Sometimes fate works in odd ways. Midway through our interview with the star and director of the excellent psychological drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, the East Coast suffered a significant earthquake. Actress Elizabeth Olsen, a native of California, immediately declared the peculiar rumbling and vibration in our hotel conference suite to be an earthquake; director Sean Durkin and I begged to differ, citing the rarity of such an occurrence in this part of the country. Eventually, we all sat back down and got to finish the interview, whereupon the PR rep handling the media day sauntered into the room and announced that DC had been hit hard by an earthquake. To Olsen's considerable credit, she never said 'I told you so.' The film they were in town to discuss is at once a peculiarly opaque drama between two sisters with a bad history spending time together, and an unsettling thriller concerning the upstate New York cult the titular character (played by Olsen) has just escaped. The film, understated as it may be, nevertheless reverberates not unlike the natural disturbance the three of us experienced together.
The movie works pretty hard not to immediately condemn the community cult experience. Was that by design?
Sean Durkin: The film is supposed to be creating Martha's experience for the audience and if you can get there in the first couple of scenes and you can see it's all bad, then you're not going to understand why she falls in love the way she does.
At this point, the building starts to tremor slightly, as if an enormous truck drove to close to its foundation. Durkin and I remain in our seats, totally unaware of what just happened. Olsen looks alarmed and starts to rise out of her chair.
Elizabeth Olsen: Does Philadelphia have earthquakes? We're shaking. I hate earthquakes, I'm from L.A. My heart's racing. I get freaked out by this.
Maybe it's just something in this building, no one outside the building is doing anything.
EO: Now I can't tell if I'm shaking, or the building is shaking. I'm sorry. Is it done? I was raised in the '94 earthquake in L.A. I was five and that scarred me.
SD: I've never been in an earthquake.
EO: That's kind of what it feels like, but it starts, and then it gets bigger. And then things start falling.
[all laugh nervously]
SD: Okay, sorry, where were we?
We were talking about the film's attitude toward the cult…
SD: Oh, yeah. So, I felt really strongly that you can't for Martha's sake, you can't just show evil, you have to show what it was that drew her to it. On another level, I didn't want to disregard any characters right off the bat by judging them. Their actions speak for themselves.
EO: Sorry, I'm still just freaking out! [laughs]
So, the cult leader, Patrick, doesn't yell. He might get physical but he doesn't scare you by intimidation.
SD: Well, I just think that's much scarier. People who are physical bullies are not as scary as people with that much mental strength to control people. All the most dangerous cult leaders weren't physically violent; it was their control over other people. It also relates to how I feel about violence in films anyway. I don't like to see much of it. I like to be about the fallout of the violence, as opposed to actual violence itself. I like horror movies but I only like a very few of them: The Shining, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist -- things that scare you in different ways. An atmosphere of fear. It all comes out of that.
Okay, Elizabeth, there are many different things from an acting standpoint that make this character difficult. She appears out of nowhere. She has a little bit of backstory, as it relates to the cult, and some obvious friction with her sister. You're working from such a blank slate, from what did you build your performance?
EO: I think the root of everything was in the script. Where she came from, who she was with before she got there. I think the first thing I tried to root her character in was what she was seeking from the beginning. What is it that she needs and what is it that she finds and what does it mean to her when she loses it and she's back with her sister. It's a constant balance of what she's losing and what she's gaining at the same time. So everything was rooted in something that she needs from the very beginning that she's still trying to find and I just had to define that for me and make choices scene-by-scene. All these different things you're trying to balance.
SD: And then in relation to that I like to write the script with a little more info, knowing that I'm going to cut it.
EO: Every single character had fully drawn out stories that we all fully understood it just from reading the script.
By the end, it seems like she's holding onto a lot of pertinent information that would probably be good for her sister and brother-in-law to know. She's also not gotten anything that she's wanted, so where do you see the character's arc in the film?
EO: For me, the place that she ends up receiving something she was seeking ended up being the most damaging. She loses something that made her feel important, and she doesn't receive it from her family. So at the end of the film, you're worried for her, I think, because of how the movie ends. It's supposed to just end where she is after two or three weeks, outside of a cult, but people take five years before they will even talk about it. It's not a quick fix.
SD: It's also not being able to understand it.
EO: Exactly. It's not like 'I was in a cult, and they abused me.'
SD: People create scenarios where they're not being honest with themselves, and able to say what has happened to them. That's the bottom line: She's suffered abuse and when you suffer abuse, you can't identify it.
There's a scene near the end of the film, where the sister is having a party, and Martha is freaking out and starts finally to tell her sister some of what happened to her, but she's still so painfully restricted about it. She can't touch more than the tip of the iceberg.
EO: I think the only thing she can get out is to make everyone leave. Everyone is in danger. The ultimate survival protector mode, and of course to her sister it just comes off like she's talking in riddles, and so she has her pops some pills just to calm her down.
Can we talk about the segues in the film? The film keeps cutting back and forth from the cult to her sister's house, but in such a way that the two scenarios kind of blend together. It seems as if you can interpret that two ways: Either they are actually connected, or Martha simply can't differentiate between the two of them anymore.
SD: I never intended it to draw social comparisons about the way of living, in any kind of overt way. They just naturally came about as I was writing. You know, 'oh, there doing dishes there, they're doing dishes at home' that kind of thing. But it was mostly intended to just create the seamlessness and confusion of Martha. One of the original speeches, the philosophy of the cult -- which doesn’t actually make it into the film -- was the idea is that there's no focus on time. No clocks or calendars, which is a common tactic for these groups. It would be the basic Buddhist idea that there's no future, no past, and that everything occurs in the present. So that when Martha leaves in that state of mind, there are no flashbacks. In her mind it's all happening in the present.