Brit Marling decodes the mystery of The OA

We talk storytelling and science fiction with the creator of Netflix’s supernatural new series

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The ScientistCourtesy of Jane Ackroyd

Filmmaker Brit Marling has got a knack for constructing unconventional narratives – and when you look at her life, you can understand why. She’s been an economics valedictorian, an investment banker and has embraced freeganism (living in tents and getting food from bins). She did this with fellow former Goldman Sachs intern Zal Batmanglij, who helped her co-create The East, Sound of my Voice and now Netflix’s new sci-fi series The OA.

It’s hard to discuss the show without giving away some serious spoilers. The many twists and turns have earned the show a lot of attention, despite the Beyonce-esque release – the trailer gave away nothing and Marling held off on press until its release. Although critics are split on how to decode The OA – which is probably the most head-scratching Netflix series since Stranger Things – most agree that it is anything but conventional. We caught up with Marling to talk about storytelling and the supernatural (and yeah, there are a few spoilers).

It’s kind of hard to sum up The OA without giving a lot away – how would you describe it?

Brit Marling: It’s the story of a young, blind girl who goes missing and is found seven years later with her sight restored. She won’t talk about it with the people who find her or the hospital or with her parents or with the FBI. Instead, she oddly confesses to a group of teenage boys who are hanging out in an abandoned home. She befriends them and begins telling them the story every night, and you realise as she’s telling the story that she may be using the story as a means to recruit them to some other end that she needs.

The whole launch was shrouded in mystery. Was there a reason why you didn’t want to do much press beforehand?

Brit Marling: It’s so much more fun going into it knowing very little and letting the story just take you away. Audiences are getting so good at predicting stories because if you see trailers you end up going to the movie and being like oh, I pretty much already had that experience already.

“Science fiction or fantasy – even though it’s nothing like how your life looks day to day, there are feelings in it that feel even more familiar to you than a story that’s set in reality” – Brit Marling

How did you come up with the idea for the story?

Brit Marling: There are stories of people who have flatlined and they’ve come back with the ability to do something they couldn’t before, which was the perfect thing to build a science fiction narrative on because so little is understood. We had an idea of a young woman who had a very traumatic experience and wanted to explore storytelling as an ancient way of healing as well as a means of passing on interesting ideas or morals. We were always interested in the idea of looking at characters who are on the fringes and don’t feel they have a place. 

There’s a lot of deceptive and strange juxtapositions throughout the series. How do these help tell Prairie’s story?

Brit Marling: A lot of things in her story seem wild or far out but end up being metaphors for what the boys and their teacher feel in their ordinary lives. I think everybody from time to time feels held captive or locked in by how people see them or by their school, job or gender. Even though her story takes the characters through some complex and unusual places, I think it allows them to understand their own traumas. Science fiction or fantasy – even though it’s nothing like how your life looks day to day, there are feelings in it that feel even more familiar to you than a story that’s set in reality.

Do you think using a binge-able streaming platform like Netflix allowed you to take more risks?

Brit Marling: Yeah, I don’t think the story would have worked as a week to week endeavour. The OA doesn’t have much common with television honestly it is more like an eight-hour film or a novel. There’s something really exciting about this platform as the audience has a lot of autonomy over how they want to consume it. Definitely, it wouldn’t have been possible to tell a story like this four years ago.

Interview has been edited and condensed for length. The OA is available to watch on Netflix now

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