One of the critical favorites at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Martha Marcy May Marlene won Best Director in the Dramatic Competition section, marking an auspicious debut for both its writer-director, Sean Durkin, and its star, Elizabeth Olsen, the gifted younger sister of multitasking empire-builders Mary-Kate and Ashley. Along with his NYU film-school classmates Josh Mond and Antonio Campos—the latter of whom ruffled feathers with his 2008 debut feature, Afterschool—Durkin helped form the three-man filmmaking collective Borderline Films. With Mond and Campos producing, Durkin cast Olsen, another NYU alum, as Martha, a young woman who flees a cult in the Catskill Mountains, but has trouble acclimating herself to life on the outside. Though the cult and its dangerously charismatic leader (a chilling John Hawkes) disturbed her enough to leave, Martha doesn’t have an easy time relating to her sister (Sarah Paulson) and husband (Hugh Dancy), who prove ill-equipped to handle her volatile moods. Moving fluidly back and forth in time, Martha Marcy May Marlene deals perceptively with an impressionable heroine whose identity remains haunted and unsettled. Durkin and Olsen recently talked to The A.V. Club about preparing to make their first movie together, the creative process, and the anxieties of the film’s Sundance bow.
The A.V. Club: What was the genesis of this idea?
Sean Durkin: I wanted to make a film about cults that was modern and naturalistic, because I felt like I had never seen that before, and it kind of popped into my head one day. And I started to follow that, and started reading about different groups, and began to talk to people who’d been in these groups and gotten out, or people who had visited and almost gone into them, but got out. And what became the most interesting to me, along the whole spectrum of experiences, was about leaving and the state of mind someone’s in when they finally do get out, and how they try to fit back in [to society].
AVC: When you’re researching cults of various ideologies and philosophies, you’re looking for some sort of common denominator, right?
SD: Yeah, definitely. And it becomes crystal clear very quickly that all these guys use the same tactics and methods and just have a different message, but it’s all the same.
AVC: The philosophical underpinnings of the cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene is kept fairly vague. What was your thought behind that?
SD: I didn’t want the robes and the speeches and the sermons and the messages, because I feel like that stuff takes the audience away from maybe understanding the… It was really about the emotion of it. Trying to get Martha’s connection to the experience and the things that could draw her in. Because if she shows up on the first day and everyone’s walking around like zombies, putting on robes, it’s like red flags, you know?
Elizabeth Olson: But if she gets there and it’s more loose, it’s a little more fun, people just having a good time, then you sort of understand, “Oh, okay. That’s the first step.” I’m also not as interested in that stuff. In general, I like seeing just enough information. In the script, there was definitely more of it, but always with the intention of getting it down to its basics.
AVC: You both went to NYU, albeit in different programs. How did that formal training feed into your development, and where do you part from it?
EO: I find acting conservatories really important. I’ve gone to four different ones, and all of them provided totally different tools for me. And at NYU, I went to the Atlantic Theater Company, and they have two main points. One of them is to always be active in something instead of just feeling it. And the other is figuring out your character. And so for something like this, it’s really important to not actually have any of this type of psychology bleed into your real life. Yeah, there are times where it’s obviously all being drawn from a certain place where you get in a certain mood from whatever the material is. By the end of the day, we were always able to drop whatever was happening and just enjoy being with each other and hanging out. And we created a really awesome family. But I think that was probably the most important thing I was able to do. And also, conservatories just make you emotionally accessible, because you do so much at once, so it didn’t feel labored or anything to try and carve and you know, craft certain things. Certain scenes.
SD: For me, it was very much about having time to experiment. I drastically made a change in my life and applied to NYU on a whim and got in. In my mind, I always wanted to make films, but it just all happened very fast. I never had the opportunity to make films before, so all of the sudden, I just had all this time to focus on that. So for me, it was about discovering that and discovering my interests visually, learning about new filmmakers I never heard of, just learning about film at all. You know, all the general things. It was very much just doing it. And then meeting my partners and forming my company. I mean, we met on the first day of school and had the same goals, and we really just started from the very beginning.
AVC: Were you not hugely film-literate before going into film school?
SD: Not hugely. I mean, there were films that affected me, and it was always something I wanted to do. In high school and then in college, I was focused on creative writing and photography. Then, when I was a freshman in college, I took a film-history course, and that’s when the real love started.
AVC: What filmmakers had an impact on you?
SD: At first, definitely Hitchcock. At that point in my life, I watched every Hitchcock film. [Laughs.] You know, when I was a freshman in college.
AVC: Family Plot, Jamaica Inn, everything?
SD: [Laughs.] No, actually, it’s funny. I’ve been saving a few of them, because the idea of having actually watched all of them is kind of sad to me. Every year, I’ll get to watch one. But I’m running out. There’s only, like, three or four left. But going back—it wasn’t like I wasn’t aware of film, a fan of film, but seeing The Shining when I was 11 or 12 was the most amazing afternoon of my life.
AVC: I think there’s that point around that age where you recognize there’s someone behind the camera. Some sort of guiding hand. That’s kind of the big moment.
SD: Exactly. Like, without even knowing it or being able to articulate it.
AVC: How did the audition come about?
SD: We decided for most roles, we weren’t doing auditions, but for Martha, we wanted an unknown person. I wanted to see everybody I could. Susan Shopmaker, our casting director, I think she had Lizzie in mind from the beginning as one of the top few choices, so I went through the whole process, and then Lizzie came in toward the end, because Susan always brings in her favorites at the end. And it just immediately… I remember at the very first read, she did something no one else had done. I hadn’t seen anybody else embody the role in that way. And I didn’t know what I wanted, necessarily. I mean, you write a very detailed script and it’s all very clear in there, but how somebody interprets it is always open. So I couldn’t say, “Oh, this person’s not right because of this.” It’s always a feeling. You know what you don’t want. So people come in and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t want that.” And then Lizzie came in, and immediately there was something happening.
AVC: What did you have in hand when you came to the audition? Had you read the script?
SD: Three suitcases and two duffel bags. [Laughs.]
EO: Yeah, I read the script during my first six or seven months of auditioning for roles. And I really enjoy auditioning, first off. I just think it’s a really amazing point in the process of creating a character, because it’s completely yours at that point. So I love it. I don’t think anything is weird about it, or scary. But when I read the script, I was completely obsessed with it. And since I was an unknown, I wasn’t able to read very great scripts, you know? [Laughs.] And so immediately, I responded to the narrative and the way the story was told. I’m a fan of playing with linear structure. And I really enjoy it when people don’t feed the audience so much information. I think a lot of films do themselves a disfavor by putting in way too much information, and everyone knows what’s gonna happen next, and no one can actually discover things as they go. So I really responded to that. And I really loved how complicated and difficult and fun the character seemed to me. And I really just thought I understood her, and just came in with a few specific choices, and something that I was constantly trying to change.
AVC: [To Durkin.] What was it that you saw? What was that something different she did?
SD: I don’t know. I guess some sort of complexity and ease. Like, not trying. Very effortless but in-depth performance. She’s just very prepared. Like very hands-off. A big fear of working with an actor that’s never been a lead in a film before is that you’re going to have to work really hard to pull a performance out of her. I just got a sense early on that she had an idea and it was in line with my idea, and I didn’t need to work hard to get anything out.
AVC: And you don’t have time to do that on an independent production.
SD: You don’t have time to do that! But that’s what happens a lot of times. I’ve been in that situation, and it’s not easy. [Laughs.]
AVC: The film plugs viewers into Martha’s sense of disorientation. How’s that brought out on set? Are there tricks to getting that right?
SD: There are no tricks. I mean, I believe in open communication. There are no games. There’s nothing like that. And there’s also not total silence all day, because we’re doing serious stuff. It’s really just about—
SD: Communicating and being with people and choosing people to join you in making the film that understand the film you’re making. And in doing that, that’s so much of the work done. Because everyone’s making the same movie, you get from the script what the atmosphere is. And it’s just like building. The atmosphere’s not an equation. You can’t just be like, “Let’s do this with the camera and this with the actor.” It’s like anything. You start with the blocking and the rehearsal, and then you see the camera, and it’s like, “Oh. Well, that’s not right. That isn’t quite giving us the feel. Let’s try this. Let’s change this.” You build it and then you capture it. And then, also, you just get a feeling of like, “Have you got enough of what you need?” and knowing that editing is gonna… And what you pair it up with, and what you do with sound. That’s gonna bring it to its full potential.
AVC: Was there much creation on the set itself? Is there a spontaneous element? The film does have a kind of loose, organic quality, but it’s tightly constructed, too.
SD: I don’t know how it translates, but my approach is to try to be as loose and free as possible. I don’t make storyboards and like, “Okay, this shot has to be this shot.” We have a plan and discussion, but it always starts with blocking first. I don’t want to decide when I’m going through a walkthrough with the DP that this scene has to be a close-up of her in that corner, because if they come in to rehearse and they want to be moving over here, then maybe that’s better. So we need to adjust the camera after that. So there’s a looseness in that sense.
EO: Yeah, and it was just fully collaborative. So if something wasn’t working, it didn’t matter who you were or what your job was, everyone’s opinion mattered. So there wasn’t this feeling of any type of hierarchy on set. Also, we always rehearsed before every take, basically just to figure out blocking. We always stopped rehearsing and started rolling at the moment where things were starting to happen organically and spontaneously. We didn’t really do too many shots, like, at all. I think the most was six or eight or something.
SD: Yeah, in terms of takes, we tried to keep it to under five.
EO: So we end up discovering things in every different take.
SD: And also, in terms of shots, I try not to… Like, if we get a great wide shot and we had planned coverage, but it’s concise enough and we see the moment, then we can just move on.
AVC: We see Martha in this cult, and we can only guess what her life was like before she got there. Did either of you imagine a whole history for her?
SD: I’ve written full histories for everybody. Like, I know what happened on their fifth birthday. [Laughs.] No. But yeah, I really thoroughly plan out everybody, and then that’s under the surface when I’m writing the scenes.
EO: But Sean doesn’t share any of that information with us. He says if we have any questions to ask, he’ll gladly answer. So then we had to discuss a few things. Not many. A lot of it was already in the original script.
SD: The script has a little bit more backstory, but the first thing I like to do is cut down dialogue and make it the bare minimum.
AVC: [To Olsen.] Did you have questions beyond the page about who your character was? Did you want to know that information?
EO: Yeah, totally. I also truly believe that stories are told with very specific parameters. Like, there’s a reason it begins there, and a reason it ends there. So when it comes to where things go afterward, it doesn’t really matter to me. I don’t really think about it. But for the backstory, it’s really important to have a fully realized family history so there can be nuances and subtle backhanded comments and things like that among the sisters. So we definitely had to talk through those things so we could be on the same page.
SD: Yeah, that was the one area, like with Martha and Lucy [Martha’s sister, played by Sarah Paulson], that we focused on.
EO: It was completely necessary. And I just had to make sure that I made some type of clear choice of what she’s searching for. Because there is something that that cult provides that her family didn’t. So that was probably the main thing.
SD: But that was also… I don’t know that we ever talked…
EO: We never talked about it. It was something I figured out.
SD: And that’s her doing her work. And I am available to talk about things as much as they want to talk about them.
AVC: From what I could tell from the red-carpet footage, when this film premièred at Sundance, no one had seen it at that point. What was that experience like for both of you?
AVC: You had no idea how it was going to come across?
SD: You have no idea. I don’t know if I’ll ever be that nervous again. When I was standing onstage for the first screening, it was the most horrifying experience of my life.
EO: You were so nervous!
AVC: Would it have been easier had you not been so last-minute in getting the thing ready?
SD: Oh no, I wasn’t nervous about that. No, it was fast, but it was thorough.
EO: It was your first film!
SD: We spent as much focused time as anybody could.
AVC: But you still don’t necessarily know how it’s going to play.
SD: Oh, you don’t know how it’s going to play. But you do your job and you put it out. That’s all you can do.
AVC: [To Olsen.] What was your thought? Was that the first time you saw the film?
EO: Yeah, well, I still didn’t get to see the whole thing at Sundance. [Laughs.] I saw, like, one half at one screening, and then another half at another screening, so I really never got a good feel for the movie. But for me, it was like I had no idea… [Sundance] was like a new world to me. I had no idea what was going on. I was just in it for the ride. [Laughs.]
AVC: Why was Borderline formed, and what do you see as its purpose going forward? Does it have an institutional style?
SD: What do you mean, institutional?
AVC: Like common sensibilities. Do you feel like the sorts of films we’ll see coming out of Borderline will have a similar kind of bent?
SD: No. We formed it as a way to make movies. Well, first of all, making films is a collaborative process. You need people. You need people you trust and love and who are your friends. People you can work with. We started as friends, and then once we were out of school, we said, “Okay, we’re going to support each other. Everyone’s going to write their script, but while they’re doing that, the other two of us are going go to work and share the money and share everything equally to support each other.” And that’s what we’ve done and continue to do. And then we just decided we were going to make our first features the way we wanted to make them, and we wouldn’t take funding that would require getting certain actors or losing any control in the edit, and we made a lot of sacrifices, and just continue to make films. It’s all about the films and the scripts. We have lots of ideas and a different range of ideas. I think we’re going to continue to expand and try to make good films.
AVC: Is Josh Mond going to direct something, as well?
SD: Yeah. He’s actually developing his first script right now.
EO: I’m really excited to see what happens next for them. ’Cause I want to be in all the movies. [Laughs.]