Netflix’s new sci-fi thriller The OA is garnering acclaim from critics and plenty of intrigued head-scratching from fans. Below creators Brit Marling (who also stars) and Zal Batmanglij discuss their inspiration for the series, near-death experiences, and give a little insight (sort of) into the surprising conclusion.
Warning: Spoilers for those who have not yet finished their binge.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So what was the original inspiration for this series?
Brit Marling: I met a young woman who had a near-death experience and when she told me the story about that I found it really fascinating. It was like she had a brush with something inarticulable and that was now contained in her energy.
Zal Batmanglij: We just wanted to tell a novelistic story — not have all the main characters in the first hour, that builds toward a climax. It made a lot of sense to have a streaming long-form format.
You did a lot of research I hear?
Marling: It required doing a lot of research. There were stories of people who had these experiences and came back with different skills — they were tone deaf before and came back with perfect pitch, or had sudden language fluency. It’s this interesting strange thing and there’s a convergence around near death experiences from all over the world; people report the same thing despite different religions. It seemed like a rich setting to dive into.
Batmanglij: Brit and I also went across the Midwest and visited a different high school every day. It was eye opening to see what high school kids are experiencing today. It’s very different than when I was in high school or in the John Hughes films. Kids are connected to the internet 24/7 so they’re getting bullied at school – and that can happen at 11 o’clock at night. It was an intense thing to encounter these kids, they both had a lot of wisdom and they were also searching for something. That’s what I felt, at least.
Did the success of Stranger Things make you feel like there’s an appetite for smart serialized sci-fi on Netflix – or did you feel like somebody got there first?
Batmanglij: Oh, not at all. They’re our friends and it just felt pretty natural that this would be a space that people would be creatively fulfilling and interesting, and it was proved to be true.
Did the Netflix strategy of keeping this show silent and suddenly springing it on the world without much ramp-up or marketing freak you out at all?
Batmanglij: Nah, the question that Brit and I always asked, was, “Why can’t you do that?” Like, “Why can’t you have the credits come in an hour into the show?” And if there’s a good reason we don’t do it and if there isn’t then we try it. Netflix operates the same way. The release strategy wasn’t ours, but it was great.
Obviously, we don’t really know what happened to Prairie during the years she was missing. Is that something viewers could figure out if they rewatched the show? Did you put clues about that in the show?
Batmanglij: Yeah. The show can be viewed in a lot of different ways and angles. If people watch the show again they’ll have a different perspective on it — at least I do.
What was the inspiration behind the physical movements in the show?
Batmanglij: The choreographer was Ryan Heffington, who I’ve admired for over a decade. When I first saw one of his performances I was 24 and my brain was blown. It was Tarantino who said violence is uniquely cinematic, you can show violence easier than you can write about violence, and I think that’s very true. Violence doesn’t interest me very much. Brit and I were fascinated by exploring something uniquely cinematic that was the opposite of violence. Could there be something that’s the opposite of violence?
Marling: We spent a long time training too because we were largely a group of non-dancers. But it ended up being something that held us all together as a tribe. That probably always happens in training, but when you try something new or different, something that feels strange at first in your body, you feel awkward about it, but you get closer to one another. Eventually, it started to feel like the choreography was more expressive than any dialogue you could write. Movement is immediate and primal and says a lot without having to open your mouth.
How would Prairie know (or be able to convince her listeners that she knew) about Jason Isaacs’ character killing the other scientist?
Batmanglij: She does say to Homer that he killed a man. It’s implied that he told her stuff that we don’t see.
Could you talk more about the idea that within Prairie’s story she had been transported to the rings of Jupiter?
Batmanglij: I can’t talk about that. That’s exactly what I can’t talk about.
But there’s no possibility that Prairie is telling the truth about her abduction, right?
Batmanglij: I don’t know if that’s true. It is a story, so anything is possible within a story.
At what point in the writing did you come up with the ending, and were there other ideas for how to end it?
Marling: It was always leading to that moment. The thing that was in the DNA was that the story gets tested, that they believe in this story so much, that they’re skeptical at first, but then lean into it and believe, and it really unites them. And then, of course, the bottom drops out. I think it was always about the final moments being about whether there’s something that her story contains that tells the truth for them, that mattered – whether or not every aspect of it was true. And that’s really true [as a filmmaker], you make something and then it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It’s up to the audience’s interpretation of what feels true and important and meaningful to them, and what doesn’t.
It feels to me like most of the provocative questions that are raised are eventually answered. From a writing perspective. there isn’t anything we haven’t solved in our heads. But the question is: How long does the story continue? In terms of the core emotional story, it’s really about an outsider who has a traumatic experience and comes back to the small town she grew up in, and there’s a group of lost boys having their own traumatic experience, and there’s something in her story that moves them; something they need. So whether or not they believe the story is true, the boys are changed by the experience and so is she. So in that sense, everything about the core emotional storyline between the strange woman and group of boys resolves itself in the end.
Brit, do you have a definitive opinion in your mind, in terms of the truth of it?
Marling: As an actor, I certainly do. I think you have to know where you’re coming from. But I don’t want to say it out loud. What I felt was the truth as an actor doesn’t matter anymore.
Can you say if the gunman is a character who appears previously on the show?
Batmanglij: I don’t know what you’re talking about … I don’t think there are any right or wrong answers.
If reminds me a bit of the book Life of Pi, where you have this increasingly fantastical story that’s perhaps too impossible to be true, but there’s a value in the story nonetheless — and isn’t the world a more interesting place if you believe in such things?
Marling: I like that, that makes so much sense to me. I think it’s true too that in metaphor in stories, extremism in stories, you get to something that’s closer to the truth than if you had just stated all the fact. That’s how poetry functions.
The OA is currently streaming on Netflix.