“Martha Marcy May Marlene” director Sean Durkin probably couldn’t imagine that the script he spent two years writing and researching would ultimately land him squarely in the midst of awards season. But that’s precisely where he found himself last weekend, sitting at the Fox Searchlight table at the Academy’s Governors Awards and surrounded by some of Hollywood’s most recognizable faces. At the event, Durkin revealed to Variety’s David Cohen that the evening was his first Hollywo0d-type gathering ever and that it all seemed to go by really fast.
It’s no wonder Durkin was overwhelmed, considering that the path for his fully-realized feature was paved by a thematically parallel short that debuted at Cannes in 2010.
How “Martha Marcy” gained attention through a five-page script goes back to Durkin’s initial research into cults, looking into how people got involved and what happened while they were there. The film was conceived as a feature from the beginning. However, by 2009, his script about a woman who manages to break free was coming together, but it wasn’t polished enough to shoot. And Durkin was itching to get back to directing.
“It had been four full years since I’d actually been on set directing a narrative short, and I didn’t feel like my (2005) student film really represented what I wanted to do,” he explains. “So I wanted to make something that I felt was more reflective of the tension I wanted to create and the world I wanted to create.”
His solution was to use some of the leftover material he uncovered in his research to write a short about one girl who makes her way to the farm that’s pivotal in the feature.
“I had this idea for something that related but could also stand on its own,” Durkin says. “And it was also something I wanted to send out with the script to reflect the kind of films that I wanted to make.”
Durkin didn’t have any money lined up to make the feature, so the short certainly helped investors understand Durkin’s vision for “Martha Marcy,” though the director says that was a secondary consideration.
“(Financing) was definitely a part of the process, but at the same time we really also made it in a really pure way. We made it just the way we wanted to make it. We had no expectations for it. It was really just five of us making this little short, and it kind of took off on its own after that,” he explains.
Durkin shot the short (right) in September 2009, more as a directing exercise and a way to get back to work than anything else. He finished a cut in October 2009 and decided to send it to Sundance, where it was accepted, somewhat unexpectedly.
“Then we had to finish it,” Durkin says with a laugh. “Finishing the short wasn’t even on our calendar at that point.”
Following good reactions at Sundance, Durkin says he decided to submit it into Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, where it won the best short prize and Durkin’s producing partner, Josh Mond, lined up the first round of financing. From there, Mond assembled enough investors for filming to begin in August 2010.
Fox Searchlight bought the independently made “Martha Marcy” two days after it debuted at Sundance in January. It opened theatrically in October and has placed its star, Elizabeth Olsen, squarely into the middle of the awards conversation.
Watch the trailer for Durkin’s original short, “Mary Last Seen” (below):
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