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Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene

To mark the release of his spellbinding debut, we speak to the filmmaker about abusive American cults, a lifetime affinity with 'The Shining' and psychological journeys

Sean Durkin’s directorial debut, 'Martha Marcy May Marlene', is a haunting, effective and original take on American cults that has bewitched festival audiences in Cannes, Toronto and London. Led by a name-making performance from the third Olsen sister, Elizabeth Olsen, the film focuses on Martha; a woman who escapes from an abusive cult into her sister’s home but is haunted by the memories and gripped by paranoia. While attending the London Film Festival, Durkin spoke to Dazed about meeting survivors, strong female characters and being inspired by The Goonies.

One of the first main reasons I wanted to focus on a woman’s journey through this, was when I saw pictures of before and after [leaving the cult], and there’s a massive physical transformation in their face

Dazed Digital: You wrote the script while making a short, Mary Last Seen; does that act as a back story to the film?
Sean Durkin:
I actually wrote the script first and then made the short which is about how one girl gets to the farm. It’s about Brady Corbet’s character from the film and how he brings girls to them which is sort of suggested in ‘Martha…’, so the short shows what he uses to get the girls there. I did that just as a way to have something to send out with the script that’s related, but also stands on its own.

DD: So what interests you about cults?
Sean Durkin:
I don’t know, I think it goes back a long way. I can think of things that got me interested originally but it wasn't what I was thinking when I started, I just thought I hadn't seen a movie about a cult that was naturalistic and modern and local. So I started to think about that and understand what people go through trying to leave, and that psychological and emotional journey. One of the first main reasons I wanted to focus on a woman’s journey through this, was when I saw pictures of before and after, and there’s a massive physical transformation in their face. They just look like different people as the life was sucked out of them; so how does that happen? That became one of the first questions.

DD: Have you been approached or contacted by people who’ve been in similar situations?
Sean Durkin:
I’d say we’ve done about 30 press and festival screenings in the US and out of that I’ve been approached about 15 times.

DD: Do they all have different stories or is it all very similar?
Sean Durkin:
There’s a lot of similarities but what was really interesting too was that in reading about all these different groups, you start to see that the tactics are all the same but the people are not. There’s a wide variety of people who get sucked in, there’s not just one type of person and that was really complicated and interesting so I wanted to make sure that the characters in this film were not and you weren’t able to say, “That person is weak and that’s why they’re here”. I tried to make all the characters strong and intelligent on their own so you couldn’t just right them off because that’s not really how it is.

DD: What did Elizabeth bring to the role that none of the other actresses who auditioned did?
Sean Durkin:
I didn’t know what I wanted but I knew what I didn’t want, so people would come in and they could’ve been good but I’d know because I didn’t want what they had. She came in and I just knew; there’s just so much about her that I got a sense of the first time we met. She has ease and her eyes can really tell a lot without trying, she has a very unique posture and body shape and she’s beautiful while untraditional and that all makes her a very unique person.

DD: The ending has caused much conversation, was that your intention?
Sean Durkin:
The film is her journey, and any questions people have at the end are her questions and that’s her state of being. She’s uncertain.

DD: Do you like to let the audience make up their own mind?
Sean Durkin:
Yes, but in this scenario more than anything it was just about staying true to where she’d be at that time. The rehabilitation process in a situation like this is a very long period and in this film - where she’s at the lake house - she’s not gonna come to any sort of realisation about what’s happened to her. This is the beginning of a long process so I think that anything else at this time would just have been untrue.

DD: Who or what made you want to make films?
Sean Durkin:
I don’t know who made me want to make films, actually, but my first movie memory that I really connected to was The Goonies and that was at the base of my connectivity. The first film I saw that I became totally engrossed in from a different point of view was The Shining. I’d just never felt that way in my life about a film - the fear it brought out was extraordinary and I remember everything about that entire day. 

'Martha Marcy May Marlene' is out this Friday