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“Martha Marcy May Marlene” and Mister Sean Durkin

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” and Mister Sean Durkin (photo)

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Director Sean Durkin wasn’t brought up in a religious household but he attended religious schools his entire life. Raised in England, he moved to New York as a teenager and transferred to an Episcopalian high school. One day, something in Durkin snapped.

“I remember being at school during morning meeting and looking around at everybody, 350 kids, saying a prayer,” Durkin told me. “We’re all very young and no one knows what it means, and I remember feeling strange that people were just repeating words that they didn’t understand. I refused to participate. For some reason I always rejected it, but respectfully.”

Now Durkin is the (Gotham Award nominated) director of “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” a powerful family drama and slow-burn thriller about a woman named Martha (impressive newcomer Elizabeth Olsen, sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) who escapes from a cult led by a charismatic but fearsome man named Patrick (John Hawkes). Martha tries to reintegrate herself into society while staying with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy) at their Connecticut lake house, but things don’t go smoothly. Even with her family, Martha is uncomfortable and paranoid. She’s still haunted by memories — or are they nightmares? — of her time in the cult. Physical escape, it seems, is not the same as mental escape.

So did Durkin’s formative religious experiences inform the making of this film about a cult? “When I started making the film it had nothing to do with any of that,” Durkin said. “But I think that a part of where the desire to make a film about a cult came from was that I had this huge fear of conforming, and a cult is a place where conformity is taken to an extreme level.”

Durkin’s a bit of a non-conformist as a writer/director as well. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” sports an unique visual palette and a bold chronological structure; to mimic its protagonist’s own sense of emotional and chronological confusion, the movie bounces back and forth between Martha’s time in Patrick’s flock and her struggles at her sister’s house. During our phone conversation, Durkin and I bounced from his inspirations to his feelings on the value of film school.

What was the original inspiration for the script?

I’d never seen a cult film that was modern and naturalistic, set in present day. Then I started researching cults and the process of what drew people in and what kept people there.

Have people who’ve been in cults come up to you after screenings to talk about their experiences?


Yeah, that’s happened.

What are their reactions?

At festival screenings and the press tour we did, people would come up and say the film really represents what it feels like to be in one of these things and to try to get out. That to me is the biggest compliment, that they felt I was able to recreate that feeling. It’s been one of the most rewarding things in the whole process.

The structure of the film, flashing back and forth in time, is so crucial to how the movie works. Was that always in the script from the beginning or did it develop later?

That was in the script from a very early point. A friend of mine heard I was writing this script; I didn’t know this about her, but she had been involved with some similar group. She had never talked about it and she decided to share her story with me. In doing so she described the first few weeks after she left as being a time of confusion and paranoia. She didn’t really remember anything except that she lied to everyone about where she had been. She was in basic survival mode.

One that was common in every group I researched was there wouldn’t be any calendars anywhere, so people lose track of time and they don’t know how long they’d been there for. So I thought if [Martha]’s leaving and she’s lost track of time and she’s in a state of confusion the idea that she would be lost in time and space and experiencing them both worlds simultaneously made sense.

I never thought of them as flashbacks. I generally don’t like flashbacks in movies so I always approached them like they were both the present and past, because the film’s from Martha’s perspective and for her, she’s still figuring it all out.

What was the hardest role to cast in the film?

Martha. That was the only role I really auditioned people for. John [Hawkes], Hugh [Dancy], and Sarah [Paulson] were all handpicked by our casting director, Susan Shopmaker.

How many people did you see for the role?

I probably saw between 50 and 70 people. It was hard because you write a character who’s quite elusive and quiet and if you cast someone who’s just depressed and cut off, then the role loses everything. So I was looking for something and I didn’t quite know what it was. I saw everybody and there wasn’t a single person I was interested in. There were good actors and good reads but it just didn’t feel right. And then Lizzie came in; Susan left her for the last day of casting because she was one of her top picks. She came in and during the very first read of the first scene I saw something happening that wasn’t happening with anyone else. I felt it right away. We continued to talk and I got to know her a little bit and that was it.

What did she do that was so different?

I got a sense that she could convey a lot of feeling with her eyes without trying. She was totally effortless. And that continued into the performance in the film. You never feel like she’s trying. One of the big fears of casting an unknown or an inexperienced actor, even if they’re really good, is you sort of expect to have to work with them to pull out a performance. And with her there was none of that. She was as prepared from the first take of the first scene as someone like John or Hugh.

I love your cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes. He just seems to be working at a much higher level than a lot of his contemporaries. What makes him special?

Natural ability and demeanor. He’s so wonderful to work with because he’s so calm. I’m a calm director and I want the set to be calm, and he’s even more calm than I am. So he becomes calming to me in a lot of ways.

We were actually talking about this, how people in film school have stopped shooting films on film. We were at school together; [Jody] shot my student film. He just got to shoot so many films on film while we were there. I feel like we’ve might have been one of the last classes to do that; I know NYU has changed their program and are shooting a lot less film.

I hadn’t thought about that before. So the way film schools are changing, the tools they’re letting people work with, could affect the next generation of cinematographers.

Yeah, I wonder what cinematographers are doing now in school and how they’re learning to shoot.

You had some pretty important experiences in film school and besides meeting Jody. You also met your production company partners [Borderline Films’ Antonio Campos and Josh Mond] there. I often see directors telling aspiring filmmakers to skip film school and use the money they would have spent on tuition to make a movie. I’m guessing you might disagree.

Yeah. I’m a believer in film school. That argument about going out and making a film, that can definitely work for some people. But I don’t think when someone just picks up a camera and makes a film it ends up being very good. Filmmaking is a real craft. You have to experiment and school gives you the time to experiment with no pressure. It also allows you to make relationships with people who are in the same position as you. We formed our group and we’ve kept it. The same people who shot my student film in 2005 shot “Martha” in 2010. My DP, editor, sound, AC, gaffer, all the way down the line. It’s the same group. We all came up together, and there’s something about doing that and forming that trust and that shorthand that makes for a very natural progression and growing process.

Before I let you go: talking with other people who’ve seen the film, I’ve been surprised how many people miss the explanation of who “Marlene” is. Does it bug you when people don’t catch it? Or do you like the fact that you need to be paying attention to spot her?

I do get that question sometimes at Q&As. It’s okay, some people do get it and some people don’t. It’s not totally crucial, I guess. My feeling is you put everything in the movie very specifically. I don’t like to explain when people ask that question because whatever is in the film, whatever someone takes from it, whatever their reaction, and whatever they pick up on or don’t, is all good. That’s all fine.

You must hate it when people ask you about the ending.


Well I just don’t answer. [laughs] Some people want to know what happens next. I don’t know what happens next; we didn’t shoot that.

[laughs]

The one thing I do say when people ask about the ending is that the film is Martha’s experience. I set out to create the experience of what it’s like for someone who comes from a group like this. Where the film ends, that’s where it ends for Martha. If people have questions, they’re probably the same questions that Martha has.

“Martha Marcy May Marlene” opens tomorrow. If you see it, tell us what you think of it in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

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

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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