Director Sean Durkin Chats Up Martha Marcy May Marlene

The rumbling on this Tuesday in late August came out of nowhere, shaking the hotel like a wooden paint stirrer in a blender. Writer-director Sean Durkin, attending a press day for to promote his film Martha Marcy May Marlene, darted out of a hotel suite and into the hallway, wondering what the disruptive movement was.

“Did anyone else feel that?” he asked a couple of journalists and some of the hotel help stunned by the occurrence, as he gingerly walked to the window to examine what was going on in the streets of Philadelphia a few floors below.

There was seemingly no reaction below as people went about their business with nary an interruption.

Durkin got on his cell phone to try to figure out the mystery. The journalists and attendees at a convention across the hotel hallway followed suit.

There was no service on the cells, prompting the confused minions to log onto their Facebook home pages to see what information could be ascertained. Within seconds it was determined that the rumbling was, in fact, an earthquake.

Regaining his composure, Durkin headed back into the room for his upcoming interview session.

The seismic shift that transpired can be likened to what’s been caused by Sean Durkin’s film. Starring Elizabeth “Lizzy” Olsen, an unknown actress with show business lineage, Martha Marcy May Marlene came out of nowhere to rock the indie world and capture the attention of Sundance Film Festival goers earlier this year, winning Durkin the award for Best Director, getting nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and winning the actress lots of positive buzz. The film was picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight, and some have likened the low-budget movie to last year’s multiple Oscar nominee Winter’s Bone.

In the film, 22-year-old Olsen–younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen of Full House,  New York party scene and fashion line fame– plays the title role of Martha, a young woman who has lived for a time with a cult run by a sexually depraved leader named Chuck (played by the charismatically creepy Winter’s Bone co-star John Hawkes). Martha flees Chuck and his Catskill commune-based followers, landing at the lakeside vacation home of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law Ted (Hugh Dancy). As the shell-shocked Martha attempts to settle into her new surroundings—while sister and spouse try to adjust to her erratic behavior—the harrowing memories of Martha’s experiences and fear of the repercussions from dropping out of the cult haunt her.

It’s unlikely you will see a more disturbing film this year than Martha Marcy May Marlene. It’s also unlikely you’ll witness a more convincing performance than Olsen as the distraught lead character.  What’s amazing is that this is only her second film, although, not surprisingly, she has been quite busy since that Sundance debut.

So why would director Durkin choose a newcomer for such a demanding role?

“I just thought she was the right choice for Martha,” says Durkin, settling down after the earthquake dustup. “I just had a feeling she was right. Seriously, we saw a lot of people and I knew she was the best. Her read was the best. She’s a very vibrant person, the complete opposite of Martha, and I thought that if you had that underneath the hard shell of Martha it would come though in her eyes. She has a depth and intelligence and that’s all working underneath this kind of abused person.”

Based on a short Durkin directed a few years ago called Mary Last Seen, Martha Marcy May Marlene was a product of the director working on the film at the Sundance Film Institute’s Director’s Lab. But the film was made quickly—in fact, so quickly that Durkin didn’t get together to discuss the movie or the lead character with his main actress until the night before shooting began.

“When I hire people—actors or crew—I think they are bringing something to it and they have an understanding,” says the low-keyed Durkin, who also produced the 2008 high school internet thriller Afterschool. “I knew she got it and she was bringing something really interesting. During the preparation with Sarah (co-star Paulson), she and I talked about the family stuff—that was only for an hour and a half.

“A lot is hanging out together with your cast and understanding the script and realizing you are on the same page and then you just start to do it. And then you shoot it.”

Working fast on limited funds with such difficult material had its challenges for both the actress and filmmaker. “The most difficult thing was making the character have hope and find something positive that she was seeking,” says Olsen, whose first screen acting experience came in her twin sisters’ direct-to-video movies. “When things go bad (with a character) there has to be the possibility of things going good, otherwise you don’t want to follow someone’s journey. That was important to me.”

Meanwhile, Durkin believes the last few years of his life, in which he was immersed in the various aspects of making the film, has been no cakewalk. “The hardest thing is writing the film, shooting, raising money, editing, doing festivals…it takes an insane amount of discipline and it takes a full amount of concentration that’s really exhausting, and I’ve been doing it for three years straight,” says Durkin, who used the Manson Murders and real-life accounts of former cult members as his inspiration.

“There was nothing easy about any of it. My biggest concern was that before I had Lizzy, the actress playing the part of Martha…I would have to work really hard to discover this character and translate it to film and all this stuff. And it turned out to be totally hands off. She (Olsen) came prepared. She didn’t do a lot of prep. She just approached it with a lot of ease.”

In Martha Marcy May Marlene—the different names Olsen is called throughout the film—Durkin often seamlessly mixes the current events in Martha’s life with remembrances and incidents from her disturbing past. This presented something of a challenge to Olsen, as it does to the audience who must remain attentive while watching the film.

“This is my second film and I am used to theater which is chronological, so I didn’t understand the idea of shooting out of order,” explains Olsen, who performed in the single take, still-unreleased horror film Silent House, took acting lessons at the Atlantic Theater Company and attended the NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “When I found out I got the job, I drew timelines and two different arcs and how to structure it specifically for myself so I had a guide. I always had the scenes with pieces of paper and I wrote on it everything that affects the scene that I could and take them under consideration.”

Durkin’s take on his highly effective storytelling method may surprise some. “I usually don’t like nonlinear movies,” the bearded filmmaker confesses. “It just needed to be told this way. I just created this perspective and psychology and being lost with Martha was at the center of everything, so this had to be that way. But I traditionally prefer things that are more linear. I never thought of the film as having flashbacks and I don’t think of it as linear, either.”

It’s no surprise that Martha Marcy May Marlene has jumpstarted both Durkin and Olsen’s careers. Durkin, who was selected by Filmmaker Magazine as one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” and partner Josh Mond have had a busy schedule since they formed Borderline Films,  which includes developing features, filming music videos and shooting commercials for Bloomingdales, CitiBank and other companies.

Olsen already has several features under her belt, some of them completed after the Richter Scale went haywire following Martha Marcy May Marlene’s debut at Sundance. Among them: the dramedy Peace, Love & Misunderstanding with Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener; Red Nights, a paranormal thriller with Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver;  and Liberal Arts, a romantic comedy with Zac Efron.

One wonders: What were Elizabeth Olsen’s influences during her formative years growing up in a show business family?

“Performing is something we all grew up on,” recalls Olsen. “It was never something that impacted us because there was no ‘before’—it was always there. You know I grew up with kids who were incredibly creative—we did our own Wizard of Oz when we were five. And every school project was turned into a musical or play and we started to make movies when we were in sixth grade.

“I grew up with musicals and classic films,” continues Olsen. “I was in love with Frank Sinatra. All I wanted to do was be married to Frank Sinatra since I was eight years old.

“I started taking acting classes and singing classes and I was training in my mind to be Frank Sinatra’s wife. But when I was ten, he won a special Academy Award and I saw him as being old for the first time and it was the first time I experienced heartbreak. But I knew that’s what I always wanted to do.”

Here’s Irv’s review of the film: