Writer-director Sean Durkin’s first feature film, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” deals with the trauma of life inside and after escaping a cult — though that word is never used in the film. In fact, the film’s protagonist, Elizabeth Olson — turning in a striking, heartbreaking performance — doesn’t use very many words at all, which makes understanding why she’s so troubled that much harder for her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy). Told in a fractured chronology that highlights Martha’s growing paranoia, the film is both beautiful and unsettling. But more unsettling for Durkin was how easy it was to find former cult members to discuss their experiences while researching the project.

Where did the idea for this movie start?

It started with just a very simple desire to maybe make a film about a cult. I felt like I hadn’t seen anything that was modern and naturalistic. I wanted to do something that showed a little bit more of the subtle manipulation. I started writing and I just started talking about it, and when you start talking about it, people are always like, “Oh my friend grew up in one. I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you.” It’s amazing. I didn’t have to go out and search. It’s really common, which is very strange.

With the steps the cult leader (John Hawkes) takes to indoctrinate your heroine, it’s almost like a how-to guide.


It’s funny, these guys are all very generic. Like seriously, you read about them and they just all use the same tactics. The things that he does are just what these guys do over and over again. They just change their purpose.

The word “cult” never comes up in the movie.

We never used the word “cult” until after the movie was finished and we had to start talking about it, because there’s no other word to use. But we never talked about it while we were there, when we were shooting. With the actors, we never discussed it like that. “Cult” has got a lot of connotations that aren’t helpful when you’re making a movie about someone being manipulated into certain things. I mean, no one in a cult ever talks about being in a cult or thinks they’re in a cult. They just think that what they’re doing is right and they’re doing what they believe in.

The title is a mouthful until you see the movie, and then it just rolls off the tongue.

Yeah, that seems to be a common response. I never wanted to call it anything else. I usually struggle with names of things that I do, but I came up with that the day I came up with the plot. And the name just popped into my head. I thought of Martha, and then Marcy May Marlene just flowed out after and that was it. At Sundance, the first couple big reviews to come out mentioned that once you see it, it’s easier — which was great to hear because it’s obviously a concern.

So your first feature film premieres at Sundance, where Fox Searchlight buys it, then it goes to Cannes and Toronto followed by a fall release, all in the same year. How’s that been?

It’s been really interesting. You make your movie and you do the best you can do, and then you put it out and you have no idea how anybody’s going to respond, you know? You obviously hope for Fox Searchlight to buy your movie, you hope to get into Sundance, you hope to go to Cannes — all these things. But they’re all just hopes. And then for it to all happen is just amazing. There’s no words, really, to describe it.

Vital stats — Sean Durkin

Part of the team:
Durkin and his NYU classmates Josh Mond and Antonio Campos founded Borderline Films in 2005, and the three rotate the roles of writer, director and producer for their films. While “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is his first feature as a director, Durkin produced the company’s other features, including “Afterschool” and “Simon Killer,” which is currently in post-production.

Festival favorite
: Durkin’s feature ignited a bidding war earlier this year at Sundance, where he also won for Best Director in the narrative competition. The film then screened at Cannes, where it received the Prix de jeunesse. In 2010, Durkin won the Director's Fortnight's Prix for his short film, “Mary Last Seen,” a precursor to “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”

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