Spinning Platters Interview: Elizabeth Olsen and Sean Durkin on “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

by Jason LeRoy on October 26, 2011

John Hawkes, Elizabeth Olsen, Louisa Krause and Christopher Abbott in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

Every year at the Sundance Film Festival, there are inevitably a crop of star-is-born moments where little-known or unknown actors and filmmakers are suddenly catapulted to fame and acclaim thanks to a particularly well-received film. But surely one of the most surprising Sundance discoveries in recent memory is Elizabeth Olsen, 22, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. After growing up on the sets of her sisters’ projects, Olsen studied acting at NYU (she recently graduated), and is now making her feature-film debut in Martha Marcy May Marlene, a tense character study that also marks the incredibly promising feature-length debut of writer/director Sean Durkin.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a very strong film by any measure, but when you consider that it is the debut film from both its lead actor and its writer/director, it becomes even more remarkable. Olsen stars as an enigmatic young woman named Martha. As the film begins, she is escaping from a cult commune in the Catskills led by the darkly charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes). She calls her long-estranged yuppie sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) from a payphone on the side of the road and asks to be picked up. Lucy promptly gets Martha and takes her back to the Connecticut vacation home she shares with her businessman husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy).

While Lucy is pensively excited to have her little sister back, Martha (who doesn’t open up about her experiences) soon begins acting out in ways Lucy finds highly inappropriate. While Lucy remains disturbed by her behavior, the audience is taken inside Martha’s memories from her time with the cult, which gradually unfold like a puzzle box to reveal a fuller picture of what has made her so paranoid and volatile. As Martha senses her past closing in on her present, there is a slowly mounting sense of churning dread and suspense as we wonder, “How intense will this get?”

The answer is: pretty damn intense. Durkin has crafted an exquisitely constructed psychological thriller that consistently zigs when you expect it to zag (fair warning: it has an ambiguous and somewhat abrupt ending, but one which makes perfect sense with the rest of the film). The cinematography (by Jody Lee Lipes, who previously worked on Tiny Furniture) is astounding, evoking the blurry confusion of Martha’s fragmented identity with composition for days. Hawkes, Paulson and Dancy are uniformly excellent in supporting roles. And without overhyping her too much, let’s just say that Olsen acts the hell out of a very complicated role. Finding this kind of natural acting talent within the Olsens is reminiscent of when Ashley Judd first emerged unexpectedly from the Judds.

Spinning Platters recently sat down with Elizabeth Olsen and Sean Durkin on the patio at the Ritz Carlton (at Olsen’s request – “We’re in hotel rooms all day and the carpet patterns in there were making me dizzy”) to discuss the best kinds of horror movies, the difficulty of saying this film’s name, what kind of cult leader Olsen would be, and things you shouldn’t say about Katy Perry in front of the press.

You’ve been hosting Q&A screenings of this movie around the country. Has your understanding of the film changed from hearing so many different perspectives on it?

Sean Durkin: There’s definitely some interesting stuff that happens. When I’m making a movie, I don’t really intellectualize it or think too much about where it comes from. Then when it’s done and you have to talk about it and answer questions, you have to dig a little deeper. You start to realize things about yourself and where these things might come from.

Elizabeth Olsen: It’s also been fascinating for me because, unlike Sean, I didn’t really do research into all these modern-day cults that exist. And pretty consistently after every screening, someone comes up to us after the Q&A and says that they themselves, or a family member or friend, were in a cult. So that’s been shocking to me, and I’ve been learning a lot more about that. Because when we were filming this, I didn’t approach it as having this great message about cults; I just really thought of it as being about human experience and relationships.

Watching this film, I was reminded very strongly of John Waters’ chapter from his book Role Models about Manson girl Leslie Van Houten, another promising young woman who was derailed into a cult. But Lizzy, you didn’t really study any stories like hers?

EO: When I read the script, I didn’t think that to understand this character I needed to understand what it was like to escape a cult. There were times when I’d ask Sean, “Did this happen to someone that you talked to?” And he’d talk to me about someone’s experiences. We created a completely fictional world, but there were those moments where I wanted to know what happened to someone who’d actually had a certain experience. Other than that, we just based it on relationships and desires and what someone needs and hopes for; things like that.

Lizzy, your character experiences many different levels of fear in this film. How do you find that fear within yourself?

EO: Genuine fear is something that I’m actually genuinely interested in for some reason. I feel like a lot of times in films when we watch fear, there’s lots of edits and screaming and slamming doors and running and stuff like that. So genuine fear is something that I find interesting. Since I’ve been younger, I’ve always had a pretty active imagination. That’s why I was really interested in filming the movie Silent House, because it’s 90 minutes of tracking someone’s fear of (possibly) impending death in real time. There is something I find super-fascinating about it.

Why do you think audiences find cults so fascinating?

SD: I don’t know! I was drawn to it, and I didn’t necessarily know why at the time. I think that people have a natural desire to belong to something larger than themselves. I think it affects everybody, and I think it’s a healthy desire. And when you take that desire and examine it and then someone manipulates it to their benefit the way people in cults do, I think that’s frightening, and it appeals to people to watch it.

Sean, it was important to you that some of the things that Patrick says are true, but to also navigate between the truth that draws people in and then him taking it to a more dangerous place. How did you approach walking the dual sides of that narrative? And Lizzy, how did you approach your character’s evolving understanding of Patrick?

SD: It’s really delicate how you get that balance, and John Hawkes does wonders for it. I guess I just wanted some wholesome values. I feel like that’s how people always feel, when they start with something. From what I understand, there’s something there that they believe in, and it resonates with them and their style of life. It’s a thing that has appeal for them. I think everyone would kinda love to just drop off and live a different way.

EO: The whole relationship between Marcy May with Patrick, she has to find comfort and trust in him, which isn’t very hard to do with John Hawkes as a person. You really trust him. So in those moments where you’re vulnerable, that was all just very reactionary based on the situation. For her it’s very important to fall in love with him, in a way.

 The title of this film is a bit of a tongue-twister. How long did it take you to learn it?

EO: The first day of shooting! Well, actually, before I even got the part I was able to say it. I just started saying it like it ain’t nobody’s business, and I got so good at it. [laughs] Before I even read the script, I remember my agent was like, “Lizzy, have you read the independent script that I sent you about the cult?” And I was like, “Oh, Mary…Mallow…Malamala?” Now I just call it Martha.

You mentioned that your agent referred to it as an independent script. With this being your breakout role, do you have any plan or intentions regarding how you’ll balance studio films with independent films? Is there a certain actor who inspires you with the kind of career they’ve had?

EO: Well, everyone has their own journey that they’re going to follow, obviously, and I have no control over the future. And I kinda like that feeling! But I do really respect and think that Kate Winslet is very smart with the choices she has made. I think she’s good in everything she does, whether it’s The Holiday or Holy Smoke or Titanic or Mildred Pierce. She’s just really brilliant in everything, and she does all kinds of different things but she’s great in all of it.

Is it weird that people are already talking about Oscar nominations?

EO: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s the silliest thing ever.

Were there any specific films that influenced the sense of fear and uncertainty that you portray in this film?

SD: Two of the most important movies that I ever saw were The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby. Rosemary’s Baby was more of a direct influence for this in the sense of tension and paranoia. Also, I was inspired by Altman’s images in 3 Women. I’ve always liked being scared. When I was a little kid, my mom used to tell me ghost stories and scare the shit out of me, and I liked it! I like being scared. I think that just settles into your interests and becomes what you lean toward.

EO: Yeah, we were both similar kids. I loved being scared.

This film seems like a different kind of scary than most.

EO: The thing that’s scary in scary movies is the buildup. And then so many times it turns out to be some monster, and you’re like, “Seriously? You just ruined it! It was scary!”

SD: I love horror films and I hate horror films. The good ones have these great setups, great buildups, and then it all just falls apart when it actually happens.

The Shining is an especially great reference for this film, because it’s about the scariest thing of all being the human psyche, and the depths of madness and violence of which human beings are capable. Which so much scarier than a monster movie.

EO: Yeah, totally!

[silence]

EO: Any more questions?

Well, I kinda have a ridiculous one.

both: We like ridiculous!

Okay. If you were to start a cult, what would the values be and what kind of cult leader would you be?

[both laugh]

SD: That’s a really original question. Are you serious?

Sure, if you guys wanna answer it!

EO: If I were a cult leader, what kind of cult would I want…

SD: Well, I just created a cult and its own movie, but I don’t think it’s the kind of cult I would create [for myself], so… I don’t know, let’s let Lizzy answer this one.

EO: Ooh! If I were a cult leader… there’d be lots of yoga – in the mountains. Lots of time to be balanced and at peace with where you are…

Would you worship some kind of deity?

EO: No. You’d worship the self. And then you’d have a self-sustaining farm… There’d be cooking classes…

It sounds like a retreat!

EO: It would basically be like a really lovely yoga retreat – all day, every day! [laughs] And then things would get crazy.

It would somehow lead to home invasions.

EO: Somehow.

SD: Where would the money come from?

EO: It doesn’t come from anywhere!

It’s self-sustaining.

SD: Yeah, but do you think it’s free to create a self-sustaining farm?

EO: They wouldn’t pay property taxes and they’d never get caught! [laughs]

Was it difficult to keep things light on the set of such a heavy film?

EO: It was literally the easiest thing to have a good time.

Did you guys watch Dance Moms or something like that?

EO: We all stayed in really, really shitty motels that didn’t have Internet access, and we didn’t have cell service, but we did have Buck Hunter.

SD: And we had an awesome jukebox. Lots of Katy Perry.

EO: Against my will. [gasps, cups hand over mouth, stares down at recorders]

SD: What?

EO: [quietly] Oh my God, you should never say anything like that.

SD: That’s awesome. You guys gotta publish that!

EO: No!

Too late, I already tweeted it.

EO: Nooo!

It’s gonna be a headline on the Huffington Post tomorrow: Elizabeth Olsen DESTROYS Katy Perry!

SD: You guys just started Lizzy’s first public feud!

EO: No! “Fireworks” [sic] is a very fun song.

It’s much harder to sing in karaoke than you’d think.

EO: [laughs] Oh, please don’t say that I said that.

It’s fine! She’s good in small doses. And it’s excellent workout music.

SD: If I said I went running and didn’t listen to one of her songs every once in a while, I’d be lying.

Lizzy, do you care to set the record straight by agreeing that she makes great gym music?

EO: [loudly and clearly] It’s the best running music ever! And…dance music! I think she’s so brilliant! [loudly into recorder] BRILLIANT!

There, crisis averted. Now the HuffPo headline will read: Elizabeth Olsen LOVES Katy Perry!

EO: [sings] “Baby you’re a fire-” See, I know it!

“TGIF” is a fun song too. Kenny G plays the sax on it.

EO: I could tell Kenny G’s sax from anywhere. We listened to his Christmas album growing up.

Martha Marcy May Marlene opens in San Francisco on Friday, October 28.

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