Brit Marling, The OA and Commoditization of Creativity

Brit Marling
Credit: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

“At some point if you stop living a life of risk and failure and adventure alongside your storytelling life, eventually your storytelling only becomes about the art of storytelling.” – Brit Marling, as-told-to Sam Fragoso

Brit Marling is my favorite artist right now. She’s the creator, writer and actor in Netflix’s most interesting show, The OA, and an uncompromising female storyteller experiencing mainstream success. Marling didn’t go to film school and doesn’t come from a Hollywood dynasty. You could legitimately call hers a self-made creative success story; her tenacity, creative vision and longtime creative partnerships led to her current incarnation as a famous storyteller.

The OA

If you’re unfamiliar with The OA, it’s built on a concept that’s hard to express in a few sentences. That alone makes its popularity something of a miracle. The second season of the sci-fi, drama, thriller, and mind-bending experience dropped on Netflix on March 22 and is being called the subscription service’s “most mysterious show.”

In The OA, Marling plays the title character, the OA, or “original angel.” The OA is an inter-dimensional traveler whose soul is bound to those who love her and those who torment her. Through her travels in multiple dimensions we see her triumph, love, experience abuse, become comfortable with the unknown, and embrace the supernatural, all with the same cast of souls, at times in different bodies and in different realities. So far, the story takes place over two seasons that include forced captivity, near death experiences and the repetition of a series of “movements” choreographed by Ryan Heffington, known for his breakthrough choreography in a series of Sia videos. The fundamental idea behind The OA is that there are limitless numbers of ourselves existing in other dimensions that we can access by performing the mysterious movements with a dedicated group of travelers.

(I should mention that Marling’s co-creator and longtime friend, Zal Batmanglij, co-writes and directs The OA and has been her collaborator since they met at Georgetown University.)

Marling has acknowledged in interviews that a show like The OA was a tough sell and hard to pitch to the traditional Hollywood studio system. She told The Atlantic that she and Batmanglij found a home for The OA at Netflix because of the streaming service’s approach to content creation as a tech startup, rather than as a traditional Hollywood studio.

“The deep narrative myth that Silicon Valley tells itself is that the best gamble, the most worthwhile endeavor, is going to be what appears at first to be the most far-out risk,” Marling said. “So when you brought that tech-company mentality into Hollywood, it was a complete about-face.”

A Typical Start; A Not-so-typical Result

Marling surprisingly began her career with a degree in Economics and a position in investment banking at Goldman Sachs. She told Sam Fragoso in his “Talk Easy” podcast that she quickly realized the long hours and monotony of her work wasn’t worth the sacrifice of her time and mental well-being. After joining her film-making friends from Georgetown to create a series of short films and documentaries, she found she didn’t need money to be happy. And that being loyal to her creativity was more important than any superficial definition of success.

“I don’t love money,” she told Fragoso. “I understood that life was so limited and that I was being asked to sell the hours of my life to make a living… I found that if I was doing something I loved every day, that I was fed in a different way and it was invigorating. ”

Creativity as a Commodity

My fascination with Marling and my love for The OA got me thinking, what do we compromise when we make our creative gifts a commodity? Since I was young, I had a flair for writing. And my ever-industrious parents encouraged me to “use” my natural talent to make money. I did as instructed. First, becoming a journalist, and then working through the advertising industry in a variety of marketing and public relations roles. But what gets lost when you take your natural gift and outlet and sell it off to the highest bidder? When you twist and mold that talent to fit brand guidelines or algorithms all in an effort to sell a product you may or may not even believe in?

I think the result differs depending on the type of creative person you are. Some people are able to maintain their creative gift on the side without losing any of its spark and magic. While others lose sight that their creative gift was ever a gift outside of a way to make a living.

When I think back to the start of my career, I remember defining moments, much like Marling’s at Goldman Sachs, where I felt I wasn’t on the right path. Felt that I was using my gift in the wrong way and pushing myself towards a result that maybe wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but was possibly the conglomeration of what others wanted for me. But unlike Marling, I didn’t come to a full stop. I didn’t guard my creativity and gift with uncompromising bravery. Instead, I forged ahead, looking for the next opportunity. The next promotion. The next way to sell my gift.

I wonder, what if I had stopped when those alarm bells went off? What if I had reassessed everything. Where would I be today? I’m afraid I’ll never know. But I’ve been told it’s never too late to find out. And now that I’m deep into The OA mythology, I think it’s time for me to “jump” into the next incarnation of my reality. And I think there might be an Amanda just one dimension over who came to a full stop much earlier, and who’s cheering for me from the sidelines.

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