'The Nest' Director Sean Durkin on How You Make a Thriller Feel Haunted [Interview]
Writer/director/producer Sean Durkin is unafraid to take us to some dark places, providing a unique and compelling vision along the way. The winner of the Sundance directing award for Martha Marcy May Marlene, he returned to that festival with The Nest, a creepy, harrowing character piece about a family’s struggles with their own dreams and expectations. It’s a film that takes genre elements and gives them a welcome twist, belying expectations at every move, resulting in a deep character piece that’s moving and effective.
In his original review, /Film writer Ben Pearson called the film a “searing, smoldering exploration of ambition”, and I also alliteratively described it as a “brittle, bleak take of a family fueled by hubris and ambition.” With an exceptional core cast of Carrie Coon, Jude Law, Charlie Shotwell and Oona Roch, there’s much to dig into this rich story.
/Film spoke to Sean by phone prior to the film’s theatrical relase.
The following has been edited for clarity and concision
Your film is a Canadian-UK co-production about a transatlantic crossing. Do you yourself feel like a Canadian-UK co-production, and did that come to mind when you were crafting the film?
[Laughs] Yeah! I was born in Canada, and I lived in England as a kid, though I’ve spent most of my life in America. So it’s funny the makeup of the film is very much all three countries.
How did that inform this thriller that you wrote how these cultures collide?
It always just starts from a character place. When I was a kid I moved to London from New York, and there was this huge difference, much different than it is now. I thought that would be good for this stark change as well as beyond that, when it becomes about family and marriage and getting into the detail of that and those things. I always start on my personal level. Over time I make decisions to shape it, such as about what year did I set it in. I chose 1986 because I wanted it to be centered on the eve of the financial Big Bang. Many companies in London being sold off at the time, and it seemed a chance to make a lot of money. Obviously no one knew that the financial markets would crumble a year later. I did want those values of that time to be at the core of what was going wrong in the family, with this idea of this guy who who’s been sold this idea of success and thinking he’s doing the right thing for his family, not thinking about the details and what it means emotionally. So it always comes for me out of the character first, and their decisions and the bigger scenes come later.
Success in America is rated one way, but there still is the massive baggage of class in Britain, where no matter what you earn you often can’t buy your way to prestige.
That was a big part of Rory. I really felt strongly about showing where he came from, even if it’s just a few minutes. To learn that Rory grew up on this estate [ie., lower income housing], it shows that he has broken out of that class system. That’s something major that drives his character. That leads him to be quite confused about who he is because he’s so worried about what he’s not.
That’s why I really loved the whole central metaphor of the title of the film. It’s all about where we come from and our origins – we can’t choose our nest, but we choose what happens after. Then there are things like cuckoo birds that take over other birds’ nests and make it their own, but that’s an even darker drive.
Exactly. It’s about where we choose to build a home.
Can you talk about bringing that family together?
Each person took a different path. I’d spent some time with Carrie through friends the year before and got to know her a bit. For some reason at first I wasn’t even thinking about her, and then my casting director said her name and it was like a light opened up! I needed someone who could capture a duality. I think we’re not used to seeing characters that are more than one thing – You have this person who is hard-working, engaged in physical labour, mucking out stalls, and a real horse person, but also a woman who loves to get dressed up and go out. That’s just a surface description of it, but to capture those things in tandem believably is quite tricky, and Carrie just has that in her. With Jude, I asked him to read it and he met me in L.A. From the very first conversation we just wanted the same things from the project, which was to find that nuance and heart and love that’s underneath everything Rory does, even if it doesn’t seem like it at times. Jude just has massive heart and warmth and so I just knew that he would capture that and give it that real internal life. For casting the kids, we did a pretty wide search in New York. This is Oona’s first role, she had self-taped audition and I knew immediately she’s it. Her character had to have a toughness and adry humor under everything, and Oona just had that in her first audition. Charlie’s done so much work, he’s so experienced, so reliable, he’s such a great kid. I’d seen a bunch of people, and come across his tape and we met in person and it was, like, how old are you?! It’s quite a quiet role and he’s not that, and so it was great for him to have the wise eyes underneath this character.
This felt a little bit, in a good way, like a Cronenberg film, maybe because of Jude’s involvment. Are there specific filmmakers, specific tones that you looked at while crafting the script of getting that sense of unease that is baked through it?
The movie that really opened my eyes to what a family drama could be was Shoot the Moon, the Alan Parker film from the early 80s, which I had never even heard of. That’s just the best family drama I’ve ever seen, hands down. The writing’s incredible, the acting’s incredible, the direction’s incredible, it has a naturalism, but an atmosphere in really subtle ways, in the setting, in the changing seasons, in these parents splitting up and they’re in two different houses. That became a guide for me when writing it. In addition to that I drew upon the films of Alan Clarke, since I’m making something set in England of the 80s. Clarke explored very different worlds than this, but he had an ability over and over again to capture some absolute truth of British life. Then, films like The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby are my bedrock.
I guess that’s what I’m reaching for. There’s a thriller element here, and if you look at Eastern Promises or History of Violence, there’s this dance between genres, that you have what’s essentially a family drama wrapped in this other sort of hard intensity. Kubrick makes sense, and even Bergman – You’ve mentioned previously you’re a big fan of Persona.
Yeah. I wanted the genre elements without fully going there, without making it a horror film, obviously. I wanted to use the elements to represent the emotional experience of what was going on with characters. I was creating these bones of the haunted house, without being haunted. Yet the people in it feel haunted.
Do you consider yourself part of the American Indie community?
I don’t think about those things. I’m just interested in the work. I have a wide variety of interests that I haven’t got to explore yet, so I just do the work that I’m drawn. Whatever the labels are around that, I’m not sure about. I would just say I’ve done a small part of what I can and want to do.
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