'Martha Marcy May Marlene' Director, Producers Talk Cults, Time Shifts & Elizabeth Olsen
Sean Durkin is reserved, messy haired and in desperate need of milk for his tea. It's early on a Sunday morning, just hours after the big, Hollywood bigwig-packed party thrown by Fox Searchlight to celebrate the critical triumph of his first major feature film. He's one of the hottest names at the Toronto International Film Festival, but at the moment, he's exhausted and everything is a bit fuzzy, the present washed over by the past.
Which is a bit appropriate.
Milk procured and tea downed, things clear up, just in time to delve into the hazy, confused world presented in "Martha Marcy May Marlene." As writer and director, Durkin took his turn leading the young creative collaborative of Borderline Films, the production company he started with his NYU film school friends, Antonio Campos and Josh Mond. Just a few years out of school, the trio has worked to support each other in their filmmaking endeavors, with Campos already earning raves for his 2008 film, "Afterschool."
"Martha," though, is the group's true breakout. A darling at Sundance, it was quickly scooped up by Searchlight and given heavy promotion, the company showing faith in its haunting, time-shifting narrative about a young woman who suffers paranoia and struggles to adjust after she breaks free of a small cult commune and goes to live with her estranged sister. Elizabeth Olsen, in a breakthrough performance that establishes her as a presence notable for far more than being the younger sister of those "Full House" twins, plays the harrowed title character, whose sense of identity is as confused as the tongue-twisting title on the marquee suggests.
The Huffington Post spoke with Durkin, Campos and Mond about the film, their artistic integrity, their real-life inspirations and the actress whose star is shooting parallel to their own.
HuffPost: This film is something you've been working on for a while -- you brought it to festival as a short previously. Why did you want to make this one so badly that you stuck with it through such a long process?
Mond: Because Sean wanted to make it. For us, when he had the idea, that was it.
Durkin: I never find it's like, you have an idea that 'Oh, I have to make this.' It's never like that. You're like, oh, that's cool, let me start to writing. And then you start to write it and you're like, oh, it's working, let me develop this. We just decide to make a movie and we do it and we do it. There's never really a discussion.
Mond: We were shooting a year ago right now. It's crazy.
HuffPost: Why a film about a girl in a cult? Why did you want to tell that story?
Durkin: One day I was like, oh, I think it'd be cool to make a film about a cult. Then you start reading. One of the first things I read and saw pictures of people, before and after, before they went in what they looked like, what they looked like when they got out. The physical transformation in their face and their body. And just, wondering how that happened, what the process was to transform someone like that.
HuffPost: What was the transformation that you saw?
Durkin: Just the physical transformation, it's amazing. If you look, they look like different people. Their souls are sucked out and it changes the shape of their face. It's really striking.
HuffPost: The movie doesn't give a lot of backstory. What happened to her parents, why she ends up joining. Is there something you had in the script, or something beforehand, this is what her motivation was? Or do you just start in this moment?
Durkin: I always work out fully what it is, so it's there, and write it down. You write it down and some of it is in the script and then you pull it back. I always write the script a little bit more full, and the first thing I say to any actor is, let's go through and lose some lines. I always trim down before we start rehearsing.
HuffPost: So do you tell Elizabeth and the rest of the cast what that backstory was?
Durkin: If it's helpful to them. But if it's not, I don't. I sort of make myself available for however much they want to know. One thing in specific that we needed to figure out was what Martha and [sister] Lucy's past was. So Sarah [Paulson] and Lizzie wanted to know a few things so they were on the same page, but other than that we didn't talk too much.
HuffPost: Is that stuff you don't want the public to know?
Durkin: Whatever ended up in the movie was very specific. A series of going back and forth with us while we were doing the script, editing and shooting as well. Every piece of information is very specific.
HuffPost: What struck me was that, between her sister and the cult, there's no one place that's great for her to be. Obviously, a cult is much worse, but there's something more supportive there than there was with her sister. It creates a weird internal battle for the viewer.
Durkin: Yeah, just because that's where she would be [in her head]. She was with these people, so she obviously trusted them. You go into one of these groups with your personality, and they break you down to a child-like state, they strip you of your self and they re-program you. So when you go, you know something's wrong, so you're stuck in this in between, so there has to be things that were good there and kept you there, and things in this new world that you can't adapt to.
HuffPost: John Hawkes was so charismatic as the cult leader that sense, and her sister was difficult to deal with. Did you make any moral judgments on her family?
Durkin: I never did. I just thought of them as what her path in life was, what she chose. I don't have any judgments, I just think she has trouble communicating.
HuffPost: The narrative jumps back and forth, between past and present, and at some point you don't know whether she's here or there.
Durkin: Talking to people who got out, there was a lot of confusion for a few weeks. So I thought that added to the confusion. Also the cult has a Buddhist philosophy. In the earlier draft of the script, there was someone talking about how there's no past and there's no future, there's only the present, how everything is in the present. And also how cults are just really -- what is really common is that there are no clocks or calendars, so no one keeps record of time. And so all those things running together would make sense that she would be drifting back and forth and always in the present.
HuffPost: Who did you speak to for this cult research? How did you get that information? I imagine people are kind of closed lip about it.
Mond: We have a friend of ours who was nice enough to share her experiences with us.
Durkin: I was writing and I was just starting the script and Josh told her about it.
Josh: She had told me about it before, and I told her what you were doing.
HuffPost: Was she reluctant to do it, or was she very open about it?
Mond: I'm really close with her but I think Sean was close as well, we're all really close, and I think he was the perfect person to do do it, because of the way it comes out in the film, with all his personality and sensitivity to it. So it was handled graciously. So she wasn't upset; she was very supportive of it.
Durkin: It was hard for her... It was hard for her to remember stuff at first.
Campos: She basically seemed to give, she was very blunt about what happened. And by no means the group in the film an exact representation of what she went through.
Durkin: Not at all. It's more about understanding the emotion and psychology of it.
Antonio: And she did escape, that was a big part of it. And so that journey of when she decided to get out, to getting to a place where she felt safe, took a long time, but the first few weeks after she got out was what Sean was focused on. And the reality was the most important thing that stuck was she couldnt distinguish between what was really happening and what was in her head.
Durkin: She also said she didn't really remember anything except lying to everybody. She didn't know why, she just kept lying to everybody about where she'd been.
HuffPost: How much of the film is based on what she said?
Durkin: It was really just about the psychology, the psychology of the escape and the emotional fallout and how destroyed you are in those next few weeks.
HuffPost: What led you to Elizabeth Olsen?
Durkin: Our casting director brought her in. We were trying to cast an unknown actress and saw everyone we could. And she was just the best person, we thought.
HuffPost: What about her made it especially effective?
Durkin: She's sort of effortless. That was really, she can convey a lot with her eyes and face without trying hard. We thought there would be a lot of silent turmoil, and she captured that.
Campos: It was very important that, she was going to be sort of, by the time the film starts, she's completely beaten down by this group, emotionally and physically in a lot of ways, too. When she came in she was beautiful and vibrant. So you start off with her in that middle point where she's beaten down, she's not clean, she's physically and emotionally beaten, and you watch her sort of get better and come back to that place close to where we saw her, or where she started, where we see here going to the cult. So you need someone who could be beautiful one minute, because that was what the film was, beautiful one minute, and then be this emotional wreck in the next shot, in the present.
Durkin: You never really know if you're gonna get that til you get it.
Campos: I mean, she came in, she did a really great audition and the scenes that Sean chose for the audition, captured a really good range of scenarios. It'd be something funny and playful with her sister, something paranoid and threatening, something cultish, sort of dogmatic talk. We really knew she could do everything.
HuffPost: You're not fearful of tackling a tough subject and not giving in to a happy arc.
Durkin: I think it was important to be true to where that character is at, and not try to wrap up anything that is true to that emotional situation.
HuffPost: A big studio picture may have had her get all better and everything be happy.
Durkin: That's impossible. That's impossible in that time frame. That takes years.
HuffPost: How do you avoid the temptation to, if you're trying to sell a film, to make this happy arc, even if you know that's not what the story requires?
Durkin: You just tell the story that you're telling. You can't think of anything beyond the movie. There's no formula to say what works. You have to be true to what you're doing.