Bearded, soft-spoken Sean Durkin sits in the hotel conference room, thoughtful and introspective as one might expect from the freakishly young writer-director of a film as harrowing as Martha Marcy May Marlene, an astonishing debut and one of this year’s very best pictures. His muse, lead actress Elizabeth Olsen (born into a family with those formerly ubiquitous twins) is gregarious and adorable, trying on publicity duties for the very first time and beguilingly unsure of herself on her maiden voyage toward inevitable superstardom.
The two sat down with PW to talk about character preparation and camera geek stuff, because that’s how we roll here.
PW: First off, congratulations on the movie. I actually had to go walk around and not talk to anybody for a little while after it was over, because I was so upset.
Sean Durkin: Thanks.
Elizabeth Olsen: That is so cool!
PW: What I keep coming back to is the formal control. Most filmmakers today are content to use the camera as a hand-held recording device, but you really took the time to execute long, exactingly composed takes and develop tension within the frame.
SD: I’m definitely influenced by more formal filmmakers and photographers, and the image is really important to me. And by image I mean not just the picture … everything, including performance, space, the design … everything you see. So there is a lot of planning. When I’m writing, I’ll print out the script and make a little storyboard on the side. But I also like to have some flexibility. My D.P. [cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes] and I have a long relationship and a real understanding of each other at this point. So there’s a lot of planning but there’s also a lot of building. It’s not always logical. But you’re always building on that initial planning. We’d work out the scenes and then reframe the shots. You need that little bit of freedom to find the acting and the blocking to best set up the scene, then adjust your shots according to that.
PW: I don’t know if you’ve ever Googled yourself, Elizabeth, but I’d advise against it. There’s some creepy shit out there on YouTube. Growing up with the opportunity to turn up in something like New York Minute with your sisters, how did you decide to make a movie like this as your big debut instead?
EO: That’s so weird. And you know, those videos are all probably pictures I have never seen before of my childhood. It’s so funny, because on IMDB it says I did some of my sisters’ straight-to-video movies, but that was really after-school care for me. I just went and we hung out on set. It was never even a conscious choice to start working now. I went to college and things happened. This film was a gift. It wasn’t like, “I choose him!” Sean took a chance on me.
PW: Sean, every other first-time writer-director your age seems to be making a film about his own recent relationship problems. Thank you for not doing that, and where did you land on this story?
SD: I just wanted to do a cult movie. I felt like I’d never seen one that’s modern and naturalistic. So then you start researching, and I became really interested in how you can look at pictures of women before and after—how the life has been sucked out of them.
PW: Thinking back on it afterward, it’s remarkable how little actual biographical information we get about these characters. Yet we feel like we know them so well.
SD: There was more in the script.
EO: Which was enough for me, in my mind.
SD: I like to over-write, and then take away. So the first thing we’ll do when we set a scene is decide what we don’t have to say, and really try to get the lines down to a minimum. There was a balance of giving some pieces of information, so you’re not asking the wrong questions. It was a delicate balance. I don’t remember how much we talked about backstory on the set.
EO: We didn’t. The only backstory we talked about was between Lucy, Sarah Paulson’s character, and me. Because in order for us to figure out nuances and where the backhanded comments come from … we had to fully create that relationship. But the rest was already written in.
SD: (Laughing) I prepared full backstories on every character from birth. But I don’t share them with the actors unless they ask. I leave it open for them to tell me how much they want to know.
PW: This movie made me terrified of windows. Was that a deliberate visual motif?
SD: People always ask about the windows, it’s funny.