The biggest buzz out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was for a haunting psychological thriller by first-time director Sean Durkin called Martha Marcy May Marlene. It marked a breakout role for Elizabeth Olsen, the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, who blew anyone who saw the movie away with her performance as a young woman trying to escape from a dark past. (Olsen also starred in the single-take horror movie Silent House, which will be released early next year with a new ending.)
As the movie begins, Olsen’s Martha is running away from a community living at a remote farmhouse led by the enigmatic Patrick, played by Oscar nominee John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone). She ends up with her estranged sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and husband (Hugh Dancy), but Martha is no longer the girl that Lucy remembers as her behavior is erratic and odd, and she’s clearly haunted by something that happened to her that she refuses to share.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Olsen and Hawkes last week to talk about their roles in Durkin’s debut, although we tried hard not to get into specifics, since much of the film’s pleasure comes from the unexpected surprises. We’d like to think we were the only ones who interviewed Olsen that day who didn’t ask about her famous older sisters, and Hawkes was immensely cordial and a pleasure to chat with. The only problem was that the two actors got along so well that every once in a while, they’d get into their own private conversations (most of which we’ve cut).
ComingSoon.net: I’ve spoken to Sean and the guys from Borderline a couple of times, but I was wondering how the two of you learned about the project and how you got the script? Especially you, Elizabeth, because we hadn’t seen you much before Sundance.
Elizabeth Olsen: Yeah, I didn’t have a job when I read the script… ever. (laughs) I audition for everything. My agent would have me read lots of scripts and I’d just audition for all of it, even if I didn’t like it, just because I was new, and I read the script and I really loved it. I knew Sean was looking for an unknown actress. Martha is the only role that they actually auditioned or had auditions for. I went in. Sean’s script is really clear and thorough so I thought I had an understanding of what he wanted and where he was going with the script. I just came and auditioned and auditioned a second time. That’s what happened with me and it was pretty by the book.
CS: What about you, John? You were coming off “Winter’s Bone,” so when they came to you to play Patrick, did you feel like you had played a character like this before?
John Hawkes: I hadn’t played this character before. I never recall playing a leader of men, playing someone that people really get behind and follow, someone in power so to speak. It was a new experience. Teardrop (his character from “Winter’s Bone”) was his own kind of show but he didn’t really have a group that he led or manipulated or moved around. I have to say that I wasn’t super-interested in the cult idea. I had just seen enough of that kind of thing, but I was fascinated by reading it. It was really terrific, and it was from such a different perspective. It was a wonderful lead character in Martha and her story, and the role of Patrick I found pretty interesting. I was flattered they asked and I thought about it for a while and got a call from Michelle Satter who was a big part of the Sundance Lab and someone who has been really good to me and recommended me for great roles in films that did really well for me over the years. And Ted Hope, who I don’t know, but who called my manager and said, “These guys, these Borderline film guys, you’re going to want to know these people, you’re going to want to work with them,” and that was kind of the tipping point.
CS: Did you read the entire script before auditioning?
CS: So did you have any concerns about any part of it like how it was going to be shot? I’m not sure of what you see in the final movie is obvious how it will work in script form.
Olsen: When it came to just before auditioning, I don’t think twice about those things. I just think about the scene you’re doing and you’re just game for anything because you want the job and then the stuff that happens after, you’re just trying to figure out what’s cropped out, how many seconds and all these rules and it gets really specific about what they can show and what they can’t show. That was a frustrating process because I’ve never done that before and I know it was protecting me but it was also creating tension, so it was a little frustrating. (Laughs) It just tells the story better and I stand behind that.
CS: Had you already done “Silent House”?
Olsen: No, “Silent House” was afterwards.
CS: Oh, wow, because this they finished shooting just four months before Sundance, so how did they get that movie done?
Olsen: Yeah, well, “Silent House,” there wasn’t very much editing to do. It was mainly sound. A LOT of sound. So that’s why they were able to do that so fast, and it’s changed since Sundance, that movie. This one hasn’t. I think “Silent House” got in just based on 15 minutes they showed or something, not based on the whole film.
CS: Still, to have two movies getting made and then shown to people in that short space of time, that’s not how things normally work.
Olsen: I was confused, too. (laughs)
Hawkes: I was worried and was like, “I hope they did a good job.”
Olsen: It was like “That was a little fast, wasn’t it?”
CS: Often when you shoot a movie, it may be months or even years before you might see a cut. This is very rare.
Olsen: I feel like every movie I’ve done this year has been that fast, except for “Red Lights,” which is taking a healthy amount of time, not too long.
CS: John, did you realize you’d be singing in the movie. Was that in the script or did that come about from rehearsals or on-set experimenting?
Hawkes: Yeah, Sean was talking about it last night. I think it says, “Patrick plays a song.” They didn’t really know what it would be and I think beyond my involvement and whether or not I could get around on an instrument and sing a little bit, he always saw music as part of the community there. They don’t really have a television or computers or much radio and things so their entertainment would certainly be playing music for each other and singing along. I felt like it integrated pretty nice into the script and it made sense to be there. When I took the part, (they said) “We may have you sing, we may not” and I was good either way to be honest, and then he said that maybe he’d like to have Patrick sing a song. He went online (to Google) and he typed in “Martha” and he typed in “Marcy,” just words from the title of his film, “Marlene,” and Jackson Frank, an artist from the ’60s, not only was there a song called “Marcy’s Song,” there was a song called “Marlene,” back to back on his record which came out 30 years before. Then he listened to the songs and he thought they were haunting and strange and elusive and dream-like and made perfect sense for the film. With his estate’s blessing, we edited the song a bit – it’s very long.
CS: And the song ended up in the trailer. I don’t know if you had any idea when you did that song that it would play such a large part in the marketing.
Hawkes: No, no, it’s a wonderful thing, though. It’s a great surprise.
Hawkes: And it’s a beautiful moment for you as well…
Olsen: It’s so funny because everyone always asks questions about the song no matter what city we’re in. There’s lots of things that we didn’t realize people would respond to or ask questions about.
CS: When I watched the movie the first time at Sundance, it’s just a nice moment, him playing a song, but when you watch it again, after seeing how it’s used in the trailer, it seems a lot more menacing and disturbing. (Elizabeth laughs at this.) This is the type of movie that you do want to see a bunch of times because it does have a hypnotic effect on you that you want to see after you’ve thought about it for a while.
Hawkes: I don’t know if I mentioned this earlier but I’ve been haunted by this film. I saw it again for the second time since Sundance, but over the months, I’ve been haunted by images like “Wow, that was an amazing image in a movie, what was that? Oh my God, that’s from ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene.’ It made such an impression that I’ve been unable to detach myself.
Olsen: That’s so funny.
Hawkes: In some weird way it just seems like something that’s been flowing in and out of my body, it’s crazy.
CS: It’s amazing when a movie can have that effect on you, but it’s also interesting to see the effect your character Patrick has on the people around him. Did you do any kind of reading about people in these communities or did you just rely on the research Sean did?
Olsen: I did rely on what Sean had done. Also, it happened really, really fast. It was about two weeks since I got the part and I was working on another movie upstate at the time, and really this was only my second character trying to figure out what to play, so what I know how to do is analyze a script, so that’s what I tried to do is figure out, which is an analytical approach. For reason, I didn’t think of it as a movie about a cult. I just remember reading it and not thinking, “Oh, this is a movie about a cult.” I also know that my agent didn’t present it as a movie about a cult, so it’s never used in the film, and obviously it was a cult.
CS: Sean doesn’t even like using the word when describing the movie.
Olsen: Right, but even when I described the movie to people, they’d be like, “Oh, well she escapes a cult and it’s the next two weeks of her reassimilating with her family but I never thought all of this research would benefit me, because I dunno. I feel that everybody could relate to it in a different way as some sort of trauma, some sort of loss of voice and increase in paranoia. There are just other ways to try and approach it than research, and I’m someone who really likes research, but this didn’t need it.
Hawkes: I feel the same, Lizzie. I love to over-prepare and look into things. This one is very rare for me to have such a “let the moment dictate” approach. I always let the moment dictate, but I like to over-research and then forget it once the camera rolls, just go in there and not be thinking about it but know it’s in there somewhere while I’m reacting and being a part of what’s going on in the scene. Backstory and all that stuff, I think I thought about it for a minute, but I don’t even remember what any of that was, and I thought it was just the most interesting for me if the character fell from space and landed in this farmhouse and had these people around him seemed just as interesting for me as making some sort of elaborate… he’s abused by his father and did time in jail when he was fourteen or whatever other crap, but it just wasn’t necessary.
CS: One thing that’s really special about the movie is its ambiguity. Some people get annoyed by it, but others like that it doesn’t spell everything out in some ways. I was curious how you felt about that as actors.
Hawkes: Yeah, I feel like some people will want their I’s dotted and their T’s crossed, but the overriding feeling I’m getting from talking to people today and just from what I feel myself is it’s really strangely satisfying to sit in a movie theater and not be told what to think.
CS: Was it helpful that Sean shot all the stuff at the farm first?
Olsen: Super helpful, incredibly helpful. But also the transition to the lakehouse was bizarre because we didn’t start in one of the earlier scenes at the lakehouse. We kind of started at the middle and it was trying to figure out what she’s like post… it was a frustrating day.
Hawkes: And all those pieces of the timeline of post.
Olsen: Yeah, ’cause I remember I had these pages. I had the script and I had what we’re doing and I put it in order of how we’re shooting it but know what came first in the farm. I was trying to really put a puzzle together (laughs) and it wasn’t that necessary actually because Sean kept reminding me, “It’s more important to be in the moment than it is to try and do the editing part, because I do that. You don’t need to do that.” So I just had to trust that a bit.
Hawkes: You want to make sense of a piece and see if it will work. That does make sense because even though it’s out of order, it has to add up on some level.
Olsen: There has to be some sort of…
CS: I get the impression from Sean that he always had a clear-cut idea of what he wanted to do, having developed the script for many years.
Hawkes: He’s very specific, which is a great gift for an actor I believe. He’s wonderful to work with. He knows what he wants. He’s got a great combination of a real point of view and knowing what he wants and being open to at least entertaining other ideas.
Olsen: Yeah, without micro-managing.
CS: Liz, Sundance was a huge experience for you because you had two movies. How have things been in the nine months since then? Have you been too busy with school and other things to think about it.
Olsen: It’s been great. I worked a bunch and I went back to school. It’s funny, because all the jobs I did besides one I was cast before Sundance or did before Sundance, so I don’t know. I just feel that if this movie did well and you’re making choices for certain reasons before, then you probably should stick with those gut feelings for the next one instead of changing the way you approach choosing work, because if it worked before, why change it?
Hawkes: I think it’s always good. It probably is overall looking for an amazing story told by amazing people and to be a big part of that, and if you can find those things, you’re blessed…
Olsen: And then you’re lucky because you get to choose instead of like, “Please give me a job.” Which I’ll be in some position after a bit. (laughs)
CS: You’ve made some great choices yourself, John. The fact you were playing a janitor in “Contagion” but it ended up being a really strong role, so what are you doing next? Is the Spielberg “Lincoln” movie next for you?
Hawkes: Oh, yeah, yeah, “Lincoln”…
Olsen: You’re doing that?
Hawkes: Yeah, I’m playing in another cast of thousands, a supporting player, but you know what? The script’s written by Tony Kushner and it’s beautiful, so great, and that’s where it starts. I’ve got great storytellers and surrounded by great people, and I have a wonderful script. I don’t necessarily have the role to kill for, that anyone would want, but I love the period and I love Daniel Day Lewis and I needed something to do.
Martha Marcy May Marlene opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, October 21 and elsewhere in the weeks that follow. Look for our interview with director Sean Durkin soon.