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“Martha Marcy May Marlene” director Sean Durkin on cults, Elizabeth Olsen and TIFF 2011

By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: Sean Durkin loves the Arsenal team and football. So sitting down to speak with him about his haunting film “Martha Marcy May Marlene” as the final minutes of an Arsenal game tick away is cruel.

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Arsenal’s up 1-0, and – as Durkin tells me – they haven’t won all season. I’m a Chelsea fan, so that delights me, but I don’t rub it in Durkin’s face. In fact, I offer to watch the end of the game with him He’s thrilled … until he realizes that with stoppage time, we both could be ruining potential interviews with the journalists waiting in the hallway of the Fairmont Royal York.

So we begin. I ask him about the film’s many secrets, and whether its tough talking about the film with actually, you know, talking about it. (No spoilers in this article.) We start talking about communal living, and I wonder how common these cult-ish “families” are.

“What I found is that once we started talking about it, and writing it, I’d guess one in every five people you talk to knows somebody who has been involved in one. Someone came in this morning and said, ‘My friend grew up in one.’ After every Q-and-a, someone comes up and says they are involved, or a sister or daughter was involved,” Durkin said. “So you start to just hear about it, and that’s how we had people to talk to about the experience.”

In between answers, Durkin leaps from his chair and checks the TV. I don’t mind in the least. I’ve been there. In fact, I tell Durkin that my son’s playing in his first baseball game as we’re talking, and that my wife’s back home texting me play-by-plays. We bond over sports, both professional and pee-wee league.

Back to the film. Durkin tells me what qualities he was looking for while casting Martha, and what newcomer Elizabeth Olsen brought to the part.

“I wanted her to be an unknown actress,” he says. “And I knew that she would have to carry the movie quietly. But I don’t think you know what you want. You more know what you don’t want, until you see someone and you know if you want them or don’t want them. There were specific things about Lizzie that stood out. I got the sense that there was a lot going on inside her head that you could see without her trying too hard. And I knew that was going to be a key factor into making the movie work.”

Back to the Arsenal, who continues to hold off Swansea, though we’re into stoppage time. I ask Durkin about his film’s open-ended ending, and whether it’s a conscious effort to keep the discussion going after people leave the theater.

“Yes,” he replies, knowing the less we say specifically about the ending, the better it will be for audience members finding the film. “But that’s more about staying true to Martha’s character and what she is going through. … I really believe we made conscious choices about what to include. And it was always a delicate balancing act, with the script an in the editing, about exactly every single little piece of information.”

Durkin can’t say much more. Neither can I. We’ll talk more about “Martha Marcy May Marlene” in due time. We’ll celebrate Olsen’s spiritual performance, and John Hawkes’ quietly menacing turn, and about Durkin’s arrival on the scene as a storyteller to watch.

Oh, and Arsenal wins its game by the score of 1-0, giving Durkin his second major win of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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