Sean Durkin is okay with the fact that his quiet, delicate, elegantly assembled debut feature freaks the living shit out of any number of viewers who encounter it. That’s the way the mild-mannered, genially bearded young writer-director wants it.
“I’ve read some critics describe it as a horror film, and I’m happy with that,” he says of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” the cool, slippery psychological drama that won him a Best Director award at Sundance in January, and has been preying on the minds of US arthouse cinemagoers for the past week. “I love horror films, but I hate when they get bloody. I love the build-up, I love the fear. I got really addicted to fear when I was a child. The way I approach filmmaking, it’s a way to confront my fears. To create them is to confront them.”
“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” a time-shifting study of the attempted self-rehabilitation of Martha (first-time actress Elizabeth Olsen), a pretty, suggestible young woman recently escaped from a dangerous Catskills cult, certainly revels in build-up, teasingly withholding key details of the character’s circumstances across its broken-mirror narrative – leaving some unaddressed altogether. If the filmmaker is working through personal anxieties in this story, it’s certainly not evident in the crisp control with which he braids this material.
“It was absolutely scripted this way,” Durkin says of the film’s fragile back-and-forth structure, adding that he always had a clear idea how much information he wanted the audience to have. “I wasn’t really interested in how or why Martha arrives at the cult; that’s not what the film’s about. I didn’t want to define a character by those reasons – it’s not as if these groups particularly attract one type of person. I wanted to focus on her as a personality, and let her backstory grow from there.”
It’s left to us to infer said backstory – Durkin has it clearly mapped out in his mind, but he’s not telling. In a sense, the flip side of Martha’s story was told in his award-winning 2010 short, “Mary Last Seen,” which shares a character – Brady Corbet’s dudeishly persuasive cult member Watts – with the feature, and details his introduction of another young girl to the commune. The film may appear to be a precursor to “Martha Marcy,” but as it happens, given the protracted nature of indie pre-production, actually grew from the feature script.
“I started writing the feature script in 2007, for about two years, but it wasn’t quite ready – and besides, it’s a film that really needed to be shot in the summer,” he explains, adding that he wanted a short film, accompanying the script, to send to investors. “I wasn’t happy with the one I’d made at NYU, and wanted to do something that pertained to the new project. In doing all this research on cults for the feature, I’d found a lot of information about how such cults are built, how people physically arrive at them, and none of that was making it into ‘Martha.’ So we made a short. We didn’t spend much on it, but it wound up getting into Sundance and taking on a life of its own.”
The short proved instrumental in securing investors for the feature, though an uncompromising Durkin didn’t make things easy for himself by sticking steadfastly to his scripts ambiguities, as well as his wish to have an unknown actress in the lead. He found Olsen, the previously hidden younger sister of teen-queen twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, through an open casting process. “She acts with such ease, without trying,” he enthuses. “Those amazing eyes, they tell everything. The first scene she read, something very compelling immediately started going on behind the eyes. I knew that’s where the film would lie.”
In stark contrast to Olsen, the weathered, instinct-driven experience of John Hawkes – at the time of filming, not yet an Oscar nominee for “Winter’s Bone” – was what Durkin wanted for the role of shabbily charismatic cult leader Patrick. Patrick insists Martha is special among his linen-clad harem of female followers, though the genius of Hawkes’s performance is that there’s no way of telling how often he uses this line. “That’s John’s influence, to a large extent,” Durkin nods. “It’s funny, I get asked questions about the development of that character and I can’t even remember how I initially saw him. I just passed him on to John. You kind of forget you even wrote him after a certain point.”
In addition to his apparent powers of character possession, it was Hawkes’s musicality that made a key scene fly – one where Martha (rechristened Marcy May in the commune) and Patrick forge an apparent connection over his performance of a folk ballad titled “Marcy’s Song.” The song, a cover of a melancholy Jackson C. Frank folk nugget, has become so identified with the film that many assume it’s an original: a misunderstanding that pleases Durkin.) “I wanted that feeling, because she feels like he’s written this song for her, but it actually a cover, which sums up her level of understanding,” he explains. “It’s so right, and John’s interpretation makes it even more so.”
That emphasis on misinformation is key, given that Durkin sees the entire story I being predicated on conflicting notions of untruth. “People who join such groups are told that everything in their life before they got there was a lie. They’re basically reprogrammed,” he says. “When they find out that’s a lie, they go back to their old life, but a part of them still believes that’s a lie too. So they’re stuck in between. Martha’s in survival mode, pulling whatever truth she can grab at.”
Is this uncertainty the fear that Durkin is confronting in his first feature? A long, shy pause follows, during which he considers his words carefully. “I guess I’m most afraid of conforming. Groups that conform in a blind way without understanding what’s happening to them, that terrifies me. That was a major fear of mine as a child.” He stares at his shoes for a beat, perhaps as one of the film’s most nervy, paranoia-inducing scenes runs through his mind. “Oh, and I’m always scared as hell that someone’s going to break into my apartment.”
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