WHEN Martha Marcy May Marlene played at the Sundance Film Festival last January, the film’s 29-year-old writer/director Sean Durkin found himself besieged by questions about what his film said about American society.
As one of four films in the festival dramatising life in a cult, it was perhaps understandable that people would jump on this as being representative of something larger going on. Durkin, however, wasn’t convinced. “For me it’s all about this character,” he says when we meet months later at the London Film Festival. “It’s not trying to be allegorical.”
The “character” in question is the young woman whose fractured identity supplies Martha Marcy May Marlene with its enigmatic title. Played by Elizabeth Olsen, this is Martha – or at least, that’s the name by which her estranged sister (to whom we see her fleeing in the film’s opening scenes) knows her. In the cult from which she’s escaping she’s known as Marcy May. But she’s also forced to use the name Marlene, a name shared by all the cult’s female members whenever they’re dealing with the outside world. This kind of deliberate identity confusion is, it turns out, one of many common steps cults use to break down new members and reprogramme them.
“What they do,” elaborates Durkin, who read numerous academic studies before talking to ex-cult members, “is cut people off from society, rename them, start telling them that their old lives were the wrong way to live and this new way is a better way to live. They give them a cause, a purpose; it’s like, ‘This is what we’re doing here, this is why we’re important.’ Then they break them down sexually. So there’s some kind of sexual initiation that’s sort of a ‘loss of body, loss of the self’-type thing that fits with joining a group.”
The film cleverly dramatises all of this by telling the story from Martha’s confused perspective, something Durkin represents through skilful and judicious use of a flashbacking structure that cuts between Martha’s time in the cult and her time with her sister and her husband (respectively played by Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy). Refusing to spell out exactly what’s happening, the film blurs the line between past and present in a way that draws parallels between the agenda-laden belief systems of both worlds. It’s a structure informed, says Durkin, by the Buddhist idea that we only really exist in the present – a philosophy he felt made sense for a cult that is trying to isolate people from their regular lives.
“In Martha’s point of view, everything is happening at the same time so she’s very confused,” says Durkin. “It’s also another common tactic in these cults that there are no clocks or calendars, so people do get lost in time and don’t know how long they’ve been somewhere.”
That the film is so effective in depicting this sense of dislocation is also largely down to the performance of newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, whose raw, vulnerable turn makes it easy to buy into the notion of Martha being a lost soul. Wags could, of course, joke that because she’s also the younger sister of tween tycoons Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, she’s perfect casting for a film about escaping a cult phenomenon. Yet she brings no baggage to the part, largely because no-one has ever really seen her in anything before (as a kid she made but fleeting appearances in her sisters’ TV movies). “We actually found her through open auditions,” says Durkin. “She’d just been studying in school and she’d never done a specific role. We brought her in and she was fantastic.”
Just as Winter’s Bone catapulted Jennifer Lawrence onto the A-list, Martha Marcy May Marlene looks set to do the same for Olsen, though it’s not the first time Durkin has been involved in uncovering new talent. As the producer of the acclaimed 2008 indie film Afterschool, he had a hand in finding its star Ezra Miller, who went on to play the title role in We Need to Talk About Kevin. “Yeah, I guess our casting director Susan Shopmaker has a good track record,” beams Durkin.
His own track record is pretty impressive too. Having developed a love of movies courtesy of an early introduction to stop-motion animation (and The Shining), the Canadian-born, London and New York-raised Durkin studied film at New York University where he banded together with fellow aspiring filmmakers Antonio Campos (the director of Afterschool) and Josh Mond (who produced Afterschool and Martha Marcy May Marlene) to form Borderline Films, a production company-cum-collective through which they’ve now made three acclaimed features (the Cannes-feted Two Gates of Sleep is the other one) and numerous commercials and music videos. “Collective is not really the right word,” corrects Durkin. “It is a production company so we’re business orientated, but we’re also a creative bouncing board for each other. When we started making films we just did everything that needed to happen to get a film made. Then, when we got out of school, we just started to work professionally doing music videos and commercials while we were developing Antonio’s first film. We didn’t want to get jobs that would tear us away from that, so Josh and I would do videos while Antonio was writing and we’d share the money. We were always supporting a feature project.”
It’s something that has allowed them to prosper at a time when much of the money available for independent film production in the US seems to have disappeared thanks to the 2008 financial collapse. Durkin, however, reckons the tide might be changing: “I just think Black Swan and Winter’s Bone have given the industry such an injection of hope and confidence. People were obviously spending at Sundance again and taking risks. You can definitely feel a difference.”