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Martha's Colliding Worlds
To forge the unrelenting mood of MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, Sean Durkin put his visual emphasis on a cool-toned naturalism intended to bring the audience directly into the blur between Martha's two colliding worlds, and into the heightening chaos her journey from one to the other sparks. His aim was to have every element in the film – from performance to photography to design – work in concert to create a sense of deep disturbance just under the surface of every scene.

Durkin collaborated not only with Antonio Campos and Josh Mond, but a tight-knit crew, most of whom have been part of the Borderline Films collective through multiple projects. "It was important that creativity and energy be really good on the set, and the crew we work with brings that,” says Mond. "A lot of us have worked together for a long time. Many of us have worked in multiple roles on different sets, so every facet of every department does their work with such grace and understanding. It's an awesome thing to be a part of.”

Continues Campos, "When you have the kind of respect this crew has for each other, you know they'll go to the ends of the earth for you. We've spent years hanging out with our editors, our sound guys, our A.D.'s, our lighting department. It's an amazing family kind of experience.”

A key part of the creative team on MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE were cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes and production designer Chad Keith, who together worked with two completely opposite upstate locations: a secluded, traditional Monticello farm owned by producer Antonio Campos's family and a crisply modern, lakefront property near the town of Roscoe.

"Sean divided the film almost into two separate movies with two totally separate vibes: the cult family was one shoot and the lake house another,” Mond explains. "Our challenge was to work out the locations so they would give him everything he needed, without money or logistics ever being an issue he had to think about.”

Campos notes that Mond has a knack for sniffing out hard-to-find locations. "If you need amazing locations that everyone says you can't get, Josh will be able to get them. That's just in his nature,” he muses.

At the same time, it was Campos was introduced Durkin to his grandfather's upstate farm, which became the quintessential idyll for the cult family. "I knew Sean would fall in love with it,” says Campos. "It's so rich with history, full of rotting wood and shafts of light coming through broken glass panes. There are so many different rooms and moods, that there was a lot for him to choose from.”

"The house was so old and beautiful,” describes the director. "From there, given the necessity of shooting nearby, we asked: how can we find a lake house that feels the complete antithesis of this? How do we create a world that's going to be totally foreign to the farm? That was harder to find. I wanted something open with lots of light, high ceilings, and an outdoor area, somewhere I could really focus on these two sisters who made such different choices. Josh went up to the area worked his way into the community, getting to know people and finally tracked down just the right house.”

Lipes, a promising young filmmaker in his own right and the recipient of a Spirit Award nomination for his cinematography on TINY FURNITURE, utilized both locations to the nth degree to reflect the roiling turmoil in Martha's shattering psyche. He and Durkin worked to find just the right visual rhythms to build anxiety, claustrophobia and suspense – mixing extended, static close-ups, shadowy wide shots and slow zooms with more frenetic, handheld camerawork, that together forge Martha's overwhelming, restless reality and dreamlike memories and fears.

The variety in the camerawork was a part of Durkin's vision. "I knew I didn't want to be in Martha's perspective the entire time,” he says. "It was all about pacing, adding to the suspense and lulling you into the experience. The first thing we wanted to do was mix in a little handheld, and also use slow zooms —so that the camera is always panning, zooming and watching. Static shots were then inter-cut to create a very specific rhythm.”

Despite knowing exactly what he wanted visually, Durkin also wanted Lipes to shoot in the most spontaneous way possible. "We wanted to keep it very loose and let the actors do their thing,” he says. "I write scenes that are very specific, but once I show up on set, I don't ever look at the script again. We walk through the space and we try to find what's natural. And I think the visual style follows from that, where we're being specific and creating an atmosphere, but not ever getting in the way. We wanted it to look alive and create a real texture.”

As for the hallucinatory way that Martha's past leaks into the present moment, Durkin comments, "I didn't want to separate the past from the present visually. I wanted it to be that you never know what's coming next. For Martha, what happened to her at the farm and what she's going through at the lake house, are all unfolding at once and that is the way you experience them.”

The producers were exhilarated by the look of the film. "Jody and Sean were the perfect visual marriage,” says Mond. "I've never seen anything that looks like this film before, the way people are hidden inside dark shadows.”

Adds Campos, "Jody graduated from NYU a few years before we did, but he was one of the guys that everybody knew was one to watch. He worked with us on AFTERSCHOOL and Sean and he have developed a really wonderful shorthand. Jody always feels free to discover a shot, but he also always respects Sean's vision and skill with storytelling. It seems Jody always asks the right visual questions. I think he is one of the best cinematographers of his generation.”

Sound was an equally key ingredient in building the all-pervasive ambiance of the film. The filmmakers recruited composers Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi – both classically-trained, multi-instrumentalists who founded the rock band Priestbird – to forge a dissonant, minimalist electronic score that rises and falls with the film's emotional turns.

Sound design became another cornerstone of the film's atmosphere. "I think about sound even while I'm writing,” Durkin explains. "For the sound in this film, it was first about being naturalistic and then about finding ways to let things grow to help build the sense of anxiety.”

That was true for every aspect of the film's look and feel, which then dovetailed with the high-wire performances to create an experience that is more than the sum of its parts. Sums up Durkin, "Everything in the film was based on natural settings – but then out of that came all of the tone shifting, which together creates an atmosphere of constantly rising tension.”


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