SCV Hooks up with Elizabeth Olsen and Sean Durkin in Chicago
The very impressive directorial debut by Sean Durkin is a little film called Martha Marcy May Marlene. Don’t worry, you will not think ill of this film’s title once you get about 10 minutes into it. This is a very cohesive and thought-provoking film that portrays life in a cult, and how difficult these circumstances become. The film stars Elizabeth Olsen, a newcomer to the scene, who proves herself wholly worthy of being in front of the camera. The amount of precision and beauty put into this role by Elizabeth was captured perfectly by Sean and his crew, to bring forth a very unique cinematic experience. I caught up with both Sean and Lizzie to talk a little bit about the process of filming Martha Marcy May Marlene and how their crew collaborated together just like a family. -Pouya G.
Pouya G. Asadi: When you first read the script for Martha Marcy May Marlene? Were you perhaps a bit shocked? Was it hard to play a psychologically damaged young woman?
Elizabeth Olsen: I think there’s a trap sometimes for people, when they read or start to approach a character that is damaged, to start putting them into categories and to start diagnosing them. And she was someone who I didn’t want to do that with—that I thought I could get behind from a not so critical way. I thought that she needed that type of approach in order for other people to not quickly condemn her or judge her. That was the first thing that I reacted to. I really wanted to do her justice and make sure there’s this other opportunity of a possibility for because I think, for me as an audience member, I get really bored when I think there’s only doom, because then you know what direction [the film] is going in, and so I thought if I could create an actual inter-struggle that there is this drive to get better, there is this drive to learn something or figure something out, then that to me is more interesting than just being a victim. I think that was very evident in Sean’s writing, as well.
This one’s for Sean, I know that you started a production company with Antonio Campos, how was the collaboration process between both of you all these years?
Sean Durkin : He and I, and Josh Mond, our other partner, met at NYU and started making shorts together. I shot his shorts, he produced mine, Josh produced mine, and we’d switch off. We’d work on script writing, everything. And then we got out of school and started our production company. We’re very good friends and very collaborators, and we basically just decided we were going to help each other, we were all gonna make each other’s films and support each other through it. You know, when you get out of school, no one is paying you to write scripts, but at the same time, no one is supporting you. What we did is we came up with system where, if Antonio was writing, Josh and I would work and split the money and when I was doing Martha, we’d switch off. So we share everything evenly. They’re the first people I show the script to—lots of back and forth in development. Antonio probably read 40 drafts of “Martha.” They produced the movie. They got it made. Josh and I did “Afterschool,” raised the money, everything. It’s a constant, ongoing collaboration and friendship.
SD: I think we built a family in the way we make movies.
EO: Even with the crew, they’re all friends and they all appreciate each other’s opinions and it’s very collaborative.
SD: Our editor, our cinematographer, we’ve been working with them since 2005, back at NYU. And then our sound mixer, our gaffers, our AC, everybody. And then every film we do, things get a little bigger so we expand, but we try to keep the same core.
Sean and Elizabeth, can you comment a little on the separate familial aspects that were created both by the crew and by the characters of the story?
SD: I didn’t want anyone to be purely good or purely bad, because that’s just not how it is. Everyone is doing the best they can and not knowing when they’re being harmful and I think that’s how people are outside of extreme conditions, as well.
EO: I think it’s also important for the audience to be able to see what positive things that the cult can offer. This sense of community, this sense of everyone having a purpose or a meaning, this idea that we share everything. And I think that if you understand that those are positive things then you can understand why someone would be attracted to or stay with something like that.
SD: That was really important to immediately set up that you don’t have chanting or robes, that there’s this nice vibe that you get because the film is Martha’s journey, and I really wanted it to be her perspective and her point of view, so there has to be good things about it so you can see why she’s falling in.
EO: There is this weird feeling in society today that, if you don’t have a direct path, what are you good for? If you don’t have a degree that leads to a job, what do you do? I feel like, for Martha, it’s one of those things where she got out of high school and didn’t find herself where she wanted and just became one of those people looking for a place to belong.
Were there any real-life medical conditions that you studied/researched for this film?
SD: No, not besides people who had been through these experiences. I never studied anything clinical. One way that I found a way to relate to it—because, in spending time with people who went through these experiences, you try to understand the emotion—and for me, it was important to capture the emotion. In one way it was easy for me to grasp it was to compare it with people who have struggled with drug abuse or alcoholism or people who were involved in domestic abuse. That’s something more on a daily level that I can relate to then an extreme level of a cult, which is not as coming. But I never studied it beyond the human emotion and fallout of it and how those things affect relationships and how people deal with people in those situations.
EO: Everything was real to me. But it was “where does this genuine fear come from and how does it stem?” So to make that as real as possible was important to me.
What were you aiming for as far as the general aesthetics of your film? The transitions between reality and memory are seamless…
SD: It started with a desire to have a look for the film that was worn, like the way the farm is sort of dusty and dark inside and overgrown outside. We wanted the film itself to have that sort of feel. We try to figure out what that would be, and we didn’t want it to just be grainy in one way or another. So it’s somewhat extreme, but not overly stylized. I always wanted it to be natural. So we came to the idea that the way we’d get that look would be by underexposing. But then there’s little things, like we always wanted to be able to see through the windows the outside, or from the outside back into the house, and just always have those layers there. I always liked being able to see outside the windows. It just sort of went from there. With the camera, we wanted to be able to use all styles that felt appropriate, but the consistency would be in the pace. So we’d be able to use handheld, dolly, zoom—whatever helped the performance or the atmosphere at that time.
Elizabeth, were there any films that you watched in order to prepare for your role?
EO: I watched the film “Images”—Sean let me borrow that movie. And by watching that, I understood Sean’s aesthetic a bit more.
SD: It was less to do with the actual content or anything with performance, it was more just like “These are films that I watch,” and sharing them.
EO: Then, for me, I told someone I was going to do this movie and it’s about a girl who escapes a cult, and a script supervisor I was working with told me about “Holy Smoke” by Jane Campion. And when I watched it, it’s like a perfect scenario where if this sort of nudity was taken out of the film, it wouldn’t have had the same impact. So it almost gave me the gall to understand how important nudity was to this film and feel totally behind it and not uncomfortable or sensitive.
Was there a certain message that you were aiming to portray in MMMM?
EO: I never really think about stories beyond the framing of the way they’re told. What happens in the future happens in the future, I have no idea.
SD: The film has a lot of very cinematic elements and it’s very much a filmgoing experience. I’m not making some sort of “message film” at all, obviously. But one thing that was really important to me was the experience of the cult and the fallout of these sorts of manipulations and tactics and abuse is that the people I talked to, it took years for them to recover. Some people don’t recover. Some people go missing, some commit suicide. They can never get back to their old life. So it was decided that I wanted the film to focus on the first couple weeks and there’s no way there can even begin to be some sort of resolution about her state of mind or her recovery. So I just had to stay true to that.
SD: I wanted the film to be a modern and naturalistic portrayal of a cult and I started to read about all different groups, past and present. There was one story I read about a girl who a escaped a violent group who went to a bus stop. She was waiting for a bus and the leader tracked her down and instead of threatening her or forcing her to come back, he lent her money and wished her well, and then she went missing. I was just like, “that’s it! Where did she go? What happened to her next?”
Elizabeth, can you give any advice for all the unknown actresses/actors out there?
EO: This was an amazing example of how collaborative films can be—and how they should be, I think. I really have been able to learn a lot from Sean and his friends, and it’s been special to work with all these people who are so good at what they do and took things so seriously and are so educated at such a young age. We’re all good friends now and I hope it’s a relationship that gets to continue. And just getting to do this is so much fun. I feel like some people are born with a sense of wanting to explore more than what they can be in real life. So I think it’s a lot of fun to be able to explore more things and learn about yourself as well as other people by working. Just by being given a new character, you have to explore something that maybe you haven’t tapped into and it you end up learning something more about yourself and the world around you. I really love that. I love learning, so anything that has to do with a learning experience, I’m down for. Everything’s been so different. Everything’s been a different type of learning experience. It’s helped me with certain technical things. I have no idea what I’m doing on any project, so everything is a totally new experience of trying to figure something out.
Make sure to catch Martha Marcy May Marlene in theaters beginning October 21st, 2011.