Interview: Martha Marcy May Marlene Director Sean Durkin


One of the many great joys with writing about movies is when you discover an unmistakable new filmmaking talent, one whose work defies labeling and comparisons, something quite unique and extraordinary at a time when being able to compare a movie to other previous movies is thought to be good thing.

That’s the case with director Sean Durkin’s debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene, a psychological thriller about a young woman trying to adjust to normal life after living for two years on a farm with a cult-like community led by a domineering patriarch. Not only does the story unfold in an intriguing non-linear manner with a tone that’s hypnotic and haunting, but Durkin can also take credit for giving actress Elizabeth Olsen her very first movie role as the title character and getting a performance out of her that’s gotten everyone who’s seen the movie excited about her future. Patrick, the leader of the “cult,” is played by John Hawkes, who made the movie following his Oscar nomination for last year’s Winter’s Bone and gives just as memorable a performance. (You can read our earlier interview with Olsen and Hawkes here.)

Durkin is one third of the collective known as Borderline Films, along with Antonio Campos and Josh Mond, three filmmakers who share the production duties on each other’s films. Campos already made waves with his own debut feature Afterschool in 2008, which helped Durkin get through the process of attending festivals, doing press and preparing for the theatrical release of what’s likely to continue to be one of the most talked-about movies of the year. first met the trio at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where “Martha Marcy” premiered and where Durkin received an award from the jury for his direction, but we had a chance to sit down with Durkin more recently following the film’s debut at the New York Film Festival, which wrapped up the film’s global tour of film festivals that included Cannes and Toronto. I remember from the last time we spoke that this movie was something you’d written a while ago and you made the short “Mary Last Seen” to shop around with the screenplay. What actually started this whole process of doing something based on a cult and someone who was in one?
Sean Durkin:
I just wanted to make a movie that was set today. Cult movies are usually period pieces with brainwashed people and clearly evil cult leaders, and I wanted to show something a little more naturalistic, something that fits the perspective of someone getting involved in a group and where do you show that line of where it becomes a cult? That was more about knowing what I didn’t want; I didn’t want all those traditional things about cults.

CS: Were you at all influenced by what happened with Patty Hearst? That was one of the more famous instances of someone getting involved with this sort of thing and being in the public eye afterwards.
Yeah, a little bit, but yeah, it was one of the things I looked at, yeah.

CS: I was shocked that there might be a group like this in upstate New York, because you might expect something like this to happen in Texas or the Midwest.
See, the thing is that they’re everywhere, and it’s that fine line of what people think a cult is. That word’s really dangerous, and don’t really like to use it–you have to because there’s no other word–where does something becomes a cult?

CS: Maybe calling it a “commune” would be a more polite way to describe it?
Right, but the communes that are cults, they don’t think it’s a cult, so it’s like someone judging that and saying, “Where do you decide it’s a cult?” When you start defining what a cult is, it’s dangerous because then you can start applying that definition and being like, “Oh, well then by that definition, then this is a cult or that’s a cult.” So yeah, these groups are all over the place, and they’re very small and could be very unassuming, and then they can grow. I started with some of the bigger famous cults and then started to just meet people and hear about these smaller groups.

CS: Without revealing anything, there’s things about this group that make them clearly not good people. They do things to her that stay in her head after she leaves. What kind of research did you do in terms of knowing how people are affected and why some people have that power over them?
I talked to people who had got out and five to seven years later they were ready to talk about it. That understanding came from speaking with them, and seeing how they suppressed things and didn’t deal with things and couldn’t deal with things or couldn’t really realize what happened to them. Someone even told me that she knows what happened. She explains what happened to her and she’ll say like, “I know this happened to me, and I know that’s bad, but I still to this day can’t feel that’s bad.” So there’s this real long-term psychological damage that’s done. That is really what I wanted to capture in the film, at least focus on the first two weeks or three weeks after she left.

CS: What’s amazing about the film is that it is able to capture because it’s something someone can explain but not something easy to translate. The movie itself is almost a similar experience where it leaves an impression on you that doesn’t go away.
No, it’s great. That’s been the reaction so far and I’m really pleased with that ’cause this experience does stick with you for a long time, so that’s great to hear that the movie did the same.

CS: You left religion out of this but you stayed away from the cults that are formed around religions.
Yeah, I didn’t want that because I’m just not interested in religion really in that sense. The trappings of a religious cult tend to fall into candlelit ceremonies and robes and group chanting and singing and prayer. Those are all things that are more clear red flags than showing up and there’s just a bunch of young people who seem kinda cool, hanging out playing music and working on a farm. Those things, the idea of being self-sufficient, I thought it was a little easier to maybe get involved in if you’re at that stage in your life that Martha’s in. Then I felt the only religion that’s in there is a little bastardized Buddhism. I felt that sort of went along with the living off the land, being in the moment, and I thought that’s all we needed.

CS: Those other things are very much the type of thing you might see in cults in ’70s movies with the rituals.
Yeah, I wanted to stay away from that stuff.

CS: You’ve lived with this script for so long before making it, so during the course of that time, did you storyboard a lot of stuff to make sure the transitions were fluid?
Yeah, the main transitions are scripted clearly and storyboarded, then those other transitions you find when you’re editing. It’s all sort of one process. I write and I will storyboard a scene if I’ll just have an idea for a shot or something. I’ll storyboard it, but then I won’t necessarily shoot it that way when I get there, or when we’re shooting, I’ll cut dialogue in scenes. I won’t rewrite on set, but I’ll just trim the fat. It’s sort of one ongoing process where writing ends and directing starts. I feel like editing is as much rewriting as anything in the editing phase.

CS: Isn’t it hard to make decisions like that on a set, because then when you edit it later, you might think, “Oh, I wish I had that line.” How does that work? When you add stuff you can always edit around or take things out.
You have to make hard decisions. (laughs) It’s part of making a movie, yeah.

CS: The movie has a very specific tone and pace, so did that also come out of the process of making the movie?
Yeah, that was in the script very much. People always said that that tone and pace were really clear in the script and that’s what a lot of people responded to about it. Yeah, you feel it. It’s very much a feeling, I have in my head what sort of feeling I want to create, and make sure that the performances and camera and setting are adding to that feeling.

CS: I remember that you shot on Antonio’s family farm, so you already know some of the locations. When you were writing the script, were you able to incorporate some of that in there?
That location was in my head for three years while I was writing the script, yeah.

CS: So you were able to describe that really clearly for the actors and everyone before they even went there?
Yeah, in my scripts, I don’t tend to describe landscape too clearly because I like to keep it really basic and sort of let people paint their own picture. I don’t find it helpful to spend a page describing a setting, except for maybe a few key things.

CS: Especially if don’t know whether or not you’ll be able to find the exact location you have in mind.
Exactly, exactly. The one thing about the lake house I think I described would be the dock and the large windows. I knew those were two features I wanted to have, and I wanted it to be a large house. I’d really just keep it to those things, and those would be the only things I would mention and those would be the key things I’d look for in a location.

CS: Also from our previous conversation, I remember you mentioning you finished shooting the movie in late September then had to get it ready for Sundance less than four months later. That’s a pretty fast turnaround for editing a movie.
It was. (Laughs) But it’s good. It’s good to work fast. For this film, it worked. I don’t know, it was a lot of playing around. My editor is fantastic and we have a great relationship and we just figured it out.

CS: Also, if you spent so much time thinking about the movie over the course of writing it, it must have easier because you knew exactly what you wanted.
Yeah, but you definitely go through periods where you’re just like, “Wow, is this even going to work as a movie?” in the editing. Even though you’ve got all this great stuff, there’s always that time where you’re like, “How do I put this together?” Then what was great was Antonio came back and spent the last week in the edit room with us too, so it was like this last push with fresh eyes. We made a couple of huge key changes on the very last day. It’s crazy, but I think making decisions fast and without thinking about them too much is really good because I feel like filmmaking is very much about instinct and following your gut. Things like casting, I mean, I figured out how to talk about casting Lizzy, but more than anything, it was just a feeling that I had. You figure out ways to talk about it, but I feel like so much of filmmaking is about that feeling. The tone and things. The tone is just a feeling that I have when we’re shooting that I know I wanted to create, but I can’t articulate it to anybody, you know?

CS: One of the problems of over-thinking things, is that you can end up getting further away from what you wanted to do in the first place.
Yeah, I’ve noticed too when people get too intellectual about filmmaking, they stop making films. Young filmmakers I know can be too over intellectualizing things, and sometimes that gets in the way. I think as much as you can keep on an instinctual level and a simple level and that works for me anyway.

CS: With that in mind, it leads to my next question. Since Sundance, you must have had people saying, “I’ve gotta get this director to direct my movie.” I know the three of you have this great partnership, but as a director you have your own career path, but you also have this collective partnership that’s been so important.
What’s really amazing is that when “After School” came out, there were a lot of offers that came Antonio’s way and he said and we said, “No, we’re focused on this company and this is what we’re doing.” Now after “Martha” comes out, people finally believe that we all are directors. I think there was some doubt in people, and now any time that we meet with someone about a script or anything, they immediately go into the meeting and they’re like, “Oh, so if you direct, your partners produce, right?” “Yeah.” “Okay, that’s great.” Now, that’s just how it is, so if people don’t understand that or are not interested in that, then we’re not interested in working with them.

CS: How are things going as far as the other guys’ movies? Is Antonio done with his movie already?
Yeah, we’re doing final editing and the music and stuff like that. It’s fantastic. So, we’re all really excited.

CS: How does it affect having to do all this promotion for you movie? Did Antonio have to travel around nearly as much for “After School”?
He did a lot of festivals. He went to all the international festivals and traveled around a lot, but it was different. It wasn’t leading up to a big release like this. But he did do a lot of traveling and press that was all mostly festival-based. So it’s different. It’s definitely hard to find that balance, but it’s so nice even for me to be doing all this press and then have a week off and get to watch Antonio’s movie and give editing notes, it’s like we’re getting to this system where even when we’re not creating directly, we’re so invested in each other’s films that it’s a different muscle when it’s not your own movie. It’s still creative, but it’s from an outside eye in a way. I think it’s just really good to stay sharp and keep being creative even in times where you’re focusing on promotion and traveling a lot.

CS: Have you generally been writing this whole time? This script you wrote a while ago, but have you been developing other scripts on your own as well?
Yeah, I’ve got a couple of ideas and one script that I’m working on specifically. And yeah, you find pockets to work, but yeah, it’s all great stuff, it’s all great.

CS: Do you think the process for your second movie’s going to be very similar? Even if it’s a different kind of movie, will you try to take a similar approach to make it?
Well, I think I’m finding a way that I like to work, but I think that it’s always good to push yourself and adapt and learn from your mistakes. I’m sure there will be some similarities. You start writing again and seeing similar themes come up and you’re like, “Oh, okay. I guess I’m interested in that.” (laughs)

CS: Some filmmakers might second-guess themselves and say “Oh, I can’t have that,” because they wouldn’t want people trying to connect one movie to the next. So you don’t worry about that?
As long as you’re making stuff that’s true to you, then that’s all that matters.

CS: Have you had any chances to talk to other filmmakers over the course of this?
I have. It’s been great. I’ve been able to meet a lot of really great filmmakers and talk and get advice. I feel like this community is very open and welcoming, and I always feel that people who were more experienced always helped me so much, I always try to help anybody I can who’s younger and coming up.

CS: You three have a very tight collaboration but are there other filmmakers in the area who are part of your extended community?
Not really like a formal community. We know each other, we help each other. I mean, my friends from The (Sundance) Lab I’m really close with. People ask sometimes about that, if there’s some sort of movement or community, and there is in a sense, but not really. It’s not that clear-cut. People who happen to live in New York, it’s just a small world and you keep working on the same crews and you become friends.

CS: I wanted to ask about the haunting ambient music, because it plays such a large part in the film’s tone. Did you have any particular influences or very clear ideas early on the way you wanted to go with the music?
No, I wasn’t sure if there was going to be any music in the movie. My friends who are composers (Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans) – the soundtrack’s available on iTunes; (Laughs) it just came out. I’m just really proud of it and I’m really proud of what they did. They came over to watch the movie. They worked on another movie called “Two Gates of Sleep,” and they’re incredible. They came over to watch a cut, and they were like, “This is awesome. We’re going to do something great.” I was like, “Look, I don’t know if there’s going to music. You guys can do whatever you want, but I’ve gotta be honest with you.” They were like, “You’re going to use it. We’re going to do it, and you’re going to use it.” They were really confident. Basically the first thing that went in when we were editing was that our sound designer was building these tones, so we were throwing those in the edit, and we were like, “Oh, this is great. It’s just this. It’s really cool.” Then basically the music started to grow out of those tones. So my goal in directing the score was that it should grow out, and it’s like all of a sudden, there’s music, but you don’t really know where it started or that it’s even there maybe. That became the direction, then they just did their thing and then Coll and I and Zach edited it in.

Martha Marcy May Marlene opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, October 21, then expands to Chicago, Dallas, Toronto and other cities on October 28. You can find the entire release schedule on the official site.

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