Into the Woods:
An Interview with Sean Durkin
By Adam Nayman

Though it’s been lazily dismissed in some corners as a generic variation on contemporary regional-indie-cinema tropes, Sean Durkin’s excellent debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene, is actually far more complicated. Its depiction of an adolescent girl (Elizabeth Olsen) recovering in the aftermath of her encounter with a self-styled religious cult in upstate New York is both formally sophisticated (Durkin handles the before-and-after timeline with aplomb) and productively mysterious. Complaints that the film eventually capitulates to audience expectations by introducing violent elements to the story trip up on the way Durkin slowly modulates the film’s style so that the binary between reality and subjective experience becomes as blurry as the distinctions between the past and the present.

We touched upon some of these issues in our interview, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to give Martha the sustained conversation and analysis it warrants. (Despite the best efforts of all involved, press days never run on time, and interview windows that are already open only a crack get slammed shut early, as was the case here.) With more time I might have even gotten to ask a question about Olsen—although the coast-to-coast praise chorus that has met her sharp, committed performance might make the de rigueur query about pinning one's feature debut on the younger sister of pop-cultural punchlines somewhat redundant.

RS: Was the idea always to tell the film through two separate timelines?

SD: I thought it would be the best way to represent the character’s confusion. It also came out from some of the research I did early on about cults—one of the first things I learned is that in a lot of cases, these groups don’t use clocks or calendars or anything that lets people keep track of time. It ties into some aspects of Buddhist philosophy, that there’s no such thing as the past, that everything is taking place in an eternal present. So I had the idea of [Martha] getting lost in time as soon as she leaves the compound—lost in time, or maybe stuck in time.

RS: You mentioned research, but it seems to me that you’ve purposefully left the details of Patrick’s group vague—is that to give you more room as a writer? Did you not want to impose too many real-world associations on the story?

SD: I learned as much as I could. I’m mostly interested in the tactics that are used, and the effects that they have—the sense of dependency that’s created. I wanted to convey the process of breaking somebody down and reprogramming them, without being clinical. Some of the more particular details were dictated by the location. I knew I wanted to shoot in the Catskills, and I know the area well—we have a farm there. So I thought about what kind of values people would bring to a place like that and what they would be trying to build there. They’re probably trying to live off the land, to be self-sustaining while growing the number of people there. I wanted it to be specific to the region, and I wanted it to be believable.

RS: To that end, it seems to me that you really downplayed Patrick’s character—he’s almost peripheral for a lot of the scenes on the farm, and John Hawkes avoids some of the more messianic, commanding traits we’ve seen in other movies on this subject.

SD: One of the first conversations I had with John was that we didn’t want Patrick to be that stock cult-leader figure. John said he wasn’t interested in “cult” movies and we never called it a “cult” while we were making it. It’s a word we have to use now in discussing the film because it works, but not when we were actually doing it. I would give a lot of the credit for what you’re saying to John, and his ability to bring humanity to that character.

RS: He’s chilling in the scene where he plays guitar and sings Martha “Marcy’s Song”—a choice that ties into his decision to re-christen her “Marcy May.” The repeated lyric “she’s just a picture on the wall” really struck me—it’s like he’s trying to re-create her in his own image. Where did you get the song?

SD: That’s cool. I never thought about that, actually. I was looking for songs with the name Marcy or Martha in them. I found his song “Marlene” and there’s a song on the same album called “Marcy’s Song," and what’s crazy is that I’d already written the film four years earlier. What I liked about “Marcy's Song” is that it sounds like it could be for a girl—like a song written for her—but it’s also somehow aggressive. The way John plays it, it’s like he’s trying to win her over, yet there’s something harsh in it as well. I love your interpretation, though—the idea that he’s drawing her in that song.

RS: One of the things critics have picked up on—and that I had reservations about myself—is the way the film introduces violence: we learn that Patrick and his followers have blood on their hands. Were you worried that this aspect of the film might push it away from a character study and into more generic territory?

SD: I’m more interested in the other stuff and not the violence, but the fact is that for a lot of people, when they get out of a situation like that, that’s when they realize the sort of things they were living with—the reality of what had happened to them. They were in a situation much bigger and more severe than simply living in isolation: that things had happened that didn’t just involve them.

RS: I wonder if the ambiguity of the final scenes ties into that as well: it seems very possible to me that a lot of the overt threat of the group coming after her is played so that it’s more about her anxiety than anything that’s actually happening. Which brings it back to being a character study—the sense of threat has been internalized.

SD: The ambiguity you’re talking about is definitely built in. All the choices we made in terms of how things were shot and staged later in the film were done to create space for those exact questions.