It’s hard to believe it’s been nine years since Sean Durkin’s last feature film was released (the brilliant Martha Marcy May Marlene), but his latest, The Nest, is well worth the wait. Featuring a pair of powerhouse performances from Carrie Coon and Jude Law, The Nest is centered around an American family in crisis during the 1980s who begin to see the façade of their relationships cracking all around them after moving to England.
While The Nest may not necessarily be a genre movie per se, this writer couldn’t resist the opportunity to speak with Durkin about the project, and during our conversation, he discussed the inspirations behind the story, capturing the more subtle side of the 1980s, collaborating with both Coon and Law, and more.
The Nest is currently available on Digital and VOD, courtesy of IFC Films.
Great to speak with you today, Sean, and I really enjoyed the film. I think there's something really fascinating about what is compelling Rory to do the things that he's doing in this movie and it feels so perfect that you are using the ’80s as a backdrop, because it's such a false decade in a lot of ways. People at the time were living up to this American idealism of what they thought they needed to be, and I thought that Rory really represented what I feel like a lot of the ’80s was about.
Sean Durkin: Thank you. It all started from a personal reflection of some parts of my childhood, and once I got past that and started to look at the characters, I really wanted to link these celebrated values of the time, like this “bigger is better” mentality, and that ambition and this idea of this better, bigger life around the corner that's achievable. There’s this notion that was sold to people and still is, and I wanted to really integrate that into the core of this family drama, and how those things were haunting this family and driving them apart.
So while it started from a personal place, I worked backwards into 1986. It was a very specific moment in time where there was a real merging of American and British financial markets and companies and mergers. It's not that different than today in a lot of ways.
Sometimes when I'm watching movies and they take you back to a certain period of time, whether it's the ’80s or the ’90s, there’s a reliance on extreme wardrobe choices or these touchstones of those eras. But how you approached it in The Nest was very subtle and everything feels very natural. Can you talk a bit about how you and your team approached the time period?
Sean Durkin: The first thing I said to my art, costume, and makeup teams was that I think when people make movies about the ’80s, they have too much fun with it. And not to be a drag, but they always make these wild choices and those things were obviously there during that time, but we wanted to take the more subtle versions. A big marker for that was the suit that Rory wears. That was a big starting point for us. The extremes were out there, but it wasn't the most common way people dressed back then. So I wanted to really just hone in on those things and make it a bit more accurate than the more extreme versions that we're used to seeing.
When we think of that time visually, with clothes and things like that, it's actually not that different from where we are right now. And so we really based everything visually off of actual family photos, street photography, and other things to create this potentially imperceptible time period that was actually quite accurate, but also, it would make viewers feel even closer to today.
At the center of this is a family that is unraveling via capitalism. Or at least, that’s the way that I interpreted a lot of it. But these pressures begin to slowly tear them apart. There are some really intriguing family dynamics going on here, and while Jude and Carrie are just absolutely phenomenal, I think the kids really add a lot, without giving us these stereotypical performances that we've seen so many times about a family that is in crisis. There are all these very quiet moments that really drive this narrative, which I thought was fascinating, and it’s kind of like the saying, where the end of the world is going to come along, not with a bang, but with a whimper. I really enjoyed that about The Nest.
Sean Durkin: With the kids, I wanted to find the right balance for them. I wanted them to be the collateral damage of this relationship between Rory and Alison in some way, where they're almost witnesses to these events. They see their parents’ struggles and they’re searching for answers.
As mentioned, I really enjoyed both Jude and Carrie here, but there's so much of this movie that Carrie really drives, and she is utterly fantastic. How was it working with them for their onscreen relationship and getting to the crux of what is driving their characters’ marriage?
Sean Durkin: A lot of it came from writing about and examining a lot of relationships that I've seen and been in, as well as a lot of reflection and observation. A big thing that interested me was examining a woman's place in a marriage during the ’80s, as children of a post-war generation. I just feel like I watched these women during my childhood who were outspoken and didn’t fit into these ideas of marriage that didn't quite make sense for their personalities and assumed these gender roles that just didn't feel natural to me. So I think that all my life I've been fascinated by that and why that's there. I wanted to look at a character who breaks out of that in a really subtle way and not breaks out of it, either. She finds the space to be her more truer and complete self within the marriage. That was what came about during the writing process.
Then, when Carrie and Jude came on board, I really believe in being on the same page with your casts and I could tell that from the very first meetings I had with them that they were both interested in the same things. And with Jude’s character, Rory does a lot of questionable things and you want to be able to follow him and know that he's doing them with love, even though they are questionable. That was a big concern for Jude. But he's such a generous guy and a warm guy, so that would be under the surface during those more vicious moments.
For Carrie, she has said that she hadn't really seen a marriage portrayed this way and that she was really excited to be a part of that. And for her, I think she connected this to her own childhood as kid in the ’80s. Her parents had a military marriage.
So the collaboration between us was very straightforward and quite simple for me. It was really about handing over the characters to them, letting them find their own space with them, and then capture that in a really organic way.
I know we're getting close on time, but I want to talk about the location and this house in particular. There’s an intimacy to the way that you crafted this movie, but the way this house ends up enveloping these characters was exceptionally done. They just feel so small and lost in there, and I thought there were a lot of really great shots in The Nest, in terms of capturing the ominous nature of this locale.
Sean Durkin: It was a multifaceted search, because I wanted something very specific in terms of its description. And then, in terms of its feel, that was something I couldn't really describe. It was like an open casting call, and we searched every house within three hours of London that we could find that fit the description. If you get too big, there are small castles all over the place there, but we couldn’t go too far where it felt like it was too big for this family. You have to be able to at least understand Rory's dream, even though it's a bit ridiculous, but he's not walking them across a moat either, if you know what I mean.
Finding that was really hard to find. The other thing was that it needed to have open spaces, because I wanted to be able to have wide shots inside and long hallways and like see-through rooms. So when we got into this place, it was the only house that had open space. Also, the house is 750 years old, so it has this atmosphere to it where it feels alive in a way, because it is just so old and the materials are so old and it just breathes and makes sound nonstop. It's very beautiful and peaceful, but it can also be scary, too. Just imagine being in there and not being familiar with it—there doesn't need to be ghosts for that to be terrifying. It's just empty space and there's hidden doors, so you never feel like you're safe or that you’re contained in a warm space.
That was really important to add to the feeling of insecurity, because Alison couldn't lock all the doors because there are so many doors. You have so many people coming in from different doors that she would lock the door and someone else would leave it unlocked. I wanted that to reflect her state of mind, where she's starting to not trust her husband, and the isolation that she’s feeling just unravels her even more, where she starts to not trust her kids, either. There's a real fracturing of her psyche here and I just wanted the house to visually embody that.
[Photo Credit: Above photo courtesy of IFC Films.]