Interview: Sean Durkin on how ‘The Nest’ helped him exorcise childhood demons
It’s 1986, and Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) is about to export the American Dream to his home country of London in Sean Durkin’s The Nest, which just hit VOD this week. By all accounts, he’s a successful family man: charming, great with his kids, affectionate towards his wife Allison (Carrie Coon), herself a headstrong woman with a mind of her own. But when they move to England to chase a new business opportunity — a move Rory says is borne of promise, and not desperation, as their dwindling finances imply — a looming new house and the isolation that accompanies it sets a haunting stage for a sophisticated family drama.
His first feature film since Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), Durkin’s enigmatic, layered approach is in full force once again, letting his camera float among the cavernous spaces of the family’s new home to highlight just how lonely they all feel. Law and Coon are positively electric as two people whose splintered ambitions drive them apart, Coon (a veteran of the Chicago stage and revelatory work in series like Fargo and The Leftovers) a particular standout as the songbird scrambling to escape the cage she’s been pushed into. Law, for his part, glides into the well-tailored suit of a fast-talking businessman so haunted by the prospect of mediocrity Willy Loman might even call him desperate.
For the week of the film’s release, AwardsWatch sat down with Durkin to explore the nuances of his process, mining drama from his childhood experiences, and the ways it explores the ‘80s capitalistic machismo we’re still seeing the wreckage of today.
Clint Worthington: This is the first feature film you’ve made since Martha Marcy May Marlene in 2011. What happened in between that led you to The Nest?
SEAN DURKIN: A lot! So I went to England to make Southcliffe, which is a four-part miniseries for Channel 4; that was a very big undertaking both in its size and emotional impact. Then producing films — James White, Christine, Piercing, a handful of movies — while also writing. I started writing The Nest in 2014 but had a couple of other films I was working on before that. I only wrote [The Nest] for about three or four years, but it was quite sporadic. I could write for a few months and put it down for a year, come back to it. There was also a lot of life stuff, some personal changes; I became a father, among other things.
It’s funny because now, I can’t imagine anything else being my second film — The Nest is such a perfect second film for me.
There’s a lot of John Cassavetes DNA in there, even a bit of Nicolas Roeg, especially, in The Nest. Were those conscious influences of yours? And what other things bled into the film’s landscape?
I love Cassavetes, and his work, but I’m not a Cassavetes freak or anything. But for me, Opening Night is my favorite of his – I saw it for the first time while writing The Nest. And [Roeg’s] Don’t Look Now, definitely, is a horror film, but it’s not. It’s a film about a relationship, about grief. I think I’m generally attracted to those movies where there’s a real relationship at the core of something bigger. Something like Rosemary’s Baby, you know, which holds up over time so well. Because no one can understand what it’s like to be impregnated by the devil, but we can latch on to the distrust and the deteriorating relationship at its center.
The film that made the biggest impact for me specifically was [Alan Parker’s] Shoot the Moon, which I saw for the first time after having a meeting with someone early on about the script, who recommended it. That was a real revelation and made me want to make a real family drama. [Ang Lee’s] The Ice Storm is another family drama that resonates with me.
The Nest is set in the ‘80s, which is a very specific time period that latches nicely to Rory’s old-school capitalist, greed-is-good kind of personality. What was it about that particular time period you really wanted to play around with?
I lived in England in the ‘80s, and moved to New York in 1993. So it started from a place of reflecting on my own childhood, and then it became more about time and wanting to look at the celebrated values of that time. The ambition, the bigger-is-better, the exploiting of the American Dream. All the things that we’re dealing with today are really rooted in 1986.
It’s a real marker, you know? It’s pre-financial crash, it’s the moment in time when London opened up its markets and American businesses moved into England, and privatization was at its height. So I wanted a character that was intrinsically linked to those values, and that the chasing of those values is the thing that would pull this family apart.
What do you want to explore in that dynamic, especially between Rory and Allison as these two headstrong people dealing with these conflicting values?
I wanted to have this marriage where, when the film begins, it’s egalitarian — they’re both working, and he does the breakfast and the school drop. These were unconventional, shared-parent values for 1986, so I wanted to explore what happens to the family when that’s not enough for Rory when he chases something he sees as bigger and better. Then I wanted to see how Allison dissolves into this role to suit him and ultimately follow his interest, to look at the gender setups of marriage.
They’re both characters of great duality; they’re both more than one thing. I wanted to have these individual journeys where they wrestle with both sides of themselves, and each other, too. I wanted it to be very layered and human and flawed. What’s really important to me in my work is not simplifying characters down just because it’s easier.
What was the casting process like for Jude and Carrie? Did you have them in mind at all when writing?
No, I try not to think about actors when I’m writing. Obviously, you can occasionally start to drift and think, “Who could this be?” or “How can I build this?” But I genuinely like to leave a blank slate. I also like to use my casting directors; a lot of directors just make offers without using one, but I really work closely with mine, and I trust them deeply.
I’d met Carrie a couple of times through friends, and Susan Shotmaker, my casting director, and I were talking about who could be Allison. And one day, Susan mentioned Carrie, and it clicked for me. I knew from meeting her and seeing her work, and knowing she could encapsulate all that duality. She’s so grounded but then can inhabit the elegant side of Allison. That was a no-brainer; I sent her the script and called her right away.
Jude took a little longer to get to, I think, but we sent him the script and he responded to that. From day one, we both had the same question: Rory does a lot of questionable things, but he’s doing them with heart. He truly believes that they’re the best thing for his family and for him.
For Jude and I both, that was where we started: the first thing on his mind was to make sure that warmth was on the surface. And Jude’s such a warm, open guy that that was all just there. I knew that would make the character feel real and whole.
There’s been a really interesting progression to his career the last decade or so – aging out of the young heartthrob he was in the 90s and 2000s into this really interesting character actor in middle age with stuff like The Third Day, The Young Pope, and this. Is there ever a thought in your head about leveraging Jude Law the movie star and Jude Law the actor?
I tend to not think about those things. The way I work is, I need an actor, and it doesn’t matter to me if it’s one of the most famous actors in the world or a young kid who’s never done a movie. My job is to support their process, whatever that process is, and give them the platform to trust me so they can do their work without worry. They can give me everything and be messy and not worry about being perfect. They can just let it out.
But the thing I’ll say about Jude is that he was just willing to go there with Rory. I think a lot of famous actors aren’t willing to do very messy things, to go to the depths that make interesting human characters. But Jude just fully went there, and I loved working with him.
Let’s talk about the way you shot The Nest as well — finding that house and finding ways to fill that space and pay attention to the negative space. How did you find the house, by the way?
It was just like a casting call — we searched every house within a few hours of London. We had a great location scout, and then from there, I went to ten to fifteen in person. There’s a very nice house in that part of the world that’s a typical successful trader’s house, but we needed something above that. But if you go too far above that you have small castles, you know? And we needed a lot of open space in the interior; that was the hardest thing to find.
In this house, in particular, every room has two doors. Most of them have three doors, it’s weird. So we wanted all those doors to be open so you could always see through them and it’s never enclosed. It’s never safe and cozy. And once I got there, I just sort of… let it speak to me, I don’t know how to put it.
You know that shot where Ben (Charlie Shotwell) is running up the stairs or down the hallway at night, and then it cuts to outside the window and he’s running up the stairs? We were outside in between shots one night, and someone was pre-lighting those stairs; [cinematographer Mátyás Erdély] and I were downstairs having a cup of coffee in the dark and the cold in that driveway. And we looked up and we’re like, “Oh my God, look at that angle in the window, it looks amazing!” It’s just that sense of being on your toes in a place and letting it guide you.
One of the most fascinating elements is Allison’s horse Richmond, which is an important part of her character that almost teeters on the edge of being this overt symbol but also informs the character in an interesting way.
It’s funny, because, in the end, it definitely feels like a metaphor, but those are things I just don’t think about when writing. I refuse to think about them. But obviously, it is, and I have to accept that. But it’s also a very personal detail from my life.
I worked on farms, and my mother and sister manage stables, so I grew up around it. And, you know, spoiler alert, but there was a horse on a place that died and wasn’t buried very deep, and it did rise up like that. My sister’s horse died very suddenly; when she was riding it, it had an aneurysm running into a fence. So these parts of the movie that feel so big and symbolic are actually some of the more specific details from my own life.
One misconception about horses from people who aren’t around horses, I think it can seem like this wealthy thing, which if obviously can be, but a lot of horse owners are very much hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people. I think that’s what it is to Allison; it’s almost a spiritual thing. It’s a connection to an animal that is very silent and specific.
And Richmond can express the anguish that Allison’s feeling in this new place.
Absolutely. And again, not something I consciously thought about, just in the literal terms of ‘something’s happening to this horse, it’s not well, and they’re ignoring it.’ But in the end, it’s Allison’s release — it’s the only time she cries, you know? She can have an emotional connection with the horse that’s maybe easier than the humans in her life.
But Rory represents the other side of that, which is that he thinks a horse is something you can brag about at a party: “Oh, we have horses, we’re building a stable.” He can see it as a status symbol, which is the great misconception and divide in their worldviews.
Which he makes clear in that big fight in the living room, where his first reaction to Richmond dying is to complain that someone sold him a faulty horse. What was the process like for shooting that big scene?
I don’t rehearse; Jude, Carrie, and I had a day together, then we had another day together with the kids, but we don’t really talk about the script. We really just get in on the day and rehearse that morning. The fight scene was a good example of a pretty standard day, but it was obviously a big, important scene. We’ll come in, and I’ll have an idea of how we want to shoot it, Mátyás and I will shot-list it. But we’ll leave it to decide on the day; we’ll let the actors walk in, find the space and we’ll block it like it was a play.
That day in particular really felt like a play, because I wanted to create a space where they could move and find themselves naturally. Then we rehearse the camera while they’re rehearsing and we get to know where the bones of the scene are. But then we stop, we let them light the set, and we come back and do it.
I think we did ten takes of that scene, maybe, and that’s on the higher end for me; I usually do more like three to six. But once we’re rolling I just want to roll. That scene was all one shot, a very specific camera move. We’ll do it, reset, give them a couple of minutes in between, and go again. Once we’re in a scene, especially one that intense, I want everyone to stay in it, and have as minimal fuss in between — no makeup, no costume checks, if possible — just take a breath and go again. It was grueling, but one of those more special moments, because they were just so in it, and feeding off each other.
Both here and in Martha Marcy May Marlene, there’s always this incredible tension between characters and the frame; characters often have their backs turned, or you don’t totally see them. There’s this enticing distance you leave us with, where we never really see what everyone’s doing 100% of the time. Is that something you enjoy doing, keeping audiences at a remove?
I like to see people in their settings, and I like to see people together. And sometimes, that’s more important to me than focusing on smaller details. And it also depends on how you see it — when you watch it on a big screen in a theater, it doesn’t feel as far, you know. I tend to have the cinema in mind, and I try to keep it there, obviously, knowing that people were going to see it there when I was shooting.
But for me, it’s about space and seeing people in their space. It’s a trade-off of letting the actor flow and find the space as opposed to punching in and getting emotion, which to me can feel very false at times. Whereas if two people play out a scene, they can end up being more in it. But I’m also very specific about when we do go close, you know? There are plenty of moments in the film that do, and they’re there for a reason.
You’ve said in interviews before that when you make a film, you think about things that scare you, and you wrap your head around things so you can confront them. What do you think you were confronting here?
I don’t know — how my childhood scares me? [Laughs.] I mean, honestly, I probably had some weird, tense experiences as a child I wanted to explore that are somewhere in this movie. I also think that misguided ambition scares me, more on a societal level. But obviously, there’s a personal aspect of that, too.
The movie does feel indicative of the era in which it was filmed and released, which thankfully does seem to be ending to an extent. It feels weird watching it in Trump’s America, to an extent, because Trump feels like the ur-example of what Rory could have been, had he been a little more successful and had more of a golden parachute.
Absolutely, I mean, it’s exploring a form of masculinity that says to put your head down, say whatever you need to get through the day. Get to the next moment and not be accountable for anything that you say. To bullshit your way through a storm. And yeah, we’ve been watching it every day for years. It’s absolutely a form of masculinity that was really rampant in the ‘80s and still is.
Though I don’t think Trump would get invited back to the breakfast table at the end of the day.
God, I hope not.
The Nest is currently available anywhere you stream VOD.