Long before she was Marvel fixture Wanda Maximoff, Elizabeth Olsen was a 20-year-old actor starting out as Martha, a damaged woman struggling to reassimilate back into normal life after escaping an abusive cult in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” At the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the indie thriller launched Olsen’s career, as well as filmmaker Sean Durkin’s, when it won the U.S. Dramatic Prize for Directing and scored a posh distribution deal from then-Fox Searchlight Pictures.
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” made back more than enough of its $600,000 budget after the Fox Searchlight acquisition, grossing $5.4 million during a fall 2011 run, while also garnering Olsen a number of film critics’ awards and nominations, and the film four Film Independent Spirit Award nominations. But it’s fascinating to look back at the sort of launchpad the movie proved to be, as it re-emerges in retrospect a veritable who’s-who of indie film, with plenty of then-fresh faces that are now arthouse-hold names — including Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbet, and John Hawkes.
But “Martha” also served as an entrée for now-Emmy winners Sarah Paulson (who stars in the film as Martha’s helpless sister Lucy) and Julia Garner (who plays a member of the cult). Director Durkin, meanwhile, went on to produce a raft of acclaimed indies through his Borderline Films with Antonio Campos (“The Devil All the Time”) and Josh Mond (“James White”), only to return to feature filmmaking in recent years with the marital breakdown thriller “The Nest.”
“Martha Marcy May Marlene” drew on echoes of Altman and Polanski to paint a sinister picture of a fictional Catskills cult built on initiation rituals, sexual abuse, mental torture, and criminal mischief. Hawkes plays the requisite Charismatic Cult Leader, from whom Martha escapes in the first moments of the film physically — but she’s hardly out of the woods, as it were, for the remainder of the film as she tries to reintegrate with Lucy and her brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy).
A (now sold-out!) 10th-anniversary screening of “Martha Marcy May Marlene” will take place at the Metrograph in New York City on Saturday, December 11. Ahead of the presentation, IndieWire spoke with Durkin and Olsen about their memories of the film, how it’s informed their careers to this day, and the harrowing things they learned about themselves as artists in the process.
IndieWire: What’s your relationship to the movie now? Do you look back on “Martha Marcy May Marlene” with gratitude, or is it like hearing your own voice being played back to you on a tape recorder?
Sean Durkin: I love the movie. Everything that it is my relationship to it and then the experience and the journey the movie went on and what it has offered me since. I really hold it dear. I haven’t watched in a long time, but before I made “The Nest,” I think the night before I started shooting, I went back and looked at some of it. I always feel very proud of it.
Elizabeth Olsen: It was my first time working. I did a film simultaneously [“Silent House”] and was finishing it before starting Martha, so there was a lot of ignorance about lots of things, about lenses, and how do you make a movie, angles, altering performances for wide versus close-up, then what is a film festival? I knew way more about regional theater than I did festivals at that time.
It was a really pure experience that I can never have back and it’s something to constantly search for, this place to work from, from this place of pure, creative collaboration, and it was a really joyful experience making it with the group we had. It really felt like a dream in my mind. I’m very grateful that Sean decided to cast me. It really did open up a world for me in other ways, and the experience itself was pretty idyllic.
Durkin: It was basically like an adult summer camp.
Olsen: But barely adults!
©Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection
I definitely got that vibe in terms of the comfort everyone on the farm seems to have with one another. How did your casting come together? Or is it the boring saw of, “I got the script and the rest is history”?
Olsen: Oh, it’s not that. I was Sean’s first choice but I don’t think I was everyone’s first choice.
Durkin: We were casting. We cast a wide net and tried to see as many people for the role, and really wanted someone who hadn’t done something before. I didn’t want to go the road of trying to name-cast. We were trying to make it for very little money, and quickly, and so [with] the casting director Susan Shopmaker I’ve used for everything, who’s particularly good at discovering new talent, we took that approach. I’m someone who doesn’t necessarily feel “it has to be this,” it’s more like I know what it is, but I don’t know until I see it. Casting is very much the same. [We were] auditioning people, auditioning people, and Lizzy came in, and something about her first audition, I just knew that was it.
Olsen: I was auditioning for everything at that time. I’d finished my theater portion of my college degree, but I was still in college. I was just auditioning for everything from “CSI” and “Blue Bloods” to “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and I felt very lucky that I actually got a script that was really cool and exciting. I’m a preparer, a disciplined person. I prepare everything the same, but I prepared more about the possibility of doing something that you also like and think would be special. Actors don’t really get lots of opportunities like that. Writers also don’t get to be seen for doing something innovative as well. The longer I am part of this job, it’s interesting to see how much shit you read, and the things that are interesting have a very hard time going into production.
Elizabeth, you didn’t really do any research, but rewatching the movie, I was so impressed by how you really sink into the mind and body of someone who clearly has PTSD. You must have done some kind of exercises in the lead-up to the film.
Olsen: Sean did a shit ton of research, so he was my resource. I wanted to know the stories that he was working from, and understand those. It wasn’t like I watched a bunch of cult docs. I think I might have read an interview about one of the cults that Sean was writing from, in England. Other than that, it was using Sean as research.
It’s interesting that this movie presaged this obsession you see in a lot of streaming television with cults and that sort of behavior.
Durkin: I’ve always my whole life been interested in why people believe what they believe, and felt like it’s often arbitrary and therefore cults are the extreme exploration of that. I read “Helter Skelter” as I started to write this and that was the thing that inspired the first idea, but then the amazing thing that happens with cults is that once you’re in it and you start talking about it, chances are someone you know if going to say, “Oh, yeah, my teacher’s in a cult.” That started happening left and right.
A good friend of mine, she never mentioned it, but when I told her we were working on it, she said, “I’m ready to talk about it for the first time.” She told us about her experiences. There are more extreme cults, and with so many little groups you can see how quickly it turns from something with good intentions to something being manipulated.
©Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection
The movie is not interested in explicating the ideology of the cult. You were chasing something more experiential. Did you find yourself stripping back to a more bare essence to achieve that?
Durkin: I’m always stripping back. I’m always trying to work from a place of less is more. So often in film and TV development, you’re just constantly told, “We need to understand exactly what every character is thinking all the time.” Humans don’t work that way. Humans contradict themselves. Humans, when they’re in it, don’t know. Going back to Lizzy not doing research, when you’re in a cult, you don’t understand cults. It’s just about being present and in it and believing what’s in front of you.
This movie is like an “I Spy” of indie film. You’ve got Julia Garner, Brady Corbet, Christopher Abbott, so many faces we of course recognize now. And then, of course, the Sarah Paulson of it all.
Durkin: I worked as an assistant for my casting director Susan Shopmaker while I was in college at NYU, filing headshots and doing submissions, and then I started to run camera for her in sessions, and I worked on a lot of movies as her casting assistant. Between 2005 and 2010, I was in a room, not speaking, just running the camera anonymously and watching all these incredible actors who were young and clearly on the verge of getting roles but not getting them.
In everything I do, I always try to cast people in their first roles, because you see these great actors not getting the roles, they decide to go with someone famous. I knew Chris, I knew Maria, I knew Brady, Julia. It was from being in that office and knowing who was great and who was out there.
Elizabeth, for a first screen role, there are challenging moments. Were you ever uncomfortable?
Olsen: The most challenging scene is when I’m showing Julia the fucking inside of the cult house and, for the life of me, I couldn’t act that day, or whatever that moment or hour. I’ll never forget. There’s always a scene, it’s such a random scene in something, where you don’t understand or you can’t connect or find anything realistic about the moment. I was doing a bad job at that moment. I was like, “Sean, what’s happening?” And he said, “I don’t know, but you’re not doing it.” It’s so random, those moments. When you have something to really play that isn’t just something that feels as simple as showing someone their room, when you have something to really focus on and play, your mind is really present, and you’re not thinking about where you’re supposed to be standing in a door frame.
As stupid as that is, that’s my answer to that. When I was first starting, I felt very comfortable in my skin, as for it being a tool. Obviously, there are lots of vulnerable physical things I had to do in the film, but I also understudied in an Off-Broadway play for my first job, where if I went on I was supposed to be full-frontal nudity onstage. I didn’t care, somehow. It was just part of the story. I already had a freeing mindset about that, and that’s because of the other actresses in films I admired. When you’re trying to use bodies to titillate you, that’s one thing, and when you’re using bodies to horrify you, that’s another, and I’m into that.
©Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection
I talk to a lot of actors who are put through the wringer, and their answer to this question is always something like what you just said. Like, “Oh, I don’t mind thrashing around naked but there was this one small thing that went awry.”
Durkin: I always find I know how to walk into a space and shoot a scene, but sometimes if I can’t figure it out, it’s because the writing’s not as good.
Elizabeth, you are of course a fixture of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thanks to “WandaVision,” and are in projects that are thematically and logistically a far cry from “Martha.” Sean, you’ve just returned to directing features with “The Nest” and now are back on TV with the upcoming “Dead Ringers” remake. Is there something either of you would do differently, looking back on this movie now?
Durkin: I don’t think so. I might watch it and be like, “Oh I’d shoot that differently or cut that differently.” Now I have knowledge of different things filmmaking-wise, but not really. Part of what makes first features great first features is you see some imperfections, and you see the growth. I love it for that. There’s a purity to that. A lot of people go back and recut their movies now, I just don’t really get it. The movie stands alone in that moment in time. You can’t make it any different because that’s who you were then. There’s a beauty to that I really embrace.
Olsen: I think I watched the movie maybe five or six years ago, and I remember thinking — I watch my work, usually not five or six years later, but I watch it, I hope, not with an audience, because there’s genuinely something to learn from it as an actor. I want to critique myself. I remember I was very uncomfortable with extras. I remember watching Sarah Paulson being very comfortable with extras, and that is something I remember re-remembering when I watched it because — I don’t like raising my hand in class. There’s a panic that sets in. I think I started for the first time experiencing that social anxiety was with a lot of extras. I think it’s OK for this movie because she’s uncomfortable. But it was interesting to remember that.