Emma Corin as Gen Z amateur sleuth Darby Hart in A Murder At the End of the World
Brit Marling on set with Director of Photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen
A Murder at the End of the World is a mystery about Darby Hart (Emma Corrin), a Gen Z amateur sleuth and hacker who investigates a murder while attending a remote retreat in Iceland hosted by tech billionaire Andy Ronson (Clive Owen).
The seven-episode FX series — which streams exclusively on Hulu — was created, written and directed by Brit Marling (who also plays the billionaire's wife, Lee) and Zal Batmanglij, the duo behind Netflix's The OA. The creators recently sat down with emmy magazine to take us behind the scenes of their new project.
Spoilers: Do not read further if you have yet to watch the premiere episode.
Television Academy: What inspired you to do this show right now?
Brit Marling: We're living in a time where things seem very unraveled — whether that's the unraveling of democracy or the polarization of political parties or the climate crisis. There are all these forces at play in the world, and we're all kind of looking around like, Whodunit? How did this all happen? How has it all come apart?
“Whodunit” as a genre came to popularity for the first time between the First and Second World Wars, another era in which people were looking around, like, How have we gotten here? Who's to blame? This feels like a time for a whodunit, but the whodunit can feel like a bit of a farce. The premise is always farfetched. But what if we could make a whodunit that wasn't tongue-in-cheek? Is there a way for us to make this feel really real? And if the old seat of power where the whodunit took place was the British manor, that new seat of power is Silicon Valley and these tech fiefdoms. Darby Hart amassed her 10,000 hours solving cold cases before she's even in her twenties. She felt like a real, natural heroine to try to infiltrate [a] space where someone like Darby is not normally invited. What might happen there if a young woman could go toe-to-toe with a tech billionaire, credibly, and we could watch the results of that play out on-screen?
When did you shoot the series?
Zal Batmanglij: March to September of 2022. Our first few weeks were in Iceland, and they were having unprecedented storms. When Brit was directing her first major scene for the show, that wonderful walk-and-talk between Darby and Bill (Harris Dickinson) in the snow, there were forty-mile-per-hour winds. They were knocking the lights on the mountains down. The actors were freezing, and Brit was freezing, and you can hear the crew yelling. Brit just persevered, and that's one of my favorite scenes in the whole show. Then, to bookend it, we were in Utah, and Brit was shooting a wonderful scene that she'd written between Darby and Bill when they're driving, and he pulls the car over because she's so obsessed with Reddit and her phone. They had a giant sandstorm come through that desert, and they all had to take cover under a bridge. Trying to make a show that deals with the climate crisis and then to make it inside of it was pretty remarkable. But Brit was so calm, so level-headed, and the images are so beautiful that you don't ever think about those things when you're watching.
Are the two of you Agatha Christie fans? Because this show feels a bit like a modern-day And Then There Were None.
Marling: Agatha Christie certainly is an inspiration. What a master mystery storyteller. Her puzzles were always intricate and fun to solve. We wanted to make a puzzle that was fun to solve intellectually, but then had all these emotional rewards. The goal was to write a hot-blooded mystery. So rather than being cool and calculated all the time, it also has this rush of feelings.
Brit, you made your solo directorial debut helming the pilot episode. What was most interesting and challenging?
Marling: I was an economics and photography double major at Georgetown, and in some ways, directing was the merger of those. In economics, you're always trying to distill things down to the fewest number of variables to make a very elegant mathematical proof. With directing, how do you in an economy of moving images tell the story so that if you turned the sound off, you could watch these moving images and fundamentally understand what's going on? I tend to write where your eye goes and what it's seeing, rather than novelistic prose. It was fun to finally take that and turn it into storyboards and moving images.
The most challenging part was that we were making it in a very challenging time, which is what the story is about — so it felt correct. We were making it in the height of the pandemic and the supply shortage and inflation and the climate crisis, both in Iceland and in Utah. Filmmaking is always hard, but those extremes are really challenging, and it taught us a lot about resilience and finding ways to constantly be more true to the story. If an actor suddenly can't come to set the next day because they have Covid, and you have to rewrite the scene the night before, and you're already sleepless, and you're rewriting fast to get it to the crew because you've gotta be on set at 6 a.m. and shoot it, now without a major actor, how do you figure out what the scene is truly about? So even without one of its major pieces, you can somehow still get to the core of what you were trying to say.
The series moves between two distinct timeframes and two very different and extreme landscapes — the American desert and Iceland. Why did you choose those locations, and what did they represent?
Marling: From the very beginning, Zal and I were really interested in a juxtaposition of extremes, because that feels so honest about the time we're in. Nothing feels in the middle anymore. Everything is polarized and opposite. So those frozen blue landscapes juxtaposed with those warm red desert landscapes — they're both treeless. They're both extreme expanses the wind slides across. Zal and I talked a lot when we were writing this about trying to tell a metaphysical story without using anything overtly metaphysical. There's no time travel, no angels or aliens. And yet time in this story sort of acts as a metaphysical conceit in which the past will come into the present and reanimate the present in a new way. And then the present will somehow take you into the past, and you'll recall something differently than you've ever recalled it before.
Also, the wind across those landscapes is acting as a way of creating a more circular nature to time, rather than a linear one. One of my favorite images is when Darby lights up a joint and she's smoking, and the wind's coming through the door in Iceland, and the lighting of the joint takes you into the past, where Darby's also lighting up a joint, and the wind is billowing out the curtain of her childhood bedroom window. That's actually how memory and time work. It's not always something literal that takes us into the past. It's a smell or a sound or a weather current that takes us into those more abstract remembrances and back again.
Batmanglij: These extreme tundras, whether desert or snow, also represented Darby's inner landscape. Even though there's a lot of loss in her life, and the loss doesn't get any easier, hopefully something blooms inside of her in the audience's imagination at the end. It's not like all of a sudden it's spring in New York, but you should feel that the unbearable loss that she experiences, and also that we're all collectively experiencing, that we're gonna be okay, that there is hope at the end of it, that we can sort of get through this.
As Darby and Bill solve a serial killer cold case, we see technology affecting their personal relationship. This becomes a theme throughout the series, and the pilot episode features some interesting AI tech. Writers just settled a strike held partly over A.I. Can you discuss your feelings about technology and how this series explores that?
Marling: Darby and Bill are both outcasts in their communities. They're punk teens who can't really find friends at their public high schools, but on the internet they find this whole world, and more importantly they find each other and have that kind of mirroring of one another. That is so important when you're young and looking to understand who you are — and start to best understand that through someone else. Young love does form through their screens on the internet, and that's beautiful. I wish when I was growing up feeling like an outcast that I could've gone on the internet and found someone to give me that kind of solace. But, of course, it's a double-edged sword because, later when they do meet up, they think they're farther ahead in their relationship than they are. They've exchanged all these words all night through FaceTime, but their bodies haven't been in space together. They don't actually know each other. And so the road trip is about having to get to know each other actually, and risking real vulnerability and intimacy and confusion and the awkwardness of first erotic exchanges.
For technology as a whole, of course there are all these beautiful gifts that it gives us. I don't think Zal and I would even be filmmakers if we hadn't come of age in the moment where you could get Final Cut on a laptop in your dorm room and make a movie from your computer with very little resources. At the same time, we are rushing headlong into technology.
Technology's always the driving force, not philosophy or ethics or even science fiction of a utopian future. The tech is driving, and it is a capitalist endeavor. Everyone's racing to beat each other to capture the marketplace. And we are all in its wake just trying to assemble the pieces of our lives as technology sort of railroads through it. The story's also about all of our growing fears and anxieties that our minds and our imaginations and the way we interact with each other are being shaped by forces that we have not really consented to with full awareness of what they mean.
The Annie Lennox song, "No More I Love Yous," is very prominent in the first episode. How did you land on that music choice?
Batmanglij: Brit came into our writing room and was like, "I got the perfect song for Darby's Mom's iPod." She played it for me, and I was like, "This is pretty good." I wasn't sold on it, but I've come over the years to learn that Brit is always right. So I just relaxed into it. Then the next day, I woke up humming the song in my head, and I called Brit and I was like, "I think you got it." A dear friend sent us a video the other night from the Hollywood Bowl, where Brandi Carlile, Annie Lennox and Joni Mitchell were singing that song. Brit really picked such an amazing piece of music, and Annie is such a genius, and it fits [well with] Darby's state of mind. And then seeing the actors — Emma Corin and Harris Dickinson, singing that song in the pilot — I just love it.
Brit, you play Lee, a pioneering coder who gets doxxed by misogynists and disappears from public view after marrying a tech billionaire. Through most of the show, she's a pretty mysterious character, a mom with a young son who holds her cards pretty close to the chest. What was it like to play Lee while also writing and directing?
Marling: I deliberately wanted to play a supporting role to give myself the space to direct. In our storytelling, the stories are rather ambitious. They're like these whole worlds. Sometimes I'm like, Can't we just tell a story about a couple of teenagers living in Echo Park? Why do we always have to build these master universes where we're weaving together tech retreats and amateur sleuths and an American West road trip? If I was really going to sit in the director's chair and have the space to do that work, I needed to take a smaller role. And that was such a pleasure to give myself that space, finally, to do the job I wanted.
What was it like working with Clive Owen (pictured left) and Emma Corrin?
Batmanglij: Clive Owen was so brilliant and charming. He's really smart, and he brought gravitas with his intelligence and the way he carries himself and lives his life. You believed that he was a person in that position of power. That's a role I've seen a lot of people write, but I never really believe it. The only real boss that sticks in my head is Noah Cross from Chinatown, and John Huston brought that gravitas. Clive brought that gravitas, too, and then the irony is the only levity I got [on set] was from Clive's stories.
Brit and I were working such crazy hours, trying to keep the thing looking so cinematic and yet make it within a TV schedule and budget. Clive would tell the most amazing stories, which, of course, I can't share now because they're good Hollywood gossip. And then Harris Dickinson is someone who has a sensitivity that you don't normally associate with that level of masculinity. That combination reminds me of some of the greats from the past — Brando had that, and Montgomery Clift. And Emma just changed on a molecular level. I sometimes joke that I never really met Emma — I met Darby, and that was an amazing thing to watch every day unfold through our lenses.
Brit, what are your thoughts on depicting female victimhood but also women as heroes in this show?
Marling: I guess as a woman who writes, you have two choices — you can write about reality, in which you are oppressed, or you can write slightly outside reality — science fiction, fantasy — and hope to call that new world into being. In A Murder at the End of the World, I think we did both. In one timeline we are contending with the truth — that your coming-of-age moment as a young woman can sometimes feel like coming into an awareness of the inevitability of facing violence.
Darby is literally picking up the bones of women who have had their lives ended, sometimes at the hands of their intimate partners. No one cares to solve these cases. She does. In another timeline we are in near-future science fiction. And in that timeline we reach a bit. In both, we deliberately do not show gratuitous violence against women on-screen. We try to show just the echoes of it. And how those echoes shape us all.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
A Murder at the End of the World is now streaming on Hulu.