Interview: Elizabeth Olsen and Sean Durkin from “Martha Marcy May Marlene”
Interview: Elizabeth Olsen and Sean Durkin from “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

The Massie Twins recently had a chance to sit down with writer/director Sean Durkin and star Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of the famous Olsen twins) to discuss their new thriller “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” We were also fortunate enough to eat lunch with them! The film opens in limited release in October and had a successful run at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and won the award for best director. The film follows a damaged young woman as she struggles to re-assimilate with her family after escaping a murderous cult, led by the charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes).


The Massie Twins: Hi! We’re supposed to mention that we write for

Elizabeth Olsen: (laughs) Oh my god! I love Gone With The Wind!

MT: What’s the best part about growing up with twins?

EO: They fight over whose side you’re on. You get the one with more intention. One of them wants to have a “one-up” on the other. I was also attention-starved as a child. I was the biggest ham.

MT: (to Sean) What was your inspiration for writing this story? Did you draw upon real life?

Sean Durkin: Yes. I read a lot about cults and started to meet people who were in cults and all that information settles in. Then I went to find the place. I wanted to make it in the Catskills because that’s a place where it could happen, a region in New York. All of the research makes its way into the script in its own way. I’ve always been interested in why humans gravitate toward groups and the desire to be part of something larger than yourself. Everybody does it everyday with work, friends, sports, church – it’s very natural and healthy. I wanted to explore it in a cinematic and extreme way and to try and understand where someone manipulates that need. I felt like 1 in 5 people that I talked to knew someone who had been in a cult or were in a cult themselves. Groups like this are very common and localized.

MT: What was it like working with each other?

SD: This was my first time directing, but I’ve been producing movies at a production company for 7-8 years. I continue to work. You keep going on press tours and now there are more opportunities [after Sundance]. I learned that it’s really important to accept who you are when you’re working. You’re always self-conscious about things. I learned to just accept things. As a writer, I could have infiltrated a cult and I know people who would have done that. That’s not who I am as a person, so I have to accept how I would approach it.

EO: It’s a really supportive environment and Sean’s set allows you to be the best version of yourself. It’s an ideal situation to work with people like that. I really want to surround myself with people who work that way, and I also want to continue to collaborate with these guys. It was a really amazing experience.

MT: (to Elizabeth) When choosing a script, what elements do you look for?

EO: A character that I haven’t seen before or that I can learn something from.

MT: Tell us about the score.

SD: I’ve never used music in one of my films before, but I was open to it. As we started to edit, my sound editor would send us these tones that he would make, and we put them in and they were really cool. They’re in the movie a lot. Composers I’ve worked with came in to watch and they asked if they could do some stuff. They went off and wrote a bunch of stuff. They’re super talented guys. The direction was that everything had to be subtle. All the sound creeps up on you and all of a sudden there’s music playing in the scene, but there’s no specific cue. You don’t necessarily know where it started.

MT: (to Elizabeth) How did you approach the character of Martha?

EO: I was trying to figure out what the void was she needed filled; what she didn’t get from her family or from anyone else. That was the basic point – justifying what someone would get out of it. And when they lose it, how that affects them. On top of that, when she’s at the lake house, there’s a sense of paranoia that I focused on. I latched onto the paranoia as something I could grasp a little better. I had to figure out at what point it would be safe to talk about it and what was going on in her mind – without much dialogue. It was draining, and I slept a lot. It was a 24-day shoot. My character and I were never the same, so at the end of the day, I was able to step out of it.

MT: Audiences have chimed in on the Internet with several different theories and interpretations of the ending of Martha Marcy May Marlene. How ambiguous did you intend it to be?

SD: I don’t think there’s a right or wrong. The goal is to create Martha’s experiences on what those two weeks would be like and understanding what it would be like to get out of something like this. I believe ending it this way was the only way to end it. That’s just where she’d be at. You don’t recover from things like this. It takes years and some people never recover. If you have questions, hopefully they’re the same questions Martha has. I wanted it to be fully about her experiences.