For a first-time director, Sean Durkin came into the 2011 Sundance Film Festival with a lot of history. With his NYU buddies Antonio Campos and Josh Mond, Durkin formed Borderline Films in 2005; their first feature, the Campos-directed “Afterschool,” premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, was nominated for a 2009 Independent Spirit Award and was acquired by IFC Films. Then, with the help of the Sundance Lab, Durkin made a short that went on to win an award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
Honor Roll is a daily series for December that will feature new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-persons of some of the year’s most notable cinematic voices. Today we’re revisiting an interview we did with “Martha Marcy May Marlene” director/writer Sean Durkin. His feature film debut was recently named the Best First Feature of the year by critics on Indiewire.
As a result, Durkin’s feature directorial debut, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” was among one of the most anticipated titles in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance. It delivered, garnering glowing reviews for the film and leading lady Elizabeth Olsen. It also snagged a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight and Durkin walked away with the Best Director award.
The film concerns Martha (Olsen), a young woman who flees a mysterious cult to find refuge at her sister’s lakefront house in Connecticut. Once relocated, Martha begins having flashbacks to the horrors she was subjected to at the hands of the cult’s fearsomely enigmatic leader, Patrick (John Hawkes).
“Marked by patient long-takes and the uneasy quietude that accompanies Martha’s constant disconnect from her surrounding environment, “Martha” derives much of its power from a stark visual style that’s easily readable as the sum of its part,” our Eric Kohn wrote in his rave review out of Sundance. It opened in limited release October 21 through Fox Searchlight.
Why did you want to come out of the gate with this film?
I never thought of it in those terms. I was attracted to the world of cults and how it dealt with family and people’s different personaes. This was an extreme example of that. I knew I wanted to do something that was modern and I knew it was something I hadn’t seen: a contemporary cult movie that was naturalistic.
What fascinates you about cults?
I think as a child I was really afraid of groups that conformed. Cults were these thing that were really an example of that. I’m attracted to fear. I’m attracted to movies that scare you. I knew I would just end up working in that realm.
The movie is notable for its restrained approach to potentially sensational material.
I grew to understand the psychology and the emotional fallout [of cults]. And then to understand the tactics that groups use. I wanted to portray those in the movie, in my own way. This isn’t based on any group, but things I heard. I built the group myself. Once I knew how difficult this was and got an understanding and how truly damaging it was, I just felt like I needed to be true to that above anything.
You made a short film about cults before making “Martha.” Was that made to prep for the feature treatment?
No. It wasn’t about proving anything, it was that I wasn’t really proud of my student short so I wanted to do something that we could send out with a script.
I had done research and it wasn’t making it into “Martha,” so I wrote this short. It was about how Watts [a male cult leader played by Brady Corbet in “Martha”] brings one girl to the farm. Then it took off from there.
Did you shoot the farm scenes prior to the ones at the Connecticut lake house?
Yeah, that’s what we wanted to do, but there were also production logistics. It’s really hard to get a lake house before Labor Day. So we did two weeks at the farm before Labor Day and two weeks at the lake after Labor Day, which is kind of funny. But I also wanted to do it to live through it. It was helpful for Lizzy, but it was also helpful for me.
Both locations seem pretty isolated. What was it like to be so far removed?
It was great. No distractions.
Given that this was both yours and Elizabeth’s first feature, what was your bond like on set? Did you rely on each other?
Lizzy’s pretty self reliant. I felt like she didn’t need me that much. She’s not someone who’s looking for much from a director.
Your nightmare with an inexperienced actress is that you’re going to have to pull a performance out of them. Even great young actors, sometimes you have to pull a performance and it’s good, but you have to work really hard. She didn’t need much. Like our first meeting, the only prep we did is that we met for an hour one day, she asked me a bunch of questions about the script, then went, “OK, I think I’m good.” That was it. I think that really sums up her approach.
What gave you the confidence to cast her? Did you know she had this self reliance?
No, that was a huge surprise. I just knew what I saw in the audition was the best thing I saw. She was the only person I could see doing it after meeting her. I could find ways to articulate it, but really it’s just a gut feeling. So much of filmmaking is that: making choices and sticking with them.
The film has this really ominous tone that builds to this grim, ambiguous climax. As a first-time filmmaker, how did you maintain this sense of dread?
You have an idea of where you’re at when you’re shooting and what you need to get from it. But I think with tone, it’s something that you feel. It was in the script, so people understood it. You just create it with each moment. You feel it when it’s working and you feel it when it’s not.
In editing, it’s amazing how you choose the in and out points. What you cut on is everything for creating tension. It’s amazing how expanding a shot by five seconds can just ruin the tension.
You spoke earlier about fear and how that influences you. Is that the kind filmmaker you want to be, one that explores facets of fear?
I would like to think that I would eventual tackle lots of things. I’m excited to work with a writer and to adapt a book, things like that. I feel like when I write something myself, my brain just goes there. So I’m writing a script that has similar themes and a similar tone. But I would like to do all sorts of things. I would like to do a sports movie.