Whether Sean Durkin wins at IFP's 2011 Gotham Awards for Breakthrough Director of the Year (held at Cipriani Wall Street tonight) or not, he enters this season's award cavalcade through his debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene (which is also nominated for Best Ensemble Performance).
Launched at Sundance Film Festival 2011 and introduced to NYC audiences at this year's New York Film Festival, the film has garnered cultic interest for both its star, Elizabeth Olsen (herself a nominee tonight for Breakthrough Actor) and its young producer/director/writer.
MMMM's dark tone and horror film tropes makes it more than a character study of Martha (Olsen), a PTSD-afflicted escapee from an upstate New York cult. Both the isolated farm scene of the cult and the seeming conventionality of her sister Lucy's vacation retreat that Martha returns to offers a sense of solace and alienation for the near-catatonic Martha and audiences alike. Such a feeling lends an almost hallucinogenic vibe to this thriller-like ominous tale.
Q: Is this film coming out of a genre like horror or suspense?
SD: I love horror movies, thrillers, dramas, comedies but don't know if it's that. I just believe in writing what you write to enhance the story. You can use elements of a thriller without it being a thriller or elements of horror without it being horror. It's got all of those things.
Q: What prompted this fascination with cults?
SD: My partner Antonio [Campos, director of Afterschool] and I were talking one day and I said, " [Wouldn't it be cool] to film a cult set today, not a period piece or something where everyone's so obviously brainwashed, preachy and in robes? Let's create something that's more the way that it is when people get abducted -- more from their perspective."
It started with that. Then you have to find people's stories that you get really passionate about, [and try to] understand the psychology of how confusing it is and then latch on to certain things.
Q: Was there a cult that served as the model for the one in the film?
SD: Not specifically. I started researching some of the more famous cults of the '60s and '70s, but quickly moved away from them. From the beginning, I wanted to make a film about a cult that was set today.
I tried to find more local groups in upstate New York and Vermont. But I really built it from how I felt this group would be in this part of New York State, in the Catskills.
Q: In casting John Hawkes (an Oscar nominee) as the Manson-like Patrick, were you referencing Manson or was the character meant to be a standard issue cult leader?
SD: I never stopped to think about it that way or ask those questions. You write a character a certain way who is influenced by many different people. I was just trying to capture the psychology and abuse and the way people get power. I just focused on making sure what we were doing felt truthful in the writing.
John then came in and took [what was on] the page to another level. He's definitely not what all cult leaders look like but I don't know.
Q: Why introduce the violence -- wasn't the mind/sexual control enough evil to anchor the story?
SD: I went back and forth on that. I wanted the cult to appeal to a certain type of person and to understand that this lifestyle could be appealing to people. It was important to see that and not have everyone be brainwashed -- that was my goal from the beginning.
But I always thought that the other things happening were even worse than the violence -- the sexual abuse and the way one person makes her feel okay about what's just happened. The stories I heard that were the most haunting when I was doing research, they were what really grabbed me and drew me to create this experience.
Because that was the baseline and because she can't see that those things are wrong for somebody is so involved in it, we needed something more extreme to be that spark [that made her leave].
It's natural for a man in Patrick's position who's getting power and gaining a following to take it to the next level like that. It might not be often that it goes that far, but there are different forms of violence that I heard about all the time.
Q: Through alternating flashbacks and post-escape sequences, it felt like you shot two different films, first, the sequences before Martha leaves the cult and then when she's reunited with her family at the lake house.
SD: It was logistical to shoot that way but also very helpful for me and the cast to experience it [chronologically]. There was a big adjustment when we switched over. It felt like a different movie and a different vibe. Everything changed a bit and it was good.
Q: What people eat and how they sleep are really important to their indoctrination.
SD: A few things were consistent from all the groups that I looked at, and one was the renaming. Everybody got renamed in every group I heard about.
The other thing [cult leaders do is] control people's consumption. That and sleep deprivation are the first things these groups do to weaken people and get them into a different mindset.
It became really important without spelling it out. I didn't want to spell anything out in the movie. These are things that I read about.
[I] wanted to show this clear pattern that men ate first and women ate separately, and that there's only one meal a day. I thought that when she got home, it would be really hard for her to eat in front of people and try to do what was considered normal.
Q: Were most shots in the script or developed during the shooting?
SD: It was all scripted. For me, Martha is in a state where -- although technically they're flashbacks -- I always felt that she was experiencing it all for the first time in her confusion, and I felt like that was the way to capture that confusion. So overall, it was scripted and there were very specific transitions that were also scripted.
The first scene where she's at the lake, then sitting at the farm and then she stands up and is back at the lake, that was scripted that way. There are several things like that.
When we were shooting, I would say, "I don't know where this is going to go." We tried to keep it free as well as being structured. Then in the editing, you also find some things. It was a combination but the idea and structure were always there in the script.
Q: Martha was first in the cult, but life at her sister's "normal world" house also felt cultish. Is the film a critique on our culture?
SD: For me there's no critique. It strictly comes from her character and the group she got caught up in, then, in going home it came from what was her sister. Siblings can be worlds apart. So if Martha made these choices, what choices did Lucy make, what kind of life was she living? That just happened to be the direction I went in.
The comparisons, which are definitely clear in the film, came from nothing other than trying to be true to the characters. I don't have any personal interest in making this a critique [of society].
For more stories by Brad Balfour and further awards coverage go to: Film Festival Traveler.