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How the creators of 'The OA' made a 'long format mind-bender'

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Actress Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij pitched their complicated eight-hour story in a novel way and managed to keep it a secret until now.

There's a new Netflix series that may end up being your binge show of choice this holiday season — not that it’s particularly cheery.

It’s called “The OA” and all eight episodes just went up on Netflix. The streaming service had kept mum about the show until it dropped a trailer earlier this week. In the preview, a young blind woman who'd gone missing returns to her family with her eyesight intact.  

"The OA" was created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. They’d previously co-written the indie films “Sound of my Voice” and “The East,” in which Marling starred and Batmanglij directed. For "The OA," he is again in the director’s chair and she plays the lead — the mysterious character called Prairie. The two recently came into The Frame studios to talk with John Horn.

NOTE: There are no spoilers in this conversation.

To hear the conversation click the play button at the top of this page.

Interview Highlights:

On how they retain the mystery:

BRIT MARLING: I guess the biggest complication in designing a mystery is that in order for it to retain its effect, it has to stay mysterious. We're so used to marketing and things upfront guiding an audience in and positioning a story for what it is. The delicious part of this is that it slipstreams through genres and does unusual things with form. The less you know about it going in, I think, the better.

On trusting the cast and crew to be discreet:

ZAL BATMANGLIJ: Nobody knew who we were or what the show was about, so no one really cared. One of the great things we did with this is we wrote all eight scripts before we started shooting. So every person in the crew, whether the camera operator or one of the producers, had read all eight scripts. And so we all felt very invested in the story that we were telling. And I think they felt ownership over the story. Everyone felt this desire to keep it secret. Also, it's a very had story to distill. I know Rod, our camera operator — he was trying to explain to his girlfriend the show he was working on. He was like, I give up. I can't explain it.

Brit Marling in the new Netflix original, "The OA."
JoJo Whilden/Netflix
Brit Marling in the new Netflix original, "The OA."

On pitching the complicated story to Hollywood:

BM: We'd spent a good three years just daydreaming in this world and creating these characters, and we wrote the first chapter. Then when it came time to attempt to make a [show] bible, it was very different to make a document that distilled the show down to its essences. Zal and I would just perform it like a play. When we went to pitch to people, we would play all of the characters and we'd act out the highlight moments through many hours. For some reason, in that format it retained its essence. 

On writing the story more like a novel than a movie:

ZB: We'd written the first hour and, unlike a traditional long format story, we didn't feel the need to put all of our main characters in that first hour. That's a big difference. Usually you have to have this nuclear story engine in the first hour of a long format story, and all of your main characters, because it's a proof of concept. We thought, Why don't we have a main character appear in chapter three? Why don't we have the story reveal itself like it would in a good novel? So we approached a more novelistic style, and I think when we pitched it, we had written the first hour and it was intriguing. People were like, Does this really go somewhere? Then we start acting it out and it does go somewhere and people get into it. 

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

On why death experiences are part of "The OA":

BM: From pretty early on, we encountered somebody, a young woman who had a near-death experience. When she described that to me, I was really riveted by the idea. She described leaving her body and the sensation of being above herself. All concerns and preoccupations went away and the only thing that remained in her mind was this question: Did I tell the people I love enough how much I love them? It became that simple. Then she rocketed back into her body. When you meet this woman, she has a kind of vividness and self possession and ferocity that's uncanny. It seems like she's really in control of her life. I was thinking it would be interesting to explore near-death experiences more and talk about somebody who's been to this other space and has returned.

On the slow-moving nature of the show:

ZB: I think we were very inspired by [writer] David Foster Wallace, who said you have to get the audience to work for something. I feel that a lot — that sometimes I don't want to watch a series that is making me surrender to it, or is going to change the rules of engagement. Then other people watch it and have an experience. I guess if people do have an experience with this, then they'll maybe convince their friends to stick with it. I don't know. 

BM: I also think that we're in a time when the average audience member's story IQ is so high. It's insane. We're consuming so much content and so many stories that the audience can see the middle climax before it's coming. They know the failure. They're anticipating a lot. I think as storytellers, it's really your job to invent and to mix genres and subvert what you think is going to happen. As an audience member myself, I always feel most thrilled when the narrative goes off the rails of what I've seen before. 

ZB: I think that matches the mood we feel as a country. The idea that we're going completely off book. How do we start telling stories that do that too? We certainly have the infrastructure. Because of Netflix and because we can make an eight-hour story that's available to you like a novel, you can start playing with it — what's expected, how it's going to unfold. This is something different and new and I think that's exciting.

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