Interview: Lizzy Olsen and Sean Durkin – Martha Marcy May Marlene
I was sitting in the Sofitel Hotel (which is such an amazing name for a Hotel in the first place) waiting to meet an Olsen sister (fulfilling some childhood dream of mine) when the ground began to shake. I knew at that exact moment that God was giving me a sign. A sign of what? I have no idea, but I knew the interview wouldn’t be a mile from normal. Just like the film, Martha Marcy May Marlene, that moment stuck out. It felt normal enough, well-crafted enough to be there but there’s and eeriness that stays with you. Something that is hard to shake. Something you cannot explain with words, only experiences. That is something that very few films can do. Silence of the Lambs did it with a lotion in a basket. Se7en did it with a head in a box. Elizabeth Olsen did it with her acting.
A film that’s gone through the festival circuit stopping at EVERY single big ticket festival, Martha Marcy May Marlene is simply put, one of the best films of the year. I was honored to take a moment to talk to the writer/director and star of the film when they stopped by in Philly for an Earthquake and a cheese steak.
Sean Durkin: I think cult is a narrow word and has a lot of connotations. It comes with a lot of judgement. Not that this group shouldn’t be judged. They should obviously. It’s just the term is so narrow and we wanted to stay away from stereotypes and try to make something that we thought was real and specific. So i based it on lots of groups and things. I tried to take everything when I talked to somebody and put it in. The comparisons between the family and the cult they are obviously there but they grew very naturally out of characters. Treat it like… she lives in New York and they have a weekend house in Connecticut what are their lives? What are their values? and the comparisons just happened.
The film is gorgeous. Would you take a moment to talk about the visual style of the film?
Sean Durkin: Every choice was centered around enhancing Martha’s psychology. I interviewed someone and she described her first three weeks after escaping. She said she didn’t remember anything from that time it was all a blur besides two things. She remembered she lied to everyone about where she had been and that she saw “them” everywhere. That state of confusion and basic survival mode became the center of everything. The structure, the way it’s shot, the way you don’t know what space we are in at times as we transition. It’s all… The certain-ness of camera to create certain tension to give a specific feel in a specific scene it’s all used to enhance that central feel of Martha and that basic survival sense of mind.
Liz Olsen: When I first read it I reacted to two different things. I loved the non linear narrative. Reading it was really exciting and compelled me to keep reading because you had to. It was really interesting being an audience member and seeing the story unfold. I really do love stories told playing with time. I just find that really intriguing and fun to watch and navigate and how it all communicates with each other. And then I really just loved Martha and I thought I understood her and I had a lot of compassion for her. It was a role that you don’t get to read when you read scripts especially where I was cause I was completely unknown. I don’t normally get to read a lot of good scripts. And because they were looking for an unknown I was really lucky for that.
What was the hardest part about the film to shoot?
Sean Durkin: The hardest thing beyond the film was writing, shooting, editing, festivals… It takes an insane amount of concentration and discipline. Staying with that discipline and knowing there is no room for stopping. It takes all the concentration and it’s really exhausting. Doing that for three years straight is just… I don’t think there is anything easy about making a movie… Actually no, My biggest concern was that the actors that played Martha, I would have to work really hard to discover this character and translate it to film and pull out all this stuff that is happening. It ended up being totally… she came prepared. We didn’t do a lot of prep and she just hit it.
What was the experience preparing for the role only weeks before you start shooting?
Liz Olsen: We didn’t do anything before set. I arrived on set the night before we started shooting the next day.
Sean Durkin: Part of the reason I hire people, actors, crew, I hire them because they are into it and they understand it. We talked an hour on the phone, a discussion, and that was it.
Liz Olsen: Me personally I don’t have a problem with it especially if it tells the story and not just being topless. I have a problem with sensationalist nudity. It’s there for a reason. I really, truly don’t have a problem with it. Yes it’s something you get nervous about beforehand but there are so many actresses that have been nude in films multiple times but no one thinks of them as nude actresses, they aren’t flaunting their goods because the are telling a very specific story as a part of it.
It’s true in America we have the highest pornographic rate but we have the hardest time being able to watch nudity on film. In Europe they are a little more sensitive to it. And I just don’t find anything wrong with the human body. Ya know Sean when he talked about it, the whole point is not to show it but not to hide it. There is no point in going out of your way to hide something. I truly believe without it it wouldn’t be as strong of a film.
What about non linear storytelling made you want to shoot it that way?
Sean Durkin: I don’t usually like non-linear movies. This is just because it needed to be told that way. To create that perspective in psychology and being lost with Martha at the center of it. This had to be that way. But I traditionally prefer linear storytelling. I never thought of it as flashbacks and never thought of it as non-linear because for Martha it’s all one experience. So technically it’s a flashback in time but it’s actually not because she’s experiencing all these things in the film and it’s all blended together for one cohesive experience. And that experience and journey for her is her past.
What inspired you to get into acting?
Liz Olsen: I grew up with all the classical movies and I fell in love with Frank Sinatra and I had a dream to be his wife. I found when i was 10 that he won an award for lifetime achievement and that was the first time in my life I experienced heartbreak. [Laughs] I wanted to do musicals and classes and I did it in school. It became then that I wanted to explore and study it before I went into it.
Martha Marcy May Marlene opens Friday Oct 28th at the Ritz 5 & Rave Ritz Center 16