Director Sean Durkin talks Martha Marcy May Marlene, due out on Blu-ray and DVD February 21
Back in 2008, director Antonio Campos made his feature debut with the indie hit Afterschool. The project came through Borderline Films and the principal trio of Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin, and Josh Mond, who rotate as writers, directors, and producers. Last year, it was Sean Durkin's turn with his critically-acclaimed directorial debut Martha Marcy May Marlene, which arrives on Blu-ray and DVD February 21. I recently had the chance to speak with Sean Durkin over the phone about his feature directorial debut, and here's what he had to say below.
I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the inception, and getting the script started. There have been several comparisons made to this cult in the film and the Manson Family. Did you use that as a starting off point, or did it evolve into that from something else?
Sean Durkin: Well, it sort of naturally started there, in the sense that I had always wanted to make a film about a cult. I started my research with the most famous cults of the 60s and 70s like Manson and Jonestown. I ended up with something more like Manson, so yeah, it sort of naturally progressed from that. My intention was not to base it off that at all. I actually ended up starting to understand how cults work, and then I found people who have been in more modern cults, and I based it off their experiences.
Yeah, that was going to be my next question, actually, if you ever did get to speak with someone who survived a cult. Did you have anyone like that on set, or was that all in the research process?
Sean Durkin: Yeah, I talked to lots of people who had been in and then got out, some people who had just come across these places and left. I also met so many people over the course of the year, after screenings and things. I just sort of heard their stories, because I have never been to one or been in one, I had to find ways to connect. I just wanted to understand the emotion of it, and the emotion of what they went through. I found ways to connect to more every day or closer-to-life experiences. It really came down to understanding the dynamic between the people and the leader of the group, understanding people who have been in an abusive relationship. That's really what it is, at the core.
I read that after you cast Elizabeth (Olsen), you were shooting just a few weeks later. I believe you only had a 20-day shooting schedule as well. Do you find there is a benefit to having a schedule like that? I've heard other people say it helps because you don't have time to over-think things. Do you think that kind of a schedule helped shape this movie?
Sean Durkin: Yeah, I think it helped me. I can be indecisive with everything, except making a movie, so I think the less time I have the better, in some ways. But, it's also the only way I've ever made a movie, and we've ever made movies. I probably need to make another one with a lot of time, to really understand, but I think in this scenario, it was great for my first (feature) film. You just have to continuously trust your instincts. That's really more important to learn than anything else.
You have Elizabeth's breakthrough performance, and John Hawkes is the new indie king I guess, which is great because I love his work. You also have Hugh Dancy and Sarah Paulson, so can you talk a bit about the casting process? Was it as quick as finding Elizabeth?
Sean Durkin: Oh, finding Lizzie wasn't quick at all. With the other roles, like Hugh and Sarah and John, that was the casting director saying, 'Hey, what do you think about this person?' They met with me and they responded to the script, and I was lucky that they wanted to do it. Martha was the only role, really, where we had open casting, and that was like a search, a search for an unknown actress. We saw every unknown actress we could see, and that took, I guess four or five weeks. Finding Lizzie was seeing everyone we could that fit the description, and had never done a movie before. That was really important to me.
Can you take us through a day on the set, and the overall mood and tone you tried to establish during production?
Sean Durkin: I always try to build an atmosphere that is both relaxed and intense (Laughs) and friendly and focused. It's a friendly environment. If someone just gets to set, we're usually all at the bar together the night before, just all hanging out. The great thing about this film is there are two locations, and they're both so isolated that we got to set in the morning, and there's really nowhere else to go so you can't leave. You're there for all these days and weeks, and you're really feeling the environment and get settled in. Like at the farm, for instance, we'd be sitting around in between takes, on a summer day, in between set-ups, and everyone is sitting around playing guitar (Laughs). It really just felt like this warm and friendly environment, but everyone was also so focused on the work, that it was a very intense environment. Obviously, when we get into the darker scenes, they're very focused, but they had a good energy.
Did you always have it in mind to shoot this up in the Catskills, when you were writing this?
Sean Durkin: Yeah, that was a part of the original idea, to spend time up there. It could totally happen up there, it could happen so easily. Then we found the location very early on, and the location also helped dictate the values of the cult. What kind of people would live up here in this situation, and take over this farm, what would they do? What would their values be? It was really dictated by the land. We felt like they would be trying to be self-sufficient, self-sustaining, farming. Their beliefs would sort of follow that.
We reported awhile ago that Borderline signed a first-look deal with Fox Searchlight. Is there anything you can say about anything you're writing, or maybe Josh's project?
Sean Durkin: I can't talk about anything specifically. I don't have anything officially set right now, but I'm working on a couple of things. I'm just really focusing on writing right now, and just trying to figure out my new script.
What would you like to say to anyone who didn't get to see Martha Marcy May Marlene in theaters, about why they should pick up the Blu-ray or DVD?
Great. That's my time. Thanks so much, Sean.
Sean Durkin: Cool, thank you.