“I think that after we die, we become something else,” Zal Batmanglij says. “The question is, ‘What is that?'”
“I cannot possibly know what happens after you die,” Brit Marling says. “And I feel really OK to sit in that space of deep unknowingness.”
The director and his partner-in-crime/star let their imaginations run wild on the subject when they began work on The OA, a fascinating new science-fiction series they created together that is ostensibly about near-death experiences. It stars Marling, who co-wrote most of the episodes, as Prairie Johnson, a bizarre woman who had gone missing for nearly a decade only to come home after surviving jumping off a bridge. Diagnosed psychotic, she wants to return to another realm and turns to a misfit group from a local high school for help. Every night, she tells four students and a teacher the fantastical story – which includes being held in captivity, repeatedly thwarting death, crossing dimensions and gaining supernatural powers – as she teaches them how they can assist her in crossing dimensions.
The Netflix show has gotten mixed reviews from critics, but its many plot twists have enthralled viewers curious about its backstory and how it all fits together. It turns out, the events behind the scenes (filled with spoilers below) are just as curious as the ones onscreen.
After collaborating on 2013’s The East and 2011’s Sound of My Voice, the indie filmmaker and actress both knew they wanted to dig in to another project. They weren’t sure what, exactly, the story would be – but they knew how they wanted to tell it. “It would be like something you’d read in a long-format novel,” says Batmanglij, who directed every episode. “Like a really good Ian McEwan book or even Patti Smith’s Just Kids, even though that’s nonfiction. So unlike in a traditional long-format story, you don’t have all the main characters – or the full plot engine – in the first hour.”
“The way we approach writing is: We start by telling each other a story orally back and forth,” Marling says. “Some days you could have pitched things in a blue streak, and it really feels like you’re just channeling them, riding some wave. If it works – and your partner is entertained, leaning forward and laughing out loud or they’re weeping – you know you’ve got something that holds. The stuff that works, you always remember. The stuff that doesn’t work as well falls away.”
What they came up with was something multilayered and quite literally all over the map. In addition to Johnson’s eerie homecoming, she tells her newfound friends that she grew up in Russia but died when a bus fell off a bridge; in a beautiful, starry post-life realm, she met a “khatun” (a Turkish queen by definition, but maybe something else within the show’s greater arc) who takes her vision from her and sends her back into the world. She’s sent to the United States, where she’s adopted, but she runs away to find her Russian father … only to be kidnapped by a scientist researching near-death experiences like hers. She lives in a cell for seven years and befriends others who’ve survived death; after surviving another dalliance with death, the khatun restores her sight and bequeaths her with the knowledge that certain choreographed movements can restore life and bridge dimensions.
It was that idea of dance as a dimensional passport, in fact, that prompted the whole story. “When we first started this, Zal was talking a lot about the idea that violence is kind of a uniquely cinematic thing,” Marling says. “You can read a very violent passage in a novel, and it can be very impacting. But something about seeing it as a moving image on screen is more visceral and potent that way. So what is the cinematic antidote to violence? What is another language of expression that doesn’t work on the page but works on the screen … a sort of counter-balance to violence?”
That’s how they came up with the idea for the movements, which were ultimately choreographed by Ryan Heffington, who worked with dancer Maddie Ziegler on Sia’s kinetic “Chandelier” video. “You can see it in that [clip], the juxtaposition of real dancing technique and training, classical ballet and modern dance,” Marling declares. “But then there’s also really mundane or super bizarre movement … a grunt or a strange motion in the eye. He just got what we were looking for on a visceral level and was able to turn it into movement, which is hard to talk about.”
The other jumping-off point was thinking about how high schoolers now are growing up. “We were interested in teenage boys coming of age right now in the Midwest,” the actor says. “We spent time traveling through Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania, interviewing kids and teachers. We went to their sports practices, had dinner with their families. We were just trying to get a sense of what it’s like to come of age now, because it’s so different from when we were in high school and the John Hughes-ian vision of being a teenager.”
They were impressed by students’ grasp on technology and how the kids seemed to feel simultaneously connected with and alienated from the world. “It doesn’t feel like they’re finding the nutrition they’re looking for in the schooling system or the classic American dream narrative,” she adds. “At the same time, we were also studying near-death experiences.”
Neither Marling nor Batmanglij are willing to point to specific mythologies that inspired the movements or the story’s plot within a plot (though the box of books in the final episode provides some insight). The one text the director does point to is Raymond Moody’s 1975 book Life After Life, which coined the phrase “near-death experience.” It was Marling who had brought the N.D.E. concept to the story, after she met a young woman who’d experienced such a thing. “It’s funny how many similarities there are in people’s accounts all over the world about near-death experiences,” Batmanglij says.
And there’s The OA‘s fascination with the notion of divine ambassadors descending from the heavens. “Angels haven’t really gotten a fair shake out there,” Batmanglij says. “There are lots of vampire stories, lots of ghost stories, lots of zombie stories – but the idea of a messenger from God doesn’t feel very popular, I guess. It resonates with me.” And why is that? “I think there’s something cool and uniquely female and supernatural about them. I don’t know.”
Both he and Marling have bigger plans for the show, should it be picked up for a second season – and thus he’s hesitant to define things like the kahtun’s astral realm. “I don’t think anyone’s picked up on what it is just quite yet,” he says. “It’s not purgatory – or maybe it is. It’s supposed to be something specific.” Similarly, he won’t comment on the quizzical nature of actor Riz Ahmed’s character, an FBI-appointed “listener,” who inexplicably shows up at the Johnsons’ home in the last episode to intervene with Alfonso Sosa’s character. “I’m just glad people are asking that question,” he says. “I was hoping they would be, and they are. [But] I can’t tell you just yet.”
“Angels haven’t really gotten a fair shake. There are lots of vampire stories, lots of ghost stories, lots of zombie stories – but the idea of a messenger from God doesn’t feel very popular, I guess.”-director Zal Batmanglij
As for the discovery of books at the end of the story that seem to make Johnson an unreliable narrator, Batmanglij offers a quizzical answer. “There are two obvious options and unlimited other options why those exist,” the director says. “One is, if you’re traumatized by something, you might read up on it. But there’s also a more cynical perspective that she was using those books to tell a story.”
This does not explain, for example, how Johnson would be able to read if she was blind for her entire English-speaking life and regained her sight in captivity. Or how a deranged scientist researching near-death experiments built Plexiglas cells underground and a Batman-like lab without arousing suspicion. Perhaps what’s more important than narrative logic, the creators suggest, is feeling engaged when watching Johnson and her fellow prisoners endure the experience, which Batmanglij reveals could have been seriously dangerous. “When Hap [the scientist] drowns [the prisoners], that’s not digital effects” he says. “That’s real. We built an apparatus and the actors had to hold their breaths. It was very hard for all of us, including the whole crew. It was hard for me to watch Brit in there. And she lasted the longest.”
Incidentally, the captivity subplot is meant to metaphorically reflect the boys’ and their teacher’s own feelings of isolation, like the real-life students Marling and Batmanglij met. “It’s the feeling that everybody sometimes feels a bit caught or imprisoned by the life they’ve designed for themselves,” Marling says. “They may feel captive of their gender or the small-mindedness of their communities.” (Batmanglij recently told Esquire that the story within a story is not a flashback, but rather Johnson’s new friends’ interpretation of what she’s telling them.)
With so many levels to the story, it’s difficult to imagine Marling and Batmanglij pitching The OA; the actor says they spent about a year working on it. Once they felt confident in the first episode’s script, they took the show to five different networks over two days; Netflix ended up being the best fit. “It’s in their DNA to be risk takers, because in Silicon Valley, that’s how you succeed,” Marling claims. “You have to be very future-minded, and they have that mindset. Los Angeles tends to be more risk-averse.”
Interestingly, Batmanglij says about a month after Netflix gave The OA the green light, the streaming service also approved a show by some friends of his who worked with him on M. Night Shyamalan’s futuristic sci-fi series Wayward Pines – Matt and Ross Duffer. “We started going out to eat together every couple of weeks to commiserate on the idea of trying to undertake an eight-hour movie,” he says. “But we never spoke about the plots of our shows, assuming they would be very different.”
It turned out that both plots revolved around a young woman with supernatural powers who escaped scientific imprisonment and whose noses bled when using her powers. The Duffer Brothers’ show, called Stranger Things, would end up becoming one of this past summer’s biggest hits. “I was blown away by it,” Batmanglij says. “I was floored. And I think the similarities are awesome because I don’t know where they came from or how. Maybe that’s part of a larger mystery. I’ve read funny things where people think we copied the nosebleeds, but our show was shot roughly around the same time as Stranger Things – maybe a little later. They didn’t know about our show and we didn’t know about theirs in terms of content. It’s eerie.”
As a nod to his friends, Batmanglij snuck a tip of the hat to their friends into The OA. When actor Brendan Meyer’s character, Jesse, returns home in episode four, Stranger Things is playing on TV in the scene. “It hadn’t even come out yet,” Batmanglij says. “I just thought we should have it. It’s these two shows having an interdimensional moment in time. I don’t think it’s an accident both shows are fascinated by that theme.”
For Marling, curiosity about otherworldliness is something that exists well outside of the show. When asked about what she does think about when she takes the time to think about life after death, beyond the “deep unknowingness” mentioned earlier, she ponders extrasensory experiences – not unlike the character she created for herself for The OA.
“The best metaphor I can think of is going to sound super strange,” she says with a laugh. “I was typing on my laptop once, and there were ants crawling across the keyboard. I was pushing them to the side and continuing to Google on top of them. And I’m thinking to myself that these creatures are walking across my computer – but I can’t explain to them what a computer is, let alone what the Internet or Google are.
“I feel a little bit like the ant,” she continues. “I’m too locked into the five sense I have to think about what’s bigger. I wish I could develop more senses. I wish I could develop a ninth or 10th sense to really perceive a fraction of what’s actually going on. But I think it’s an amazing thing to be alive and sit in the mystery of it. It’s certainly fun to tell stories in that space.”