Writer-director Sean Durkin and actress Elizabeth Olsen visited Dallas recently to talk about their film “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” an impressionistic study of a young woman who escapes from a cult, only to find dealing with the outside world—and the memory of her experience—traumatic. Widely praised at the Sundance Film Festival, the picture is now rolling into general release.

“My goal for the film,” Durkin explained of his first feature, “was to create this central idea that a friend of mine shared with me about the first few weeks after she escaped [from a cult]—that she doesn’t remember anything but lying to everybody about where she’d been. And she was paranoid that she saw [the cult leader] everywhere. And to me that became the center of the film psychologically and cinematically, and drove everything. So those transitions, and capturing the state that she’s in, where you don’t remember anything and you’re trying to figure it all out, you’re lying and operating in survival mode—that became the core focus.”

Former child star Olsen joined the project late in the day. “I got the part about three or four weeks before we started shooting,” she recalled. “When I first read the script, what I actually connected with had more to do with her growing paranoia and oncoming fear that someone is after her. That was my initial reaction when I first read it. And then after that it was just trying to figure out what she was missing in her life, in her past, that these people provided for her, and what it was that she found with them. And so it was more to approach it from a really human point of view.

“A lot of people ask if I did research. There are obviously moments when I wanted to know about personal experiences of other people, and they’re involved in groups, and Sean had done extensive research and talked to lots of different people. And so I would ask him about other people’s experiences. But I tried to forget about the larger picture and focus on the scene-by-scene goal. There was lots of molding and sculpting things, trying to make things more specific.”

Olsen noted the pressure brought by the film’s bipartite structure, which shifts from the cult’s rural farm to the lakeside home of her sister and brother-in-law, where she has to come to terms with her past and the present. “I literally created two charts and had two different arcs, one at the farmhouse and one at the lakehouse. To me there’s an increase of hope and more of a positive outlook at the farm. I was trying to figure out and navigate that she was actually receiving something. And then at the house it was this increase of paranoia—survival mode. I treated it like one person, but two different things I had to figure out.”

Durkin added, “I remember the transition to the lake was very hard the first day. When you read the script, psychologically the journey was clear. And so a lot of the goal was to take that away and not think about it. You can’t think about a scene in an intellectual way of understanding the script while you’re performing it. There’s already so much there, you don’t need to worry about bringing anything else to it.” Olsen agreed: “It was already on the page.”

One of the film’s most notable qualities is its enigmatic, fractured style, which shifts abruptly between past and present, reality and hallucination. The approach, Durkin said, is “to show [the effects of] brainwashing.” But instead of a straight-on, didactic format, he explained, “what I wanted was a more subtle approach, because you have to understand how she got sucked into it. What I took from my interviews [with ex-cult members] were the details of the manipulation—the adjustment of the moral compass. And then [Elizabeth] took that and took it even further.”

“When I auditioned,” Olsen remembered, “I wore no makeup, I didn’t do my hair. I think it’s distracting when you’re watching a movie and someone wakes up and they’re wearing lip gloss.”

And Durkin said, “In her audition I got a glimpse of those moments where she could portray a deeper thing going on [in the character].”

Made independently, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was purchased after its Sundance reception.

“We’re just very fortunate Fox Searchlight picked it up,” Durkin said.

And Olsen added with a chuckle, “They didn’t even ask us to change the title.”