When best friends and indie filmmakers Sean Durkin, 29, Antonio Campos, 28, and Josh Mond, 28, first touched down at the Sundance Film Festival in January, they figured they’d handle it like they handle making movies: all together and on the cheap. They’d rented a five-bedroom condo. It would be home to fifteen-odd friends, family, and cast and crew members who helped them make their latest collaboration, the cults-and-country-homes psychological thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, for around $600,000.
“We went there thinking, ‘Holy fuck! We’re going to Sundance! Who has to sleep on the couch?’ ” says Campos. That would be him. He shared “an awful pullout” in the living room with one of the film’s actors, Brady Corbet, who was 22. Others in the room crashed on La-Z-Boys.
Since meeting eight years ago at NYU, the trio have stuck close. They all live in Williamsburg within blocks of each other. None of them is tall, they all have facial hair, and Durkin and Campos wear thick-framed glasses typical of the L-train rider. They’re essentially a collective, or maybe a band. One directs while the other two produce, and then they rotate. If one of them needs time to write a script, the other two will make commercials and music videos and split the money three ways. They named their company Borderline Films: “It’s the line between art and commerce, and we’re living it,” says Mond (plus they all secretly love that Madonna song). The idea is to be completely self-sustaining, three amigos against the world.
Martha Marcy May Marlene, which Durkin directed, wasn’t their first time at the festivals: Campos’s short Buy It Now, about a teenage girl selling her virginity on eBay, won first prize in the student competition at Cannes in 2005, when he was 21, and his first feature, Afterschool, about the ripple effects of a prep-school drug overdose, debuted there in 2008 and was then nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. But Martha, which was shot at Campos’s family’s farm in the Catskills, is another matter entirely: Since nobody can seem to remember its full name, it quickly became known as “the Lizzie Olsen movie,” after its 22-year-old star, Elizabeth Olsen. She’s the younger sister to the acting-and-fashion-designing Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley. And while she was technically an unknown actress and is still studying at NYU, she walked into Sundance with a publicist and a write-up in the fashion magazine V.
Martha debuted the first Friday of the festival. Small distributors bid right away, then bigger distributors; it sold to Fox Searchlight that Sunday for around $1.6 million. “I’ll never forget when Sean walked into the living room at 4:30 in the morning and I was like, ‘So what’s the deal, yo?’ And he just started laughing. I think his eyes bugged out of his head,” says Corbet. “We didn’t think we were going to sell the movie for that much money or to a company like that.”
“I didn’t know what to do,” says Durkin. “We’d run out of alcohol in the house. I think we tried to go to a bar to celebrate and it closed after twenty minutes, so we just went to bed.”
A movie about the post-traumatic-stress disorder of a woman (Martha, played by Olsen) who escapes a sexually abusive back-to-the-land cult full of attractive Bushwick types isn’t likely to be the next Transformers. But Durkin left Sundance with the top prize for a U.S. director. When Martha played at Cannes, they noticed an increase in their social status, says Mond over steak and liquor at Walter Foods in Williamsburg. “It’s the first time we’ve been on Paul Allen’s yacht. I was always trying to figure out how to get on that boat.”
“You just eat a lot and walk around and go, ‘I can’t believe it’s real!’ ” says Durkin.
“If you smoke, it’s awesome, because there’s any kind of cigarette you want all the time,” says Campos.
“I stole four packs,” says Mond.
Thanks to Olsen and her nuanced performance, the film is getting the sort of press—W, Vanity Fair,and Elle—they’ve never gotten before. Even if the stories are all about her. (Olsen did not stay in the condo in Park City with the rest of them.) Over the phone, she laughs about the media’s breathless “discovery” of her. “The whole thing where it was like ‘Another Olsen exists!’ was just silly to me,” she says. “There are lots of us in my family. I’ve been around.”
Martha opens October 21, shortly before Borderline will be settling into their first real work space, which will be nice because it means Durkin’s wife, Melinda Gananian, who does photography postproduction, no longer has to print out drafts of his scripts at her job.The new office is just off Bedford Avenue, near where they—and many of their friends and collaborators—live. They’re finally not living month to month. “It does feel like the light at the end of a very long, dark, narrow, shallow tunnel,” says Durkin. “And it’s the first time I’ve felt that way. Not rich, but that I can pay for things. Like dinner.”