up drafts and starting over entirely. “It was not just, like, we’re taking this one apart by 40%,” says Marling. “This is the first time in my career as a writer that I’ve had the courage to do that. Usually, you want to hang onto something — I’ve done all this work! I just spent months in front of a computer. And then what comes out a second time is only what is actually essential.”

Ego, in other words, took a backseat, as did the feeling of wasted time. “All of us writers are like satellite dishes,” Marling continues, “and at best, we’re just trying to keep those dishes clean, to better receive the signal.”

It fell to John Landgraf, FX’s chairman, to interpret the signal Marling and Batmanglij beamed out. The pair, he later tells me, have “a combination of a dazzling breadth with an awe-inspiring rigor. It takes both mad ambition and a breadth of intellect and skill, but it also takes a work ethic. I can’t tell you how many conversations we had about the outline and the story, every element of plot. And they really are one-of-a-kind.”

The feeling seems mutual. “He reminds me of the old-school great editors of publishing houses—” Marling begins.

“Like when Toni Morrison was an editor,” Batmanglij concludes.

The four years of work on “Murder” were enriching in all senses but one, Batmanglij notes: “It was fort-building. But we don’t do this for money, because we get paid a lump sum. So the fact that it took four years — the only people who suffer for that are us.” Frustrations and insecurities mounted. The production took place in 2022 in Iceland, Utah and New Jersey. The directors sent a cut of the first episode to FX and then headed to Northern California’s Redwood National Park for a no-tech weekend off. “Before we even get a chance to turn off our phones,” Batmanglij recalls, “John Landgraf had watched it and written the most remarkable email. That really moved me, because I was like, ‘Oh, you’re working in the dark for so long, and then someone sees what you’re trying to do, and then can help you do it even better. That’s a really —”

Marling speaks before Batmanglij has concluded: “It’s a remarkable feeling.”

“One of the downsides of the era of television we’re probably leaving,” Landgraf says, “is way too much stuff and a lot of resources are wasted and shot out of a cannon. But the upside has been the availability of resources to do some really interesting things.” One such thing is “Murder,” the settings of which, both in its American West flashbacks and Icelandic edge-of-the-earth present, have a captivating, tactile sense to them. “One of the things Brit and Zal wanted to do,” Landgraf says, “was to flex their muscles cinematically. As you can see, they worked really, really hard on this, and we supported their vision as best we possibly could at every level in the hope that they could do something extraordinary.”

Murder at the End of the World
Emma Corrin and Harris Dickinson in “A Murder at the End of the World.”

Still, the directors had to be scrappy. I noted the elegance of the setting — one that, perhaps akin to the places the Roy family finds themselves on “Succession” or the forest mansion in the film “Ex Machina” — truly looks the part of a billionaire’s retreat. “We can’t build the whole hotel, there’s no money for that,” Marling says. “So we’ll build half, dress it for half the show, and then flip it in it’s dressing — it’s the other half of the hotel. There are ways we could pull off something dazzling, but at a fair rate.” Their time in Iceland — chosen in part because of its low COVID rates — was a study in fortitude, even before various shutdowns when cast and crew (including Marling) fell ill: “It’s literally no downtime,” Batmanglij recalls. “What you normally think of as a day turns into a week.” After years of working together, they traded duties, and saw each other only glancingly, with one resting or planning shots while the other was on set. “I would say we’d run a marathon, then we’d had a relay race,” Batmanglij says.

Yet there’s a joy in the effort it takes to bring something to life; these two wouldn’t have spent four years on a job if they were allergic to work. “One of my favorite stories,” Batmanglij says, “is the first real short Brit and I did together. We put on Rollerblades to make a dolly, and we went to the National Gallery. Brit’s character walks under the Calder mobile, and I’m on Rollerblades shooting her doing that.”

It’s a gutsy way of working, and helps explain — along with their history of low-budget indie films before “The OA” — why they’re so matter-of-fact about achieving their visions practically. (The pair spent their days off shot-listing, Marling says, because “it’s about figuring out the way of writing the scene in moving image with the fewest moving images necessary to capture it.”) I remark that they’ve likely had to shift, a little, to bring the spirit of the Rollerblading camera operator into the Walt Disney Co., which owns FX. “And they have to learn the inverse too,” Batmanglij says. “And they want to.”

Landgraf certainly seems to: Lamenting the increasingly fractured attention span of television viewers and makers, he describes his work with Marling and Batmanglij as “an antidote to the way I experience media today.” As to whether more “Murder” might be ahead, he notes, “I can only invest in things not only if they’re good, but if they yield some return for the company that I work for. But would I be interested in doing another show with Brit and Zal? Unequivocally yes.” (To my joking suggestion that Darby Hart function a bit like “Columbo” and keep coming back, Landgraf provides a characteristically thought-through response: “We’ve talked at length about the arc of Darby’s life, whether or not audiences ever get to see it,” he says, “and it would be interesting — if you were to move forward, it wouldn’t be a Columbo-like thing. It would always be a pivotal moment in her life.”)

There’s another double dynamic at play here: “A Murder at the End of the World,” for a work that’s divided between two directors, has a remarkable consistency of tone. One sensibility seems to melt into the other. I ask Marling and Batmanglij how they’ve achieved such a harmony.

“It’s easy to answer, and I want to hear you go first,” Batmanglij says.

“I don’t want it to change what you would say,” Marling says.

“I was just going to say that the third point of objectivity is the story,” Batmanglij says.

“Yes! I was going to say the same thing!” Marling says.

“You say it, then.”

“The story is the queen — and we’re in service to the story,” Marling says. “I think that when we come up with stories together, the story will tell you what it needs to best be itself.”

Some of what it needs comes from corporate support — the kind they’ve newly found after their disappointing earlier experience in TV. And some comes from some ineffable place that collaborators can feel, even if they can’t quite understand, from some moment in four years that could have, but shouldn’t have, been 18 months.

“Our shoot began in Iceland,” Batmanglij recalls. “And then we end in Utah six months later. And one of the actors said to me, ‘Oh my God, do you notice the similarities with Iceland?’” These similarities were intentional; they’d been worked out in advance.

“You can’t even say that,” Batmanglij recalls. “You just smile, because it’s sweet. Because it started in the fort. It started between us, in our garden. And then it blooms. And you’re in it.”

The chance to chase that feeling is something Marling and Batmanglij don’t take lightly. “Very few people are getting to build original worlds from scratch anymore,” Marling says. “It’s become so hard. And so the mythology and the world has to pass muster between the two of us first. We spend so much time doing it on spec in our bedrooms, for the love of it, that by the time we bring it to anybody, it’s so robust.”

It’s the product of years, and of a willingness to start over — and of whatever alchemy happens in their respective bedrooms. “It has a robustness to it,” Marling says, “that feels like it’s alive already.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.