Sean Durkin, the Indie Master of Tension, on 'The Nest' and the Worst Advice He Got in Film School

9 years after 'Martha Marcy May Marlene,' Sean Durkin is back at Sundance with a haunting psycho-thriller.  

Nine years, ago, Sean Durkin barrelled into Sundance with his first feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene. It was a movie about a cult that turned into a cult movie, and with good reason—Durkin's command of tension and atmosphere, anchored by a star-turn performance by Elizabeth Olsen, made the haunting psychological thriller impossible to look away from.

The same things are true of Durkin's new film, The Nest, which premiered at Sundance this year. The slow-burn thriller stars Jude Law and Carrie Coon as Rory and Allison O'Hara, a sorely mismatched married couple on the verge of a breakdown. Rory is a roving social climber whose thirst for wealth cannot be quenched; Allison, meanwhile, tries to be a supportive housewife, but it's clear that she's her own person who takes no bullshit when push comes to shove. (It does.) When Rory uproots the family from their idyllic suburban existence to the British countryside in order to chase big money in emerging markets, Allison is the first to sound the alarm. Surely they can't afford this new sprawling estate, whose dark hallways and secret chambers threaten to swallow them whole.

"I find it helpful to have financial restrictions that help me make the creative choices."

Durkin and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély (Son of Saul) have built the visual language of the film around the family's slow demise. Chilling, meticulously composed tracking shots—the kind that promise a bloody payoff—chronicle the family's transition to their new life, and keep the characters at an inscrutable distance. As things really start to unravel, the camera gets closer to these alienated family members, but a darkness falls over them; Erdély's haunting compositions often leave their faces barely lit. That, along with film's nuanced performances and disquieting edit, prove Durkin a bona fide master of unnerving cinema.

No Film School sat down with Durkin following the Sundance premiere of The Nest to discuss the film's long development process, the bad advice he got in film school, 

No Film School: This film was a long journey to get off the ground. Nine years, to be exact. I'm interested to know how all the different pieces came together. 

Sean Durkin: I started writing the script in 2014. Rose Garnett, who is now head of BBC Films, was, at the time, an executive at Film4. We started working together there—I'd do a draft and we would revise it. I would take six months off and then come back to it.

Then, in 2017, my daughter was born and I took a year away from the project to spend a lot of time with her. I went back to The Nest as a parent, which was interesting.

"When I started, it was really hard to say I wanted to be a director. Before you know anything, it's almost embarrassing to say that because it seems like such a pipe dream."

Rose had moved over to the BBC at that point, and we were just like, "Okay, let's do this. Let's make this now." We showed FilmNation and Glen Basner came on. It happened pretty quickly. Suddenly, we had this amazing team together and then we started casting and went out to Carrie [Coon] and Jude [Law]. I met them both and once they were on, we got a start date. I put my team together from some people I had worked on Southcliffe with.

NFS: How did being a parent shape the script?

Durkin: I think when you have a kid you just understand everything differently. And you know that you understand nothing at all. Being a parent is very difficult and being a child is difficult. It's been an amazing personal journey for me that's gone alongside making this film. 

Sean Durkin working with Jude Law on the set of 'The Nest'

NFS: Something that struck me about The Nest is how much interplay there was between the cinematography and the production design. I'm sure that all three of you worked together pretty closely.

Durkin: It was by far the most cohesive unit I've ever had. Makeup and hair and costumes, too. They were communicating really closely.

The first thing I said to everyone was, "This period is not so different from today, so let's not have too much fun with it. Let's not call attention to it." It was almost an unnecessary conversation because everyone was on the same page. We all wanted a light touch.

A lot of filmmaking is choosing the right people who get what you want to do, and then letting them do what they're great at. That's what directing is to me. Obviously, I have a very clear idea of what I want a film to be, but ultimately, it's about choosing [your crew] for their talents and then saying, "How do I create the best environment for them to work in?"

"We wanted to be bold and let the actors go dark. Often the lights are behind them and you don't see their faces."

NFS: Do the same rules apply to the way you work with actors?

Durkin: I direct every actor a little differently. I just try to get to know them and figure out what they need. Some people need very little; some people want to talk and do research and have conversations about the backstory for months. I love that. But I also love it when someone's like, "All right, I read the script, and I'll see you next week on set." I trust them to do that because I've chosen them for a reason. I've had some sort of gut response to them—their work, their energy, what I think they'll bring to the role—and I just trust it's going to happen.

From there, it's about molding [the performance] and communication and shaping it and aligning it with your vision. But you have to create that space where people can do their best work.

NFS: The success of this film and Martha Marcy May Marlene both hinged on your mastery of pacing and atmosphere. Those are such slippery words, I know. What do they mean to you?

Durkin: I honestly don't know. I know that there is a feeling that I want. I just know what a space should feel like. I think that's the first thing.

Either I walk on to set and it's dressed and the mood is perfect, or there are one too many pieces of furniture, so we clear it out. We dressed the house [in The Nest] fully, knowing we'd never shoot it that way, just to see what would feel like. And then we pulled back slowly and figured out what was just enough.

"Art and commerce are linked and you can't separate them. It's about how can you get the most out of both sides."

A lot of pacing and atmosphere also happens in the shot. Should it be static? Should it be zoomed? Should it be close up?

In the edit, you cut before you think the scene is done, or leave a scene longer than you think it should be, depending. It's a constant calibration throughout the whole process. I still can't quite put my finger on it until I see it. 

NFS: For me, the mood of your film was heavily driven by your decisions in lighting.  

Durkin: Well, my first foot into filmmaking was camera. I was into photography and started as a cinematographer at a film school.

On this film, the cinematography was all about simplicity and naturalism. Obviously, the movie is lit, but Mátyás [Erdély, the DP] designed it to have the end result feel like you're there. So the lighting had to be driven by a source.

We wanted to be bold and let the actors go dark. Often the lights are behind them and you don't see their faces clearly. Sometimes I think that's really the best way to let a mood play out. There's a scene between Carrie and Jude when [Jude's character] asks her for money, and she gets up, and he's got his back to us, and she's totally standing in dark. For me, that says everything about their relationship at that point in time. You can't really see them. Mátyás is so brave about that stuff.

Mátyás Erdély, DP of "The Nest," on set

NFS: Besides the episodes of Southcliffe that you directed, you've spent a lot of the last nine years producing your friends' projects through your film collective, Borderline. When you're directing, do you also have your producers' hat on?

Durkin: I think so. When we started Borderline, I was doing all the accounting and line producing. And so for me, numbers are important.

When I'm writing, sometimes I get to a point with a draft where I'm like, "Let's do a budget because I need to know what this means financially." And then the budget helps me mold the next draft. I find it helpful to have financial restrictions that help me make the creative choices, which focus the movie on the next step. You need to know what you can do and what's realistic for the movie. Art and commerce are linked and you can't separate them. It's about how can you get the most out of both sides.

NFS: Do you have any advice for aspiring directors, given that you've now got your sophomore feature under your belt?

Durkin: I actually just met a student after a screening and had this conversation with her. What I said to her was, "If you want to be a director, say you're a director. Make movies and just keep making them."

"It's not like the second your short gets into Sundance, you've made it, or something. That's just a step."

When I started, it was really hard to say I wanted to be a director. Before you know anything about directing, it's almost embarrassing to say that because it seems like such a pipe dream. I remember some responses being like, "Of course you do, everyone wants to make movies." But I think it's important to own that dream and say, "I want to do this, and I believe I can do it."

If you're writing, keep writing. Write stuff and make it. And as soon as you're done making it, move on and make something else. Because there's so much up and down, there's so much disappointment. When you make something, you're putting part of yourself out there. It's very exposing. As professional as we can be, it's very personal. I'd write scripts and show them to people and be like, "I guess this isn't very good. It's not worth making." They'd be like, "Just write another one." You have to know when to move on.

NFS: It's almost like you can't become too attached to any given idea.

Durkin: Yeah, but at the same time you have to be entirely attached and committed to the thing that you're doing. But then you've got to keep doing more things. 

I don't know what it's like now, but I was in film school from 2002 to 2006, and at the time, there was still this weird thing that was sold to us. It was like, "You're going to make the short, and it's going to be your calling card. You're going to write the script that you're going to sell."

I don't know if still the message, but it was certainly the wrong message. There was no end goal. It's not like the second your short gets into Sundance, you've made it, or something. You've got work to do to keep going. That's just a step. But you have to love the process. Directing is an amazing thing to do and if you just love it and you keep doing it, it's the best job in the world.


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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