Who is Martha Marcy May Marlene? Sean Durkin debuts with acclaimed drama of young cult refugee


There are cult films, and then there are…cult films.

Let’s clarify that: There are cult films, which develop a cult following, and there are cult films, which are about your Charlie Mansons, your Jim Joneses, your David Koreshes. Writer-director Sean Durkin's Sundance darling Martha Marcy May Marlene, opening Oct. 21, could wind up being both.

"I just had a desire to make a movie about a cult," the soft-spoken Durkin, 29, says of the film's genesis. "And I just wanted to do it in a way that was modern and naturalistic. So often cult films are period pieces and over the top. I wanted to find something that could happen today."

Durkin does so with the story of Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a damaged young woman whom we meet as she escapes an upstate New York cult headed by the manipulative charmer Patrick (John Hawkes). With her parents no longer in the picture, Martha—called “Marcy May” and “Marlene” by the cult to further distance her from her true self—is taken in by Lucy (Sarah Paulson), whose identity the filmmaker keeps hidden for most of the story. (The point appears to be to keep the audience feeling unsettled, which it does, although the movie's own press materials and its description in festival listings tell you it's Martha's estranged older sister.) Once ensconced at the Connecticut lake house of the vacationing Lucy and her husband Adam (Hugh Dancy), the traumatized Martha begins acting out, and won't say—or face—the truth of why she was away for two years. As the sliding and colliding past/present of Martha's now and her ubiquitous flashbacks make clear how violent and dangerous the cult is, an ill-advised phone call brings the specter of impending homicide onto Martha and innocents alike.

The film won Durkin this year's Sundance Film Festival award for U.S. Dramatic Directing, one of the fest's four directing prizes. Made for "under $1 million," says Durkin, it sold to Fox Searchlight, one of "multiple buyers interested," on "the third or fourth day of the festival."

It is Durkin's first feature as a director, though billed as T. Sean Durkin he's produced for fellow New York University film-school alums Josh Mond and Antonio Campos, with whom he founded the Brooklyn-based company Borderline Films not long after graduating in 2005. They've turned out two features so far—writer-director Campos' Afterschool and writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin's Two Gates of Sleep, with Campos' Simon Killer upcoming—as well as shorts and music-videos, plus commercials for the likes of Citibank, Bloomingdale's and Foot Locker.

Martha Marcy May Marlene has earned uniformly strong reviews, though as The Hollywood Reporter noted during Sundance, its commercial prospects "may have a hard time overriding its relentlessly dark storyline." The deliberately paced film, with occasional long, static, contemplative shots, can be tough going. And Martha herself (a critically praised Olsen, in her second film after debuting in director Bruce Beresford's upcoming Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding) can be maddeningly unsympathetic as the filmmaker eschews the easy, heroic-triumph-over-adversity route to craft something much more emotionally complicated than a Lifetime TV-movie about a girl escaping from a cult.

"She's trying to figure out how to deal with the trauma she's been through," Durkin says of his heroine. "I wanted to be true to that and never wanted to think beyond," to populist considerations. "I don't think there's anything wrong with that," he adds, when reminded of talents like Steven Spielberg, most of whose films have a distinctly populist bent. "I'm just saying that this film was driven by this character and these experiences."

The core of those experiences came from a real-life cult survivor, he reveals. "I just started reading about groups and taking little things here and there" when he began researching the film, "and then finally someone I knew came forward and said she had been involved in a [cult] group and was willing to share her experiences with me. We did a lot of interviews over the couple of years while I was writing." The film does not specifically depict any of this woman's experiences, Durkin cautions, but her story informed "the emotional experiences of what Martha's going through."

Sinking into the tough role of Martha, which includes copious nudity, was Olsen, 22, the three-years-younger sister of acting twins and cottage industry Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. Durkin learned of her lineage during the audition process, done with casting director Susan Shopmaker. That possible promotional hook didn't influence him one way or the other, he said, and he chose Olsen—an NYU psychology major whose Silent House also played Sundance, who went on to film Red Lights with Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver, and who's set to co-star with Josh Radnor in Liberal Arts and Dakota Fanning in Very Good Girls—on instinct.

"Just a feeling," Durkin says. "Just a feeling from meeting with her and speaking with her and watching auditions. I think sometimes you just follow your gut and can't put it into words."

Durkin was born on Dec. 9, 1981, in Canada, but "I never lived there. My parents moved right away" to England, where his father—whose profession he declines to give—relocated for work. The family lived in North London and then in Surrey "for a couple of years" before they moved to Manhattan's Upper East Side when he was 12. He has two siblings. Durkin boarded at the Kent School, in Kent, Conn., before eventually entering NYU's undergrad film program in 2003. He completed his thesis film in 2006, and three-and-a-half years ago moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

While at NYU, Durkin started working with Mond and Campos, "making student films together, and we're likeminded so we just started working on each other's shorts" in a collaborative round robin of mutual directing, producing, shooting and editing. "We started our company with our goal of being all writer-directors and creating a collective to make the kinds of films we wanted to make. We develop each other's projects, and work intensely with each other in editing and script development."

Mond and Campos are two of the four producers on Martha Marcy May Marlene. (There are also six executive producers.) Durkin spent about two years writing the script, and in 2009, he says, "We were thinking about making it but it wasn't quite ready and I hadn’t directed since my thesis at NYU and didn't want to send my NYU film out with the script [as a sample of his directing work.] I wanted to make another short to send out with it instead, and a lot of the research I had done was on how women get brought into this kind of group, and that stuff wasn't making it into the film—the film is about what happens after."

He put together the 13-minute "Mary Last Seen," intending it simply as a calling card—and it won the 2010 Cannes Film Festival award for Best Short.
He's still amazed. "We'd gotten a few people together and put $400 on a credit card and went upstate and made it," he remembers, "I had no intention of anything happening with it except sending it out with the script. But it did really well and was a huge help in trying to raise financing."

Now, as the awards and accolades begin to crest, and as his first professional directorial effort prepares for release, Durkin reflects that with his film, "I really just wanted to create an experience. Martha after she escapes is in this dreamlike, paranoid state, and that's what I wanted the movie to be."