For an impressively icy thriller, there’s a surprising amount of warmth behind the unsettling “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” This fact revealed itself at, of all places, the press conference that followed its screening at the New York Film Festival where the film’s breakout star Elizabeth Olsen was asked how she got the title role. Although such events can be relied upon for a bit of backslapping between creative collaborators, Olsen confessed, “If Sean [Durkin] hadn’t wanted an unknown, I can think of six actresses that would’ve been great for the part” to which her director Durkin sputtered just audibly enough for his mic to pick up, “I can’t.”
It was a tender moment that there may be precious few of in the existential horror film about a fragile young woman who’s escaped a cult, yet “Martha Marcy May Marlene” emerges from one of the most heartening of success stories in recent years in the indie film world. Durkin is the third director to complete a feature for Borderline Films, the collective he pioneered with fellow NYU grads Antonio Campos and Josh Mond (a great profile on the Brooklyn-based trio recently appeared in New York) that has managed to beat the odds by forging bonds with deeply talented artists at every production level and has subsisted on commercial shoots to finance their features. Just three films in, they’ve produced some of the most daring films of recent memory, including Campos’ blistering debut “Afterschool” and Alistair Banks Griffin’s punishing family drama “Two Gates of Sleep.”
Although it isn’t an ideal comparison, it only seems natural that someone at Borderline would gravitate towards the story of a self-sustaining collective, albeit one with violent, emotionally devastating tendencies, for one of their films. Then again, that’s merely the hook of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” on which Durkin is able to explore the identity crisis of its central character through a fluid fusion of her two lives: the present, in which she has trouble adjusting to the privileged simple life of her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy) at their lake house in Connecticut and the past, where she would rob people just like them to help support a devilishly sneaky man named Patrick (a sly John Hawkes), who leads a salt-to-the-earth group that doesn’t doesn’t adhere to any particular religion, but unfailingly bows to the gospel of its leader.
Durkin’s work with cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes and editor Zac Stuart-Pontier has been deservingly lauded for the film’s jump cuts that often begin with Martha in one environment before ending up in another, unable to distinguish where she is or who she’s with. But what’s more impressive is the director’s consistency in handling the mystery of Martha’s inconsistent history, something that as he explains below in an interview we did recently took a great deal of time to get just right.
You were actually thinking about shooting this in 2009. Why the wait?
It just wasn’t ready, so it took a little longer. It was good to shoot [the short] “Mary Last Seen” and then all the things have happened for me between December of 2009 and August of 2010 was insane. Getting into Sundance with the short, getting into the lab with the script [for “Martha Marcy May Marlene”], doing both of those things – it created everything that helped make the film what it was.
You said something surprising in New York about that period of time, which was that you had no real idea about how to write a script – was it an issue that you had trouble verbalizing things you had been able to visualize for a feature-length film?
No, I didn’t have trouble physically writing. I wrote a lot of short screenplays in school, but made two of 15, so I wrote 13 shorts that we didn’t think were worth making. When I say figuring out how to write, I just mean figuring out what my process is and how I work, how to construct a feature. In a lot of ways, writing a feature is easier than writing a short because you can fully explore a story. What happens with a lot of short films is they try to do too much and the best short films are just simple. Very simple moments.
Given the struggle of Elizabeth Olsen’s character, who’s caught between the material world of her sister’s lake house versus one based more in nature with the cult, did the economic collapse that occurred during the time of additional development become something that sank into the script?
No, it didn’t and it’s definitely there in the movie, but it was never really a focus from a political standpoint because I’m just interested in the character. The whole base for the farm and the group itself and what their beliefs are, the self-sustainability – that was just something that I imagined would happen in that region [of upstate New York]. From there, it’s like you develop Martha’s character and so Martha made these choices, well, what’s her sister like? And how different siblings can be fascinating, so if Martha’s here, Lucy’s a world away – what choices did Lucy make? What’s her life? Then it just naturally grew to [Lucy’s husband] Ted and the lake house, so it was never a goal to compare, other than to compare the little things in life that lead to the transitions back and forth that Martha goes through. But there was never any plan to pose these two worlds next to each other in a political sense. It just happened very naturally.
There’s no negative connotation implied with this question, but did your connection to a filmmaking collective like Borderline inform the idea of Martha becoming a part of a community outside her own?
I don’t think that had anything to do with it. People ask, “Oh, your company, it’s kind of like your cult.” [laughs] Which is funny. No, my interest in the subject matter very much came from the people [I spoke to] and what they went through. I’ve seen pictures of girls who had gotten out of cults and what they looked like and their physical transformation from what they looked like before and I wanted to find out how they got there and what happened to them. That’s where it started.
As a producer on the Borderline features “Afterschool” and “Two Gates of Sleep” before taking the director’s chair yourself, were there things you took with you from those experiences?
Of course. Producing “Afterschool” was the first feature I ever fully worked on, so just going through that whole process — seeing the work it took, how the days break down, the choices he made — I learned so much from Antonio [Campos, director of “Afterschool”]. Also, I didn’t start making films until I transferred to film school when I was 22 and he had been making films a lot longer, so I was able to learn a lot shooting shorts for him.
Jody Lee Lipes, another longtime collaborator of Borderline, has done some amazing things as a cinematographer and this film is as evocative as anything else he’s done, but I’ve never seen something of his, including what I’ve seen of your short “Mary Last Seen,” that had this kind of texture to it. How did the look come about?
We wanted it to be worn in because that’s how the farm [where Martha is taken into the cult] feels. I felt if we could create a look that adds to how the farm feels and the lighting of how you walk through the farmhouse during the day — there’s not lights on, but it’s really bright outside, dark inside and you can see all the way through the windows down the fields and into the trees — and then I wanted to bring that to the lake [where she’s in the safety of her sister’s care]. The lake house has to look different, but we didn’t want to do that because [we wanted to] bring that residue of the farm to the film at the lake. It’s a beautiful place and just having that same look, there’s never a visual indicator other than location [of where Martha is], so there’s a bit of confusion at times about where we were. Jody’s all about performance in the film. He was really excited about creating something like that, so he came up with underexposing as the way to do that. He came up with this whole way of shooting that was very cold.
Because you’ve said before that part of your fascination with cults came from attending a religious school when you were younger, I would guess that might’ve also precluded you from watching films like this until you were older. Was that the case?
That’s all I watched when I was a kid. The school was religious, but my family’s not religious. It wasn’t strict. It wasn’t like a Catholic school. But my mom loved horror movies, so we used to watch them when I was a little kid.
Was it fun to find ways to hit the same beats from completely different angles?
I never ever think about how to do things differently, but it just happens. What I love in horror films is all the build up, but I hate when it gets bloody. That loses me. So that’s probably why the film is like this.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” is now open in limited release.