Sean Durkin on Martha Marcy May Marlene
From the current issue of Clash.
“I’m a believer in not setting out to make a film that falls into a certain genre,” begins Sean Durkin when discussing his brilliant debut movie Martha Marcy May Marlene. Charted through a time-shifting narrative, it focuses on the traumatic memories of an escaped cult member (Martha, played with utmost conviction by Elizabeth Olsen) as she tries to reconnect with her sister who is unaware of the horrors of Martha’s recent years. While cults are often the preserve of the horror, Durkin employs splashes of the genre with elements of family and psychological drama in a manner that recalls the work of Michael Haneke.
“The idea of mass conformity was just really terrifying to me but I didn’t want to address that, I wanted to find a way to research it on a smaller, personal level,” explains Durkin. After reading about the likes of Jonestown and the Manson family, the director investigated stories of how ordinary people – from Ivy Leaguers to teenage runaways – can fall under a cult’s manipulation. “[You can] see how it affected someone even in their presence, talking about it years later and how it still haunts them.”
Much of the attention on the film to date has been focused on Olsen’s debut performance. Expertly combining a sense of innocence twisted into extreme paranoia, her role is all the more impressive given that she was cast just over a week before filming commenced. “I didn’t do much guiding,” he says. “With a really good young actor, they can be really great but you still sometimes have to guide or pull a performance out. Lizzie was just ready. It was amazing.”
The film’s most memorable scene comes when charismatic cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes) pulls Martha under his control by performing a song he wrote for her. Durkin searched for songs matching the names in his film’s title and found Jackson C. Frank’s Marlene. “I searched for the album and the song right after Marlene was Marcy’s Song. I named the film almost four years earlier and to see Marlene and Marcy back to back on an album made in the Sixties was just…” he trails off, momentarily discomforted. “The whole tone of the music is so perfect for the film. It’s very haunting: beautiful but sad.” Hawkes’ performance of the song adds a sinister layer to the ominous melancholy of the original.