If confronting the things that scare you makes you stronger, then filmmaker Sean Durkin is in great shape, thanks to his debut film, Martha Marcy May Marlene.
The film, which deals with a young woman trying to readjust to life after escaping from a cult, deals with one of Durkin's primal fears: "When I was a kid, I was afraid of large group of conforming people," he says, sitting backstage before a recent screening and discussion of his film. "Church scared me. On the other hand, I liked being scared by things as a kid. So when I started making films, creating fear was a big part of it. And I hadn't seen a film about modern-day cults. It deals with so many levels of fear."
In the film, which opened in limited release Oct. 21, Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, who appears seemingly out of nowhere to make contact with her estranged older sister (Sarah Paulson). Even as Martha struggles to cope with normal life, she's flashing back to her days on a cult-owned farm, run by a charismatic leader named Patrick (John Hawkes).
"The way brainwashing works is subtle and takes a long time," Durkin, 29, says. "I just wanted to show the little daily things on the farm. I wanted to create an atmosphere to show physically so you know brainwashing is happening. It's up to the viewer to know what's going on. My fear of conforming into a group is part of it; I wanted to create the sense of fear that keeps you there in the commune. At some point she stops believing - but when do you leave?"
Yet the cult he created - on a farm in upstate New York - resembles a commune, a joint venture by a group of like-minded people to get back to the land. The difference is that this group is controlled by Patrick, who leads a male-dominated society and sexually uses the women in the group. But the film never states explicitly what the group is about.
"It wasn't interesting to me to be obvious," Durkin says. "If she shows up on the farm and everyone is in a robe, with Patrick giving speeches by candlelight about the grand mission - I wanted something different. I think this is more accurate. Most people who are part of these cults don't think they're joining a cult - or don't realize it when they start."
Cults, he says, "are more common than people think. I mean, what is a cult? If you try to define what a cult is, you can come up with a lot of reasons why this isn't one. I never used the word until I started doing press for the film. We never used it while we were shooting the movie."
The film was shot in 24 days, with a cast entirely selected by a casting director, with one notable exception.
"We did open casting for Martha because I wanted an unknown actress," Durkin says. "The thing that marked Elizabeth's audition was the effortlessness of it. She can do a lot with her eyes without trying. She has a lot of silent moments that convey a lot of emotion. In person, she's very charismatic and fun to be around, very vibrant - all the things that Martha isn't."
As he spoke, Durkin was a few days away from the film's theatrical opening. The debut will start a new chapter for the film, which has been riding a crest of critical approval since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
"Finally," Durkin says of the opening. "I'm really excited. The critical response has been so strong. But I'm anxious to see people get into the theater to see it."
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