Capone sits down with MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE star Elizabeth Olsen and writer-director Sean Durkin!!!
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
If you had told me at the beginning of the year that one of the most nerve-wracking and powerful films of the year would star the Olsen twins younger sister and was directed by a first-time filmmaker, I might have believed the second half of that prediction. But as word from the premiere screening of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE at Sundance began to spread east, I started to become more and more curious. I saw the film for the first time a couple months ago, and it had me truly riveted. And by the second chance I had to see the film, I was marveling at the construction of the film, the way it is sometimes difficult to tell whether we're in the past or present, a dream or reality, in a version of a paranoid young woman's mind or whether the characters are in actual mortal danger.
MMMM stars Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, who has just escaped a cult that seems part co-op farm/part Manson family, and is reunited with her estranged sister, who is both her salvation and her nemesis. A product of subtle brainwashing by cult leader John Hawkes, Martha has a tough time making the transition back to a normal life, and Olsen is extraordinary at playing fragile, fractured, and slightly menacing.
Writer-director Sean Durkin has made a film that takes many directors several years and movies to get this right. MMMM has a great, dark atmosphere, and his pacing and growing sense of tension is palpable. I had a chance to sit down with Olsen and Durkin the day after we did a fantastic Q&A screening with the pair, and it's clear from Olsen is still getting used to the idea that there's a very good chance she could become famous just like her business-savvy siblings. Olsen spent many years in acting school and doing theater before beginning to audition for films, and the other movie she had at Sundance (a single-take horror film SILENT HOUSE) sounds really cool, and I can't wait to see it.
Since our conversation, Olsen has announced a slew of new films she's involved with, including RED LIGHTS, opposite Robert De Niro and Sigourney Weaver, LIBERAL ARTS, with Zac Efron, director Bruce Beresford's new film PEACE, LOVE, & UNDERSTANDING, and VERY GOOD GIRLS with Dakota Fanning and Dustin Hoffman. Please enjoy my conversation with Elizabeth Olsen and Sean Durkin…
Capone: A lot of films that broach the subject of cults usually focus on the evil deeds of the cult, and here you are kind of taking a look into getting into one and getting out of one. Why did you decide to go through that side-door approach?
SD: I studied the whole thing, so it really just started with a very general idea, and then as I found different things interesting and just focused. Ultimately, the psychology and state of mind of where this woman would be when she left and then how she communicates with people, her paranoia, this struggle with identity, those were all things that became the most interesting to me, so that’s where I decided to focus it. I also wanted the stuff at the farm to be subtle and I didn’t want it to be entirely about the process. I just wanted to get a feel of what that experience is like, so it became a really good balance.
Capone: And you kind of hold back a little in letting us know that this group is even dangerous at al to the outside world. We certainly get a sense that they're dangerous to the women to a certain degree. It almost looks like a nice little family on a farm, a commune.
SD: It had too, because the film takes you inside Martha’s world, so you have to understand why she would be drawn to it. And I feel like, from what I understand, those things always look that way. The people there love being there. It’s offering something new and different, and I feel like we had to show that and also I wanted to, even with the small characters, not make them one way and then be able to dismiss them and say, “Well they're just that way.” I just wanted to see a more well-rounded side of everybody, two sides of everybody.
Capone: Martha is one of the most sort of fully realized characters I’ve seen in a movie in a very long time.
SD: Thank you very much.
Capone: Both because of the writing and because of what [Elizabeth is] doing with her, but can you just sort of talk about creating her between the two of you? You said all of the actors kind of fell into place, because they loved the script so much. What did you love about Martha specifically? Were you scared to play her?
Elizabeth Olsen: I really wasn't. When I first read it, when it came to Martha, it was something that I thought I could do; it was weird. It was the first time I read a role, and I imagined myself as the character in my head, because you know you create your own little character when you are reading novels or scripts, and I usually create someone outside of myself going through it, as if that’s the what the writer intended. But with this film, I felt very connected to the character and I thought that I totally got it.
SD: I felt that way, too. [Laughs]
EO: That doesn’t happen to me often, so that was really cool, but I initially responded to the structure. I really love playing with narrative in storytelling and I really love nonlinear stories, and Sean said that he kind of prefers linear stories, but I don’t. I love it when people play with time, so it was really fun to read the script. It was really fun to try and figure out things as they go, and he would only place hints along the way. It was like this fun mystery to read just to read it, so I immediately responded to the way he wrote it and then to the character, just because there are so many women that I want to play in theater and plays that I love, but they're very complicated women; women I have to wait decades to play, and it’s the first time I read a character that I was age appropriate for that could struggle with so many things at the same time in one movie, and that was really, really thrilling to me.
SD: And just to add to that, she said she got it, and I felt that she got it, and there was something there that wasn’t happening with anybody else we were reading for the role. That was one of the first things I noticed.
Capone: Was the way you envisioned it as you were reading it more or less what we're seeing on screen, or were there a lot of changes on the way?
EO: I think it was. I mean, there are certain images that I remember vividly creating when I was reading it, and one of them was just looking out the windows and seeing darkness in the lake house--that was one of the things that he wrote that was probably the most impactful to me, because I thought that was so frightening. How many times are you inside a house, and you look outside and anything could be out there? That was the one image that stuck with me from reading the script, which I have never really talked about before.
Capone: You said last night that you had to audition for this. What do you both remember about that audition?
EO: Well, I wore no makeup first off, and I came with the bare minimum of colors--a non-distracting outfit. [laughs]
Capone: What color was your hair when you auditioned?
EO: It was the color that it is the film. This, I have never done this before. [Her hair is a stylishly-cut, vibrant blonde, very different than the flat brown she's sporting in the film.]
Capone: I was going to ask, what is it usually?
EO: It’s usually that. That’s my natural hair color.
EO: But then I got all of these parts one after the other, and now I don’t have a part lined up right now, and I’m just going back to school, so I’m like, “I’m going to dye my hair.” I remember the callback really well, because I was driving in from upstate New York, and my dad was visiting at that point, and we were stuck in so much traffic and I was freaking out. I had to change in the backseat and I told my dad and the guy who was driving us to not look because I had to change. [To Sean] I don’t know if I ever told you, but I was trying to do the audition in my head in the car, because I don’t like acting in front of other people, it’s weird.
SD: “I don’t like acting in front of people…”?
EO: Obviously, I give someone else sides and be like, “Can you read with me?” But I remember the scene was the one in the diner. We did that scene. I remember I made the choice to hold my breath the whole time. That was something we talked about later when we were filming, actually.
SD: I actually remember that. There were a lot of little choices going on when she was in the scenes, a lot in her head, but it shows I’m working hard, and I could just identify a depth and an ease to the performance. Your fear with making a film like this is you are going to have a young actress who has never been a lead in a movie and you're going to have to work to pull a performance out of her, and that’s not how it was at all. There was no work for me to pull anything out; it was all there, and then it was just about us talking and molding. The best thing I remember about the audition is that after the audition, I went into the waiting room to say goodbye, and she’s got--how many?--like three suitcases, big suitcases…
EO: I was moving out of my apartment that day.
SD: And she was moving upstate, and so I go out there and she starts putting all of this stuff on, and then I’m expecting some guy to be waiting and I’m like, “Do you need help with that?” She’s like ,“No, I’ve got it.” She just walks off, and I thought that was pretty awesome.
Capone: We were talking before about the nonlinear structure, and it clearly adds so much to the way this story is told and how you pace your reveals. Can you just talk about why you chose to do that? I don’t think if you had done this in a more linear fashion, it would have worked nearly as well.
SD: I felt like it was the only way to do it, because it all came down to her state of mind. A friend of mine told me that when she escaped from this group that she was in that she didn’t remember anything from the first three weeks except for the fact that she thought she saw him everywhere, meaning the cult leader…
EO: You are smiling! He always thinks he’s going to forget this part… But I could answer his questions for him. [laughs]
SD: We were just talking about this story last night, that's why I'm laughing.
EO: It’s not a funny situation though, at all.
SD: It’s not, it’s horrible. So, she was paranoid and she saw him everywhere and she just lied to everybody about where she had been.
Capone: I actually wondered about why Martha lied to her family about that.
SD: Yeah, this is what I have heard. This woman described this state to me where she was paranoid, she was lying; it’s like a basic survival mode. Because I've never been in a cult, I found ways to relate it to things that people I did know who struggled with drug addiction or alcohol or had been involved in domestic abuse situations, and those people always lie, because they're lying to themselves about what’s happening. Therefore, they lie to other people, so I was able to tap into the emotion of that, and that helped me comprehend this more extreme situation that I wasn't present to.
So that made it easier, when I talked to people about their experiences, I was able to make the correlation and really tap into the emotion. I imagined this state where she's paranoid and doesn’t remember anything from that time aside from those two things. It’s this very instinctual, defensive state, and I felt like it had to be confusing. The other thing is, I had never thought of this as flashbacks--obviously, it’s nonlinear--but the way I approached it I never thought of it as being nonlinear, because Martha is in a state of mind where she's experiencing it all at the same time.
The early cult philosophy part of it was in a speech that didn’t make the final movie--we never shot it--but it was very much about living on a farm, living away from society and outside contact, because there were no calendars or clocks with these groups, so you take away time. There’s a little bit of Buddhism in the philosophy of Patrick [John Hawkes], so it became very much like there’s no past, there’s no future, there’s only the present. There’s no time. There’s only now. So everything happens in the now. That was something that he believed, so those two things became the basis for her point of view, which dictated how I felt the time and the experience had to be.
Capone: I noticed it more the second time watching the film, but you focus on this idea of sisterhood--both with Martha's real sister and the women she is friends with in the cult, and how the women are just as manipulative as the men. The idea that her sister, within 24 hours of finding her after two years on being missing, is already saying things like “What’s wrong with you? That’s not normal.” She does not understand how fragile this girl is even a little bit.
SD: It was really important to make everybody two sided and just make them more complex, so if you look at probably the most loving and affectionate good hearted scene in the film, it’s probably when Zoe comforts Martha before the rape scene. At that moment, Zoe just really believes that and so she's being full heartedly loving and supportive without even knowing that she’s manipulating her, because that’s the kinds of things that happen.
Then Lucy [the sister] is always operating with the best intentions and trying to be loving I think, but doesn’t know how to be warm and thinks that being warm is like, “Here’s your tea. Here’s your juice. Talk to me. Tell me.” It doesn’t work that way. I thought it was an interesting way to have somebody surrounded by people who are doing both good and bad without ever knowing it, in terms of the women and the sister relationship. It was all about the women.
Capone: Elizabeth, was it important for you to differentiate your way of getting into acting versus the way your sisters had done before you?
EO: Well because it started when I was eight, there was no rhyme or reason to things I think. I started to become more aware that if I were to start working professionally what that would entail with the public when I was like 15. So I started to think, “Do I really want to be an actor? And if I do, then I want to do everything based on my own merit,” and I probably overcompensated at times. So starting when I was eight, I would always do musical theater, I did ballet, I had singing lessons, I had acting lessons, and I auditioned like four times when I was 10, and then I wanted to continue doing ballet, because I couldn’t if I was auditioning. So I decided to just wait, and then for going to college, I wanted to go to a conservatory. I had a great acting teacher in high school. I did my first acting conservatory when I was in high school in New York at Strasburg, which was [whispers] not so great.
EO: I’m okay to say that too; I don't care. And then I did Meisner conservatory when I graduated high school and then I went to college. I did the Atlantic Theater Company there, and they really were the ones who had me start auditioning for understudy parts when I was a sophomore in college. So I started working because of them and I met my agent because of them, and then I went to Russia for training, and then when I came back I just started auditioning. That was last January.
I never made these decisions to start or to stop; it all just kind of happened, because of my school and the people who were supporting me and helping me, and then this was one of the auditions within the first six or seven months, and it was never really a logical thing. I knew that I was frightened of doing films, because I knew that I would have to deal with people asking questions, but then I also waited until I felt old enough.
Capone: People, as in who?
EO: People, as in the general media.
Capone: Oh, like this. Okay.
EO: [laughs] Right, but I knew that was something I would have to deal with at some point, because it is fascinating. People grew up with my sisters, and my sisters grew up in the public eye, so it’s this weird thing I guess. And I knew that if I put myself out there at an age where I didn’t feel like I was super sensitive about those things--I felt more confident as an individual--that it would be better. So right now, I love talking about my family; we all have a great relationship. So it wasn’t a conscious decision, however, I do know that I did not want to try to do that when I was in high school, because I felt like I was too unstable or something. [Laughs] Not unstable as in a bad way, but it’s easier to be influenced be other people’s opinions when…like two years ago I could be more influenced by others than I am now.
Capone: Did you need that level of "togetherness" to even play a part like this?
EO: Maybe. Yeah.
SD: I definitely do.
EO: It didn’t bleed into my life at all.
Capone: At a younger age, it might have.
EO: It totally could have. We've talked about that.
SD: That was one of the things, Martha is such an unstable character, and Lizzie is so stable and smart and head strong and all of these things. I felt like not only could she wrap her head around it and then operate in this very instinctual way to play the part. But I also felt like there’s this really strong person, and if we put her inside this very fragile person, I think that will come out in ways, and I think it does in the film. You get a sense that there is something else inside, or this person could have been something else or could be something else.
Capone: Alright. Thank you so much guys. It was great to meet you.
EO: Thank you so much, and thank your for last night, too.
SD: Thanks again.
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Oct. 17, 2011, 10:27 a.m. CST
Oct. 17, 2011, 10:27 a.m. CST
Oct. 17, 2011, 12:23 p.m. CST
Interested in seeing this, is it being released this Friday?
Oct. 17, 2011, 1:02 p.m. CST
Capone, you perv.
Oct. 18, 2011, 2:20 a.m. CST
In most major markets, yes it opens Friday.
Oct. 18, 2011, 10:29 a.m. CST
Good to see the name of the clan is finally in good hands.
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