OA writers Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij: ‘We’ve had to create our own reality’

Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij arrive at the Chelsea Hotel in New York in a frenzy. “We’re flying by the seat of our pants,” Marling announces, underscored by the vibrating of Batmanglij’s phone; the 148-day writers’ strike ended just hours ago and now, suddenly, the duo can work once more. Inboxes are being inundated.

They are also experiencing a sense of deliverance, they say, now that they can finally talk about their new show, A Murder at the End of the World. They have been working on it for nearly half a decade, ever since the cancellation of their hit series The OA in 2019. “I feel like we’ve been on a tanker ship and we’re finally seeing land,” says Batmanglij.

The show is a murder mystery that defies all the tropes of the genre. It stars Emma Corrin as Darby, a gen Z hacker turned true-crime writer, who solves cold cases. Her minor celebrity sees her invited by Steve Jobs/Elon Musk amalgam Andy (Clive Owen) to a bougie Icelandic tech retreat, where one of the guests is soon found dead. It is brimming with commentary on elitism, machine learning and our violent society, yet never feels weighed down by those issues. Every choice, every character, each beat of infatuation or agony – of which there are many – comes from an emotive space. Miss Marple it ain’t.

We thought: why are mysteries always only cerebral puzzles to solve?” Marling says. “Can’t there also be a component that feels emotional, that contains a lot of pathos?”

Taking ages to make something nonconformist is the norm for the pair. They met at Georgetown University, at a screening of one of Batmanglij’s student short films, where Marling led the standing ovation. That moment began more than a decade in creative partnership: Batmanglij from a world of queer and independent cinema; Marling primarily an actor also toying with a career in finance. Their friendship has seen them drive across the US in a station wagon, living briefly in a freegan commune, and making critically acclaimed indie films as they went, such as 2013’s The East, starring Alexander Skarsgård and Elliot Page.

I never dreamed Netflix would not finish The OA ... they lose out more than we do

During that indie movie period, Marling landed some bigger roles as an actor – including the lead in Danny Boyle and Jesse Armstrong’s underrated Channel 4 police drama Babylon – but it felt as though the duo were destined to circle the world of low-budget cinema.

Then an idea, greenlit by the then-upstart streaming service Netflix, changed their fortunes. The OA, which premiered in 2016, felt as if it was bending television into a new shape: a brutal, dark, science-fiction series that incorporated interpretive dance and talking trees in a story about a blind woman who was held captive for seven years, and used special powers to escape. As the New York magazine review wrote at the time: “It may have seemed like we had all become too savvy for television to genuinely surprise us any more. But The OA … is an ambitious, thoroughly bingeable reminder that it is still possible.” It was critically acclaimed and garnered a loyal following, only to be unceremoniously cancelled on a cliffhanger after the second season.

“I never dreamed that they would not finish it, because it seemed like cutting your nose to spite your face; they lose out more than we do by not finishing it,” says Batmanglij, still a little perplexed.

Marling, who briefly worked as an investment analyst at Goldman Sachs before committing to film-making, offers a more bottom-line read. “You could tell the climate was changing over there. Every tech company that has caused disruption, whether it’s the music industry or the taxi cab industry, it’s the same: you disrupt, you’re not profitable for a long time while you’re gaining market share, then you’ve got to get profitable because Wall Street says it’s time, and then you have to change your business model. It felt very different from the mom-and-pop tech shop that we wandered into a couple years ago.”

The loss of the show weighed heavily on the pair and led to Marling writing an essay in the New York Times, headlined “I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead”. She recalled the agony of living in an abusive relationship while auditioning for roles with descriptions like “thin, attractive, Dave’s wife” and “her breasts are large and she’s wearing a red sweater”. Both her real and fictional womanhood felt equally disposable. Even when she sought comfort in the films she loved – Chinatown, The Silence of the Lambs, The Piano – she found they contained near-constant violence against women. She also dismissed the trend for the “strong female lead”, seeing it as another way of saying: “Give me a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.”

The end of the essay strikes a note of creative frustration: “Sometimes I get a feeling of what she could be like. A truly free woman. But when I try to fit her into the hero’s journey she recedes from the picture like a mirage … I hear only silence.”

Batmanglij pushed Marling to try to write a character like that, “a female lead but also vulnerable, scared, and sensitive, smart and competent”. The duo arrived at Emma Corrin’s Darby, a different kind of detective: young, emotive, constantly sharing her findings with her suspects.

“We were struck by this idea that gen Z can log in their 10,000 hours [of practice] so much sooner than people could in the past – by 23 she has a breadth of knowledge from encountering the amateur sleuthing world, which you can do on the internet,” says Batmanglij. “It felt like the first time you could do a young female detective but actually have it be quite serious.”

They had aligned on the idea of a murder mystery, because “whodunnit?” is such an all-encompassing question. “When people really look around and think: ‘How did we get to this place where everything is such a mess?’ The climate crisis, the unravelling of democracy, it feels right to ask: ‘Who did it?’”

The show’s Icelandic retreat, meanwhile, has a mishmash guestlist of the great and the good: an outsider conceptual artist, the first woman to walk on the moon, a buzzy film director, the inventor behind “smart cities” and a robotics entrepreneur. The show captures perfectly, I say to the pair, what happens when you rise to a certain level in one field, only to be sucked into an amorphous gloopy elite of successful people from all disciplines.
“Yes! We wanted to show how seductive those spaces are,” says Batmanglij. “We screened the show for one friend and he said: ‘Well I wouldn’t go on that retreat if I was invited.’”

“And I was like: ‘Bullshit you wouldn’t!’” says Marling, jumping in.

A murder mystery obviously means death, an aspect Marling was keen to reframe. “I wanted to not fall into any of the tropes that maintain the status quo, where we fetishise and eroticise the deaths of women,” she says. “As you analyse murder mysteries of the past, a big part of the engine that makes you want to watch the show is the sight of a beautiful, dead, naked, mutilated young woman at minute 10.” It was interesting, she adds, “to try to design a murder mystery where you don’t do that, but you also try not to gloss over death. Like, how do you make the deaths feel like they carry actual weight and have impact, so they’re not just props that move a case along?”

Marling also read a series of essays by incarcerated individuals, including a young man who grappled with the life he had taken. “He spoke about how difficult it was to pull the trigger, how movies never get it right, and how your body resists taking a life. We wanted a show that doesn’t rely on the typical tricks of the trade.” Consequently, it predominantly shows the aftermath of lives lost, with most of the violence occurring off-screen. “We’re not erasing death. We’re acknowledging that women do die, but we’re presenting their remains to emphasise their weight. We won’t present their flesh in an eroticised manner.”

The duo often seem more like cultural theorists than screenwriters, obsessive about the “why” and not just the “what” of making television. Most striking is the depth of their relationship, which has allowed them to dabble and experiment in places that feel new.

“We understand each other on a profound level after all these years,” Marling says. “It’s hard to explain, but when I encounter certain things in the world, I know that the only person who truly comprehends them is Zal.”

Batmanglij, visibly moved, glances around at our grand surroundings, and recognises where we are. “It’s a beautiful coincidence that we’re in the Chelsea Hotel, once home to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe,” he says. “We’re not the first woman and a gay man who’ve come together and weathered a storm. If you’re a straight guy making a murder mystery, you can draw from a long history of straight-guy murder mysteries. We’ve had to create our own reality.”

A Murder at the End of the World streams from 14 November on Disney+ in the UK and Hulu in the US.