The winner of the Best Director award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a fascinating drama that looks at a young woman’s encounter with a religious cult. Director Sean Durkin talks to Jason Wood (Curzon Director of Programming) about his feature debut.
Jason Wood: What were the origins of the film?
Sean Durkin: We’d produced Afterschool and I was looking for a project of my own to do, and I’d always been fascinated by cults. I wanted to do something character-based, contemporary and naturalistic. I feel like any time cults are portrayed in films, they’re very over the top and menacing – caricatures of themselves. So I was doing research and trying to find an idea that we could make on a low budget. I read this one passage that completely popped out and I said, “Well, this is it – this is the story I want to tell”. It was about a girl who left a group that became violent. She escaped and the leader tracked her down Instead of threatening her, he gave her money and wished her well. So it was a complicated, twisted way of letting somebody go. And I wondered what the next three weeks were like for her. How does someone settle back into normal society after that?
Jason Wood: The central character is fascinating in that she is left with questions about her place in society and concerning her own culpability. How difficult was the character of Martha to create and, given her complexity, how blessed were you to find Elizabeth Olsen for the part?
Sean Durkin: I probably saw between 50 and 70 people. It was hard, because you write a character that’s quite elusive and quiet, and if you cast someone who’s just depressed and cut off then the role loses everything. So I was looking for something and I didn’t quite know what it was. I saw everybody and there wasn’t a single person I was interested in. There were good actors and good reads but it just didn’t feel right. And then Lizzie came in; our casting director Susan Shopmaker left her for the last day of casting because she was one of her top picks. During the very first read of the first scene, I saw something happening that hadn’t happened with anyone else. I felt it right away. We continued to talk and I got to know her a little bit. I sensed that she could convey a lot of feeling with her eyes. She was totally effortless. You never feel like she’s trying. One of the big fears of casting an unknown or an inexperienced actor, even if they’re really good, is you expect to have to work with them to pull out a performance. And with her, there was none of that.
Jason Wood: As the enigmatic leader Patrick, John Hawkes – who is also great in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone – is equally impressive. How did you work with him to capture the sense of charisma, idealism and danger that is so essential to Patrick’s being?
Sean Durkin: A lot of it is in the script, but there’s always something extra an actor brings. What I think he brought most was humanity. That was in the script, but he took it to a whole different level. One of the first conversations we had was that we didn’t want Patrick to be that stock cult-leader figure. For me, Patrick’s whole vibe was about living in the moment and living off the land, but silently there’s a bigger plan and action. Some of what Patrick says comes out of real truths. 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.
Jason Wood: The structure of the film allows the audience to experience the sense of discovery that Martha also undergoes. Was this one of your primary intentions in shuttling back and forth in time?
Sean Durkin: I didn’t want to separate the past from the present visually. I wanted it to be that you never know what’s coming next. Martha is trying to make sense of what happened to her at the farm while simultaneously understanding how to behave at the lake; for her, it’s all really happening at the same time, so it is all in the present.
With thanks to Curzon Cinemas
Martha Marcy May Marlene opens on Fri 3 February