Sean Durkin's psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene won the best director award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, took the Prix de la Jeunesse at the Cannes Film Festival, and played the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival before its theatrical release this month.

Not bad for a first feature - or for a film whose topic is something a lot of us don't like to think about.

The enigmatic central figure of Martha Marcy May Marlene - the title is an amalgamation of the various names given to her - is a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) who escapes from a cult in a rural community, but is haunted by her experiences there.

"I felt like I'd never seen it, really," said Durkin, of the topic of cults on screen. "When I had seen it, I didn't think it was done well. I wanted to do something contemporary, naturalistic - not some wide-eyed preaching cult leader and people in robes. I started by knowing all the things I didn't want it to be."

A 29-year-old graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Durkin had previously directed several short films and produced three features, but Martha Marcy May Marlene is his feature writing/directing debut. It's been in the works for a long time: He began writing and researching it in 2007.

"I just started to read about all the big groups (cults) of the 60s and 70s, watching documentaries, TV specials, anything I could see," he said, citing Jonestown, Patricia Hearst and the Manson Family. "From there I started to understand the psychology a little bit."

As the story began to take shape, he began discussing it with people - and something startling happened.

"A friend of mine came forward," he said. "She said she had been in something and she'd never talked about it to anyone and she wanted to share it with me."

They talked about the experience gradually, over the course of a couple of years.

"A lot of it was blocked out in her mind," he remembered. "She was 19, 20 at the time. Not the same setup (as Durkin used in the movie) but the tactics, the manipulation, the emotional fallout, that was stuff that I came to really understand from her."

Ultimately, Durkin said he was most influenced by narrative films - he specifically cited Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby ("the tone of paranoia, the dread") and Robert Altman's Three Women ("this crazy story of identity") - and by his own imagination.

"Once I had an understanding of how these things worked, I'd go up to the Catskills and drive around and just see these farms and say, OK, I can see people moving in there. Five people moving in. And then two friends come, and two friends come, and all of a sudden there's seven women and two men. You can see it growing, and you hear things that correlate with that."

Now that he's almost finished promoting Martha Marcy May Marlene, Durkin said he's at work on another feature screenplay (whose topic he declined to disclose, because it still might change).

But he's clearly still haunted by the subject matter of his debut film, and how a charismatic cult leader can transform someone into a childlike, obedient state.

"I've seen pictures of women, before and after, and how physical transformation occurs during that process. That was just mind-boggling to me ... All that stuff, all those events, all those rituals, they're all inspired by things that I heard and even toned down. It's all toned down because when you hear the stuff that's actually happened, if you put that in the film you'd lose your audience."

The West Australian

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