Martha Marcy May Marlene: Interview with Sean Durkin, Best Director at Sundance Film Fest

Elizabeth Olsen stars in director Sean Durkin’s psychological thriller, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, about a young woman who undergoes an explosive crisis of identity after escaping the confines of a rural cult-like farming community. Trapped by unsettling flashes of memories from the past and visions of a perilous future, she becomes taken over by an unsettling sense of fear, leaving her consumed by paranoia and a mysterious burden of guilt.

The film, winner of the Best Director Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Prix de la Jeunesse, begins with Martha (Elizabeth Olsen in her feature film debut) running from an idyllic farmhouse into the woods of Upstate New York. Terrified, and with nowhere to turn, she calls the estranged sister she hasn’t seen in years (Sarah Paulson), and suddenly finds herself in a lush, lakeside Connecticut summerhouse with Lucy and her new husband Ted (Hugh Dancy).  Yet, the beauty and comfort of Martha’s new surroundings clash with everything she is feeling as a secret fugitive from an unexplainable world, and so long away from society’s rules, she is unable to act in a way others find normal.

Martha may have run away, but she still is held captive by memories that slowly, devastatingly, begin to creep up on her.  Seeping into her fledgling new life, revealing all that she has been through, from the innocent desire for familial love that brought her to a secluded farm commune to her chilling relationship with the fatherly but manipulative community leader Patrick (John Hawkes).  Building, until they expose the heart-stopping source of her mounting dread. 

The result is a closely observed tale of psychological suspense that is also an arresting meditation on identity, vulnerability and the hunger for family in forms both tender and dangerous. 

Sean Durkin’s first feature film is an intimate journey into deep peril, as he and a fluid, probing camera follow a young woman who has run away from an idealistic but controlling cult on a secluded farm far from society’s reach. Finding refuge with her sister, she seems safe at last, but Martha is far from it, as secrets fester inside her, where everyday family life seems as strange as the world from which she has broken away and nowhere feels like home. 

Durkin has long been fascinated by the power and lure of utopian, family-like cults in America.  But with MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE he wanted to explore this topic that is usually presented in broad or sensationalized strokes from an original, personal perspective – from inside the pressure-cooker of emotions impacting a young girl trying to get away from a cult that has left her with questions about her place in society, her future and her own culpability. 

“I wanted to do something character-based, contemporary and naturalistic,” explains Durkin.  “I feel like cults are usually portrayed so that they’re over the top caricatures of themselves.  So I started doing a lot of research and I read one passage that just completely popped out at me and said, ‘this is the story I want to tell.’  It was about a girl who left a group that was growing more and more violent.  I wondered what the weeks after leaving were like for her?  How does someone settle back into normal society after living through that?”

Durkin started talking about the fledgling story with his partners at Borderline Films, a thriving indie production company formed by Durkin, along with Josh Mond and Antonio Campos, when all three were students at NYU Film School.  Since then, the collective has nurtured a growing group of collaborators — nearly all under the age of 30 — to explore every avenue of filmmaking, from writing and directing to producing and shooting.  Their driving MO has been to give each other maximum creativity even amidst the industry’s shifting economics. 

Mond and Campos made it clear right away they would do anything and everything to help Durkin realize his new idea.  “The general theme of the way we work is that each of us is down to do whatever it takes for the others,” explains Mond.  “Sean, Tony and I have built a deep trust in each other and that seeps through to everything we do at every level.” 

Adds Campos, “We knew Sean was the right person to tell this story because he has so much sensitivity.  He’s a classic filmmaker in a lot of ways.  He really cares about finding the truth in the moment and that’s a rare thing.  Another director could have made this film, but not with as much subtlety or power.  We always maintained that belief in him, and our job from the beginning was to let Sean focus completely on what matters:  the creative side of the film. With us, it’s not just about fighting for a filmmaker – it’s about fighting for a friend.” 

As Durkin began writing, often bouncing ideas off of Campos and Mond, he found that the story hit even closer to home than he’d imagined. “A friend of mine came forward and said she’d been through something similar. She wanted to help me, and she’d never talked about it openly before. She shared her stories with me and they were very painful, scary and sad. She was very generous. From that came the basis of Martha’s story,” says Durkin.

His imagination sparked, Durkin started envisioning sharp, detailed pictures of the cult family Martha joins, with its back-to-the-land lifestyle and the alternative philosophies of its leader, Patrick.  “The question for me was how do I make this real?” Durkin recalls.  “A turning point came when I went up to the Catskills and I saw all these abandoned farms up there.  I realized it would be so easy for someone to come up and start a community here and suddenly have 20 people living together on this farm.  So that became the foundation for Patrick’s community.” 

Durkin imbued Patrick with many of the contradictory qualities that make cult leaders so capable of attracting blind devotion including charisma, compassion for his followers, idealistic philosophies that stand in defiant opposition to a materialistic society and even a musical talent that lends him moments of easy charm despite his dark actions.  But Durkin also made it clear how these same qualities have become subverted with the power Patrick holds, especially over young women.  He binds his community not only with ties of closeness, but with chains of violence, justifying himself every step of the way as a loving father to his flock.  Patrick may see himself as a moral visionary, but Durkin reveals him transgressing past all ethical boundaries in the name of his beliefs. 

“Some of what Patrick says comes out of real truths,” notes Durkin. “He talks about being in the moment, about focusing on other people, on the land, and what it means to all be together but then he manipulates all those attractive ideas to get what he wants.”

The key to Durkin’s script was its tone, which merges the snowballing fear of a horror thriller with the life-like naturalism of a drama stripped to the barest emotions.  Though the story delves into worlds not often seen, Durkin notes that there are also aspects of Martha’s story that will be relatable to anyone who has ever felt they were trying to be two people at once. “Ultimately, it’s a story about identity,” he says.  “At the farm, they’re always talking about ‘finding your role in the family,’ and I think that is a very basic part of human nature.  We all want to belong, to be part of something, to feel like we contribute somehow to the group.  No matter who you are, everybody takes on slightly different roles and personas for the various parts of their life.  Like many people, Martha isn’t sure who she is anymore, but her situation is extreme.” 

While Durkin was still writing the script for MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, he decided he needed to prove himself as a first-time feature film director (he’d already produced several projects for Borderline Films), so he wrote and directed a short film that also emerged out of his research about cults. With Campos and Mond serving as producers, Durkin shot MARY LAST SEEN, starring Brady Corbet, for about $400 on credit cards in 2010.  It went on to win the Cannes Director’s Fortnight Short Film Prize, becoming a catalyst for the next step. 

“We sent the film to Sundance without thinking about it too much and simultaneously submitted the script for MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE to the Screenwriters Lab. Both got in, and that really changed things,” recalls Durkin. “The short was at Sundance and then went to Cannes, and while I was at the Writer’s Lab, Josh and Antonio were able to secure a little financing. I came home and went full steam ahead.”

Campos credits Mond with creating a lot of that propulsive steam that allowed them to make the film.  “The chutzpah that Josh has as a producer is amazing,” he says.  “It’s something special and it was a driving force in getting this film, and all our films, made.” 

Responds Mond, “I think a lot of people supported us because they connected with

Sean’s script and believed in the project from the beginning.   In the end, everyone who joined the production from the cast to the below-the-line crew trusted Sean’s vision and instincts.”

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