A whole new World
The OA creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij tell DQ how they reunited for stylish murder mystery A Murder at the End of the World and discuss subverting whodunnits and making sense of the world through storytelling.
Four years since its abrupt cancellation, The OA remains one of Netflix’s most stylish, dazzling and popular original series. Blending science fiction, mystery, supernatural and fantasy, it centres on a young woman who reappears several years after seemingly vanishing.
The first television series from co-creators and regular collaborators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, it had been designed to run across five seasons, but Netflix decided to end the show after just its second run in 2019, leaving the story on a cliffhanger.
Talk continues to surround Marling and Batmanglij about a return to The OA and completing the story in some form, but, for now, they have another series to talk about. A Murder at the End of the World is a seven-part mystery drama with a new kind of detective at its centre – Gen Z amateur sleuth and tech-savvy hacker Darby Hart (The Crown’s Emma Corrin).
Hart is invited to join a number of business and tech giants at a remote Icelandic retreat hosted by reclusive billionaire Andy Ronson (Clive Owen). But when one of the guests is found dead, Darby sets out to prove it wasn’t an accident as a tide of competing interests stand in her way and before the killer strikes again.
As alluring, visually striking and high concept as you might expect from Marling and Batmanglij, the series elevates its murder-mystery foundations to discuss hot topics such as climate change and artificial intelligence (AI), while flashbacks reveal how Darby first honed her skills and set out to solve her first murder case alongside partner and sometime lover Bill Farrah (Harris Dickinson).
The ensemble cast also features Alice Braga, Lu Mei, Raúl Esparza, Jermaine Fowler, Ryan J Haddad, Pegah Ferydoni, Javed Khan, Louis Cancelmi and Edoardo Ballerini, while Marling herself plays Andy’s hacker wife Lee Andersen.
Returning to the spotlight after several years away, Batmanglij (Sound of My Voice) and Marling (Another Earth) describe themselves as gardeners in the way they have been working on their latest project, “toiling in the garden – and now we’ve come to the farmers market and our produce is on the stands. Hopefully it tastes good,” Batmanglij says.
Developing a new series in the wake of The OA, Marling tells DQ that, to their detriment, “we have too many ideas.”
“So if one idea ends, then which of the 20 other things that we really want to do, do we decide to do?” she says. “We think about it like a garden between us and Darby Hart, and the story of A Murder at the End of the World popped up first. But there are other sunflowers and irises and this and that.
“It’s exciting to throw yourself into a new story. Of course, the ending of OA was really sad and hard but, at the same time, the presence of the fans and the energy around it was so beautiful that it was hard to sit in grief for too long. To feel like we made something that was able to touch people, it just gives you more fuel for continuing, to keep going, because you’re like, ‘OK, well, we’re doing something right if it’s moving people.”
Marling and Batmanglij are co-creators on A Murder at the End of the World, as well as executive producers, writers and co-directors. Marling’s first directing credit comes on the pilot episode of the show, which is produced by FX Productions for US streamer Hulu and Disney+ worldwide. Their decision to make a detective drama came naturally, due to the fact that all of their work – their partnership dates back to 2007 short film The Recordist – contains an element of mystery.
“That’s because that’s how we feel about being alive,” Marling says. “We’re just inside this great thrilling mystery – and it is a thriller because usually, as the protagonist, you feel a little outmatched against the forces of antagonism. That’s a very natural zone for us to create from.”
With A Murder at the End of the World, they were also interested in subverting the traditional idea of a whodunnit.
“They are usually tongue in cheek, and when we watch them, we don’t feel they’re fully real,” Marling continues. “There’s something fantastical about them. We were interested in the idea of doing a whodunnit because it feels a little bit like the climate of the world at the moment – we’re all looking around at the unravelling of democracy, the climate crisis, all these hyper objects that we’re up against, and whodunnit? Like, who’s to blame exactly? We wanted to try to take the whodunnit, take some of the snark out of it and make it feel very grounded.”
As a result, the grand English manor that serves as the setting in much of Agatha Christie’s work has been replaced by the new “seat of power,” Silicon Valley, while the detective at the heart of the story isn’t a world-weary, experienced investigator but Darby, an amateur sleuth and citizen detective.
“As a Gen Z amateur sleuth, she’s been on the Internet solving cold cases since she was a teenager in a real way, not in a tongue-in-cheek way, and she has the credibility and the passion to do it,” Marling explains. “It felt like those things came together and suddenly there was a way of doing a mystery or a whodunnit with a young female protagonist that would not have even been possible five years or 10 years prior without the idea of Gen Z coming of age with the internet.”
Darby isn’t just the show’s central character. She’s also the narrator – and a storyteller herself, having published a book about a cold-case murder she solved. Marling says that element of Darby’s character is an important part of the show, proving her interest in sharing her passion for sleuthing and having the skills to communicate her experiences to the world.
“She writes that book to understand the experience she had and how traumatic it was, and as you go forward in the chapters [of the series], you keep going backwards to that experience,” the star says, adding that she and Batmanglij were also interested in exploring not just how the past informs the present, but also how the present “animates” the past.
“Every time we go back and remember something, we re-author it. We literally change it. It never stays the same,” she says, “so we were interested in that relationship between the past and the present, and thinking of Darby as a storyteller or somebody who could frame or communicate her life that way was really important to being able to achieve that.”
“The detective story is always about storytelling, because storytelling is how we make sense of the world,” Batmanglij notes. “I may be biased as a storyteller, but I think that’s why the detective story has long been a staple of movies. The detective just tells you a story – the story that you, the audience, agree is the best fit.”
A story from Marling and Batmanglij isn’t likely to be boring or undramatic. Even if characters are sitting together in a room, they’re often discussing topics with significant, real-world implications. Climate change is a major talking point in A Murder at the End of the World, while AI is ever-present in the form of Andy’s AI assistant Ray (Ballerini).
Notably, when filmmaker Martin (Fowler) screens a film for the other retreat guests, he encourages them to “sit forward and watch.” In a world where viewers often have an additional screen in front of them while they’re watching television, do Marling and Batmanglij want to make their viewers “sit forward” too?
“What’s really interesting is I don’t know that I know how to engage with ambient TV,” Marling says. “Even when I’m watching The Great British Bake Off, which I’m obsessed with, I’m so focused. I don’t look at my phone while I’m watching. I’m into the characters. I’m studying the recipes. The stories that excite me are the ones that challenge me or give me a new perspective and a new way of seeing things. I have often walked out of the cinema and felt changed, like I’m seeing something presented from a perspective or in a light that I hadn’t seen before, and that kind of experience gets me really excited. That’s how I can be energised to do the work.”
“It’s a story of technology and the era we live in,” Batmanglij says. “We’re in a situation where we’re getting these canvases to work on and we’re telling our stories. How they’re going to be consumed, that’s up to anybody who wants to do it. Unlike Brit, I watch a lot of ambient television and I love two-screening and stuff. I don’t think this is that. But who knows? Maybe it’s also something where – and I felt this with OA – it also leads to multiple viewings. One could get a lot out of watching this many times, so maybe you can watch it two-screening, but you’ve got to watch it three times for it to work.”
Writing stories together from scratch, Marling says her work with Batmanglij will always be informed by the day’s major issues. “The climate crisis will inform every story we tell from now on because we’re not going to be able to outrun this or put our heads in the sand,” she says.
Then when they begin work, they tell each other stories, literally. “Something we learned over time is that the best thing is to tell it orally for a long time,” Marling says. “If you try to put it on the page, you spend a lot of effort getting it on the page and then you’re less likely to play with it or change it. What we’ve learned in our practice is to just tell it out loud for a long time, back and forth to each other, and bring new pieces to the table. Sometimes that’s research – all the hacks in this story are real – and sometimes it’s a dream one of us had or an encounter, and we just keep meeting and keep pooling things together.”
Then when a narrative starts to emerge, they will split off and write alone. “You’ve got to go into the zone and be like, ‘OK, I’ve got to put myself inside this character now and see the world from their eyes. That is a lonely internal process,” she continues.
“We’ve both learned to not critique each other in a way that would shut each other down, but to invite each other always to do our best work. When something isn’t working, that isn’t the fault of either one of us as writers. It’s just like we just didn’t quite get it that time and now we’re going to try again. By the time you’ve been doing that for over a decade, you aren’t bruising each other’s egos anymore. You’re just trying to find the best work together.”
A Murder at the End of the World also marks Marling’s first steps into directing. Both she and Batmanglij direct all seven episodes of the series, and that process was helped by the visual approach they both have to writing scripts, which are less novelistic than other scripts might be. Instead, they try to map how the series might look within the framework of the dialogue.
“It was really nice to be able to take what’s inside my imagination and try not drop any of it as you make the translation, even though you have all these limitations – time, money, resources, the pandemic,” she says. “How do you hold on to what’s inside your mind and best invite your collaborators inside that vision to achieve it together?”
In one instance, she used an oil painting featuring different blues, reds and soft brushes to inform one part of the series set in Iceland, which stands in contrast to the colours of the American desert when the series heads west later on.
“The colours make you feel a distinct emotional world, one that is frigid and terrifying and another that’s hot-blooded and warm and on fire,” she says. “Getting to do that on this was an incredible time.”
But making A Murder at the End of the World was also an exciting opportunity for Marling because, in Darby, it gave her the chance to write the kind of character she would have loved to have played earlier in her career.
“But there weren’t as many women writing and directing men, so if you came of age as an actor at that time, it was hard to find those roles,” she says. “A lot of making change is about making change intergenerationally, about reaching a place where you can give to the next generation something that wasn’t there for you. That was something that was really important to me on this, trying to write that part.”