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Director Sean Durkin Talks Food, Violence And Open Endings In 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 10, 2011 at 2:00AM

All The Lowdown From The NYFF Screening Of One Of The Year's Best FilmsIt may feel like you've been hearing about "Martha Marcy May Marlene" all year; the film, the debut of director Sean Durkin (who was the producer of Antonio Campos' underseen "Afterschool"), bowed at Sundance, and has spent the last nine months picking up new fans at every subsequent festival, from Cannes to Toronto, and launching its young star, Elizabeth Olsen, into stardom. And take it from someone who finally saw the film last week; the praise is much deserved.
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All The Lowdown From The NYFF Screening Of One Of The Year's Best Films



It may feel like you've been hearing about "Martha Marcy May Marlene" all year; the film, the debut of director Sean Durkin (who was the producer of Antonio Campos' underseen "Afterschool"), bowed at Sundance, and has spent the last nine months picking up new fans at every subsequent festival, from Cannes to Toronto, and launching its young star, Elizabeth Olsen, into stardom. And take it from someone who finally saw the film last week; the praise is much deserved.

The film, a psychological thriller about a young woman (Olsen) who escapes a commune where she's spent the last few years, seeking sanctuary with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy), only to find the effects of her time away still haunting her, opens fairly soon, but it bowed at the New York Film Festival last week, and we were at the post-screening Q&A to pick up a few insights from Durkin and Olsen on their scintillating debut. The spoiler-sensitive may want to come back to it after then; some plot details do follow. Check it out after the jump.


1. The film was developed with the help of the Sundance Institute, and Durkin found their aid invaluable.
The film's debut in Park City with no surprise; the Sundance organization had aided the film ever since it was in script form. Durkin explains "The Sundance Institute was an amazing opportunity and experience. I got into the Writer's Lab, I went in January. When I showed up there, I didn't have much confidence as a screenwriter, to be honest. A lot of the process is less about having these huge script breakthroughs, although you do, but for me it was more about the process of screenwriting, and what works for me, and what questions I need to be asking myself to get to deeper and deeper levels, and figure out where the script is coming from."

And their help didn't end there. "Even after the Lab ended, they stay in touch with advisors, and people from the Lab, and they gave me notes," Durkin says. And then, not long before the film went before cameras, he returned to the Institute: "I came back to the Director's Lab, and got it on its feet, and right from there we went into shooting. It was like a dry run of shooting the movie. It's such a great environment, I was so fortunate to go through that."

2. Watch the consumption of food in the film closely: every meal, and every bite, reveals something about Martha, and the group run by Patrick (John Hawkes).
Durkin meticulously researched cults and other similar groups while writing the screenplay, and a number of their characteristics made it into the film. In particular, the mealtime routine is particularly telling. The director relates "A few things were really consistent from all the groups I looked at. The first was [that] in every group people got renamed. And the other was controlling people's consumption, those were the first things that these groups did to weaken [people], and put them in a different mindset. I didn't want to spell anything out in the movie, but I wanted to have this clear pattern; you know, the men eat first, the women eat separately, there's only one meal a day. These were just things I read about, and then when she got home, it'd be really hard for her to eat in front of people, and try to do what was considered normal again."

Even when Martha manages to get away from Patrick's group, the food remains important: watch Olsen take tiny bites of scrambed egg at her first breakfast with her sister. The actress explains why, saying "At the farmhouse, they only eat one meal a day, so she wasn't used to eating in the morning, and in the presence of a man. "

3. The film's time-bending transitions were mostly planned from the script stage, although the director added new ones during filming.
One of the film's most masterful aspects is the way that the the past bleeds through to the present, and vice versa. Durkin explains that this was planned from the start. "It was always scripted that way, Martha, she's in a state where, although technically they're flashback she's experiencing it all for the first time, in her confusion, and I thought that was a way to capture that confusion. So overall, they're scripted. And there's very specific transitions that were also scripted. The first scene, where she's at the lake, then she's sitting at the farm, then she's back at the lake, it was scripted that way, and there were several things like that."

Indeed, even aside from the cuts, the staging and shooting were deliberately done to help call up the same state of mind. " If we had the opportunity to start a scene," Durkin says, "and be a little bit unaware of what space you were in, that was always what we tried to do. If it was dark, if we were in a room, what room we're not sure, if we were tracking behind her in a house, not knowing which house we're in, just always trying to find little things like that." At the same time, Durkin was happy to think on his feet, and find new transitions on the fly. "You also find things. When we were shooting, I would say "I don't know where we're going, I could put it there, I could put it here," we tried to keep it free as well as being structured, and then you find some things in the edit room."

*Spoilers from here on out*

4. The extent to which Patrick's violence goes was something of a question during writing, but Durkin was convinced that it was ultimately necessary.
One brutal home invasion scene by Patrick's group proved controversial to the crowd, with one questioner asking at the Q&A if it lacked nuance in its depiction of similar groups. Durkin acknowledged that it was a delicate balance to strike, and argued that the film doesn't shy away from showing the positive aspects of the commune lifestyle. "I definitely went back and forth on that," He admitted. "First of all, I did want it to be healing to a certain type of person, and to understand that this lifestyle could be appealing, it was really important to see that, and not show up and have everyone be brainwashed, and that was my goal from the beginning."

But ultimately, the director found that the scene didn't outweigh the other ordeals that Martha goes through, and served an important purpose, Durkin saying "That's the baseline. And somebody is so involved in it, and she can't see that those things are wrong, that we'd need something a little bit more extreme to be that spark. And also, I think it's very natural for a man in Patrick's position who's gaining power and gaining following, and very common for them, to take it to the next level like that. It might not be that often that it goes that far, but there are different forms of violence that I hear about all the time."

5. Durkin won't spill the beans about the ambiguous ending, but says it is very deliberate.
The film's open conclusion has divided audiences, and Durkin refused to clarify anything further about it, telling the audience "I don't answer questions about the film, about what happens, everything's in the film specifically for a reason." But he did give one little hint: "The only thing I'm willing to say about the ending is that, oftentimes people have questions, and I always like to say that whatever questions you're having are the same questions that Martha is having, and the film was always intended to be Martha's experience of those first few weeks."

Fox Searchlight will put "Martha Marcy May Marlene" into limited release beginning October 21st.

This article is related to: Actors, Actresses, Interview, Sean Durkin, John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, New York Film Festival


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