Sean Durkin Discusses 'Martha Marcy May Marlene's' Rare Journey Through Four Major Film Fests (Audio)

The film began its festival run at January's Sundance Film Festival, where Durkin was named best director, and will be released theatrically on October 21.
Elizabeth Olsen and Sean Durkin on the set of 'Martha Marcy May Marlene.'

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to chat by phone with Sean Durkin, the 29-year-old writer and director of the critically-acclaimed drama Martha Marcy May Marlene. The low-budget ("under $1 million") indie about a young girl (22-year-old (Elizabeth Olsen) who is drawn into and then flees from a cult was one of the big hits at January's Sundance Film Festival, where Durkin was named best director, and after which Fox Searchlight picked up its domestic distribution rights (for approximately $2 million). Now, just weeks before its October 21 release date, it has achieved a rare distinction: it is one of only a handful of films to have played at the Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, and New York film festivals. (The only others that I can identify are Ethan Coen and Joel Coen's Blood Simple [1984], Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise [1984], and Lee Daniels's Precious [2009].)

PHOTOS: Stars at Sundance

Over the course of my conversation with Durkin -- which you can hear for yourself by clicking below -- we discussed, among other things:

  • Borderline Films, the rather unique production company that he started several years ago with NYU classmates Antonio Campos and Josh Mond (both of whom served as producers on Martha), which has produced six films that have played at the Cannes Film Festival
  • The roots of his fascination with cults (and appreciation for why people can be susceptible to them, based on things that he observed as a student at an all-boys religious school)
  • The process and challenges, on Martha, of writing (he first had the idea for the script in 2006 and worked on it from the fall of 2007 through the summer of 2010), raising funds ("in a lot of ways that's the hardest part"), casting Olsen ("I wanted an unknown actress... we saw everybody in New York that we could see... [and] my casting directors brought her in"), shooting (in upstate New York, the farm scenes first and then boathouse scenes afterwards), and editing (with stylized jump-cuts)
  • Martha's ambiguous ending ("The film is Martha's journey through these first couple of weeks of trying to make sense of what's happened to her... if there are questions when the films, or, you know, confusion, or whatever, the goal is that those are the same questions that Martha has, you know? The film is supposed to take you into her state of mind and her experience, so I felt like the film had to end in that place.")
  • The experience of playing at so many important stops on the festival circuit (Sundance, where he won his award; Cannes, where the film's profile was raised further; Toronto, where it held its own with awards contenders; and now New York, the last stop before its big unveiling)