Very few films resemble the structure of Martha Marcy May Marlene. The story follows a young girl, Martha (Elizaebth Olsen), both when she was a part of a cult and when she leaves it to try to relive a normal life. The psychological drama doesn’t give you the introduction of how Martha made it into the cult, which one would expect to take up the first act, and the film also ends on a scene that would’ve been the beginning of any other story’s third act. Martha Marcy May Marlene features subverted conventions, bare-boned exposition, and a whole lot of ambiguity.
However, writer/director Sean Durkin never approached his drama to deliberately “subvert conventions,” it just happened to turn out that way. Durkin confessed to never quite getting the lessons from screenwriting courses, and perhaps that was for the better. By avoiding expected screenwriting tropes, in his feature debut, Durkin made an anti-cliche cult film. There are no heroes. There is no third act bang. Plus, the moral compass of the film, Ted (Hugh Dancy), is almost as off-putting as the ambiguous cult leader, Patrick (John Hawkes). Clearly, not your regular “cult” film.
Here’s what Sean Durkin had to say about cracking the structure of Martha Marcy May Marlene, approaching the story with a fresh perspective, despising lazy flashbacks, and the mysterious ways of the warm and scary community leader, Patrick:
Are you hearing some interesting interpretations today [referring to the press day]?
Yeah, that’s interesting. This is my first film, so I don’t have anything to compare it to. It’s an interesting part of the process. I mean, I’m just so thankful the response has been so positive. I’m on a ride now [Laughs].
[Laughs] You say how you don’t have anything to compare it to, and that was kind of my reaction to the film, except for maybe one or two films. Were there any story templates you studied, or did you approach it in more of a “clean slate” kind of way?
There’s movies that sit with you, and movies you use in a way to be reminded of things. When you’re writing it’s just good to watch a movie, so you can be reminded if you’re overcomplicating things or to see how simple something can be. There were definitely films that were influential, like Rosemary’s Baby. But I never looked at films for, “Oh, I’m going to create this or create that.”
Structurally, you don’t go into what you would expect from the first act — how Martha got into the cult and her life before, etc. You also end the film on a scene that would usually lead to a whole third act.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’d be like another hour.
So, did you see that as subverting conventions, or did you never think of it that way?
No, I’m not aware enough of conventions, to be honest with you. I took screenwriting classes, and when they would breakdown the hero’s journey stuff, my head would spin. I just wouldn’t understand; I wouldn’t get it. Instead of trying to get it, I decided I was just not going to get it and do whatever feels right.
My writing process is not economical — it takes me a long time and I rewrite and throw out everything, although I’m sure most people do that. I never came from a point of wanting to break convention, but it strictly came from what felt right for this particular story, and I tried to maintain that. The structure thing — I hate flashbacks. I can’t think of any movie with flashbacks that I like, so I never thought of these as flashbacks. The structure really just came out of Martha’s perspective, so I wanted to create that confusion, and just follow that.
I think there’s a coldness to the film, not in a bad way, to really put you in Martha’s perspective, with how emotionally cutoff she is. Is that why the camera is kept at a distance?
[Pause] Well, in a sense, yes. I wanted the film to be about her journey. Specifically, I wanted to take you through it and go into her experience. You know, there’s a way to do that by always shooting the movie from over her shoulder, but I didn’t want that. It more came from not wanting that, so maybe that was a reaction that. Also, I didn’t want it to be entirely her. I wanted little bits of other people just to ground you a little bit. Maybe that was also giving us a little space to see someone else from the farm.
With the two stories, they’re both shot the same way. What was the intention behind that, instead of going for two different aesthetics?
That was a very conscious choice. First, the obvious choice is to make each location look different. I felt really strong that we needed to shoot the locations exactly the same. There needed to be times where we aren’t quite sure where we are or are questioning where we are, so we didn’t want any visual cues. If there’s any question [of where you are], it’ll take you a second to get your bearings.
In the present story, you surprisingly have Ted be the moral compass.
[Laughs] That’s awesome. I just had another interview where someone felt the opposite of that, but that’s kind of how I feel. Ted is coming from a place of saying the rational things, but he just may not say them in the warmest way. It’s funny you use him as a moral compass because I think people are turned off by his approach. But, yeah, I always felt that way about him.
When I’m in Europe, I feel like journalists want me to say I’m making a comparison of these two ways of living, as if they want me to say I believe in the communal way of living, and that I’m speaking out against capitalist society [Laughs]. If anything, I feel like Ted’s the one making sense.
There’s a scene between Ted and Martha where she tells him he can just pick up and go to Paris if he wants to, and it shows that she’s very naive and could easily be led into a cult. That’s about as far as the exposition goes, so did you approach all the exposition that way, by putting in little hints like that?
Absolutely, absolutely. I feel like nothing is more boring than just seeing two sisters sitting around a table talking about about their childhood, explaining what happened, and things like that. While writing I struggled in getting what I felt like was enough, but some people may not think it’s enough. It was just trying to find that balance and getting across personalities.
For instance, I struggled with how Patrick is going to win over Martha. We’ve just seen this horrible initiation scene, as we call it. How do you do that? How do we show him as charming, without writing it or explaining it? I found this song, which was the thing. He plays this song, and you’ll know everything about their relationship. He won’t have to say a word, you know? I was always trying to find moments like that, with telling a story in a less obvious way.
For Patrick, the one thing John Hawkes and I talked a lot about is how he’s just this cipher, and how he didn’t want to dig into his past. In the writing process, did you approach Patrick the same way?
Yeah, absolutely. I figured out the characters and their stories, but for Patrick, I didn’t find it very important. I don’t share any of that stuff with actors unless they ask me to, so I leave it open for them. For me, Patrick’s whole vibe was about living in the moment and living off of the land, but silently there’s a bigger plan and action. We always approached him as just being there, yeah.
We also discussed the question of whether his warmness is genuine or just manipulation. Do you have a take on that?
I don’t, actually. I’ve never thought of that.
I think when he tells Martha she’s his favorite he’s being honest.
Yeah, that’s cool. At that point, I never thought about if he was lying. She probably is his favorite, but does he say that to other girls, too? I don’t know. I always did kind of think of Martha as his favorite.
Why did you always see her as his favorite?
Because the movie’s named after her? [Laughs] Well, just because she is the center of the story. I don’t know, but it’s a good question. I wonder if he says that to all of that girls…
You could probably make ten other movies from all the other girls’ perspectives.
It’s funny you say that, because I thought about that [Laughs]. I wrote a lot of stories about each character, and I thought it would be cool to do a bunch of short films about each one of them.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is now in theaters.