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Sean Durkin’s stunning feature debut, MARTHA MARCY MAY
MARLENE, is entirely well deserved of all you’ve heard. A disorienting and
lyrical look at the fallout of leaving a cult, the film’s expertly-crafted mounting
dread and incredible performances by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen and the ever
reliable John Hawkes make it hands down, one of the best of the year. Fango
spoke to the young writer/director about this understated horror film (opening
tomorrow from Fox Searchlight), its haunting aesthetic and the desire to make a
different kind of cult film.
FANGORIA: Something that’s been interesting as of late,
especially with films like MARTHA MARCY and TAKE SHELTER, is that these
otherwise heavy dramas are kind of using horror and genre to really achieve
their heights. How did you arrive at that aesthetic?
SEAN DURKIN: I love horror films. I’m also really critical
of them. I always love the buildup and I’m always so let down by the climax, I
guess. So I definitely wanted that buildup and that suspense and overall
FANG: Part of that huge buildup is in the marketing, and a
lot of ads making so much of what’s real and what isn’t. The film itself,
though, doesn’t seem so divided. Was there anything more explicit, that there
are things that aren’t essentially part of reality?
DURKIN: No, definitely not. I don’t really like to talk
about the details of the movie, but I was really specific about all the
information included, like it was a really delicate balancing act and I’m sort
of open to whatever anybody considers.
FANG: How long was the film brewing in you before you dove
in to write it?
DURKIN: I started to think about a cult movie back in 2006,
and how it’d be cool to make one that was contemporary and not religious, and
just something a little more naturalistic, but sucks you in, as opposed to the
more traditional wide-eyed/preaching/brainwashed thing we’re used to seeing and
more familiar with. That’s all accurate, but from the
psychology of getting sucked in, I wanted to Martha to enter into something and
for us to understand why she’d be attracted to it. So that was there, and then I
just started reading about all different groups, and then I began to focus the
story and researching pictures of girls before and after they had gotten in and
out, and you could see their souls sucked out of them and how it physically transforms
them. That was really fascinating to me.
Finally after looking at the whole structure, I decided to
focus on what happens when someone leaves. I read a couple of lines in this
book about a girl who left a violent group after she had found out what they
had done and she was waiting—she had run away and was waiting at a bus stop—and
the leader tracked her down and he paid for her bus ticket and wished her well.
I thought that was the most frightening way to leave. And then she disappeared
and no one knew where she went for the next couple of weeks.
FANG: Was there one specific group in your research that
jumped out at you, or was it an amalgamation of all you had learned?
DURKIN: It was lots of groups that sort of laid the groundwork,
but mostly the group was defined by the place. I knew I wanted to set it in the
Catskills in New York, and drive around up there and see how these farms and
houses are sort of run down and empty. The area is very depressed, but also
naturally beautiful and it’s this overgrown, secluded place and I just
imagined, “Okay, well a few people would move in. What would they start to do?
What would their beliefs be?” I just built on that with the understanding of
how historically, groups had started. So, the structure of the group itself
really came out of that.
FANG: The transitions of the film are so seamless and
remarkable, how specifically laid out was that in the writing and filming?
DURKIN: That stuff was all scripted from the beginning. Some
were really specific and others were, we’d shoot with the possibility of it
happening or we’d find it in editing, we’d mash two things up. The tone was
there and the idea was there in the script, so we knew we were doing that, and
then the reason for it was a couple of things. As I was doing research, a
friend of mine came forward and said she’d been involved in a group like this
and wanted to share her story with me. She described the first two weeks as
being a time where she didn’t remember anything. She just remembered lying
about where she’d been and being paranoid that she saw him everywhere. That
created a psychology, and then on top of that the cult that I was writing had this
sort of Buddhist-based philosophy. A lot of it was just sort of underneath
the surface and doesn’t make it into the film in terms of talking about it too
much—you get glimpses of it—but one of the theories I played with was this
basic Buddhist theory that there’s no past and no future, there’s only the
present. So you only exist in the present, and I felt like that was really
fitting for life on this farm. So, if Martha’s coming out of the farm, she’s
living in that state of mind where there’s no past, there’s no future,
everything’s in the present. The idea of going back and forth, I never thought
of those as flashbacks because I treated it all like the present for her,
because she’s trying to figure it all out.
FANG: Since the film has made such a huge impact since
Sundance, have you heard from more folks like your friend, people in audiences
that have been involved in groups?
DURKIN: Yea, at almost every one. It’s crazy. Someone
usually comes over and says, “I got out of something,” or if it’s not that, “My
sister was in something.” One woman came up to Elizabeth the other night and
said, “My sister was in a group. She moved home, I never asked her any
questions and never asked her anything, and that was twenty years ago. After
seeing this movie, I should probably go back and ask her what happened.” You
get these crazy scenarios, but one thing that’s most meaningful to me is that
when this happens, people just say they feel like we captured the feeling of it
and the fear of it and experience, really accurately. That’s the most meaningful
thing to me, because I spent a lot of time with someone who shared these
stories, and the stories all changed in the movie, but I felt really strongly about
representing that emotionally, accurately. It’s great to hear that.
The other thing, which is also
important to me, is that sometimes people come up to me and talk about being in
a domestic abuse situation and how they felt like that was captured as well.
This abuse leads to a loss of voice and that’s also meaningful because when you
make a movie about a cult, you have to find ways to relate it to more everyday
FANG: I’ve noticed you were a producer on AFTERSCHOOL, which
is another film that’s very dramatic but also entirely horrific.
DURKIN: Yea, Antonio [Campos, director of AFTERSCHOOL] and I
have a production company and we have another partner, Josh Mond, who produced
both movies with us. We’ve been working together since NYU and while we were at
school, we started making shorts together and developed Arcane, which include
Jody [Lee Lipes] and Zach [Stuart-Pontier], our cinematographer and editor, and
our sound guy Micah [Bloomberg] and this whole team. We built on that and
continued to make movies together, and our goal is always to make each other’s
films. So we started with Antonio, and we released another movie called TWO
GATES OF SLEEP, and then we did MARTHA. Now, Antonio’s in post for his second
FANG: It’s refreshing to hear you say you love horror, but
sometimes when films like MARTHA are released, they steer clear of their
resemblances to the genre. Do you ever have a problem with the film being
classified as such?
DURKIN: I really felt like this story, because of the
content and the psychology, it’s a bit of a puzzle. So, I put in the exact information
and I’m really open to anybody taking what they really want from it. I really
genuinely am and I think that’s fun to talk about and hear different opinions
and interpretations, and so I have no problem sort of taking whatever they take
from it. My two favorite films of all time are ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE SHINING.
FANG: You can definitely see ROSEMARY’S BABY, you really capture that
frightening paranoia of feeling completely alone with no around her who
completely understands, aside from those abusing her.
FANG: It’s really cool that aside from the great
performances by Elizabeth and John, you have an excellent actor like
Brady Corbet (FUNNY GAMES) kind of on the fringe and sidelines of the movie. It’s
a small role, but it’s important and that much more impactful and full because
DURKIN: It’s really cool to hear that, because I feel that
way about all of the people in the cult; Chris Abbott, Maria Dizzia, Louisa
Krause, Brady. I think they are some of the finest actors around and I love
what they give, even though their roles are small, I just think that they bring
so much. I just love watching them work, they’re all so talented.
FANG: Had you worked Brady before?
DURKIN: Yea, Brady’s been a good friend for a few years. He was
the lead in TWO GATES OF SLEEP, which is how we met him and I knew he was going
to do MARTHA, so we did a short called MARY LAST SEEN, where he plays the same
character from MARTHA.
FANG: Is MARY LAST SEEN a companion because of the
character, or does it relate to the cult at all?
DURKIN: It relates to the cult. We made it an isolated piece
that could stand on its own, and then also to potentially be like a prologue of
FANG: Is there a plan to put that on the MARTHA DVD?
DURKIN: Yea, that’ll be on the DVD, so people will be able
to see it.
FANG: Are you into making any more shorts within that
universe at all?
DURKIN: No, we did MARY in 2009, when I hadn’t done anything
in a few years and I just wanted to make a short. It was just more for me to go
out and make something, and start directing again.
MARTHA MARCY MARLENE hits NY and LA tomorrow, October 21, with plans to expand in the coming weeks. For more, including theater listings, see its official site, and pick up FANGORIA #308 (on sale now) for an exclusive talk with star Elizabeth Olsen.
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