‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ Director Sean Durkin Talks About Cults and Elizabeth Olsen

Martha Marcy May Marlene” is the breakout indie flick of the year, winning top prizes at Sundance and garnering near universal acclaim from critics. The film is a taut psychological thriller about Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who at the beginning of the movie escapes a back-to-the-earth-style cult and moves in with her older, upper-class sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), and her new husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). The transition is not easy. Cutting deftly between her time in the cult and her time at her sister’s lake-front house in Connecticut, first-time director Sean Durkin ratchets up the tension in the movie as Martha spirals down into paranoia and delusion. If you’re a fan of early Polanski movies or last year’s “Black Swan,” you’ll probably enjoy this.

I had the opportunity to talk with Durkin about the movie, cults, and working with Olsen.

Jonathan Crow: What was the inspiration for this movie?

Sean Durkin: I have never seen a modern-day film about a cult. And that was really it.

And then from there I just started to do some reading, and I found that the most interesting part to me was what happens right after someone leaves. Psychologically, I felt that setup was sort of the most cinematic.

Indie Roundup: ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ >>

JC: Did you base this on any of the (Charles) Manson survivors?

SD: No, not quite. I did a lot of reading about cults. You start with the big groups, like the Mansons and Jim Jones. But a lot of it came from a person that I know, who went through it.

JC: How did you develop the flashback, flash-forward structure in the script?

SD: That came very early on actually in the script. I started to talk to the person who sort of became my main source on cults. She described the first few weeks of out of the cult as being really confusing. She didn’t really remember what happened to her during that time. And she just remembered that she lied to everyone about where she had been. And she was paranoid that she was being followed.

That story gave me the idea. Martha was trying to make sense of what happened to her. So although they are flashbacks, I thought that was just her going back and experiencing what had happened. Going back and forth in that way and getting lost in the space and time would be representative of the emotion that someone goes through when they come out of something like this.

JC: The interesting thing about Martha is that she feels almost more at home with the cult than with her sister…

SD: There’s obviously things about the group that attracted her there and made her feel at home, and she was obviously getting something from it. That’s why people join these groups. They are looking for something that they are getting there that they are not getting other places.

What happens to someone in these groups, though, is that they strip the person down to this like childlike state and rebuild them. So when Martha leaves, she knows she has been manipulated, but she doesn’t necessarily understand how. She knows there was something wrong and that’s why she left. At the same time, she was told there are so many things wrong about this old way of life that she is going back to.

This is one of the reasons I was so attracted to that early period, those first few weeks, is because it’s not a time where you can understand what’s happened to you. There are obviously like things about it that she misses emotionally. But at the same time, [Martha’s older sister] Lucy and [her husband] Ted obviously have no interest in harming her, even though they may not be able to connect with her. I think there are definitely positives from both sides, but she is obviously not being physically abused with Ted and Lucy.

JC: Tell me about Elizabeth Olsen. How did you select her, and were you aware of her background, and how did you get that performance out of her?

SD: I wanted an unknown actress, someone who people had never seen before. My casting director brought in everybody who fit that description and that age range.

The character can be a little elusive on the page. It’s a very delicate role. We saw about 75 people in New York and L.A., and she was just the best person, hands-down.

See Stills from ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ >>

JC: What was it like working with her? Did you rehearse beforehand?

SD: We didn’t have much time to prep. We really just met once for an hour, and we talked a couple of times on the phone. She asked me a bunch of questions and then she said, “OK, I think I am all set.” And then she showed up on set a week later and we started shooting.

We had a very honest, open relationship. So I didn’t have to worry about being really sensitive; I could be just very direct. It’s not something you can always do with a first-time actress. Your fear is that you are going to have to pull a performance out of a young actor. But with her, it wasn’t like that. It was more like working with someone more experienced, like Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, or Hugh Dancy.

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November 2011

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