Interview: Sean Durkin

David Jenkins meets the director behind unnerving horror thriller 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

Since its premiere at Sundance last year, writers and critics have settled for the term ‘horror movie’ when describing 29-year-old American director Sean Durkin’s extraordinarily raw and mystifying debut feature, ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’. And he’s fine with that.

‘Last Halloween, I locked myself inside and watched horror movies all day,’ he proudly admits when we meet during last October’s London Film Festival. ‘I love the first hour of a horror movie, the fear and anticipation. Then, when it gets bloody, I lose interest. Did you see Ti West’s “The House of the Devil”? That, for me, is the best horror movie of the last 25, maybe 30 years. I watch it regularly. He’s a director who understands that the build-up is more important than the release.’

Yet, had Durkin’s film played in a horror film festival like FrightFest, punters might have been left perplexed by what they’d seen. Two delicately woven plot strands unravel the tale of Martha, a guarded and cowering twentysomething played by a mesmerising, perfectly cast Elizabeth Olsen. When we first meet her, she’s distressed and confused. She reappears suddenly after a period away from her family and finds refuge with her goody-goody sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who lives in splendid isolation with her dapper but priggish Brit husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). As details of Martha’s recent past are expertly drip fed to us by a constant switching of the timeline, we learn of the mess that Martha had gotten herself into and the disturbing reason for the film’s tongue-twisting title.

Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson play sisters in the acclaimed US indie Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson play sisters in the acclaimed US indie

‘I made this movie with the single notion of telling Martha’s story,’ explains Durkin. ‘There are elements of horror, as in any film where a person goes through a terrifying situation. But I wanted it to have a purposeful sense of openness. I make choices about what goes on screen and it’s all very specific and deliberate. Any reaction to the material is the right reaction.’

The period Martha was missing, it transpires, was spent with a cult in upstate New York’s Catskill region. But just as it’s hard to dub this a horror movie, so the term ‘cult’ doesn’t fit the bill. When researching his script, Durkin read about what he calls ‘the big ones’: Jonestown, the Mansons, the Moonies and a bit of David Koresh. But he realised he wanted to make something more experiential than political. The specific ideology and goals of the cult (led by a supremely chilling John Hawkes) remain vague.

Durkin drew on testimonies from those he met during his research. ‘Once I’d spent time with someone who’d been through Martha’s ordeal, that was all I needed,’ he recalls. ‘I also spoke to a couple who went to a group as outsiders and were there for two days before they realised something was up. They got out of there pretty quick. One was an actor who went for research and the other was hiking on a trail and just came across this remote house and decided to stay.’

It’s a film about the sensitive process of cult deprogramming, but ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ also tackles the difficulties of trying to prise a dark emotional secret from someone in your family. I ask if any of the film is based on experience. ‘I don’t like to talk about stuff like that,’ he laughs. ‘Yeah, sure. There was this Italian journalist I spoke to and she couldn’t understand why no one in the film talks. She said where she comes from, they all have it out and yell and scream. I guess you could say I tried to create an accurate portrayal of where I come from. When you write, no matter what, it ends up personal. Things make their way in.’

Sean Durkin on set during 'Martha Marcy May Marlene' Sean Durkin on set during 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'

One element of the film which seems to be born from experience is the strange inclusion of British actor Dancy. Initially, his outsider presence is a mite off-putting, though in retrospect, his unstinting Britishness makes him even more alien to Martha during her period of convalescence. ‘With Ted, that’s how it was written. I wanted to cast a Brit. I lived in London as a child so it’s part of my life that’s in there without thinking about it. It does create something additionally foreign for Martha.’

Durkin is part of an innovative New York company, fittingly named Borderline Films. From the way he describes it, the company operates like a co-operative and its members, who include ‘Afterschool’ director Antonio Campos and ‘Two Gates of Sleep’ producer Josh Mond, take turns to direct and produce each other’s films. Durkin’s latest project is as producer on Campos’s ‘Simon Killer’, which premieres at Sundance this month. The overriding credo of Borderline Films isn’t very specific, but it’s clear they know what type of films they want to make. ‘Basically, I don’t think we’re going to do any boxing robot movies,’ offers Durkin. ‘There are questions like “Who’s your audience?” that we were asked a lot when developing our scripts, and it’s a question we couldn’t answer and didn’t want to. It’s dangerous. There’s no formula. You can’t write something to please someone. In terms of what we create, it’s been very natural. It’s moving forward with what the director wants to do.’