AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH WRITER/DIRECTOR SEAN DURKIN
Landmark Theatres: This is your first feature film. What was it like making the transition from short films and producing? How do you feel your previous experience helped you?
Sean Durkin: It wasn’t a big transition because I’ve been making films with the same group of people since we were all at school. We made our shorts with the same team and then when I produced features, you’re just on set doing what you’ve always done with the same group of people. The only difference is that you’re doing it for more days.
LT: So the team you’re with, did you meet all of them in school?
SD: I met my two partners, Antonio Campos and Josh Mond, at school and we wanted to start a company, so we started collaborating and making each other’s short films. We started to expand our team. Our editor Zach Stuart-Pontier was also in class with us, our cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, sound recordist Micah Bloomberg and on and on. We just developed this team all at NYU and every film we do, it expands a little bit, but our core is always the same.
LT: So the team grew organically…
SD: Totally organically.
LT: While this is your first feature film, it’s not your first film you’ve both written and directed. How did your story idea come to you? Did you write this film with yourself in mind as the one to direct it, bring it to life?
SD: Yes, always, always. We set up our company with the goal of creating a place where we’d support each other’s first features and make them the way we wanted to. We finished producing Afterschool, which was our first feature as a company, and then it was sort of my turn to direct. I had this desire to make a cult movie that was modern, present-day, naturalistic and non-religious.
The most interesting thing to me was that period right after someone leaves [a cult]. I’d always looked at pictures of women before and after they’d been in the group, and you could see the transformation physically. Even after a year, they look like completely different people. What happens to someone to make them transform like that? And then I started to imagine, well, what happens next? How do you make that transition, when you realize something is terribly wrong about what’s happening to you, and you have the wherewithal to get out? Where are you left? Who do you trust? What do you believe?
A friend of mine actually came forward, as I was writing, and said that she had been involved in something like this and she wanted to share her stories with me. She said she doesn’t remember anything about the first three weeks out; she was in a basic survival mode. All that she remembered was that she lied to everybody about where she had been. She just made up different things, anything she could think of. And that she was paranoid that he was following her, so she’d imagine that she saw the leader of the cult everywhere she went. That state of paranoia, confusion, dread, was just what I thought would be the most engaging cinematic journey.
LT: Did the film turn out exactly the way you had written it? Or was it more fluid and improvised?
SD: I don’t know if films ever turn out exactly how they’re written, because you shoot a scene and it doesn’t have the weight you thought it had. You shoot another scene and it has way more weight than you thought. You put two scenes together and you decided they’re just not both needed so you cut it down to one. It changes, but in the end, it’s very much the script, and the essence of the script.
LT: What challenges did you face to make sure your vision was fully realized?
SD: There are challenges in everything. Everything you do is a challenge in making a movie; every day is just fighting against time. Our budget was tight but we’ve been fortunate enough to learn how to make films that are frugal but nothing is compromised in the look.
LT: You seem to have a team of actors that meshed very well together on screen, and that was definitely a help.
SD: Definitely! The atmosphere overall on set was really great. It’s so much about the experience, like that wonderful experience of making film. Because you’re dealing with a lot of dark material and it’s really great to be able to be around friends at the end of the day. And they’re all friends; we’re not a bunch of friends who decided to work together—we all started working together and became a family.
LT: How did you go about selecting your cast? What was it about each character or actor that you felt was a good fit for each role?
SD: I have a great casting director named Susan Shopmaker and she really handpicked a lot of people. I feel oftentimes that casting directors don’t get to fully do their jobs because producers pick casts, or financing is based on certain cast members. We are fortunate enough to not have that restriction. I really believed in her and trusted her and I wanted her to fully do her job. She basically just picked Sarah Paulson, Hugh Dancy and John Hawkes. We sent them the script and luckily they responded well to it, and I spoke with them, or met with them. I was familiar with their work before and, for me, casting is very much about how you respond to somebody. I responded well to them and they responded well to me. We all got along and you could just sort of feel it.
And then with Lizzy [Elizabeth Olsen], I wanted an unknown actress and I wanted to see everybody that I could. So I saw every girl in New York, and some in L.A., that put themselves on tape, that were between the ages of 18 and 24, and really searched for her. You can’t always tell what you want, but you know what you don’t want. And then Susan, in her mind, had a few people that she thought could be good. She always saves those for last. So Lizzy came in on the last day of casting, or the second-to-last day of casting, because we want to see everybody. And immediately, on her first read, I knew there was just something heads above everybody else.
LT: She definitely projects a certain vulnerability with her eyes…
SD: Absolutely, along with an inner strength as well. As a person, she’s very vibrant and strong, and so I thought if that was inside this fragile character, maybe there would be a little more depth, or we’d see more and get a hint of what this person could have been, or was at one point in time.
LT: Your use of lighting really plays up the aspects of the power and the darkness this group of people held over their members. Was that process difficult to achieve?
SD: No, we made a few key decisions and just went from there. We decided that there wouldn’t be a difference in the style of lighting, or in the style of the film, between the lake and the farm. We decided the look of the film would be grainier and the blacks would be milkier. We felt like it fit the state of mind of the farm, where it’s sort of dusty and grimy. It gives it a little bit of life and a little bit of worn out quality. An obvious choice would be to make the farm look one way and make the lake look another but because you’re in Martha’s state of mind, you want to be able to go back and forth seamlessly and never have any sort of visual cue because the locations, as they become present, are enough of a clue. So it really came down from that and tended to be what Jody and I liked and felt fit the mood of the scene that we were approaching.
LT: What was your favorite part of making this film?
SD: There’s so many. Such a great experience all the way through. I don’t have a favorite, but overall I really loved shooting all the big scenes at the farm. We had a huge cast—12 cast members and a crew of around 30—and it’s this big group of 50 people with my producers and everybody that came to visit. It felt like a very collaborative environment. We were really in a rhythm. We’re working really hard but also, at night, just hanging out and enjoying each other’s company. It was that experience. And at the lake was also wonderful in its own way, but it became a smaller group and cast. It was funny. The atmosphere totally changed to really fit the way the atmosphere changes in the movie. It was cool.
LT: Congratulations on your Sundance award (Directing Award) and nomination (Grand Jury Prize). That sets the bar rather high on your next project. What are your plans?
SD: I’m writing a new script that I’m very excited about. I’m not talking about it just yet…
LT: C’mon, no spoilers?
SD: (laughing) It’s not even in the sense of spoiling, but because when you’re this early in writing, the whole thing could change tomorrow. But I’m excited and I have a lot of interests and a lot of areas I’d like to tackle in filmmaking.