On the origins of ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’

Posted by · 8:38 am · August 2nd, 2011

Sean Durkin’s stunning debut feature “Martha Marcy May Marlene” has been running a steady marathon in terms of buzz-building ahead of its late-October release: first came breathless critical plaudits and the Best Director prize at Sundance in January, while a well-received appearance in the Un Certain Regard strand at Cannes kept things humming through the summer lull.

Expect the acclaim to continue through the fall festival run: it’s booked for Toronto, though as Kris speculated last week, it’ll probably pop up in Telluride beforehand. (Finally, I’d count on a London Film Festival date in October.)

The buzz isn’t there by sheer good fortune: as I wrote in my Cannes review, Durkin’s film is a startlingly assured and unsettling fusion of meticulous character study and full-throttle psychodrama, centered on a sharply etched breakout performance by Elizabeth Olsen that handily defies any pundits to define the young actress by her more famous twin sisters.

Whether the film’s chilly precision will prove too disconcerting for mainstream awards bodies remains to be seen — it’s a tougher film than the indies distributor Fox Searchlight has previously steered to Oscar success. Still, Kris and I are both currently counting on it to find Oscar favor for Olsen’s work, as well as in the reliable indie sanctuary of the Best Original Screenplay category. (It has a couple of original songs, too — though the haunting theme sung by John Hawkes in a key scene isn’t among them.)

However, after I posted my early Oscar predictions last week, reader BEF raised an astute point: the film is widely viewed as a sister piece to Durkin’s 2010 short film “Mary Last Seen,” which also played Sundance and Cannes last year, winning an award at the latter. The films share both a character (Brady Corbet’s cult member Watts) and the Catskills commune setting: by the Academy’s eccentric definition of adaptations (whereby any film featuring fictional characters from a previous work is ruled adapted, however originally conceived the script), should “Martha Marcy May Marlene” not instead be considered a Best Adapted Screenplay contender? (“Fatal Attraction” and “District 9” are two examples of nominees in the category ruled to have been adapted from short films.)

Since I can imagine this query recurring deeper into the awards season, I thought it best to look into it now — and I’m happy to conclude that Durkin’s script can safely be declared an original work. Returning to my Cannes press notes on the film, I found this explanation from the director of the film’s conception, which reveals that while the short film obviously predates the feature, it was the feature film script that came first:

The script for MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE took time to evolve. “I started in 2007 and was writing for a couple of years before we started to think about making it. It takes place in the summer and we wanted to shoot it in New York, so we had a three to four-month window. We tried to get it going in 2009 and the script wasn’t quite right. I had never done anything as a director to show people, either. I’d made a student short but it wasn’t something I wanted to show people since it wasn’t representative of what the feature film would be.”

Durkin decided to shoot a short instead that summer, MARY LAST SEEN, casting actor Brady Corbet in a role that he would reprise for the feature film, as a cult member who becomes Martha’s boyfriend. “I wanted to direct a short that was related,” recalls Durkin, “but I didn’t want it to be about Martha. I had all this rich material about how people get involved in cults, but that’s not what the script was about. I knew Brady Corbet was going to be playing Watts [in the feature] and wanted to do something with him as the same character. That’s where the short came from.

So, Best Original Screenplay it is. A minor detail, perhaps, but a crucial one — particularly when you take a moment to consider how crowded the Adapted Screenplay field is with potential prestige contenders this year. Meanwhile, this brief investigation has got me antsy to lay eyes on “Mary Last Seen,” which appears no less eerily alluring than the feature. Check out the trailer below:

[Photo: Fox Searchlight]

→ 12 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

12 responses so far

  • 1 8-02-2011 at 9:09 am

    tdr said...

    There already exists a precedent on that matter. “Frozen river”, which was based on a previous short in which both leads appear, ended up being nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

  • 2 8-02-2011 at 9:30 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Good point. Thanks.

  • 3 8-02-2011 at 10:06 am

    Dana Jones said...

    It will interesting to see how this film plays… will it eventually get a wide release? Considering the Olsen twins’ star is waning and Elizabeth Olsen isn’t “mainstream” material yet (although from the looks of it, this film should give her the chance to “break-out”), I wonder how Fox Searchlight will advertise this film to a wider audience. Either way, I’m stoked for it and I will definitely be checking it out.

  • 4 8-02-2011 at 11:59 am

    Bia said...

    I think Elizabeth Olsen is very intriguing and always very thoughtful in her interviews. Hopefully she makes it all the way.

  • 5 8-02-2011 at 12:26 pm

    kel said...

    is there no buzz for John Hawkes? He could easily be dragged into the awards season like he was last year by Jennifer Lawrence..

  • 6 8-02-2011 at 12:40 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    He’s excellent in the film, but I’m not sure if the role is substantial enough to catch voters’ attention — though he does have the post-nomination afterglow effect in his favour.

  • 7 8-02-2011 at 6:06 pm

    m1 said...

    I actually have Hawkes down as the winner for my Best Supp. Actor predictions right now, but if his role isn’t very big, then I can’t imagine it panning out.

  • 8 8-02-2011 at 9:52 pm

    General Butt Fucking Naked said...

    The role’s not huge, but I think it’s got the meat and range to register. His oscillation from seductive to terrifying is deeply unsettling, and I think he gives the character a greater complexity than is on the page. I wouldn’t count him out just yet.

  • 9 8-02-2011 at 11:16 pm

    Dooby said...

    I’m with Guy on this one, I’m not sure the role is substantial enough and the category looks packed this year!

    The movie would be on my Best Picture predictions if it was still ten, now I’m worried indies will really suffer from the rule change.

  • 10 8-02-2011 at 11:30 pm

    Simon Warrasch said...

    I really hope and i really think at thise point that the movie and the screenplay could be nominated, and i cross my fingers for Elizabeth Olsen for Lead Actress and John Hawkes for Supporting Actor.

  • 11 8-03-2011 at 1:48 am

    Chris said...

    John Hawkes should get a nom for this, his mere presence raised the tension in every scene he was in, but it’s way to early to guess in a category that is looking to be very competitive (Albert Brooks, Christopher Plummer, Viggo Mortensen and possibly John C Riley among the many others.)

  • 12 8-03-2011 at 8:55 pm

    BEF said...

    Thanks Guy!