Set in the 1980s, Sean Durkin’s sophomore feature The Nest (2020), centres on Rory (Jude Law), an entrepreneur and former commodities broker who returns to his native England with his American wife, Allison (Carrie Coon), and their children. The move is predicated on a financially lucrative future as he returns to the company of his old employer, Arthur Davis (Michael Culkin). But beneath the façade of a centuries-old country manor the family lease, with grounds for Allison’s horses and plans to build a stable, a concealed truth threatens to disrupt the family’s hopes for the future.
Durkin’s previous credits include the indie darling
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), about a woman played by Elizabeth Olsen who, having fled a cult, returns home to her sister and brother-in-law. Similar to The Nest, it centres on relationships, truth and communication. He has also also directed the four part mini-series Southcliffe (2013), about a killing spree in a fictional English town, and produced Antonio Campos’ Afterschool (2008), Simon Killer (2012) and Christine (2016), as well as Josh Mond’s James White (2015).
In conversation with
PopMatters, Durkin talks about struggling to articulate his ideas, a desire to shine a light into the dark corners of the human condition, and his belief that we are programmed to feel guilt and shame.
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Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
It’s a collection of moments. I definitely had those great epiphanies, but they’re just things to build upon. I remember thinking as early as age nine that I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I didn’t quite know what that meant. I knew that movies like The Goonies (Donner, 1985) and Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985) made me feel a certain way, and I wanted to create that. There was just something about the creation of visual storytelling.
I used to write stories as a kid and then I started mucking around with my parents’ camcorder. So I certainly have those early moments, but I didn’t grow up in a very artistic world. Art wasn’t something taken seriously and certainly wasn’t a consideration for a life path. But it prevailed, and watching The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) for the first time when I was twelve, that was the moment when I knew that’s what I was going to do. Again, I don’t think I could articulate it at the time, but it planted the seed.
There’s something about seeing the creation of a space and an atmosphere, and it’s haunting. I just felt I understood it, and something about that experience of watching The Shining, I felt on some level that I could create.
Over time there are moments like that, and then I took a film class in my first year of college, before going to film school. I had a great teacher who showed a lot of Hitchcock, and I started to break down the art of cinema for the first time.
To pick up on your point about the difficulties of articulating a feeling, what struck me about The Nest was that I struggled to express why I felt so compelled by its drama. It’s a human trait to want to explain your feelings, and film can sometimes provoke impulsive emotions that cannot be explained. This appears to have been carried over from Martha Marcy May Marlene, that provoked similar feelings.
It’s a great observation because it’s very similar to how I will describe my process of filmmaking, and particularly writing. “I don’t quite know why I want to make this thing, but I do, and I can’t really tell you.” I’m terrible at pitching and I have trouble in the television world, or just trying to answer questions about why? “I feel it, and if you trust me, we’ll do it, and then it’ll feel worthwhile.”
Jude Law as “Rory”, Carrie Coon as “Allison” and Charlie Shotwell as “Benjamin” in Sean Durkin’s The Nest. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
I’ve been asked how I create tension in my work, and I don’t know. When I’m directing I’ll change the camera a little bit, or there may be something in the room, or it’ll be lit a certain way. I’ll tweak it or change something, and then there it is, that’s what I was looking for. I couldn’t tell you before what it was, but now that I’ve seen it, I know it’s there.
… I love the details, and it’s like Arthur’s speech [to Rory about building a successful company] — I love the one-percent of the time, and that’s how I approach everything, by incrementally building.
Is there a desire to challenge the audience by not telling stories with a tidy conclusion?
Unintentionally. I wouldn’t say I’m trying to challenge the audience, I’m trusting the audience. When I watch something and it’s laid out for me, I get annoyed about it because I don’t need that. It’s a very difficult line to walk because you want to give enough, but not too much. My tastes air on the much less than most do in terms of information.
When I watch something, if I have to catch up with a situation or keep an ear out for a piece of information, that engages me. It’s what I want, and that’s what I want to create — to give you a story where you feel like you’re dropping in on people. It has existed before you were there and will continue after you turn it off. Obviously, it’s fiction and I know that, but those are the things that stick in my mind, and also great short stories that capture a little piece of my imagination.
Similar to Allison, we are gradually piecing together the reality Rory has sold her and the children. The need to feel a connection with both of them, and not to drift into a simplified disliking of him, is critically important.
… I wanted this to be very much a movie that feels like a fifty-fifty exploration of a marriage and a family, where each character is going through what they want, what’s natural to them, versus what they’re carrying out that they’re told they’re supposed to. What does it mean to be a wife? What does it mean to be a husband? Both want to challenge those things, but both feel responsible for them, and so it’s messy.
Jude Law as “Rory” and Carrie Coon as “Allison” in Sean Durkin’s The Nest. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
I want it to be the messiness of life because I love the dark corners of being human. We should shine lights on them with no shame, and it’s easier said than done, but there’s so much there. We’re programmed to be ashamed of things, and it’s just so human, and this movie is about that shame that we feel for things that are totally natural.
I appreciate films that capture the monotony and the repetitive rhythm of life. Rory waking Allison with a hot drink is repeated throughout. It not only creates a sense of the passage of time but also as the tension between the pair heightens, how the structure of their life is juxtaposed with the instability of thoughts and feelings.
I wanted to make this about cycles. You see one cycle and you get the sense this has happened before, and maybe it’ll happen again. But this is supposed to be the lowest moment, and something truthful has come out of it. Nothing will ever be the same again because the truth has come out.
It’s those cycles and routines that we get into, and what we accept. I recognise that we latch onto these things. The emotions around them change, and then suddenly everything’s the same on the surface, but for some reason, there’s a breaking point boiling underneath, and that’s where this movie comes from.
Often in melodramatic films it’s about the explosion, whereas you’re interested in the internalised approach of cracks appearing, and the threat of the family fracturing. Allison’s horse becomes a metaphor for their reality, without them having to verbally express it.
It’s so internalised that it’s about the littlest thing of Allison saying enough. It’s this buildup to this simplest of gestures, and the horse serves as having both meaning, and cinematic imagery to it.
It’s funny because as I was writing, I wasn’t thinking about the horse as a metaphor at all. Some of the more personal detail I experienced in life was the horse and finding it buried. Those are moments from my life, and so they seem metaphorical and cinematic, but they’re the truest.
Jude Law as “Rory” in Sean Durkin’s The Nest. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
The horse certainly carries that divided world view between Rory and Allison. She’s more emotional with the horse than she is with anyone else. It’s easier for her, the way it’s easier for him to say something to a taxi driver than to his family.
Characters can help us to understand ourselves and provoke contemplation of human nature. In this context, cinema can function as a form of therapy.
Why I made the film was to think about communication, truth and relationships. One person’s truth is not another person’s, and there’s this incredible thing that can happen in families about normalcy too, of what’s normal. But suddenly you’re out in the world in your twenties, you realise, ‘Oh, that wasn’t so normal’ [laughs].
Some people have that more than others but everyone experiences it because things are normalised. Film should absolutely reflect that and offer different perspectives. Humans get locked into their own perspectives and the beauty of a film, when done well, is it can show you different perspectives.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me, “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
It can be, but it depends. Southcliffe changed my life drastically. Doing something that was that long and rigorous about a spree killing had a huge impact on me. You always learn something, you always gain some sort of knowledge, but it depends. Probably in some aspect, yes, but sometimes it can be more minor, sometimes more major. It depends on where you are in your life, what you’re going through, and what the subject is.