Sean Durkin interview: directing Martha Marcy May Marlene, indie filmmaking and slasher movies

We caught up with Martha Marcy May Marlene director to chat about the making of his fantastic, disturbing indie-drama…

One of the lesser-trumpeted omissions from last week’s Oscar nominations, Martha Marcy May Marlene finally arrives in the UK after wowing festival folk the world over in 2011.

Centering on Elizabeth Olsen’s many-named Martha, a girl who finds herself drawn into a cult-like community led by John Hawkes’ Patrick, it’s a hugely impressive film, lifted by a career-making turn from Olsen and a performance by Hawkes that’s every bit as good as, and even more unnerving than, his Oscar-nominated role in Winter’s Bone.

So when the film’s writer-director Sean Durkin graced London with his impressively-bearded presence, 13 minutes in his company was hard to resist. Here’s what he had to say about Buddhism, Hollywood thrillers from the 90s, and why there may be a bit of the 80s slasher movie in Martha Marcy May Marlene…

You seem to have clocked up a fair few air miles over the last few months – Sundance, Cannes, London. Do you ever get fatigued talking about your film so much?

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Fatigued, yes. But tired of it? No. It’s tiring in that you’re travelling a lot and talking about it. But, you know, as people want to hear about the movie and talk about the movie, I’ll stay here and talk until people don’t want to hear about it [laughs].

I’m not sure if you’ve seen it, but Red State had a similar kind of leader in it, someone who can draw people in. Both that and Martha Marcy May Marlene deal with a sense of community that’s not entirely healthy, but they’re very different films. Have you seen Red State?

I haven’t seen that film, no.

Because that film feels very “How could someone be drawn in by this guy?”. Whereas Martha is the exact opposite. It’s like “Wow, it’s very easy to be drawn in by this guy”.

I haven’t seen that film so I can’t talk about it, but I know my goal was to draw in without any judgement. I try not to judge any characters or cast anything on to them other than their actions. Obviously, when bad things happen, that’s different. But I didn’t want it to be this clearly bad thing where you would say, “Why would Martha do that?”

I also didn’t want to say Martha’s this kind of person, that’s why she joined. I didn’t want to say any of the smaller characters… I wanted them all to be smart, strong and unique, so you couldn’t say “Well, this is the kind of person who joins this thing”.

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And was it always John Hawkes you had in mind for Patrick? It’s a real balancing act, that role.

Yeah. We were casting really late. I mean, it happened really quickly and my casting director suggested him. It was great. I think he brings so much humanity to it. It’s a very dark character, but also, I think John is a very warm guy and makes it more complicated, you know? He brings a bit of charm and warmth and not just the over the top pure evil cult leader that we’re used to seeing.

You talk about what we’re used to seeing. It felt like the movie could have gone a different, more conventional way, and I wondered how much of that was your intention, to play with expectations. You know, the spate of 90s films where an affluent couple move to a lovely place only for a psycho to disrupt it and destroy things, like Unlawful Entry or Pacific Heights…

[Laughs] I love those movies.

Me too! I grew up on those. It almost feels like you’re setting that up. You’ve even got an architect in here, which is the classic Hollywood job role. Was that the intention, to set this up and then have the audience think something bad is going to happen in the house?

Definitely something bad’s going to happen, but never in the sense of referencing any sort of structure or anything. Really, just because something bad is going to happen because Martha thinks something bad is following her. So that was it, really. It just came from that.

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I think making films, for me, is about confronting fear. And I go to my parents’ house in the middle of nowhere and I’ll be lying in bed and I think the doorbell just rang, you know? Or it’s like I hear something outside. That fear of being in an isolated place is just something to confront, I guess.

And you have these two locations in the film – the farm where the community is based, and the affluent retreat where she stays with her sister once she’s out. But they’re both isolated, neither has any sense of safety. You don’t have that, “I’m surrounded by lots of people and at least I’ll be okay”. There’s that feeling of being alone and there’s no one around to help even when she’s escaped.

Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny, the shoot felt that way too. The stuff at the farm was really… we did that first, and it was really fun and it was a nice atmosphere. It was intense and it was hard work, but there were so many people there. Then we moved to the lake everything got smaller. The crew and the cast got smaller, and we moved locations and it all felt a little more cold and isolated, and it was really reflected in the film.

The structure of the film is really interesting. It reminded me of watching Bertolucci films when I was younger and wondering what the hell was happening. The flashbacks don’t have any order to them. There’s no signposting of when things are happening…

Yeah, like dates underneath and stuff…

Yeah, there’s none of that.

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No, because I hate flashbacks, first of all. I can’t think of a movie that I like that uses flashbacks. Off hand, anyway. Which is funny, because this film obviously is that. But I never thought of them as flashbacks because I was writing early drafts and… you get hints of Buddhism in Patrick’s philosophy, just a little bit in the death speech at the end. But Buddhism is what I thought made sense to go along with this way of life that they’ve chosen. And a part of one Buddhist principle I was looking at was the idea that there is no past and there is no future, there is only the present.

So everything happens in the present. And that was something that was discussed at some point and that was sort of the state of mind of people there – living in the moment, being in the moment, being in the present, there is only the present. As well as the fact that there are no clocks or calendars, which is a really common tactic in groups like this. And when she came out she would have a complete loss of time and space.

And the confusion – the fear, the paranoia, all this stuff, that is very real to people who leave groups like this – mixed with this idea that there was no time, she had lost track of time and is trying to figure out what had happened to her, made sense that she would be experiencing it all at the same time. So that was the reason why I chose to write it that way.

In terms of the way you shot it – I found the close-ups quite unsettling. There’s nowhere else for you to look but right at that person’s face and it put me on edge a lot of the time. Was that something you had in mind to do when you were writing it?

Yeah. I think there’s a lot of close-ups on her [Elizabeth Olsen’s] face.The point of casting her was seeing that she could do that, it was like she can carry a close-up and make something really interesting happen without really trying. The key is she can’t ever feel like she’s trying to convey anything, it just comes out of her and that’s what’s so amazing about Lizzie, what I noticed right away.

But I’m guessing this was quite a low budget film. Did you have much time with the actors beforehand or was it a case of diving right in?

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It was all just talking beforehand. I met with Lizzie for an hour one day, met with Hugh for an hour one day, had phone conversations with Sarah and John a few times. Then they show up the day before and we talk some more but really you just get in there and just get going and do it.

The way I like to work, the first thing I say is, like, “What can we cut?” with the actors. Are there any lines you’re not comfortable with that we could change around, or there are any lines you think we can cut, or we’ll do it and I’ll suggest lines we can cut. I just want to get the talking to a minimum.

And then we get up and we block it and I have a plan on how we’re going to shoot something, but I like to get in the space first and have a bit of freedom to block it, so the actors aren’t shooting everything like, “You have to sit right there and you’ve got to hold this thing and the camera’s here, there’s no option, that’s how we’re doing it.” I don’t want to work like that.

If we find that we come into this room and it works by that window, I want to have the freedom to shoot by the window. So in that sense we have the freedom to block and rehearse, but it’s pretty quick. There’s no rehearsal ahead of time.

And when you’re shooting, how much are your choices out of necessity and how much out of artistic desire? Because it looks like very naturalistic lighting. Was that a case of not being able to spend a huge amount on lights or not wanting to use many lights?

Well, I wanted a naturalistic look but it’s all lit, it’s actually all lit. Just lit really well [Laughs].

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I was watching and I thought, Wow, it feels so bare.

Yeah, no it’s not. That’s the thing, that’s what’s so impressive about Jody [Lee Lipes, the film’s cinematographer]. He’s just become so good that it just looks that way. That’s the look we wanted, but it’s all very lit, just lit really well.

So, what was it, just candles? It’s incredible, it’s like a Conrad Hall kind of thing…

[Laughs] It’s big lights that are just cut down.

I felt a similar thing about the soundtrack. There are moments where it’s just breathing. A person’s breath is all you can hear. Is that scripted?

Some of that stuff’s scripted. Like, all of these elements are scripted, scripted in a way where they set the tone, you know, not everything, but really specific transitions. Some of it we find on set and then we throw it into the track and my sound recordist will re-record things, or my sound editor.

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But then a lot of it we just find as we’re building and editing. What we’ve started doing, which is really cool, is we’re mixing while we’re editing, so we’ll send a cut to my sound editor, he’ll start mixing stuff, recording sounds, doing all that . He’s an amazing guy. His name’s Paul Anderson, he lives in Woodstock, New York, and he’s got this studio out in the woods. And he and his team, they go out and record everything themselves in the area.

So if you’re doing stuff outside, he’ll go and record out in the woods. And you go up there and it’s totally removed, and he just uses… the world around him is his recording studio and it just gives a real great quality to the sound of the film, I think.

He sounds like John Travolta in Blow Out!

[Laughs] Yeah.

So what kind of films do you watch to wind down? Because this is quite a tense film – do you enjoy films that are a bit lighter?

To unwind? Yeah, totally [Laughs]. What did I watch this week? I watched Malice

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Again? Is that a repeat watch?

Yeah, yeah. And what’s that one with Jeff Bridges?

Jagged Edge?

Yeah, Jagged Edge.

So a lot of thrillers?

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s what my wife and I watched last weekend. I love slasher movies. I like the first hour of slasher movies, like 80s slasher movies. I love the set up, and the landscape, and where they choose to set them. And then when it gets all bloody I kind of turn it off. But I like all that anticipation and build up.

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Sean Durkin, thank you very much.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is released on Friday 3rd February.