Sundance hit picking up buzz

By Drew Hunt

After its premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is now prepping its theatrical run. Elizabeth Olsen stars as a young woman who flees an abusive cult, only to find hardship and increased paranoia as she adapts to a more stable life. The Chronicle sat down with Olsen and director Sean Durkin to discuss the aesthetics of the film, how they prepared for the shoot and the effects cults can leave on people.

The Chronicle: Sean, the film has a very distinctive visual style. What were your methods for shooting the film?

Sean Durkin: It started with a desire to have a look for the film that was worn. I always wanted it to be natural. So we came to the idea that the way we’d get that look would be by underexposing. But then there are little things, like we always wanted to be able to see through the windows to the outside or from the outside back into the house and just always have those

layers there.

The Chronicle: There’s a lot of ambiguity in this film, both in a narrative sense and a moral sense.

SD: I didn’t want anyone to be purely good or purely bad because that’s just not how life is. Everyone is doing the best they can and not knowing when they’re being harmful. One thing that was really important to me was the experience of the cult. The fallout of these sorts of manipulations and abuse is that—the people I talked to—it took years for them to recover. Some people don’t recover. Some people go missing, some commit suicide. They can never get back to their old life. I had to stay true to that.

The Chronicle: Did you research cults?

SD: I started to read about all different groups, past and present. There was one story I read about a girl who escaped a violent group and went to a bus stop. She was waiting for a bus and the leader tracked her down. Instead of threatening her or forcing her to come back, he lent her money and wished her well. Then she went missing. I was just like, “That’s it? Where did she go? What happened to her next?”

The Chronicle: What about the aspects of mental illness? Elizabeth, did you research anything?

Elizabeth Olsen: I think there’s a trap sometimes for people when they read or start to approach a character that is damaged, to start putting them into categories and to start diagnosing them. And she was someone who I didn’t want to do that with. I really wanted to do her justice.

The Chronicle: Your character doesn’t have much of a backstory. Was that tough for you as an actress?

EO: I never really think about stories beyond the framing of the way they’re told. There is this weird feeling in society today that if you don’t have a direct path, what are you good for? I feel like, for Martha, it’s one of those things where she got out of high school and didn’t find herself where she wanted and just became one of those people looking for a place to belong. It’s also important for the audience to be able to see what positive things the cult [in the film] can offer. This sense of community, this sense of everyone having a purpose; if you understand that those are positive things, you can understand why someone would be attracted to it.