At first, it’s a film that feels familiar. Late-twentysomething guys in tank tops and jeans work the grounds of a rural farmhouse while their women, completing their own domestic tasks, look on. A dirty, blissfully oblivious toddler plays in an unkempt yard that leads to a roughshod shed. John Hawkes shows up, languid yet commanding, setting this scene of a 21st-century paradise on the edge of calamity.
Strip off the opening credits and, for the first five minutes, Martha Marcy May Marlene plays like a Winter’s Bone retread. But any sense of been-here, seen-that familiarity is wrenched away as a determined young woman-on-the-edge flees the farmhouse for the mysterious world that lies beyond the surrounding forest. With this, the film becomes a study in unrelenting paranoia, the kind perfected by Roman Polanski in films like Repulsion, as we follow the titular Marcy May née Martha née Marcy May (and sometimes Marlene) during the first two weeks of her life after escaping a violent cult.
Martha Marcy May Marlene is decidedly not Winter’s Bone. Or any other recent American independent film for that matter. Its budget was “well under $1 million,” according to executive producer Ted Hope, yet it boasts a stellar cast led by the incredibly engaging Elizabeth Olsen (the sister of billionaire twins Mary-Kate and Ashley), and the grandeur of its cinematography lends it the appearance of a multi-million-dollar boutique indie.
In other words, Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn’t wear its budgetary limitations on its sleeve—because its creators wouldn’t stand for that.
The film was written and directed by Sean Durkin and produced by Antonio Campos and Josh Mond. Together, these three twentysomethings make up Borderline Films. Since 2005, they’ve created seven shorts, nearly a dozen music videos, numerous commercials and three features. Mary Last Seen, a $400 prequel of sorts to Martha, won the Director’s Fortnight Short Film Prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. At this year’s Sundance, Durkin won the Directing Award for Martha Marcy May Marlene. And they’ve done it all with a dearth of resources and complete lack of ego.
In a cultural era increasingly dominated by specialization, solitary content creation and the cult of personality, Borderline is refreshingly out-of-step. The three share moviemaking duties (when Campos directs, Durkin and Mond produce and so on). They bounce ideas off each other, they collaborate constantly and they’re hellbent on seeing each other succeed.
“You’re killing yourself for these films, because there’s no money and things are impossible,” says Mond. “But at the end of the day, if your friend is happy, so are you.”
When Campos found critical acclaim with his—and Borderline’s—first feature, Afterschool, for example, he wanted to ensure that Durkin got Martha Marcy May Marlene made before embarking on his own next project.
This fully collaborative ethos, along with their working methods, crystallized while the three were students at New York University. Discovering their similar sensibilities and goals as moviemakers led them to begin working together on short film projects, including some for their “Sight & Sound” class, a protean Filmmaking 101 where students partner up to make one movie a week. Each week they rotate job titles, so the director one week might be the camera operator the next week and the editor the week after that. These assignments fortified their relationship and provided the template for how the guys would work together at Borderline.
Once they began making shorts, the three quickly discovered they were out of sync with many of their classmates. Whereas some students plowed up to $70,000 into their effects-heavy short films, Durkin, Campos and Mond rarely spent more than $1,500, because that was all they had.
“It forced us to have constraints,” says Durkin. “In doing so, we never jeopardized the visual side of a film or the acting. We always make sure a film looks the best it can—so that it fits the film—and that we get the best actors possible.”
“It forces you to strip away all that excess stuff,” adds Campos. “This is the equipment you have, these are the lenses you have, this is your crew, this is what you have to work with.”
The first time the three strayed from that framework, they got a rude awakening. While still in school, they tried mounting their first feature, Laid, a dark coming-of-age comedy that would have marked Jonah Hill’s first starring role. Instead, the money they were counting on fell through, and their crew was made up of strangers with more experience but less inclination to be true collaborators.
The film fell apart in a flash, both financially and creatively. When the Borderline trio eventually regrouped to make Afterschool, they committed to doing it their way: On a shoestring budget with a crew of other young and hungry moviemakers, using borrowed equipment and making no compromises.
“The experience [of working with Borderline] is always a good one, but it’s always a challenging one,” says editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier, who met the trio at NYU. “It’s always trying to push the limit. It’s always trying to get a little bit more out of everyone… and never taking no for an answer.”
Veteran producer Hope experienced Borderline’s creative resolution after reading the script for Martha Marcy May Marlene. Hope loved Durkin’s work and told the guys that if they wrote the third act as the cult coming to get Martha—more of a full-blown, Straw Dogs-like home invasion scenario—he could get them $12 million to make the film at a studio like Screen Gems.
They waited a beat, but didn’t hesitate in responding: “No, thank you. That’s not what we want to do.”
This happened again when Durkin emerged from the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs with new drafts of the script. Hope attempted to give the guys a realistic view of how long it would take to get the movie made. Instead, the three charged forward immediately and on their own, scrounging up some money and securing locations so that they could begin shooting as soon as the Directors Lab ended.
Borderline had its own vision for casting, too. Rather than cast a star to secure millions more in funding, as Hope wanted, Durkin waited to find the actor most natural to the role of Martha. That only happened after Elizabeth Olsen read for the part.
“They don’t ask for permission,” admits Hope. “They get it going, and they’re able to make a movie that is so specifically ‘A Sean Durkin Film.’ But it doesn’t come from compromise or trying to get the largest amount of money. It comes from having the conviction of your art. How rare is that?”
Following the success of Afterschool, Campos drew comparisons to such visionaries as Michael Haneke and Stanley Kubrick. After Martha Marcy May Marlene screened at Sundance, some Websites labeled Durkin as a moviemaker cast in the mold of New Hollywood. That comparison may sound like click-count-bait hyperbole, but it’s not far off from how Campos, Durkin and Mond see themselves.
“At the end of the day,” says Campos, “we’re trying to get back to something that’s more in line with the ’70s sort of filmmaking attitude of telling the stories you want to tell. And working within a system that allows you tell stories that are on a bigger scale, while still maintaining the integrity of the films you want to make.”
This unerring demand for integrity is an example to Borderline’s collaborators and has earned them respect within the independent film community. Sound mixer Micah Bloomberg (another NYU cohort) has worked on numerous non-Borderline films, including Frozen River and Tiny Furniture. Yet when he’s on other sets, Bloomberg says he’s always thinking about how the Borderline guys might approach things.
“Whenever I go on to a new job or get on a new crew,” says Bloomberg, “people are really pumped about me having worked on [Borderline] films. I’m more proud of working on those than just about anything else.”
Martha Marcy May Marlene has the potential to be Borderline’s most successful film to date. Ads began appearing on high-profile Websites like The New York Times in late summer and Olsen and the film were highlighted in the October issue of Vanity Fair.
Whatever happens, Campos, Durkin and Mond know that the audience’s response to the film is out of their control. In the end, what matters is that they’re able to continue telling their stories their way—and that they can help their friends do the same.
“I can’t imagine not doing this for a friend,” says Mond. “Because the shit we go through? You have to go through it for a reason.”
Martha Marcy May Marlene is in theaters now.