Street sat down with Martha Marcy May Marlene director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen. Turns out, Lizzie isn’t just Mary–Kate and Ashley’s little sister anymore.
August 23: The building shakes. Earthquake!!! Once the room settles and nerves calm, I sit across from Elizabeth Olsen and director Sean Durkin in a Sofitel Hotel conference room. Both are a bit shaken.
Elizabeth Olsen: If I start to feel things shake I want to go down the stairs and out into the park.
Sean Durkin: I can’t tell if we are shaking again.
EO: No, you’re shaking.
SD: If you can’t tell I’m a paranoid person; you saw the movie.
After nerves calm, the interview begins.
Street: You never use the word ‘cult’ in the film. Why not, and do you think is a similarity between cults and families?
SD: I think cult is a narrow word and has a lot of connotations that come with a lot of judgment. Not that this group shouldn’t be judged, obviously, but just that it’s too narrow. We wanted to stay away from stereotypes and create something we felt was real and specific. So I based it on lots of different groups and always tried to make everything reference something that I talked to somebody about.
The comparisons between Martha’s family and the cult are obviously there, but they were never overt. They grew naturally out of character. This is one sister; this is what happened to her; this is where she ended up. This is another sister; this is what happened to her; this is where she ended up.
Street: Can you discuss the visual style of the film?
SD: Every choice was centered around creating and enhancing Martha’s psychology. I interviewed someone and she described her first three weeks after escaping from a violent group. She didn’t remember anything from that time except two things: she lied to everybody about where she had been, and she was paranoid that she saw him everywhere. That state of confusion and that basic survival mode became the center of everything. The structure, the way it’s shot, the way you don’t know what space you’re in, the way we transition — it’s all made to enhance that central idea of creating Martha’s experience.
Street: Lizzie, what drew you to the script?
EO: There are two different things that I reacted to. The first being I really loved the non–linear narrative. Reading it was really exciting and thrilling to me, and compelled me to keep reading, because you had to. And it was interesting that I got to be an audience member when I was reading it. I loved the way the story was told. And I really do love stories told playing with time. I really love Caryl Churchill as a playwright. I just find that really fun to watch and navigate.
And then I really just loved Martha and felt that I understood her and I had a lot of compassion for her. It was just a role that you don’t get to read, especially where I was as an unknown. I couldn’t really read lots of good scripts. And this script, because they wanted to find an unknown, I got to read it. That was thrilling.
Street: What convinced you that Lizzie was the right choice for Martha?
SD: I just had a feeling that she was. We saw a lot of people and I knew she was the best. Her read was the best. I thought that she was a very vibrant person — she’s the complete opposite of Martha. And I thought if we had that underneath Martha’s hard shell that would come through some way in her eyes. I think she has a depth and intelligence working underneath this calm person.
Street: Given the vulnerability of the role, was filming it uncomfortable?
EO: I don’t have a problem with nudity when it tells a story or nudity when it just happens because people are in bed together. Yes it’s something you get nervous about beforehand, but there are so many actresses that I respect that have been nude in films multiple times, but nobody thinks of them as nude actresses. They don’t think of them as women who flaunt their goods, because they are telling a very specific story. In America we have the highest pornographic industry, but we have the hardest time being able to watch nudity on film. I don’t have anything wrong with the human body. The whole point was not to highlight it, but to not hide it. I truly believe that without it it wouldn’t have been as impactful of a story.
Street: The film was atemporal and obviously shot out of order. How did you keep track of the character throughout filming?
EO: This is only my second film. I’m used to theater, which is all chronological. So already, filming things out of order was and still is something I don’t really understand. How do they know that they are going to be there if they haven’t even discovered what happened here? The first thing I did when I found out I got the job was draw actual timelines. And I drew two different arcs and had to structure it as specific as possible for myself. Just so I had a guide. The night before I would write out everything that affects the scene [we were shooting the next day].
Street: What emotions did you draw upon for the part?
EO: I feel like a lot of people don’t understand this not having a voice and not being able to talk about where you come from, like what happened to you. For me, when you don’t actually know what happened to you, it’s actually a really embarrassing and humiliating thing. You don’t know if what you’re seeing could be real or not. That’s kind of like admitting something weak. You have the fear, but then the aftermath of the fear becomes more personal and private and you keep all that inside you and you put on a front for other people. That was kind of what I drew upon when it came to why she hid things when she did.
Street: Did you always plan to tell the story nonlinearly?
SD: I don’t usually like nonlinear movies. This is just because it needed to be told this way, just creating the perspective and psychology. Being lost with Martha is at the center of everything. But I never thought of these as flashbacks, and I never really thought of this as nonlinear. That’s why we made it so fluid. For Martha it is all one experience. Yes, technically it’s a flashback in time, but it’s all blended together for one cohesive experience.
Street: Can you talk about the editing process in terms of how much information to include or exclude?
SD: We shot lots of stuff that didn’t make the final cut. When I write a movie I try to make it more full than I know it’s going to be. One of the first things we do with actors is go through the lines and see what we can lose, how to strip it down to its bare essentials. Then you start shooting and you have to cut stuff to make your days. Then you get to the editing room and you see that scenes aren’t playing as well together. It’s that ongoing process. Then you strip it down too much and you have to pull it back out again.
EO: I don’t really know how much the camera captures, since it’s only my second film and I haven’t really figured that out yet. So Sean just told me whether things were getting across the way they should be. Other than that there were days when I just felt that everything that came out of my mouth was lying. You hope that the next day you’ll wake up and you’ll feel better. There are those days when you’re like, ‘Why can’t anything I say just sound honest?’ It’s really frustrating.
Street: Did your family play a large role in your decision to become an actor?
EO: It might have. I think because it was something we all grew up with, it was never something that impacted us, because there was no before. It was always there. I also grew up with kids who were incredibly creative. We did our own Wizard of Oz when we were five. We turned every project into a musical and started making movies when we were in sixth grade.
Street: When did you first know you wanted to act?
EO: I was in love with Frank Sinatra and all I wanted was to be a Frank Sinatra girl in a musical. I started doing kids musicals when I was eight years old and I started taking dancing and singing classes and ballet. I was training to be Frank Sinatra’s wife. And then I found out he won an Academy Award for lifetime achievement, and I saw him old for the first time. That was the first time I ever experienced heartbreak. But I knew that was what I wanted to do. At that point it was musical films.