A dark psychological portrait of a young woman’s unravelling psyche, Martha Macy May Marlene is released in the UK on February 4th powered by incredibly strong word of mouth. Having won Sean Durkin the director’s prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year, the film has benefitted from rave notices, most of which focus on another debutant in the film’s lead, Elizabeth Olsen. The younger sister of the Olsen Twins has generated huge levels of attention for her performance as a girl on the run from a dangerous cult, thankfully doing so for the sheer convincingness of her performance rather than for her appearance in a film completely at odds with her sibling’s cookie-cutter image.
A disturbing, elliptical take on a woman teetering on the edge of insanity, Martha Macy May Marlene sees Olsen’s Martha arrive at her sister’s plush lake house having been missing for two years. Unfolding in two time periods, Durkin jumps back and forth between Martha’s increasingly disturbed attempts to reintegrate into the world and her life on a strange communal farm. Run by Patrick, a quasi-Buddhist cult leader played by the excellent John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), the scenes on the farm mirror those in the present, underlining why Martha felt the need to escape polite society in the first place, and the reasons behind the fear, paranoia, and warped sense of reality that now drive her. Durkin and Hawkes, sitting down to speak about their experiences making the film, were full of praise for Olsen, as well as being keen to discuss how they went about creating such a disturbing vision of warped alternate living.
What was it intimidating directing your first feature film?
Shaun Durkin: I think thinking about things like that is really dangerous, because I could get nervous about someone like John coming to set. If anything like that ever crosses your mind you’ve got to put it away because it’s all just fear and that will eat you up. You can’t make a movie if you’re scared! It was an amazing experience overall, just so collaborative.
How was it working with a first time director and a first time leading lady?
John Hawkes: I didn’t have to dumb it down, that’s for sure! I learned from whoever I work with, some more than others, and I was certainly able to learn a great deal from Lizzie and Shaun. They both seemed fully formed to me. I felt as if I was among equals, among peers, and so I never gave a second thought to how much experience or not people had. If they show up and they know what they’re doing, and these two did, then it’s just another experience telling a story.
Do you see the character of Patrick as reprehensible?
JH: I tend not to judge who I’m playing particularly. I don’t think people spend the day thinking ‘I’m so evil, I’m so reprehensible, I’m scum!’ I think that it shows that it felt more alive for me to think of Patrick as someone who believed that what he was doing was vital and right and best for those around him. I wasn’t at all interested in approaching him as an evil person. Certainly the story would be really poorly served if the moment we meet Patrick he’s the devil incarnate, or if he’s some kind of easily identifiable charlatan or con man, because the story isn’t about Patrick. We’re going to follow Martha through the film, and the more interesting and subtle and nuanced and complex she can be, the better it is for an audience. If on some level we can believe or sympathise or understand why she might fall in with this group of people and this guy in particular, then I think we’re more apt to be interested in her trip.
Were you conscious of the stories behind the various famous cults when you were making this?
SD: We tried to stay away from a lot of those things and approach it in a different way. I’m sure some things stick, but we quickly got away from that stuff and became focused on creating our own group, and learning from the experiences of people that I met, making it emotionally specific to them and to the time, and to the farm. The farm really came first, and the characters and the way of living grew out of that. We have this abandoned farm, what will they do if they take over? What kind of life will they live? It really came very naturally out of that.
You manage to create a very particular atmosphere and feel to the group’s life on the farm. How did you go about creating that?
SD: I spent a good amount of time there. For a couple of weeks I lived there when we were preparing the film, just walking around and finding good locations for scenes. And then my production designers came and it really started to take shape. It definitely felt alive when we were there too… it’s actually my producer’s family’s farm, so we’ve been going there for a couple of years. It really just feels like the land gave the story. It really grew out of that naturally.
JH: for my part I don’t think we saw the farm until we started the shoot. That was more out of my hands, it was just a great gift to show up and have this place be some kind of character in the movie. You just look around there and try to pretend, and try to use that to our ends as much as possible. The fact that there was no cell phone reception or no internet really helped us. You couldn’t wander away like everyone does with their device. We were there together, and that really informed us a as a community in a really fantastic way.
Were you trying to draw parallels between how these two very different ways of life trap Martha?
SD: No, not really. There are definitely a lot of actions that are mirrored, but that just came from a place as opposed to comparing. What do people do when they’re on vacation at a lake house, and what do people do when they work on a farm? There happen to be things that overlap, that are very similar only because they are things that you would do. What’s real for her to be doing and trying to stick close to that, rather than making it some kind of social commentary. It’s like a puzzle, you give a very specific amount of information in every frame, and every little detail is very carefully placed. Some of that is open to interpretation, and whatever an audience member takes from the screen is good. Each experience in watching the film is the right experience.
Shaun, you have been quoted as saying that you don’t like flashbacks, which is surprising as half of the Martha Macy May Marlene is made up of scenes that take place in the past. Can you explain that?
SD: I can’t think of a film that has flashbacks that I like. And I never thought of these as flashbacks. For me it’s a completely linear story, because it’s Martha’s emotional journey, and it’s linear to Martha’s emotions. There’s a little bit of this Buddhist based thing in the cult, which was in the first draft of the script. One of the basic principles I thought would be appropriate for their way of living, in terms of just focusing on the moment and living off the land, is that there’s no future, and there’s no past, there’s only the present. Then for Martha leaving there she’d be in a state of confusion and fear, and she’d be carrying over this feeling that everything happens in the present. In addition there are no clocks or calendars, and that’s really common in groups like this. No one knows how long they’d been there. So to me that seemed to make sense, that she’s experiencing it all at the same time.
Structurally it’s a very difficult balancing act, having two time periods running side by side. Was that difficult?
SD: The whole process was very difficult to balance, rewriting and rewriting and trying to get the script as close as you can. Then you shoot it and you realise what you don’t need, in the edit you realise what you don’t need, and it’s an ongoing puzzle piece. The key transitions were scripted, so we knew what we were going to do and storyboarded and shot that way, whereas others you find in editing. You put two scenes together and you find a transition you never thought was there. Even five days before we finished the film you think ‘Is this working?’ and then suddenly you have this breakthrough where you put these pieces in place and suddenly you’ve got the middle hour of the film working. It’s a really crazy process.
Did you foresee Elizabeth Olsen being such a revelation? She is being talked about as a future star after this, for obvious reasons.
JH: I guess I was struck by the light she threw off. She felt like an irresistible person to all of us. I didn’t realise until a couple of days in who her family was, that she was related to the Olsen Twins. And I’m kind of glad I didn’t know in advance, and at that point I was already completely bowled over by her. The very first scene I shot was the scene where I name her Marcy May. There was a relaxed sense, and a sense of wonder about her, a sense of vulnerability. I had worked with Jennifer Lawrence a year and a half before [on Winter’s Bone]. I was blown away by her and I never thought that that would happen again, that there would be some sort of out of nowhere kid, who was already so skilled in their craft. There’s this weird feeling when you start working that ‘this can’t really be happening.’ It was unnerving and joyous, all in a piece. I can’t really think of one moment, other than just knowing that this was somebody who was formidable and would be an excellent dance partner
SD: I felt it in the audition, and I had a really strong gut feeling from the beginning. As soon as I spent five minutes with her I knew she was it. One moment quite late in the shoot…. she’s outside and she’s looking up at the house, and she turns round and looks at the lake, then she looks at the house and the woods, and then she sees the car for the first time. She steps into frame in close-up and her face is just transformed. It doesn’t look like that at any other point in the film. At this point we’re done talking about the character. There’s nothing I can tell her. In that moment she captured fully who Martha is, the state of mind she’s in, without saying anything. That is just her becoming the character, and being it and feeling it. It’s one of my favourite moments in the film.