After working in TV, writer/director Sean Durkin is back on the big screen with The Nest, his first film since 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene.
One of the most talked-about movies of 2011 was Martha Marcy May Marlene, the story of one woman’s escape from an abusive cult (a precursor to NXIVM?). And now, writer/director Sean Durkin returns with The Nest, his first film since Martha, a project that is completely different from the drama that made a splash 10 years ago.
The Nest is a slice-of-life glimpse into the O’Hara family, as they move from New York to England in 1986. Rory (Jude Law) is an ambitious businessman who purchases an old-fashioned pastoral property for his family, so that his wife Allison (Carrie Coon) can enjoy riding horses and son (Charlie Shotwell), and stepdaughter (Oona Roche) can have what he never could have growing up. However, the move to the UK brings about twisted truths and puts the family’s problems under a magnifying glass.
I had the opportunity to speak with Durkin about The Nest, including what the period piece says about the present, why Allison isn’t a typical ’80s wife, and how they pulled off that scene.
**Note: Spoilers for The Nest ahead.**
Awards Daily: The last movie you directed was Martha Marcy May Marlene from nearly 10 years ago. Why the break between films and does The Nest have anything in common with Martha?
Sean Durkin: So I wouldn’t really say a break between. . .(Laughs)
AD: Right! (Laughs)
SD: I did a miniseries in England called Southcliffe, and that was a pretty big undertaking, a four-part drama. And then after that, I’d been producing some stuff, but mainly I was just working on films that got really close to going and didn’t go. A couple of projects that I put a lot of years into and they fell apart at the very last moment. That was tough but I think a common experience. Alongside pushing those projects forward and working on them, I was writing The Nest, so it accompanied me through all of this stuff. I wasn’t expecting it, but that became my second feature, and now I can’t imagine anything else would have been my second feature.
I don’t think too consciously about the connections to Martha, but it’s more that I start to notice it after the film’s done really. The Nest is a continuation of some of the themes that I was exploring in Martha around family and values and what is family and where do the values that we have come from within our families?
AD: That’s really interesting. It makes me want to rewatch Martha now. The Nest takes place in the ‘80s, but it feels like it could be current. Why did you set it in the past? And did you think about setting it in the present?
SD: I didn’t think about setting it in the present, but I knew that it was about the present, if that makes sense. It started as a personal look at a moment in my childhood. My family actually moved the other way, from England to America. Just about the stark contrast and change in atmosphere. They are very different places, so I wanted to make a film about a family moving and that moment in time. Then as I started to work backwards, I set it in 1986 because it was the height of deregulation in the UK and privatization, and it was a moment where American firms were merging with British firms for the first time. I saw this celebration of ambition and bigger is better, an imaginary better life around the corner. I really still see it all around us today and can really see a clear thread back to 1986 in particular, so it became a way to examine the past while completely making it present and making choices visually with costumes and art. People have too much fun when they make movies about the ’80s; everything is big and bold and bright. And in actuality, it wasn’t really like that. Obviously that was part of it, but it wasn’t that different and visually didn’t look that different to today. We just erred on that side of things, and in the end, the intention was to make it feel much closer to today than things usually represent when they depict the ’80s.
AD: I really love that, even the way you write Carrie Coon’s Allison, she isn’t a typical ‘80s wife. I feel like wives in the ‘80s are often depicted as submissive and quiet. Is she a reflection of the change in women’s roles in the workplace in the 1980s? What did you take into consideration when writing her?
SD: It’s something I grew up watching. I come from a family of five aunts. I felt very in touch with that generation, and a lot of what I saw was very outspoken, driven women who were in subservient marriages. It didn’t make any sense to me. It was a moment in time where there was this mix, and obviously it depends on the person, but something I witnessed was young women that were raised to be wives, told to be wives by a post-war generation, and it didn’t fit their natural personalities. There’s a similar storyline for Rory, Jude’s character. These characters live in a world where they’re told to be one thing but naturally they’re another, and they have to wrestle that duality both in themselves and in each other to find a more truthful balance.
AD: I wanted to ask you about Rory. He almost seems like a “Greed is good” type of character (ala Wall Street). At one point, he says, “I deserve this” in terms of the fake wealth he flaunts. This sounds very American. Did living in America cause him to be this way? Or did he have a bit of that with his upbringing?
SD: I always saw a bit of that with his upbringing. I think it’s both. Rory is a character who is so obsessed with not being from the place he came from that he doesn’t know himself. That is something timeless and universal. I think he’s a character that feels he was hard-done by and therefore deserves great things for himself, but doesn’t necessarily know how to do the work to get them. There’s an entitlement for him, but he comes from true poverty. I don’t know if it’s just American; I think it’s specific to the way I constructed the character and the place he came from in England, the dreams he had about making it in America.
AD: How do you think Allison and Rory got together? They seem to represent England’s pastoral past versus its more business-minded future. Why did you play with that juxtaposition and what do you think it says about England and even the couple?
SD: I try to just focus on character specifics and just build characters that I feel are interesting, parts of human experience I’m interested in. I think the thing that brought them together and keeps them together is this cheeky fun that they have. I think there’s a real passion there. There’s a contradiction in one hand, where they move to England and the gender roles dissolve into more traditional roles that they didn’t have in America. Rory wants her to be an armpiece, but he also loves how outspoken she is. There’s a lot at play, and I just wanted it to be complicated. That comes from building up the characters and writing over time and finding those details and latching onto details and building them, making it feel real and multi-layered and conflicting. Not simplified, because relationships and marriages and people are not simplified.
AD: One of the images from the film that I will never forget is Richmond’s burial. How did you pull off that scene? Was PETA there?
SD: (Laughs) There was no animal hurt in this film. Spoiler alert: It was a dummy. My production designer not only does he have an amazing eye for art, he has all of the relationships with the most specialized, small shops around the country. He knew exactly who to go to to build a fake, dead horse. They showed up and there was only one, so we had one take at that basically. It’s amazing. It looked so real.
SD: An actual dead horse wouldn’t have looked more real.
AD: (Laughs) Allison takes it so hard, the death of Richmond. What do you think the horse represents to her?
SD: I don’t think the horse represents anything to her. I think the horse is a real love. And I think it’s kind of that simple. People who are horse people are very connected to their animal, and there’s a real almost spiritual bond between a person and their horse. I think that Allison, because of where she comes from and maybe how she was raised, finds it easier to show emotion to an animal than to people. It just felt right for me for some reason, she could cry over the loss of a horse, but not necessarily about other parts of her life.
AD: She’s been holding it all in with the demise of her marriage. Maybe it’s all coming out there. I love how throughout the whole film, Rory will bring her coffee in the morning. But then I noticed at the end, the kids are the ones making the coffee and basically doing it themselves. Does the making of breakfast mean something bigger?
SD: No, I think it’s just painting an all-around picture of a family. Rory can be a real brute in a lot of ways, but he’s also very loving and caring. He’s not just the harder side. With breakfast at the end, I just really see that as after a hellish night, what else can you do but sit together and eat breakfast? It feels like the only thing you can do as a family, to figure out what’s next, and keep going. And eating whatever’s there.
AD: And wash the walls that say, “Yuppy C**ts”! (Laughs)