The Martha Marcy May Marlene writer/director looks back over craziest 18 months of his career.
Along with regular collaborators Josh Mond and Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin is part of an exciting new group of American filmmakers that looks set to reshape the look and landscape of independent cinema. A year on from his debut Martha Marcy May Marlene's rapturous Sundance debut, LWLies sits down with Durkin to look back over craziest 18 months of his career.
LWLies: You’re from England originally, is that right?
Durkin: Yeah. I was a child when I lived here though, so I don’t really remember what it was like to live here. It’s great being here for the festival though. I love London, I love coming here and I try to make it here when I can.
We first saw the film in Cannes last year where it was really well received. That wave seems to have continued since then.
Yeah, it’s hard to gauge how it’s going to do here though. I try not to think about it too much or pay too much attention. It can get too consuming.
Do you find yourself having to resist getting sucked up into that when you’re on the road for months doing press?
Definitely. It’s hard. You know, my feeling is I’m just thrilled that it’s getting good feedback and people want to talk about it an festivals want to play it, people want to come to Q&As and hear what I have to say. That’s really cool. Touring all over has been great; it’s amazing to do that with a first feature. But I also try to, like, not get too focused in that. I want to do it and then move on and not think too much about it.
When did you wrap?
2012. We shot from August 24 to September 24.
So it’s 18 month since you finished.
Yeah, although we did the edit right up until Christmas Eve, then did the sound edit and the colour correction for the next month. We actually sent the finished tape to Sundance the Tuesday before the festival started, last week of January. It premiered first Friday of Sundance and was sold to [Fox] Searchlight on the Sunday.
Is the focus now to keep that momentum going?
Kind of, I would like to be writing but this, doing press, is important too. I’ve got to focus on this one while I have the opportunity to.
What’s the most interesting or the most unexpected reaction you’ve had?
I always love when people come up to me after screenings and say that they were involved in communities or cults that were similar, and they felt like I’ve captured what it’s like to be in that situation.
How common is that?
Pretty common; I would say... We’ve done like 30 preview screenings in the States, plus press and Q&As, and I would say maybe 15 to 20 people have come up to me.
Is this a US specific thing then?
Not at all. You guys have cults in the UK; I actually used one as a major reference.
It’s something that doesn’t feel that common over here, maybe more in the sense that it’s not in the public conscience. Whereas in the US there seems to be this tangible fixation with cult groups.
Interesting. Yeah, I mean there’s definitely a fascination in the US, but only when it hits this grand level. What’s interesting about that UK cult is that it was very small, that’s what I wanted to focus on. In my film there’s 20 people at most in the group. These things happen all over the place but they’re often small and isolated and don’t make their way into national news.
It’s scary, the thought of getting sucked into that, whatever the scale.
It is, and that’s what I wanted to explore. It’s really, really scary. One of my initial goals was to make sure that this cult didn’t represent any kind of religious movement. It wasn’t about powerful groups; it’s about one man’s manipulation of a small group.
And we take it you’re keeping details of your research for the film confidential?
Sure. I don’t talk about it specifically, but I met a few people who’d been in and out and then people who’d viewed it as outsiders that had infiltrated a group. And I read and watched a lot about the famous groups from the ‘60s and ’70s.
What started the fascination for you?
I was really afraid of big groups that converged blindly, when I was a child. Sitting in school listening to morning prayer really scared me. It was weird. It wasn’t so much about judging or not joining in o make a point, it just wasn’t for me. So I’d just sit there respectfully and quietly.
Were you ever part of a specific clique at school?
Well, I had a lot of great friends, but... I moved to London when I was a year old. My dad’s English but he grew up in America and Canada and my mum’s Canadian, so my accent was very mixed, and I used to get bullied a lot because of that. I feel like that probably had something to do with my suspicion towards groups. But I’d say I’ve always been someone who’s more inclined to sit on the outside and watch.
Have you retained any of your Englishness?
Yes. My life is based around Arsenal Football Club.
And you moved to New York after that?
Yeah, in my teens. I was going to a school in upstate New York, I actually went there to play football, but it wasn’t going how I wanted it to, I wasn’t breaking into the first time. I stayed there for two, two-and-a-half years but once I realised it wasn’t happening I moved back to New York for a change of scenery. I was done with college and I ended up going to TISCH and I saw the senior show for photography. I was really inspired by that and I knew I had to be in that building, and I need to go to that school. And what’s funny is that the woman’s photography show I saw is now my wife.
It is. So anyway, I applied and I got in, and that fall after I’d transferred I met my two partners – Josh [Mond] and Antonio [Campos]. The three of us started making films together and we never stopped.
When did you know you wanted to be the guy behind the camera?
Well growing up I was very focused on photography and fiction writing, so I was interested in writing scripts but then thought maybe I’d be a cinematographer because my interest was in composition. And then I started to realise that you don’t need to be a cinematographer to create the image, because the director does that as well. So once I’d figured that out I started to work with actors and shot a few shorts with Antonio – he had been making films for a while so I was able to learn a lot from watching him.
Martha has a very distinctive look.
Yeah, we wanted to go for something very specific. We wanted something that was dark and dirty without being grimy. Just natural. But, like I wanted... when you walk around the farm... I wanted the film to feel like that; the farm is beautiful but it’s kinda broken down, it’s dusty. And you walk through the farmhouse and it’s really dark inside in the day but you can feel this bright white sunlight trying to pierce through. So it’s this whole contrast of dark and light. I wanted to carry that over into every shot, creating a consistent look, like a residue. Jody [Lee Lipes] came up with the idea of underexposing, so we got this great milkiness in the blacks. From there, in terms of the camera, we just used whatever was best to enhance the shot we were doing.
And it’s all shot on film?
Why not digital?
It’s not the same, and it wouldn’t have given us the look we wanted. It’s tough shooting on film because you have the added expense of buying the stock and processing it, but we’ve made four films together now – two digital and two film – and four shorts – three digital, one film – and we always just choose whichever format is best suited to whatever look we’re trying to achieve. We try not to let money be the thing that determines it. If we want to shoot film then we don’t compromise, but we may end up cutting other things. If it’s a cost issue, we don’t allow the cost to define what we do.
You set a budget?
You set a budget; usually we just ask what the littlest we can do this for is. You base it on what the script calls for. You have a gameplan and you try to raise as much as you can. The cast does it for scale and the crew, you know, some of the crew makes more in a day on other jobs than they do in two weeks on our jobs. It’s definitely a labour of love all round. We try to do our best to get the right team in, get the right cast in. It’s a very collaborative atmosphere and I try to encourage that as much as possible.
Is it the same casting director that worked on Afterschool?
Yeah, yeah. She does all our stuff.
So she found Elizabeth [Olsen] and Ezra [Miller]?
Yep. Susan Shopmaker is a genius.
Two amazing finds.
Yeah, and she’s great with the supporting cast as well. She handpicked Hugh [Dancy], John [Hawkes] and Sarah [Paulson]. She’s so on it.
Did you have anyone in mind for Martha when you were writing the screenplay?
No, not really. I knew I wanted her to be an unknown actor, but when you’re writing you always have someone fictional in mind.
When did Elizabeth walk into the room?
One of the last days of open casting, three weeks before we started filming. She hadn’t seen anything and she immediately did something that stood out. That first read I had no idea what she was doing, but it worked. Then after she told me she’d held her breath for the entire audition. So I guess that’s something. You could just see something behind her eyes that was very special. She’s a very vibrant, tuned in person. Nothing like Martha, she’s a very honest, open person. That was great to see because I could catch a glimpse of her from that very first meeting. Knowing that that personality is hidden away in this shell of what Martha is was really interesting to me. A lot of energy was created through that.
Where there any difficult moments during the shoot?
There were lots. Some I can’t share openly. Behind the scenes stuff, you know.
There are some tough scenes...
Yeah. You know the scene of the fight on the stairs at the end was really challenging, to figure out how to shoot it and... A lot of stuff we did in wider or single takes and this I wanted to be done in close up. I remember we shot Lizzie’s coverage first and Sarah off-screen was giving the most incredible performance, she gave everything and she wasn’t even on camera. And then after giving all that poor Sarah had to sit for an hour-and-a-half while we had to change the lighting and that was really hard to do. That was a really interesting lesson to me; watching an actor fully give themselves to a scene to help the film, and then having to be sensitive to that waiting period. It’s tough, very emotional, but we always found a way to have fun. We’re all so close, we worked really hard to build this environment of pure trust, you know, where everyone gives all of themselves. I don’t have any tricks, I just believe in open, direct communication.
What’s next for you?
New script. I’ve been writing all summer, in between doing press and stuff. I can’t write while I’m doing all this but there’s definitely experiences that I’ve had on the road that are finding their way in. Everything in life finds its way in. But yeah, I’m definitely excited to get started on this next thing, it’s going to be interesting figuring it out.