Elizabeth “sister-of-the-twins” Olsen plays the titular character in intense drama Martha Marcy May Marlene that is released in cinemas today. Beginning with Martha fleeing an abusive New York State cult, the character finds refuge with her older sister (Sarah Paulson) and her fiancé (Hugh Dancy). However two years at the hands of the cult have left the young woman damaged and readjusting to normality proves a struggle as she becomes haunted by the dark memories of what she endured. Wonderland meet director Sean Durkin to find out what drew him to this material for his first feature film that bagged him the Best Director Award when it premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is the story of a young woman’s escape from a cult – how did you research about cults for this feature?
What drew me to it was that I was always terrified of mass conformity. I started reading about the more famous groups like Jonestown [an American cult headed by Jim Jones that colonised an area of Guyana and led it’s members in a mass suicide killing 918 people] and that gave me an understanding from an academic stand point of how these things work and noticing how similar the tactics are that leaders used and how they abused people without them realising it was abuse. Then I started to meet people who had been through it and I took their stories and what their recovery period was and decided to focus on [that aspect of cult life].
When people think of cults most would automatically think of something religious – this is something different.
I wanted to stay away from the religious stuff because it’s too much of a media indicator, so I wanted to focus on something smaller and more local. There are these kinds of things all over the place – a lot more than people would think.
In the film, the characters rationalise what they are doing whilst in the cult, be it robbery, rape, polygamy or even murder.
That was we the key thing. It was like building trust of people and they bring someone new in and they build this trust and a sisterhood and then something bad happens but that trust has been built to say “it’s ok”. That’s how they get them. It’s terrifying. I was most interested in the direct relationship with the women and Patrick [the cult leader in the film played by John Hawkes].
The film focuses on the relationships of the women, but do you have an idea of what the experiences of the other men in the cult would be?
Every [cult] I read about – there was always a right hand man, or a fall back man. The whole Max thing [another character, played by Christopher Abbott who serves as a character for Patrick to humiliate] it was always about putting down a man in front of the women to raise the leaders power. Or there is always a right hand man who is doing a lot of the dirty work – so those are the two characters that I included.
What was the most unsettling thing you discovered in your research?
There’s just endless stuff. There is stuff I didn’t even consider putting it into the movie because you just couldn’t believe it. You can’t believe that someone could go through that and stay. That’s the saddest thing – how manipulative they [the cult leaders] are.
Was this film difficult to make?
Any movie is difficult, but hard work and doing intense material is really rewarding and although it’s hard, it’s not in the ways that you might think. Doing the hard scenes were stressful but we also had fun. We were always laughing and keeping it light whenever we could and it was a great group of people living on the farm and hanging out and going to a motel at night and drinking together so it was nice and we had a good time.
Has winning a Best Director award for your first ever movie added pressure for when you make your next one?
Probably! I try not to think about that. But there is always pressure and there is always fear and I suppose pressure and fear are related. I have always been a believer that you just can’t stop to be afraid because if you do it will eat you up and you won’t be able to do anything.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is in cinemas now.
Interview: Seamus Duff