On the morning of Aug. 23, actress Elizabeth Olsen and writer/director of the new film “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Sean Durkin, awoke in Philadelphia, not knowing that their day of press interviews was going to be interrupted by the first earthquake to hit our city in years.
“Earthquakes don’t happen on this part of the country!” Olsen noted, in a bit of post-earthquake shock. The younger sister of famous twins Mary Kate and Ashley, Elizabeth, also known as “Lizzie,” grew up in The San Fernando Valley, where these tremors are a more regular occurrence. “I mean [earthquakes are] like my biggest fear. I slept in my sisters’ room for two years after the ’94 earthquake in Los Angeles.”
Even the much more reserved Durkin seemed spooked. He’s a New York University graduate who founded his own production company with three friends upon graduating. With this movie, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Durkin and Borderline Films are making their debut feature-length (as is their star, Olsen). Before any questions were asked, he commented how he was not sure whether or not the room was still shaking. “If you guys can’t tell, I’m a paranoid person. You saw the movie.” Sean’s comment sent Olsen into hysterical laughter before she added, “Me too!”
This ominous note made for a not-so-awkward transition to their new film. A movie more unsettling than that day’s events, “Martha” is about a young woman who flees an abusive cult but can’t shake her painful memories. However, you won’t catch the filmmaker calling the “family” at the center of his movie a “cult.” He began, “I think ‘cult’ is a narrow word and has a lot of connotations that … come with a lot of judgment. Not that this group shouldn’t be judged, obviously … Just that it’s too narrow and … we wanted to stay away from stereotypes and create something that was real and specific.”
The movie’s story is told partly in a linear way, showing what happens to its lead character, Martha (Olsen), after she escapes the cult and moves in with her estranged sister (Sarah Paulson) and the sister’s husband (Hugh Dancy). This linear storyline is intercut with flashbacks that take Martha back to her time with her previous “family,” a group of young men and women that live together on a farm run by the very creepy Patrick (John Hawkes). It was a script that Olsen, who previously had no real screen credits, jumped at the opportunity to take part in.
“There are two different things I reacted to, the first being I really loved the nonlinear narrative. … I loved the way the story was told … and then, I really just loved Martha, and I thought I understood her and I had a lot of compassion for her. … It was just a role you don’t get to read when you read scripts, especially where I was because I was completely an unknown.”
The film’s loose structure and refusal to dispense information quickly about the enigmatic Martha character were carefully calculated decisions by Durkin. The writer/director’s research for the project brought him to interview someone who had escaped a violent group. He said, “She didn’t remember anything from that time … except two things: She lied to everybody about where she’d been, and she remembered she was paranoid that she saw him everywhere.” It was this element of paranoia and that state of confusion that led Durkin to try and replicate the feeling for the film.
“[It] became the center of everything. So, the structure, the way it’s shot, the way you don’t know what space we’re in at times … it’s all made to enhance that central idea of creating Martha’s experience.”
A nonlinear timeline means that the characters’ headspace may be completely different from one scene to the next, which provided a challenge for Lizzie, the only actress whose character jumps back and forth during the film. She noted that not knowing what was going to happen when first reading the script was what allowed her to enjoy feeling like an audience member, and when it came time to shoot the movie, the young actress was committed to being well prepared.
She explained, “The first thing I did when I found out I got the job was I just, like, drew actual timelines, and I drew two different arcs, and I just had to structure it as specific as possible for myself so that I had a guide. … I always had the scenes we were doing and a piece of paper on top the night before, and I would write everything that affects that scene.”
The performance that Olsen delivers is completely captivating, mysterious and powerful. So much lingers just beneath the surface of this movie, and it’s demonstrated through the restraint adopted by the film’s lead performers, who are all doing some strong work. With a talented cast all performing at high levels, it makes Durkin’s job a lot easier.
“My biggest concern would be that, before I had Lizzie, that the actress that played Martha … would have to work really hard to discover this character and translate it to film,” Durkin said. “It ended up being totally hands-off. She came prepared. We didn’t do a lot of prep, and she just approached it with a lot of ease.”
The Olsen/Durkin pairing seems like a natural and effective partnership. Although both are relative novices to the film industry, they carry themselves like seasoned veterans and consummate professionals. It’s clear that both the actress and the filmmaker are fresh voices working at a very high level, and their combined skill is truly on display in Fox Searchlight’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” The film has already opened in New York and Los Angeles, where its $34,413/per theater gross was more than double what “Paranormal Activity 3” earned last weekend. The movie is now expanding and is making its debut here in Philadelphia Oct. 28 at the Ritz Five. A completely chilling and engrossing thriller, this movie is a must-watch and one of the best of 2011.