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Cult classic: Elizabeth Olsen breaks from the pack in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

Cult classic: Elizabeth Olsen breaks from the pack in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (photo)

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Cult movies are nothing new to the film world. From “Rosemary’s Baby” to “Children of the Corn” to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” to even “Hot Fuzz,” there’s no shortage of the portrayals of brainwashed people. But usually, the cults in question are fantastic and outlandish – they perform human sacrifice! They kill all the adults! They worship Satan! – and hardly anyone seems particularly eager to leave, other than the outsiders. It seems like a complete fantasy.

So when real life people come forward and say they were in a cult – and perhaps even committed atrocities in the name of said cult – our predominant examples are from the extremes, either from film or history. The Manson Family. Jim Jones. David Koresh. But what “Martha Marcy May Marlene” does is take the hysteria down a notch, and give a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be in a cult, what it’s like to leave, and how difficult it is to readjust to everyday life in the immediate aftermath, through the eyes of a character whose name changes according to her environment, played by Elizabeth Olsen.

“It’s fun to forget about societal norms and just create within the world that was provided in the script,” Olsen told IFC.

“The word ‘cult’ is loaded,” said John Hawkes, who plays the cult leader. “I’ve never been a fan of cults. There’s a Manson movie they keep trying to make, I’ve been asked to be a part of it, and that’s not a story I’m interested in being a part of. But this story is more interesting to me because it’s not told through the leader’s eyes, but through a young woman and her struggle.”

“It’s that first two weeks after someone gets out of a situation, when it’s completely alive for them,” said actor Hugh Dancy, who plays Martha’s brother-in-law. “What you might call a flashback [in the movie] is much more than a flashback, because it’s happening in her mind simultaneously. She’s still kind of living through this experience, and she doesn’t understand it. She’s kind of fractured.”

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First-time director Sean Durkin was aided in his script by a friend who had escaped a cult herself, and shared her experience with him. “The film isn’t about her,” he said, “but she shared her emotional journey, and what it was like after she left, so I could understand what she was going through. It was also about the tactics that they used to induct her and keep her there: the re-naming, the eating habits, the way when something happens that’s bad, someone’s there to tell you it’s OK.”

For instance, in the cult Martha joins – where she becomes Marcy May and sometimes Marlene – only one meal a day is served, and at that meal, the men eat first, and only after they’re done can the women eat. “There’s this strange sense of hierarchy and rigidity within their apparent liberal lifestyle,” Dancy observed.

Quarters are tight, so people sleep in sex-segregated rooms, sharing beds and mattresses – save for orgy night, when sleeping arrangements are a free for all. Consequently, when she leaves the cult, Martha has a bit of confusion about eating in front of the opposite sex, sleeping alone, and when nudity is appropriate (or not). At one point, she crawls into her sister’s bed – while the sister is having sex with her husband – with no idea that they might have a problem with her behavior.

“It’s kind of humorous, because he’s incredibly pissed off, which seems entirely reasonable!” Dancy laughed. “This is his sister-in-law who he’s only known for a few days, and she’s crawling into the marital bed, while it’s in use?”

“We accept a lot of things as fact,” Olsen said, “but you know, just eating breakfast in the morning in front of a man? Those were different things that she wasn’t used to, for years. I thought of it like how when people go live in a foreign country, and they come back with all these new habits. This is an extreme case of that. That’s what clashes, the challenges within those different, everyday aspects.”

“All this stuff that we consider normal has been beaten out of her,” Dancy explained. “Not literally, but she has been taught to question everything that she might take for granted, and to question anybody who shows her what we would consider normal affection.”

How does that even happen in the first place? And why would any reasonably intelligent person allow any form of mind control happen to them, one might ask? Yet the way Martha’s portrayed, she’s no idiot.

“What kind of people join cults?” Durkin said. “All kinds of people, at all stages of their lives, from all different backgrounds. I didn’t want people to say she got into it because she’s weak, because it’s not like that. I felt really strongly about that.”

“I think the idea that people can be manipulated and controlled and preyed upon in that way is unsettling, not least because it doesn’t happen just to the marginalized,” Dancy said. “It happens to people who are intelligent and apparently in the mainstream. They’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

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Certainly, the fact that sociologists haven’t been able to pinpoint a specific personality type likely to fall victim to a cult suggests that all people are vulnerable, especially when warmth, acceptance, and a new “family” are offered. Later on, it’s suggested that you should sever ties from your real family, friends, and other relationships, because they’re a waste of energy.

“There are certain people who know how to take advantage of the chinks in our armor,” Dancy said, “when we’re not quite sure of ourselves and wanting to be loved. And part of that is introducing doubt about everybody. That is a form of control.”

The cult leaders encourage dependence on the group – sharing – to minimize independence and break down former identities – hence Martha’s renaming to Marcy May. And the group usually lives in an isolated area, to operate out of view of society, which is why the cult scenes in the film take place in the Catskills.

“We were really isolated up there,” Olsen said. “No internet, no cell phones.”

“There was one landline,” Hawkes said. “Every day during the van ride back to the hotel, at one point in the journey – the same point every time – we’d hear all this buzzing and beeping as everyone’s electronics suddenly came to life. The isolation made it really easy for us to imagine what it would be like to live there.”

All of those conditions – the isolation, the new identity, the severing of ties – takes place before any real abuses begin. In Martha/Marcy May’s case, she’s initiated into a sexual practice where each girl is drugged and then made to have sex with the cult leader Patrick in a strange ritual. “Lizzie and I had some very intense scenes,” Hawkes said. “Every time, after every take, when the director called ‘Cut!’ we would just check in with each other: ‘How are you feeling?’ To Lizzie’s credit, she was very game, very brave.”

Eventually, Martha/Marcy May is so controlled by the cult that she helps another young girl get “initiated” by Patrick, without seeming to remember her own experience as a bad one. It isn’t until the cult turns violent that she realizes she’s got to escape – and the film “Martha Marcy May Marlene” begins.

Will you be checking out Elizabeth Olsen’s buzzed-about performance in “Martha Marcy May Marlene? Let us know below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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