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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Martha Marcy May Marlene" Director Sean Durkin

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire January 19, 2011 at 10:34AM

Haunted by painful memories and suffering from increasing anxiety, Martha escapes an abusive cult and returns home to live with her older sister, Lucy, and Lucy’s husband, Ted. With no other family to lean on, Martha tries desperately to assimilate into Ted and Lucy’s upper-middle-class lifestyle. But nightmares of the cult that brainwashed her into living as Marcy May prevent her from connecting with the only people who may be able to save her. As Martha’s isolation grows, her severe paranoia escalates. Ultimately, she descends into a dizzying state of panic as the growing fear that she is being hunted grips her every move.
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Haunted by painful memories and suffering from increasing anxiety, Martha escapes an abusive cult and returns home to live with her older sister, Lucy, and Lucy’s husband, Ted. With no other family to lean on, Martha tries desperately to assimilate into Ted and Lucy’s upper-middle-class lifestyle. But nightmares of the cult that brainwashed her into living as Marcy May prevent her from connecting with the only people who may be able to save her. As Martha’s isolation grows, her severe paranoia escalates. Ultimately, she descends into a dizzying state of panic as the growing fear that she is being hunted grips her every move.

Giving a breakout performance as Martha (Marcy May), Elizabeth Olsen subtly commands the screen in this stunning follow-up to writer/director Sean Durkin’s 2010 Cannes award-winning short, "Mary Last Seen." [Synopsis courtesy of Sundance Film Festival]

"Martha Marcy May Marlene"
U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director: Sean Durkin
Screenwriter: Sean Durkin
Executive Producer: Ted Hope, Matt Palmieri, Alexander Schepsman, Saemi Kim, Saerom Kim
Producer: Josh Mond, Antonio Campos, Patrick Cunningham, Chris Maybach
Cinematographer: Jody Lee Lipes
Editor: Zac Stuart-Pontier
Production Designer: Chad Keith
Coproducer: Andrew Corkin
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Brady Corbet, Hugh Dancy, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson

Answers courtesy of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" director Sean Durkin.

From movies on VHS camcorders to a Sundance debut...

I guess I just always wanted to tell stories. As a child I was endlessly writing short stories and illustrating them with terrible drawings. When I was about 7, I picked up my parents VHS camcorder and started shooting movies with my friends. From then on, I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to make films. As I got older I focused on writing short fiction and when I got to high school, I picked up photography. I went to a small college in upstate New York where I studied both media more seriously and eventually realized that filmmaking was sort of a natural combination of the two. Halfway through my junior year, I took a semester off and moved back home to New York. I went to see my friend Melinda's senior show at Tisch Photo and was extremely inspired by her work and the creative environment there. Melinda and I are now married. I knew at that moment, that I needed to be making films. I made a couple of shorts with a cheap camcorder and applied to NYU undergrad film. I started at NYU in the fall of 2003 and immediately met Josh [Mond] and Antonio [Campos]. We had the same goals and similar taste and started making short films together. From there we formed Borderline Films and have been making films together ever since.

Career moves: from finishing "Afterschool" to coming to a friend's cult story...

We had just produced "Afterschool" in 2007, and I was searching for an idea for my first feature. I've always been fascinated by cults so I began doing research in that realm. After months and months of reading, one particular passage leaped off the page at me and served as the inspiration for the entire film. It made me ask, what is someones life like after they escape from a violent cult? Where do they go? What do they do? How do they assimilate back into society? I wanted to create a character that would serves as a first hand experience of what those first few weeks were like. As I started to write I discovered that a friend of mine had been through something similar. She had never really talked about her experience openly but said she wanted to help me. She was extremely generous and over the next couple of years, shared very personal and frightening stories of her cult experience that serve as the basis of Martha's experience.

On filmmaking teamwork...

I develop everything with Josh and Antonio so I am constantly bouncing ideas off them and sharing drafts with them while writing. Initially we wanted to make the film in 2009 but the timing wasn't right and the script wasn't ready. While on the festival circuit with "Afterschool, we met Ted Hope. He was a big supporter of the the film and wanted to read any new material we had. We showed him "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and he came on as an EP. Ted was instrumental in helping me develop the idea further. As the summer passed and we knew we were going to wait another year, we decided to make a short, something that would act as a pre-cursor to the feature. I didn’t want it to be a cut down version of the full-length feature, rather something connected to the world. Martha focuses on what happens to someone after they leave a cult but it doesn't include all of this rich information I had come across about how someone gets involved in one.

Making a Sundance short on his last $400...

With 400 bucks left on a credit card, we got a few friends together and shot "Mary Last Seen." We really had no expectation—it was just something we wanted to do. We submitted the short to Sundance and the script to the Sundance Lab. Both got in. That really changed things for me because I hadn’t had any success with my prior shorts. Doing the lab could not have been more positive for me, it was an exceptional, life changing experience. It helped me improve the script and gain confidence as a writer and director, as well as give people confidence in me that I could make my first feature. I went back to the Directors Lab in June, did a rewrite in July, started casting with Susan Shopmaker, prepped in August and shot from the end of August to the end of September. While we were shooting we were also editing. Our editor Zach Stuart-Pontier had an assembly ready a few days after we wrapped and from there we spent the fall editing.

What's in store for Sundance audiences?

To be totally honest, I don’t know how audiences will react. My intent was to create a suspenseful psychological character study that chronicles a girl unraveling. I want to take the audience into her world and live through her experience firsthand. I hope that people will go along for the ride. I also think that audiences are going to really respond to the performances.

Durkin's inspirations...

"Rosemary’s Baby" is my main inspiration. It encompasses everything I’d like to achieve in filmmaking. It's such a precise film, it is perfectly directed and beautifully shot. It's simultaneously frightening and entertaining and always maintains a dash of humor. It doesn't scare you with cheap scares, it frightens you by going deep into her physiological experience. The fact that he creates one of the most chilling moments in film history with the simple rearrangement of 13 scrabble letters says it all. The other film is Altman’s "3 Women." I love the characters. They’re so specific and odd, always talking but never communicating. They’re such rich, complicated women yet so simplistic at the same time. The film creates a specific, original, atmosphere that I admire, It doesn’t have a structure that we’re used to seeing. It’s not strictly narrative, you just get lost in the experience of it.

What's up next?

Antonio just finished a film that we’re in post on now and I’ve got two treatments I’m working on.

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions.]

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