Sean Durkin on ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

The director of the Sundance hit talks about cultists, the festival circuit and that weird, weird name.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Early Sunday morning during a film festival may not be the best time to do an interview, but part of festival adrenaline is we do the best we can anyway. The Toronto International Film Festival was a late stop for Sean Durkin, director of the Sundance hit Martha Marcy May Marlene. With careful thought and a few extra follow-up questions, Durkin discussed the cult drama which opens this month.


CraveOnline: Have you been amused by people’s mishaps with the title?

Sean Durkin: It’s a tough title, I understand. I just felt it was the only title for the movie. Yeah, I feel like people tend to get it after they see the movie and start to remember it after. That was really cool to see happen at Sundance because before that we didn’t know how anyone was going to respond to it.


You just have to get the order right.

Totally. What also helps is knowing it’s three names, not four. That Marcy May is one name. I feel that always helps as well.


What was the biggest filmmaking challenge of your first feature?

You have a script and you have a schedule and they’re not necessarily realistic, so you have to make choices about what’s important and what’s not along the way. I think that’s a really good part of the process, to really evaluate yourself. When you’re writing, you think it’s all really important. Then when you start to shoot, it’s like okay, well, you don’t actually have time to do all that. Then you look at the script and you’re like oh, actually I didn’t need that. I’m going to cut that scene.


What’s your writing process? Are you a 9 to 5 guy?

Yes, very much so, like 6 to 2. Those are my best hours, in the morning. Then afternoons, other work.


What does it feel like to hear actors say your lines?

That’s my favorite part. That’s my favorite part of the process is when everything’s settled, everything’s set up and it’s just the actors behind the camera. That’s the best part because when it’s on the page, it’s just a blueprint and then you hire these people and they bring it to life.


Where did your interest in cults come from?

I don’t know. It didn’t really come from anywhere specific. I just thought, at first I was like I’ve never seen this before and done in a way that was modern day and naturalistic. I started with that and then once I started reading about people and meeting people, then I started to get really passionate about it.


What’s the creepiest aspect of cult mentality?



But if it were everything, no one would get involved. There must be some appealing aspects, but a healthy person would recognize the unhealthy ones.

Exactly, yeah. Even healthy people don’t recognize it.


The dinner table fight between Martha and Ted spoke to me. She’s a misguided idealist and he’s insecure and threatened by her suggestions. How did you see it?

Just that. I never tried to place any ideas or set up anything. It just kind of came from a place of what are his values, what are her values? When someone stays with you and they’re not your guest, even when they are your guest they get on your nerves. When people visit for long periods of time, that just happens. So I just imagined the tensions rising and what would bother her about him. It would probably bother him that no one’s talking about anything and he’s a direct person so wanted to challenge her. It just grew out of that.


He doesn’t have the confidence to know it’s his choice, not something he has to defend.



Is it rewarding that a single scene takes people into more thought?


Oh, definitely. That’s amazing. My feeling about the whole movie in general is that wherever it leads people or whatever their interpretation is, whatever it means to them is great. Whatever your experience is with the movie, that’s okay. I was very careful about what to include and what not to include. After that, however people take it is cool.


How do the different festivals you’ve been to with the film compare to each other?

Sean Durkin: It was Sundance and then Cannes and Toronto. They’re all wonderful festivals. They’re all different. This is my first time here and I haven’t done much except interviews. The screening’s this afternoon so I think I’ll get a better sense of the festival then. But Sundance and Cannes are so different from each other. They all have their plusses.


As a filmmaker, is this the dream?

Of course, it’s ridiculous.


What do you want to do next?

I’m writing something now. I’m working on a specific script right now which isn’t quite ready to talk about but I have lots of interests. I’m open to working with other writers as well. I’m interested in adapting books and all sorts of things.