by Luke Hickman
Rising director Sean Durkin is quickly gaining momentum. He first grabbed our attention with Sundance 2010 short 'Mary Last Seen,' only to come back one year later with a feature film expounding on that same idea, 'Martha Marcy May Marlene,' that earned him the Directing Award.
Both 'Mary' and 'Martha' explore the ideas of cults that steal young woman away. While 'Mary' shows how these girls end up there, 'Martha' shows what happens when they get there – the brainwashing and abuse – and what happens to a young woman who escapes.
'Martha Marcy May Marlene' begins with a woman, played by the Olsen Twins' younger sister Elizabeth escaping the farm compound. As she awkwardly tries to re-enter society, her thoughts are turned back to the trauma she just escaped from, so we see both the beginning and the end of her story there.
After appearing at Sundance, 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' was picked up by Fox Searchlight and will now open in limited release on October 21. To promote his film, which also played at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, writer and director Sean Durkin has taken the time to talk to High-Def Digest about Sundance, 'Mary,' 'Martha,' and writing.
High-Def Digest – Luke Hickman: Hello! How are you today?
Sean Durkin: Good, how are you doing?
HDD: Great! Are you tired of doing so much press today? Isn't this the second round for you, considering the film opened at Sundance in January?
Sean Durkin: Oh, yeah.
HDD: I couldn't find the whole thing online, but I found a preview for the previous short film you had at Sundance -
Sean Durkin: 'Mary Last Seen.'
HDD: Is 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' an expanded version of that idea?
Sean Durkin: No. I had a pretty good drop to the script structurally in 2009, and as we thought about making a [feature-length] film, it just wasn't ready. So I decided to make a short because I wanted to have something to go out with the script. I had my film from NYU – I liked some of it, but I didn't want it to go out with the script. So I decided to make a short and I wanted it to be related to the subject, but not the same film or anything from ['Marth Marcy May Marlene']. In the research I had done, I obviously decided to focus on what happens after a girl leaves a cult, but then had all this research that I was really interest in about how someone gets there, so I wanted to make a short that sort of represented those steps of how someone gets to a cult. I knew that Brady Corbet was going to be in 'Martha' playing Watts … so I wanted to do a short where he brings a girl to the farm.
HDD: From the little bit you see at the end of the 'Mary Last Seen' trailer, it looks exactly the same. Was it shot on the exact same farm?
Sean Durkin: Yes, it was. … At that point we basically had Brady and the farm. We sort of made the short around that. Again, I wanted it to relate to ['Martha']. It's the same world, the same character – for [Brady] – but I didn't want it to be something from the script or from the film because I didn't want to … make any choices that early.
HDD: Is there anywhere that we can see 'Mary Last Seen' online?
Sean Durkin: I don't know exactly what the plan is, but … it will come out [on a collection DVD] just a few weeks before the release [of 'Martha'] ... and then [Fox] Searchlight will include it on DVD.
HDD: Where did you film both movies?
Sean Durkin: In the Catskills – in New York.
HDD: And how long was the shoot?
Sean Durkin: 24 days.
HDD: That's a fast shoot! And you can't even tell, the film looks so good.
Sean Durkin: (laughs) Yeah. We sort of developed a structure around that – a 24 day structure. We've done it three times now.
HDD: Where did the idea for 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' come from? I ask because it's dark. And you don't seem like a dark person.
Sean Durkin: Well, I'm pretty light. A light happy guy. I originally wanted to make a film about a cult that was contemporary. It just went from there. I started to read about people in these really … interesting people before and after they were in groups, how their souls had been sucked out of them and how they changed physically. I wanted to explore what that is. It eventually came to trying to understand what happens right after. So I started to speak to people who had been through it. I found people. They would share their stories with me. I just sort of became focused on the first couple of weeks, try to capture the emotion of that and the fall it and how difficult it can be for someone to wrap their head around.
HDD: Without spoiling the end, the end is very ambiguous. Do you have an actual ending or intention? I don't want to know what it is if you do. Was there a reason for the ambiguity?
Sean Durkin:Yeah, there's a reason. My goal was to make a film that focused on those first couple of weeks and take the audience into the mindset of Martha. It was really important to me that it stayed true to that, not try to do anything more. I feel like the film had to end there because that's exactly where she is at at that specific point of time. Trying to do anything more might be unrealistic emotionally. Basically, there are questions that you have and hopefully they are the exact same questions that Martha has at the end of the film.
HDD: It makes sense. And I like it even more with your explanation. This was a great year for films at Sundance. Being there, on your side, how it?
Sean Durkin: It was great! I think there was a great energy this year. It felt very positive and I think there were some very great films. … It sort of felt like – I don't know. Very positive and exciting time.
HDD: What are you working on next?
Sean Durkin: I'm writing a new script.
HDD: Are you going to direct it also?
Sean Durkin: Yep.
HDD: Do you intend to write everything you direct for the rest of your career?
Sean Durkin: Not at all. I'm open to lots of things. I would jump at a great script if it comes my way. I'm also interested in adapting books.
HDD: Well, it looks like our time is up.
Sean Durkin: Thank you.
HDD: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. I really appreciate it.
Sean Durkin: The same to you.