Nine years after the release of his first feature Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin returns with the familial drama The Nest, starring Jude Law and Carrie Coon as dueling partners attempting to salvage a complicated marriage. Both recently receiving Gotham Award nominations, the two actors trade off stealing scenes, taking control of Durkin’s film and their own lives in the process. Durkin’s sophomore effort shows his continued affinity towards the horror of everyday life, of relationships, of trauma, and of the way we interact with those closest to us.
The Film Stage chatted with Durkin about the intersection of politics and film, the similarities between his two features, and the directorial choices he makes when working with established actors.
The Film Stage: Since most of us are talking and thinking about politics right now, what do you think a filmmaker’s place is in society? Should they be involved in politics? Where’s your place in all of that?
Sean Durkin: I think it’s personal. I think it’s simply personal getting behind a belief or cause. And I think it’s kind of that simple. That’s really great. It’s funny, I think a lot about this in terms of the work itself as someone who’s not on social media and has no sort of public presence. I spent a lot of time trying to make a movie about Janis Joplin, who was so outspoken and ahead of her time and political in her actions. And, you know, as a woman in the counterculture movement of the 60s, that was still a very sexist world and she did so much politically with her actions just by the way she appeared on stage, the way she spoke. I really love Alan Pakula films and I rewatched Klute and The Parallax View recently multiple times. The Parallax View in particular is just this stunning account of the anxiety of a nation at a point in time. It’s a full blown political thriller with as unhappy an ending as there ever could be, where the political machine wins, because it’s just too big to take down. And so with Janice and her actions, she was an example for liberating a constricted 50s idea of what a woman should be. And because of the time, those were really important, relevant messages. And that was the way to be political. But now musicians and actors and whoever have their political voices outside of the work. And in some ways it can tend to make work that is overtly political at times feel redundant. But it changes the landscape of making political work.
And so it’s tricky, and it’s certainly crossed my mind with The Nest, trying to make something that’s set in a point in time in 1986. It’s pre-financial crash, the height of deregulation, the height of privatization in England. It’s a moment where London becomes open to American companies trading there. It is the bridging of those two cultures and the exporting of the American dream. I wanted to draw on that, but that stuff is secondary to the fact that it is also just a family, trying to find the truth within itself.
Since you aren’t on social media, isn’t making political movies one of the few ways you can get out a message, or attempt to say something to a larger audience?
I think I am sort of searching for how to do that. I’m creating a bar that I would hold myself to. I don’t want to do something that misses the point. I want to try to link it into a personal character journey. I’m writing these things now that are along similar lines, like maybe doing this too. But first and foremost these are personal explorations for the characters.
Towards the end of The Nest, Rory says “I pretend I’m rich” to the cab driver. Why come out and say it like this? Instead of keeping it underlying how it is in the rest of the film?
Because he’s not a self reflective person. And it’s a moment of self reflection, and it felt right to me. He’s constantly building up armor and building up this facade. And in this moment of total release, almost like he’s at his lowest and he just has no facade. And so it comes out maybe as a cathartic thing for him even just to say out loud, just to admit it. I certainly meant it not as information because obviously we all know that watching it, but it was more for him to actually say something out loud that he is able to say to a stranger, because saying it to a stranger doesn’t have the same shame. If he said that to his wife or his family, there’s a whole lot of shame attached to that. But if he said that to a stranger, it’s slightly less shameful. At least it’s easier to get out.
Do you feel as though it’s more of Rory’s or Allison’s film?
I think it’s pretty even. I wanted it to be even. I wanted them to both have equal journeys. The thing that fluctuates is who is guiding the story in a lot of ways. It starts off even and then he guides it. And then by the end, she takes it back. I think. You could maybe argue it’s slightly more hers, but I don’t know, I really wanted to make it equally about a marriage and two sides of that marriage.
Where’d you find the house?
It was just like doing a casting call. It was this amazing location in England.
So it was in England?
We shot the part that’s supposed to be New York in the beginning in Toronto because we did a Canadian and UK co-production to finance it. And then we went to England for the rest of it. So everything that’s set in England in the movie was actually shot in England.
Why was that important to you?
I just watch so many movies. I scouted in Georgia, so I recognize all these locations and all these movies in Georgia. And now that I’ve shot in Toronto, it’s the same. I just believe in as much authenticity as possible. And sometimes it’s not possible.
How many houses do you think you saw?
I saw about 10 to 15. We went and did this little bus trip for a few days around London. And some places were just too big. Others were perfect outside, but inside didn’t have the open space that I needed and wanted. And then some places were just like little castles with drawbridges, which is ridiculous. And then when we saw this house, it was just right. And this is actually the last one we saw. We thought we were not going to find it. It’s like 700 years old, in one family for over 400 years.
Both of your films end without a clear conclusion. There aren’t resolutions. What’s the reason for that?
I think they’re the right answers, the right endings for these movies. I don’t know that I’ll always feel that way about other work. I’m writing a couple scripts now, and one of them might have a similar ending, but one has a totally different, very conclusive ending. When I watch a movie, I want to know that when it starts, I’m dropping in on a life that has existed before and that when it ends, I’m sure it’s going to continue afterwards. It’s like creating a world that lives in the viewers head afterwards. I don’t want to make work that is just for the moment. So much of the film industry is so focused on the year it comes out and the awards season, and all these sorts of things that are just so short-sighted for the life of a movie. We’ve learned that people’s opinion in the year a movie was made is not the same as it is in 10 to 20 years. And so I want to make work that stays with people and is haunting and exists and asks questions.
Do you feel an obligation to viewers to have a more concrete conclusion, though?
I think the conclusion of Martha is conclusive in the sense that she is now going to live in this continuous state for a long time where she doesn’t know who to trust and she doesn’t know if the people following her are from a cult or not. It’s an unsettling ending, but I do think it is conclusive. With The Nest, I have a thing where… some of the worst nights of my life… what do you do the next morning? You get up and you eat breakfast. You sit together in silence. That’s just how you continue. And so for me, I see The Nest as being quite a hopeful ending. The truth has come out, and they’re together. and what’s next like? There’s no way to make a movie about a family and be like, “Okay, they now live happily ever after.” Because that doesn’t exist. And so it’s about finding that balance of being truthful to the story and being conclusive.
In The Nest, there are several shots through windows and mirrors. Was this a conscious decision or did it happen naturally?
Yeah, it kind of just happens. There’s certainly no conscious choice to say, “Okay, we’re gonna do a series of shots through glass or something, it’s often just a feeling that it might create. When they first arrive in the house in England, we stay in the car, and let them get out. And for me that creates a really unsettling feeling of hanging back and watching in this slightly obscure way. That just felt the right feeling I wanted for that scene. And so that’s more where it comes from, just with those right moments.
You’ve received lots of praise for drawing out great performances. When you were on the set of The Nest, and you aren’t seeing your actors slip into character with effortlessness, how are you coaching them?
I think if you get great actors and if you choose the right actors, it’s not about coaching anyone. It’s about talking about the idea, about being in it. If something’s not going right, the person’s probably distracted. If I think of it in terms of sports, if an athlete is in their zone and not thinking and just operating on their skill set, that’s when they play best. And I think acting is the same way. Oftentimes, when I’m shooting a scene, if I don’t know where to put the camera, there’s probably a problem with the script. And it was a really interesting realization to happen. It’s been completely consistent with scenes that are really well written that I just know exactly how to shoot [them]. Early on, I invite the actor to change the words if they need to, so that they feel right for the person saying them, because I think that’s also a big part of getting a good performance, making sure that they can seamlessly deliver those lines and believe that they’re their own.
When you hear critics praising directors for pulling great performances, what do you think? It’s a compliment given to certain directors whose movies garner Best Actor and Best Actress nominations, but what does that look like in action?
I don’t believe it’s pulling performances. I believe it’s creating the environment, and knowing how to make decisions. What I want as a director is an actor to feel safe enough to give me their full range. Because if an actor doesn’t trust a director, they hold back. And so then an actor starts thinking, and I’ve talked to actors about this, then they start thinking about like, “Oh, well, I’m just going to keep it in this range, because I don’t trust what this director is going to do with the material afterwards, and I don’t want to be left exposed.” I really feel for them. Sometimes I watch actors that I know and I feel so upset, because I know what they have to give, and I know how good they are. I think it’s about trust, and it’s about letting the actors do their best work. That’s about protecting their performance, and knowing their tics, knowing their bad habits, knowing what is a good take, what’s not a good take, and knowing where to end the scene. You want the actor to feel safe to do a bad take. You want them to go too far. And then we can all laugh about it afterwards, because it’s a safe space to do that.
How was the environment during The Nest? Are you more rigid, doing dozens and dozens of takes, or more relaxed during shoots?
The vibe is usually very relaxed. I like it to feel very close, very intimate, but calm and quiet. There was certainly a point towards the end of the shoot where I could just feel like there was a lack of focus, and so I asked everyone to come together and just remain calm and focused. And it’s very rare I’ll do more than 10 takes. I tend to do more like five to seven. I know there’s all sorts of different methods around this and different philosophies around this, but the only thing I can say, from my experience, is that when we’ve done a scene, I know when we’ve got it. But I just know that anytime I’m like, “It’s definitely Take Six.” You get into the edit and it was Take One. And that happens 50% of the time.
But you’re shooting out of order?
Yes, but I try to shoot as much in order as possible. I really like to have the actors go through it as much in order as we can.
And how was working with Jude Law and Carrie Coon?
How did you land on them two as the leads?
Carrie, I met her through some friends. And then I spent a bit of time with her. And when we’re casting, I always start with my casting directors. A lot of filmmakers will just make offers and decide with their producers, but I involved casting directors in that process, both in England and in New York. Because they’re they’re so good. And I trust them so much. I want their input. So Susan [Shopmaker] and I were going through a list of people that fit the age and what we’re looking for and it wasn’t quite clicking. And Susan sent me an email with Carrie, just someone with that trance. She can transform. And she could be both sides of Allison and make them one seamless, believable person.
Jude, I just sent the script to his agent. So he got the script to Jude and and he responded and wanted to meet. We sat down and I just knew right away. For me, the thing about Rory on the page is that he’s had a tough year, he makes some tough decisions, he makes some that read as bad, you know, and I put that in quotes. And the thing that I wanted to portray was that his intentions are not bad. Even though he’s being deceitful, even though he’s making rash decisions, he truly believes in his own head that he is doing the best thing. And that was something that Jude got right away, and Jude wasn’t afraid of. Jude wasn’t afraid of being messy. And that’s what I’m always looking for. I’m looking for an actor who wants to go there, who wants to go to the depths of a human without judgment. Humans are messy, flawed beings, and I want to look at that without judging it.
Are you someone that gets close to the actors that you’re working with?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, you go through a film and you bond. You make some really true bonds. That doesn’t mean that we become friends or we see each other, necessarily. But we go through something. It depends on the person.
How’d you initially land on Elizabeth Olsen for Martha?
I really wanted to cast the lead as someone we hadn’t seen before. We didn’t want the audience to have a relationship. Having a young actor in their first movie is a really exciting thing. It just felt really right for the role, too. Whereas it didn’t feel that needed to happen in The Nest. Maybe it’s having someone who needed to lose their identity. So we just had an open casting call with Susan Shopmaker as casting director. One of the great things about working for her for years was that I got to see all these amazing actors, who were all on the fringes of booking stuff. Susan just has her finger on the pulse of great talent. And so I spent years in that room, just meeting these people and really seeing so much great talent that isn’t getting a break. I think that also played in my belief in taking that risk. So we had an open casting call that went on for a couple months and she was just the one. That was it.
She just had a real ease. I’m always looking for effortlessness in performance. I watch a lot of television and see a lot of people acting. I have this sort of radar that goes off when I see that. And obviously we’re watching TV, we always know we’re making a movie, you know, but it’s the question of what is naturalism. I really want to get lost in what’s happening in front of my eyes. And I find that when someone can slip into that with a certain level of ease, I find those to be my favorite performances. I felt she had that in the room. And the day she auditioned, she was heading upstate to do another movie that she was in. And so that was actually the first thing she shot, and then she came straight from there to us. I remember, after the audition, going in the waiting room, and she had these three big suitcases. I was kind of expecting someone to be there to help her, but she just walked out. There was something, a real strength to her.
And Susan was a mentor for you at NYU?
At school, I needed a job and she hired me to be a casting assistant in her office. She was a huge, huge part of my filmmaking in my 20s. We talked her into casting our first movie that never happened. But we got to work with her. We raised enough money to get her to cast it. And then the financing fell through and it was this big failure, which was great. It was the best thing that could’ve happened to us. You just have to learn that money in films is often not real. And you have to learn that lesson.
What was that first film?
It was going to be a high school comedy. That Josh in Antonio. Antonio [Campos] was going to direct it and Josh [Mond] and I were producing it. We had a great cast. Jonah Hill was gonna be in it. I think it was gonna be his first movie. I might be wrong about that.
The Nest is now available digitally.