First-time director Sean Durkin and first-time actress Elizabeth Olsen took to the stage at the 49th New York Film Festival following a press screening of their film Martha Marcy May Marlene.
The movie – a gorgeous, understated, deeply disturbing portrait of a woman coming to grips with her life in a cult – is one of the festival’s standouts, and the innate curiosity we all entertain regarding the subject matter was evident in the audience’s questions.
Durkin divulged that he wasn’t referencing a specific cult in the film, saying, “I started research with some of the more famous cults of the '60s and '70s, but then quickly got away from that. From the very beginning, I wanted to make a film about a cult that was set today. So I started to try and find more local groups. I found some groups in Upstate New York and Vermont that I heard about, but really just built it from more than basing it off of someone. What I felt was how this group would come to be in this part of New York State."
The film was shot in the Catskills, adding another layer of realism to Durkin’s tale. Olsen, who plays Martha, noted the writing is what prepared her best for such a mentally demanding role. “I think Sean’s script was pretty clear and helpful on its own – there really wasn’t much time to prepare doing extra research, which I’m actually now happy about,” she admitted. “Because I feel like then you start to feel as if you need to revere or you put yourself on … a higher pedestal, than just doing the work. And so it was really just analyzing the script and trying to figure out what this young woman needed and what she lost and trying to understand her journey from a very analytical point of view.”
The narrative moves between two periods of Martha’s life – that spent in a cult, and the time following her escape, at the lake house of her sister Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson). Although the stories are interwoven, they were shot separately. “We filmed all the stuff at the cult first, for about a week and a half, and then we moved to the lake house," Olsen said. "So that was helpful … to have lived that and experienced that.”
“It was logistical to shoot that way,” Durkin added. “It also was very helpful for me as well as for the cast, I think, to be able to experience it.”
“It did feel like shooting two different films,” Olsen said.
“Yeah, it really did,” Durkin agreed. “There was a big adjustment when we switched over -- it really felt like a different movie and a different vibe.”
Food and drink are central to Martha Marcy May Marlene, elements that Durkin discovered in his research are intrinsic to regimented life within a cult. “A few things were really consistent from all the groups that I looked at, and the first thing was renaming – everybody got renamed,” he explained. (In the film, Martha is renamed Marcy May by cult leader Patrick, played by John Hawkes.) “And the other thing was controlling people’s consumption. That and sleep deprivation were sort of the first things that these groups did to weaken people and put them into a different mindset. So it became really important … I didn’t want to spell anything out in the movie, but I wanted to have this clear pattern that the men eat first, the women eat separately, there’s only one meal a day. And these were just things that I read about and then I thought that … when she got home, it would be really hard for her to eat in front of people and try to do what was considered normal.”
The film also features a few brief moments of physical violence, along with less overt levels of psychological violence. “I did want to understand that this lifestyle could be appealing to people,” Durkin said. “And that was really important to see … and to not show up and have everyone be brainwashed. But then, I always thought that the other things happening were even worse than the violence. The sexual abuse and the … way that one person makes her feel OK about what just happened. Those are the stories that I heard when I was researching that were the most haunting, and what really grabbed me and attracted me to wanting to create this experience. I felt, because that’s the baseline and because somebody is so involved in it and she can’t see that those things are wrong that we 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 … to take it to the next level.”
Olsen discussed how she discovered the role of Marcy, which Durkin envisioned from the start as being played by an unknown.
“Well at this point in my life I was auditioning for everything that came my way. … I was a new face and just auditioned for everything. What made this really special is that it was a really good script,” she laughed. “And I personally am intrigued by storytelling that plays with a linear structure and really gets that – those are the playwrights I tend to like – and so it was exciting for me to read a script that was that intelligent, and also challenging. And I didn’t go in thinking, ‘Oh, this one’ because I couldn’t – I wasn’t in the position to do that and I’m just really lucky that Sean intended on having an unknown actress play this part, because if he didn’t then I could name like six girls it could’ve gone to.”
Durkin laughed and shook his head, saying, “I can’t. It’s amazing. You can have a great young actor, but you have to work really hard with them to pull out the performance that you want. And I got a sense from our first meeting … the only prep we had was we met for one hour and talked … after auditioning. And what I thought was halfway through the meeting she said, ‘OK, I’m good.’ And I was like, ‘OK, all right, that’s cool.’ She was just there and she was showing up the way that Sarah, Hugh, John … any of these great more experienced actors do, and that was really striking and just made the whole experience so much easier on me, that’s for sure.”