Sean Durkin and John Hawkes Roundtable Interview for Martha Marcy May Marlene

John, you worked closely on this film with two first timers, as an experienced actor how was that for you? Did you have to bring anything different because of that?

John Hawkes: No, I learn from whoever I work with. Some more than others. I was certainly able to learn a great deal from Lizzie and Sean. For Lizzie, her first lead role in a film, and for Sean, directing his first feature, they both just seemed fully formed to me. I felt like I was among equals, among peers. And so I never give a second thought to how much experience or not people have if they show up and they know what they’re doing. And these two did. It’s just another experience telling a story basically.

Sean, for you as a first timer how was it directing more established people such as John?

Sean Durkin: I mean, I don’t think about those things to be honest. I don’t know, stopping and thinking about things like that is really dangerous. I could get nervous about someone like John coming to the set, or Sarah or Hugh, I could get nervous but if anything like that ever crosses your mind you have to push it away because it’s all just fear and that will eat you up. You can’t make a movie if you’re scared. It was an amazing experience overall, just so collaborative with all our actors.

There were connections made in my head to the Manson family, stories in Helter Skelter, Leslie van Houten and the link between John singing and Charles Manson singing. Was that a conscious thing on your part or was that just something that an audience member, like myself, might bring?

Sean Durkin: No, not conscious in the sense that I was trying to do that, we actually tried to stay away from a lot of those things and approach it in a different way. I’m aware of all those things and read about all those things so I’m sure that some of those things stick but I quickly got away from those things and became focused on creating our own group and learning from experiences of people I met and making it specific, emotionally specific, to them and to the farm. The farm really came first, a lot of the character and the way of living grew out of that. From saying, ‘we’re in this region, we have this abandoned farm, what do people do if they take it over? What kind of life do they live?’. It really came very naturally out of all that.

Did you write more back story that we don’t see, for instance rules to farm? And was there a lot of that which came out during the filming or was it all pre-planned?

Sean Durkin: There was that upfront, there’s definitely more in the script. We always cut it back. John and I worked a lot to cut back anything that wasn’t needed so it was definitely following the script, and then even further in the editing. You always just keep trimming away. Getting it down to its core, what really needs to be there.

You managed to create a very particular atmosphere and feel to the way that people are living at the farm. I was just wondering how you went about creating that, was there a lot of preparation? Did you spend a lot of time there before shooting?

Sean Durkin: I spent a good amount of time there. A couple of weeks I lived there when we were preparing the film. I spent a lot of time just walking around, finding locations for things and then my production designers came and then that’s when it really started to take shape. We started to craft it to look how we really wanted it to look. That was really exciting. You just feel things out.

John Hawkes: For my part, I don’t think that I saw the farm until we began to shoot. Maybe the day before perhaps but that was more out of my hands and more of a great gift to show up and have this place be its own kind of character in the movie and to just look around there and try to pretend and use that to our ends as best we could I suppose.

Sean Durkin: It definitely felt alive when we were there too. That was the place that I had first because it’s actually our producer’s family’s farm so we’ve been going there for a couple of years. You mentioned the music before, the music just came from a place where that’s just what happens when you’re sitting around there. When we were shooting, people would just be picking up guitars, there’s no TVs, there’s a communal living situation, there’s guitars and music.

John Hawkes: The fact that there was no cellphone reception or internet really helped us. You couldn’t wander away like everyone does with their device. We were there together, I think that it really informed us as a community in a really fantastic way.

Sean, I read a quote where you said that you hate flashbacks. Is this like your unique take, a little screw you to flashbacks?

Sean Durkin: [laughs] No, I never operate that way. I’m never out to like prove anything. I can’t think of a film with flashbacks that I really like. I never thought of these as flashbacks. For me it’s a completely linear story, because it’s Martha’s emotional journey and it’s linear to Martha’s emotion. So the idea for telling it in this form was that there’s a little bit of this Buddhist based thing in the cult. It was a little bit more in the script and one of the principles that I thought would be appropriate for their way of living, in terms of that way of focusing on the moment and living off the land, is that there’s no future and there’s no past there’s only the present. So that was a feeling that they were living in, that everything happened in the present. Then for Martha leaving there, she’d be in a state of confusion and she’d be carrying over this feeling that everything happens in the present. I addition there’s this feeling that there’s no clocks or calendars, and that’s really common in groups like this. So no-one knows how long they’ve been there. And I also thought that would also play into time so it seemed to make sense that she’s experiencing it all at the same time.

Was that always there from the beginning?

Sean Durkin: Yeah, once I decided it would be the two worlds I decided to do that.

Were there any difficulties in the writing or the editing, specifically in matching those two up? Obviously there are a number of match cuts but also tonally. They seem like bad people and good people in both sides so were there difficulties in that?

Sean Durkin: Nah, it was all easy. [Laughs] Everytime you sit down to write something, anything, it’s difficult and any time you sit there in the edit room it’s difficult. Yeah, when you said about good and bad people that’s really important to me. I don’t believe in good and bad, there’s everybody. People with good intentions do bad things, people with bad intentions do good things. There’s so much grey, so I wanted to create that. The whole process was just very difficult balancing it. Re-writing and re-writing and you try and get the script as close as you can and then you shoot it and realise what you don’t need. And then you edit and realise what you don’t need. It’s this ongoing puzzle piece, like do we switch this around. A few key transitions were scripted and we knew what we were going to do, storyboarded it and shot it. And some other ones you find in editing. You’ve got four scenes in a row and all of a sudden you don’t need the two middle ones so the next two fall together and you have a transition that you never thought was there. So it’s this combination and you go through and do all these crazy things. Five days before we finished the film we were like, ‘is this working?’ and then you have this breakthrough, a twenty-minute breakthrough where you put this piece here, this piece there and this piece here and all of a sudden you’ve got the middle hour of the film working like you want it to. It’s a really crazy process. You just work and work and work and then [snaps his fingers] it just happens.

Sean spoke about the greys and a lot of people are going to find Patrick to be a reprehensible character, do you have to find the good in him John in order to play him?

John Hawkes: Sure, I tend not judge who I’m playing particularly. I don’t think evil people spend the day thinking, ‘I’m so evil, God I’m so evil, I’m so reprehensible. I’m scum.’ I think that it was more alive for me to think of Patrick as someone who believed that what he was doing was vital and right and best for those around him. I wasn’t at all interested in approaching him as an evil person. Certainly the story would be poorly served if the moment we meet Patrick he’s the devil incarnate, he’s some kind of easily identifiable charlatan or con-man because the story isn’t about Patrick, it’s about Lizzie’ character Martha. If we’re going to follow her through the film I think the more interesting and subtle and nuanced and complex she can be the better it is for us, as an audience, to watch her journey. If when she meets Patrick, and I think that’s pretty much the same time the audience meets Patrick, if he tips his hand too much and we know what he is from the top I don’t think we’re as apt to be interested in her. If on some level we can believe that, or sympathise or understand why, she might fall in with this group of people or this guy in particular then I think we’re more likely to be interested in her trip. Which is what the movie is.

You have this very interesting theme of how with both of her lives, as it were, there are certain restrictions in the way the world is. Certain ways the world expects her to behave and act. Were you wanting to draw parallels between the way society expects certain people to behave?

Sean Durkin: No, it really just came from a place of just following what she was doing. There’s definitely a lot of actions that are mirrored and that just came from a place of, as opposed to comparing, just being like, ‘what do people do when they’re on vacation at their lake-house and what do people do when they’re living on a farm and working?’. There just happen to be things that overlap and are very similar just because that’s what you would do. So it always came from a place of what would she do, what’s real for her to be doing? As opposed to thinking of it as some kind of social commentary. But I also make a film and believe that I put a certain amount of information in it, it’s like a puzzle and you give it a very specific amount of information in every frame. Every piece of information, every detail is very carefully placed at the same time and some of that is open to interpretation and whatever an audience member takes from the screening is good. There’s no right answers, there’s no wrong answers, whatever someone experiences when watching the movie is the right experience because it’s their own. I’m a big believer of that. So any comparisons someone wants to make or say that this is what’s happening is great, that’s totally cool. Were they my intentions? No. Were they on a subconscious level? Who knows. I’m just very open to response and different repsonses.

This interview was originally posted at HeyUGuys.