The faces of cult survivors inspired director Sean Durkin’s remarkable film debut, “Martha Marcy May Marlene
Durkin knew he wanted to write a movie about cults, but when the young auteur started researching the subject it was the people staring back at him that seized his attention.
“How someone’s face could physically change [after being in a cult] was pretty shocking. I was investigating how it comes to that,” Durkin says. “I figured out I wanted to focus on the time period directly after they leave [the cult].”
“Marlene” begins with the film’s titular heroine (Elizabeth Olsen) escaping from a cult she called home for two years. She ends up moving in with her older sister (Sarah Paulson), but the memories of the cult and its charismatic leader ("Winter's Bone" co-star John Hawkes) remain vibrant and alive. The film staggers Martha's recovery with flashbacks to her cult tenure, snippets which reveal the ugly nature of its closed-off society.
Casting Martha proved pivotal to a film which won raves at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
“We saw everyone we could,” Durkin recalls, but the film’s casting director had Olsen in mind all along. The final decision came down to instinct, the writer/director says.
“You do your callbacks and chemistry reads … after that we went for it. I’m a believer in not knowing what you want but knowing what you don’t want,” he says. Olsen's performance is already drawing significant Oscar buzz.
Durkin, who name checks the horror classics “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Shining” as his favorite films, added another layer of psychological screw tightening to "Martha" with the film's score. The music grew organically from “Mary Last Seen,” Durkin’s short film which first introduced the themes expanded on his feature-length debut.
“I’ve never used music in a film before, and I wasn’t sure I’d use it in [‘Martha’],” he says. But his short employed what he calls a “weird tone” in which everything else went silent. The sound designer for “Martha’ tinkered with those tones, teasing them out until they became a new sonic element Durkin eventually used for his film’s more harrowing sequences.
Olsen may provide a suitably shaken lead character, but it’s Hawkes’ turn as the cult leader which gives the film its frightening core. Director and star worked constantly on the character's evolution in order to fully capture the horror of the cult and how rational people like Martha could be swept up by such leaders.
“With John, every night we’d go back and forth on the speeches, to really get it down to the essence,” he says.