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The indie psych drama Martha Marcy May Marlene opens in San Diego today (David Elliott's capsule review is here). The film tells the story of Martha, beginning with her re-entry into the everyday world after a stint with a crunchy sort of cult (led by a chillingly charismatic John Hawkes, late of Winter's Bone), and frequently slipping back into her experience there.

Director Sean Durkin and star Elizabeth Olsen are traveling hither and yon in support of the film, and they were kind enough to sit down for a chat with your humble correspondent. Up first, Director Durkin:

Why did you make this movie?

It started very naturally: I was interested. I wanted to do something like a modern cult movie - I'd never seen it done. It went from there; it just grew. I started reading about people, reading about groups, meeting people who had been in [cults]. You just get invested and start to feel strongly about the character, about creating an experience of what it's truly emotionally like to go through something like that. It was crazy - as I was writing, I'd be talking to people, and they would say, 'Oh, I actually was in something,' or, 'My sister was in something.' And a friend of mine, someone I'd known for a couple of years, decided to come forward and say that she'd been in something like that seven years earlier. She'd never shared it with anyone. The film is not based on her, but I was very fortunate that she shared her experience with me.

As I went back over my notes for the film, it really started to feel like a primer for cult indoctrination - the name-change for a shift in identity, the painful but supposedly necessary initiation ritual...

As I would talk to people, I would see that their experiences correlated with everything I'd read. Whatever the meaning or goal is for each group, the tactics are the same. It's very standardized.

Speaking of meanings - I kept waiting for some mention of religion within the cult, but...

Yeah, I really wanted to make it so there was no religion. It's not about that. It's about her experience of getting sucked in. If it was Martha's first day, and there were some blood ritual where everyone was wearing a robe and Patrick was giving a sermon, viewers would just disconnect from the situation immediately. I wanted to create this sort of wholesome, friendly vibe, so that people could maybe understand why she was attracted to it.

Tell me about developing that vibe.

I knew I wanted this small farm in upstate New York, with this small group - separatist and sort of self-sufficient. I asked myself, 'What kind of man starts that? Obviously, he has a bigger plan - what is that, and how is he going to [achieve it]?' I started collecting things from speeches I'd heard. I'd watch things about different leaders. I've never been in a cult, but you find ways to relate. You build a character out of people you know who are manipulative; they aren't cult leaders, but they have those human qualities.

And then you cast John Hawkes as Patrick. Tell me about what he brought to the part.

My approach is always to write the script more thoroughly than it will appear on screen - that way, people who read it can make the leap, see the things the camera will make up for later. John and I would work on the speeches, get them down to their bare bones. So we worked on the words in that sense. But on another level, when playing a character like that, John is very good at "getting there." But he's also a very warm and generous person, and I think that warmth, that kindness allows the character to have that charm you can trust.

One last thing - for me, the most chilling line in the film was when Martha tells the new girl that Patrick "only has boys." The implication being that if someone has a girl...

Actually, I never thought about that line as more than a subtle illustration of how brainwashed Martha is - to believe something like that. I didn't want the brainwashing to be - I felt it needed little, repeated things. Things like, "I am a teacher and a leader."

[Interview with star Elizabeth Olsen here.]

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