The OA and the Dark Side of Science

Brit Marling discusses the folklore and real-life research that went into her trippy Netflix series.

Myles Aronowitz / Netflix

In the month since it premiered on Netflix, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s series The OA has inspired close analysis from viewers intrigued by the scientific, philosophical, and religious implications of the show’s trippy sci-fi exploration of near-death experiences and faith. On Reddit and elsewhere, you can read dissections of The OA as a Christ tale, as biocentric, or as descended from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

On Thursday, I spoke with Marling, the show’s co-creator and star, to ask about the research and abstract thought that went into the show. This conversation has been edited.

Spencer Kornhaber: Were you reading any religious or philosophical texts when creating The OA?

Brit Marling: Not necessarily any religious texts. I think we were reading a lot about near-death experiences themselves, like Raymond Moody’s book Life After Life and Sam Parnia’s research. It’s fascinating as storytellers to find this area where the science is largely being conducted through storytelling. Near-death experiences are difficult to measure, record, or find definitive scientific proof of, and yet there’s a convergence across so many cultures, so many different religious backgrounds, of similar types of sensation.

If people are having these out-of-body experiences—they can remember the details of hospital rooms and spaces that they couldn’t possibly have seen—is something leaving the body? Where does it go? How does it return? That area felt really like an interesting place to set a science fiction landscape in.

In terms of philosophy, later as we were editing the show [we read] Martha Nussbaum’s work. She has this book called Upheavals of Thought talking about how emotion has been disregarded in philosophy as a feminine afterthought, the important thing is more masculine, linear logic and reasoning. She’s coming in and being like, “No, emotions are incredibly valuable. They determine what is important to us and what direction you should go in as a being in order to flourish.”

I think that dovetails with a lot of the ideas of the show in terms of a return to movement and instinct and feeling. These things are all very important, and we maybe have let go of them as technology takes us further and further into living just from the neck up.

Kornhaber: A lot of people have watched The OA and seen Christ allegories or seen echoes of Russian folktales. Is any of that in your head as you’re writing the show?

Marling: Certainly the Russian fairytales, we were reading those at the time. I don’t know if you’ve ever read, for instance, the Russian fairytale Vasilisa. It’s basically Cinderella, but it’s the version of Cinderella before it was processed through a more Judeo-Christian interpretation. There’s no glass slipper, for instance. It’s about this young woman who has to go into the woods and encounter this character Baba Yaga, who isn’t a fairy godmother and isn’t a witch either. Through the girl’s cleverness and goodness she manages to get what she needs from Baba Yaga. And eventually she goes and wins the heart of the prince, all through her own effort and agency.

When that story gets retold and packaged further down the line in time, it becomes a very different story about the mythology of makeovers—your fairy godmother descending and giving you the most amazing dress, and then you win the prince. I think in general we have to go back and find the most ancient seed of a story because there’s usually a greater wisdom there. Those early Russian fairytales certainly entered the mythology of the story, which was more about a young woman’s agency than passivity in response to trauma.

Kornhaber: Why have Prairie be from Russia in the first place?

Marling: We both had seen the documentary on Pussy Riot, and that was really illuminating, hearing those young women speak so clearly and passionately. Also [Russia] is a landscape that feels easy to set this in because—at least from the outsider perspective—it has these extremes: the extreme of colds and the extreme of the oligarch families. When the OA begins telling her story it has the kind of heightened quality, the way kids daydream. It just felt right.

Kornhaber: Obviously the characters have some very allusive names—how much thought went into names like Abel and Homer?

Marling: Oh, interesting. Zal is particularly brilliant at coming up with names and titles. The OA as a title is from his mind. Sometimes [characters] have names right away that just appear. I remember when we were first talking, he was telling me this idea of a parent-teacher conference. And [the teacher’s] name just appeared: Betty Broderick-Allen. And then other times things don’t appear. Like Stephen Winchell had maybe four or five different names before we landed on that particular one.

I think Nina Azarov was slightly inspired by [Anton Chekov’s] The Seagull. Homer came of course because of the idea of the Odyssey. I guess it’s just part of the weird unconscious well—stuff just comes out.

Kornhaber: Were you looking to any particular spiritual traditions about the afterlife, reincarnation, or resurrection?

Marling: I don’t think we looked at anything specifically. One of the interesting things about Georgetown, where Zal and I went to school, is that one of their requirement classes is called “The Problem of God.” It’s a very broad overview of all the religious texts—the Bible, the Koran, Buddhist principles. I think that’s a beautiful requirement because I’m not sure that theology would have necessarily been something I gravitated towards—I was an economics major. Reading all those texts, it’s certainly there in the background.

In terms of this particular story, we tried to use what we’d read about all the different case studies about near-death experiences. You know: What is always described as a light at the end of the tunnel, or a sudden openness into a new expansive space and a different landscape. We picked those things and then gave ourselves the freedom to play inside of them.

So for Homer, for instance, the classic light at the end of the tunnel becomes, oddly, the space above what seems like an office. Or like Khatun’s space was a product of Alex DiGerlando, who’s the production designer, riffing about what that space could be like. It was Alex’s idea that it could start out in this open tundra, then there could be this little ice-fishing hut, but then when you went into that space it became infinity. That kind of playing with the laws of physics hopefully gives you the sense of wonderment that is the truth of that experience.

Kornhaber: You mentioned that NDE research is based on storytelling; that’s because in real life you can’t run experiments like Hap does in the show. How did you conceptualize his research?

Marling: A lot of that was inspired by an article in Harper’s called “The Quietest Place in the Universe,” which is about an astrophysicist who is looking to understand dark matter and decided that the best place to do that is deep beneath the earth where it’s most quiet. It’s an interesting flip of astrophysics, because normally we think about that as trying to put the biggest telescope on top of the highest mountain and capture the light of the night’s sky. Here’s this guy deep down in an abandoned mine in South Dakota basically listening for vibrations, trying to record and measure neutrinos.

The thing that was most interesting in that article was the idea of a male scientist who’s obsessed with listening. And the stillness that’s required. As a culture we look more than we listen. This character, Hap, has this lab underground connected to this mine, and he’s there listening for some unquantifiable, intangible thing.

Kornhaber: Did you have any thoughts about how to make his character different from the trope of the evil scientist?

Marling: We talked about that a lot. Hap was a difficult character. Zal and I must have written 20 different character background or profiles for him: from this place, from that place, this kind of father, that kind of mother, over and over and over. The thing that finally cracked Hap was this idea of someone who’s deeply sensitive to sound. When you first see him in the beginning, he has his earplugs in Grand Central Station, and you can tell that the cacophony of the subway to him is overwhelming.

He’s a deeply curious, interesting mind, and the audience and Prairie are smitten with him in the oyster bar. But then you see the turn his focus has taken. In pursuit of needing to know, and his egoic belief that he can know, he’s lost his morality. The audience can draw their interpretations about what they feel or think about who he is; our job was just to present him clearly. Certainly in Chapter Six, when you see his mentor as being darker and more compromised and corrupt than he is, that also throws Hap into an interesting light.

Kornhaber: Do you think about that dark side of science a lot? In the show, science is a bit of an evil thing.

Marling: I think everything can have a light and a dark expression. Can you imagine the first images from the Hubble telescope coming back? What?! It’s insane. The whole world, the collective consciousness just opens up when you touch something that’s so awe-inspiring. At the same time science is also manipulated and twisted into not-very-good ends. Certain pursuits can lead to the atomic bomb or Agent Orange or to chemical pesticides that are killing the bees. It depends on the scientist.

Kornhaber: What was with the kids being asked to leave their doors open when listening to the story?

Marling: I’ve noticed that seems to be sticking in peoples’ minds and I hesitate to explain it too fully. It’s one of those things that is like a feeling rather than a thought. But the feeling is that she’s asking this group of boys to be receptive and to be listeners—like Hap’s also a listener. In order to do that, they have to make some physical gesture. What’s crazy is that when they do that, it feels so bold. They’re just leaving the door open—it’s not that big of a deal. Especially in America we think of our houses as little fortresses and our lives as little fortresses: Don’t let anybody in. So there’s something very provocative about leaving a door open as an invitation.

I think one of the original stories that was influential actually comes from Jewish mysticism. Do you know it?

Kornhaber: Is this leaving the door open for Elijah at Passover?

Marling: Yeah. It’s so beautiful. I think it’s amazing to try and use that as a reminder of trying to stay open. I struggle with that all the time. You get scared and you close the door. But I think The OA, she’s inviting them to let a new thing in.

Kornhaber: At the same time, her openness gets her into trouble. She’s open to following her visions of her father, and she’s open to going with Hap.

Marling: Completely. I think too there’s something in the structure of the show that has echoes of [the French folktale] Bluebeard: the idea that a young naïve woman has to go into a dark space and figure out how to let go of her naiveté in a way where she can come of age and navigate the light and the dark. Bluebeard has a lot of that because she’s let into that room finally, and she sees who she’s married and has to figure out what to do with that knowledge once she has it.

Kornhaber: At Vulture there was an essay proposing the show had a “gentle queerness” because of the trans character, the use of dance as a weapon, and the notion of creating new families. What do you make of that reading?

Marling: As storytellers you’re doing a lot of things unconsciously, picking things up from the world around you. From the beginning, Buck was always there, that was one of the names that just came. And he was always trans, Asian-American, 14 years old, F to M. It was amazing to then find that boy. [Casting director] Avy Kaufman worked so hard and she couldn’t find anybody that met that specification, and she finally posted something on the internet and all of these auditions came in because that community is very organized online. We saw Xander’s tape and were just blown away. He had made that in his bathroom, on his own; he had never acted before, his parents didn’t even know he did it.

And then movement was certainly always a part of the story—the idea of a more intangible return to the intelligence of the body and instinct and intuition.

What’s amazing is the audience is maybe better than you are at threading all the needles—they can see what the eye is at the very center of it. Certainly it is really about constructing family with unusual pieces. Storytelling is a big part of stitching that fabric between people—people who might otherwise not talk to each other, people who sit at opposite ends of the cafeteria.