Interview: Sean Durkin, Elizabeth Olsen of ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

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CHICAGO – One of the more memorable dramas of the year hits Chicago theaters this Friday in Sean Durkin’s directorial debut “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” The story of a young girl who escapes her life in a cult only to have difficulty readjusting to being home with her distant sister has earned nothing but raves since its Sundance debut. Durkin and his amazing lead performer, Elizabeth Olsen, recently sat down with us to discuss one of the most acclaimed films of the year and they’re the kind of talented people with whom an interviewer almost instantly feels like they will speak to again. This is just the beginning for both of them and it was an honor to get even a brief amount of time with the pair at this major turning point in the start of their careers.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What’s the most interesting/memorable/unexpected response you’ve gotten from the film at a Q & A screening?

SEAN DURKIN: [They both start laughing.] There was an amazing one in Philadelphia.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What did they say?

DURKIN: What was the question?

ELIZABETH OLSEN: I think it was mainly that the audience…First off, I think it’s really interesting to have a Q & A after this film, which you kind of should have to sit with a bit longer before you ask a question. [The film ends very abruptly with a number of questions.] People are just stuck asking the questions [about the plot] that they have when the movie ends. So there was a group of people that just wanted answers. That’s what they’re left with. They were asking us. The whole point of the movie is to ask the question.

DURKIN: They didn’t even roll the credits. It was immediate. Lights up and everybody was amped up. “What the Hell?!!?”

OLSEN: It was SO funny. There was one woman who had a statement about one of the aesthetic choices.

DURKIN: And someone else snapped at her.

OLSEN: “You’re WRONG!!”



OLSEN: It was awesome. Sean wanted to make sure that everyone could have their own opinion but they were snapping at each other. It was so intense.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: I don’t want to KNOW the answers to what happens after the last shot but do YOU know those answers? Do you have that mapped out or even a theory?

DURKIN: In the writing and editing process, there was a delicate balance in giving the exact right amount of information. Everything is very calculated and very placed. Everything you see is very on purpose. There’s not a half-ass thought. So, yes, but I never decided necessarily. I don’t have a formed story.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Do either of you know the character’s back stories?

OLSEN: Yeah.

DURKIN: When I write, I do lots and lots of back story.

OLSEN: For everyone.

DURKIN: Every character, every relationship. Their entire lives. So that when you’re writing, you know what’s between them.

OLSEN: You also say that if we had any questions that you’re open but you’re not really going to offer those questions.

DURKIN: I make myself available. Ten minutes, three hours, two weeks — whatever they find helpful.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: But you leave that up to them.

DURKIN: I leave that up to them as to what they feel they need.

OLSEN: In the original script, there was a lot of exposition for me. We had to figure out a bit more the dynamic between Lucy & Martha just so we could be on the same page.

DURKIN: The other thing about back story that I find is that whatever they need to do to make the connection is that I make myself available. We did have to talk about as a group the sister relationship and decide key things.

OLSEN: And Sarah had more questions for you and I left because I didn’t want to know what happened that I didn’t see.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Did you shoot chronologically or did you jump back and forth between the two halves of the story, which would seem incredibly difficult?

DURKIN: We shot the farm.

OLSEN: We didn’t shoot chronologically but we shot the two halves separately.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: When a film goes into Sundance and comes out with all this buzz I’m always curious about this — do you know going in? Do you have any expectation or assumption that, “Yeah, we’ve got something special here”?

DURKIN: I fully believed in the film. But my attitude along the way is that we, my company and I, set out to make our films the way we want to make them. We struggle. We sacrifice a lot. We turn down offers. This is how we’re gonna make it. So it’s completely dedicated to story, characters — it’s entirely about the movie and never thinking ahead. You have no idea. There’s no rules about what sells, what does well. So, my feeling on the whole thing is to be in the movie and focus on it and make it the best you can make it. Put it out and, if you’ve done your job, whatever happens happens. The critics, feedback, audience response, festivals have been great. It’s already such a great experience for me. Anything else that happens — there’s no way to know.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: And you feel the same way.

OLSEN: This is the second movie I’ve done. So, I also didn’t understand the whole festival thing. Now I feel different when I’m working on something but I had no idea what any of that was at all. I knew Sean had won Cannes for a short but I never thought beyond the movie. When it was at Sundance, it was so weird. I didn’t know how to respond to it. I’m still curious to see how the average film viewer will respond to it. Someone not rooted in the world of film.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What does she bring to this that other actresses wouldn’t?

DURKIN: I compliment her all the time. We’re used to it. Cover your ears. The very first audition I could tell there…She made a couple little choices that I didn’t even notice. She was just…It’s hard to put into words. A feeling. She had something going on — an intensity but an ease. Her performance in the auditions was the best but beyond that, she’s totally different from Martha. She’s vibrant, bright, strong mentally. I felt like if you put that inside this broken character who has to keep it in then you get a sense of more depth, a hint of someone else that this girl could have been. Ultimately, it just came down to a feeling.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: Were you scared? It’s one of your first movies and you’re in almost every scene of an emotionally-challenging film. Was it daunting?

OLSEN: I wasn’t. I’m really happy that it all kind of happened really fast. I got it 2-3 weeks before shooting. Maybe if there was more time. All I could do was be as productive as possible. I didn’t have time to psyche myself out. I tried to as simply as possible make choices. Coming from so many different acting conservatories, you get to play whatever you want. I played Lady MacBeth. You can do whatever. By doing that, you create this emotionally accessible person. You can bounce back and forth between styles. To me, this was such a gift. Just to get a script that was this exciting and that they were looking for an unknown. That wasn’t against me like it was at first. I got really freaking lucky. I loved the challenge. It was more exciting and fun than scary.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: What does John Hawkes bring to the role that no one else would?

DURKIN: John is an amazing actor. He has such a devotion and an intensity. He’s always working. We’d be at the bar and he’d pop in and ask me to work. We spent a lot of time together stripping the scenes down — the language, the speeches. I’m a big believer in…The script had a lot of information with the attention of trimming it down. What lines do we not need here? We worked together on that. It’s such a dark character but he’s such a warm, generous person that it adds a certain level of heart or charm. Even though you don’t see it, it helps with the overall feeling and understanding of why people would follow this guy.

HOLLYWOODCHICAGO.COM: If every movie is a learning experience, what is the main thing you take out of this?

OLSEN: The main thing I learned is how important it is for everyone to be collaborative and kind and helpful. You need to trust each other’s opinions. Sometimes egos get in the way and there’s a hierarchy and you feel that tension. That affects the ultimate environment which affects the ability to make good work. This was the most collaborative process in the world and I learned that was so important — leave that ego stuff at the door.

DURKIN: I’m a big believer in that. It’s our job to create the environment for the actors to work in.

See what came out of that collaborative when the excellent “Martha Marcy May Marlene” opens in Chicago on October 28th, 2011 and come back to for our full review on Friday. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

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