Interview: Director Sean Durkin on Filming a Period Piece, Exploring Family Dynamics and Professional Ambition in The Nest

Much like his frequent producing partners Antonio Campos (who directed the new Netflix drama The Devil All the Time) and Josh Mond (James White), filmmaker Sean Durkin has spent a great deal of the last 12 years producing works by the aforementioned directors and others, including Afterschool, Christine, The Eyes of My Mother, Piercing, and even this year’s Dave Franco-directed The Rental. But he also managed to find time to helm his own works, such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, the BBC miniseries Southcliffe; and his most recent effort, The Nest.

The Nest
Image courtesy of IFC Films

In this gripping family drama set in the 1980s, Rory (Jude Law), an ambitious entrepreneur and former commodities broker, persuades his American wife, Allison (Chicago’s own Carrie Coon), to leave the comforts of suburban America and bring the whole family to his native England. Sensing opportunity, Rory rejoins his former firm and leases a centuries-old country manor that he really can’t afford. The promise of a lucrative new beginning starts to unravel, and the couple have to face the unwelcome truths lying beneath the surface of their marriage. It’s a keenly observed work that deals with human behavior, the family dynamic, the specific period and state of the business world during the period that it’s set, and there might even be a ghost in the house.

Nine years ago, I was fortunate enough to moderate a Q&A with Durkin and his MMMM star Elizabeth Olsen, so it was great to be able to reunite with him so many years later, just late last week, for this phone conversation. There was certainly a great deal to unpack about The Nest, so please enjoy…

I saw this film for the first time at Sundance, and it never even crossed my mind that it was a period film. But when I watched it again this week, I realized it was supposed to be set in the 1980s, but I don’t think it’s ever mentioned

I love that you’re saying this [laughs].

My forensic abilities finally kicked in, and I noticed there were no cell phones, the music is very period; it wasn’t the usual things like clothes or hair. I feel like the subtlety is very deliberate.

I set it very specifically in 1986. In fact, I think the first scenes are in May 1986 and it ends in November. There are a lot of clues to that, very subtle clues, but I didn’t want to have any big signifiers. I wanted it to be in the background, and one of the first things I said to my art and costume steams was “When people make movies about the ’80s, they have too much fun with it. They embrace all of the biggest signifiers they can, and I want to stay away from all of them.” As we started to look at references, we looked at things other than pop culture references. We looked at daily references, and everyone pooled together their family photos and found references, and it’s almost indistinguishable. You can’t really tell clothing-wise, for example. We made a choice to leave out those things, and one of the first things we did was get Jude’s suits made by an amazing London tailor who’s been working since the ’60s, who knew exactly what was spot on, and it was all about the choice of shoulder width. You want enough of a shoulder that is accurate, but you don’t want to go with the shoulder-pad ’80s look. So it was all in the details. It’s supposed to be in the backdrop and crucial to the story, but it’s also set then to reflect where we are today as well.

I know a little bit about your personal history of having moved to England when you were a kid, but why was it important to set the film in those specific months in that year?

It started off as a personal reflection. I went back to England in 2012 to make Soundcliffe for Channel 4 and I hadn’t been there in almost 20 years, and in that time, I must have been been reflecting on things. “Now the move between New York and London is seamless, but back then, it was a really big difference.” So I wondered what it would be like to examine a family making this move at that time when it was a big difference. What would that move bring up for a family? And within that, dig further into the marriage and the secrets that people keep within each other, between each other in a marriage. Once I pinpointed the general time and knew I wanted Rory to be somewhat related to the finance world, I looked at 1986, which was a big year in London. It was the year of the so-called “Big Bang,” when there was huge deregulation and privatization; national companies were being sold off. And it was the first time international companies could trade on the London market. It was the beginning of this emerging global market that was coming, and 1986 was big for that. Plus, I wanted to set it before 1987, a time before the crash, it was a time of optimism, a time when Rory could see an opportunity and have the vision that this was the time and place where he could go to make something happen. And I wanted the values he is chasing—getting a taste of the American Dream, and then bringing it back home. I wanted to examine those values of greed and ambition—bigger is better—and put them at the core of the issue and the family.

All of his predictions about the way things are going turn out to be 100 percent accurate. It gave me hope that in the end he would make some money at some point after the film is done.

I really wanted that for the character. He’s got a lot of things going for him, but he doesn’t know how to do the work. He knows how to make a splash but doesn’t necessarily know how to close the details. That felt really important to me and felt really universal and modern too. I see it all the time.

The other thing that’s a bit ambiguous is the nature of the story you’re telling, at least initially. Is it a family drama? It could be a ghost story at one point? Maybe it’s about the British business scene. You spend a great deal of time in each of those areas before this intrigue about the family emerges. With your first film, you jumped around in time and didn’t seem interested in telling a completely linear story. What do you like about easing into the story rather than just jumping into it?

It’s funny you say that, because I really do love things that jump right into story in a novel or short story or film. I think what I follow in these two films is that I’m someone who is character-led—I let the characters lead above plot. The result of that maybe is letting that happen, as opposed to saying “We need to hit this plot point by this moment,” so maybe it has that effect a little bit. But I just tried to portray a family in their life at the moment when that gets interrupted and then follow the emotional fallout of that and how, when people get tested, especially Allison, over and over again, each time something new is revealed. It’s about following what Allison is feeling, what Rory is feeling, what he’s dreaming about, what’s driving him, and letting them be the things that dictate the movie. The same with Martha—Martha’s experience was about those weeks after escaping from a cult. I did a lot of research about it and wanted it to be truthful to those anecdotes that I heard from people. That was a confused time for them and one of real reckoning of what just happened to them.

Allison is such a wonderfully layered and complex character. She clearly enjoy the spoils of their lifestyle—her fur coat really is something else—but at the same time, she doesn’t necessarily like the drive that Rory needs to be that successful because it changes the dynamic of their relationship, which starts out balanced and shifts when they move. Talk about those nuances in her as you’re writing the character.

I really love characters who are not just one thing. So often in films, people are one thing, and they’re boiled down, and sometimes they have to be because they serve a purpose to a story. But I wanted her to be really complex, a product of her time so that some of her “Stand By Her Man” upbringing was there, but also to have the contradiction that she is also outspoken. And then there’s the contradiction that someone can be a hard-working horse person who does physical labor on a farm but also likes to put on a fur coat and go out on the town and spend a bunch of money—money she doesn’t have. She’s a part of that. Characters just grow; you write for years, pull things from places, and they just become cohesive over time, but it’s all very incremental for me. Then bringing in Carrie Coon was the key to making all of those dualities blend into one very powerful person and performance. She has the ability to have a very grounded energy and also do the glamorous, party schmoozing—she can do anything.

You have this mother-child theme happening with these bookend scenes between Allison and her mother in the States, Rory and his mother in London. Those two scenes reveal so much about them with very few words. And then there’s also the dynamic between Allison and her kids. Tell me about those two scenes and how important they are.

Yeah, I wanted to show that all parents are children. You’ve got these two grown-ups—and I use that terms loosely—making decisions for the family, and I wanted you to see them as children with their mothers. I wanted to shine a light without trying to explain too much—“These are the values and this is the place where these people come from.” Just to give you a moment when they aren’t the parent in the room; they aren’t the husband or the wife, they aren’t at work. I love that. I was trying to think about people in every facet of their lives, not just one or two.

I think at the very least we figure out from those scenes that these two people are better parents than their parents were.

[laughs] That’s a great observation; I never really thought of it like that. I do hope that you get a sense of progress, that they’re doing better than they had growing up. That is something that comes up in the end.

Speaking of parents and kids, I think it’s so important when we get the perspective of the kids when they’re hearing their parents argue, because kids always know when something isn’t right. It’s a thing that unifies every single human being. And it alters our perception of what’s happening when we consider it from the kids’ points of view.

It’s a crucial point. It shows the effects of these things. As a parent, you can think you’re protecting your kids from something, but like you said, the kids know. And even without hearing the fights, they always know. I love that sense of them asking the questions “What has this become? What does this mean?” but also hoping there’s enough love there to get them through. At the end of the day, it’s about Do they stick together? How do they stick together?, and trying to find those real family moments. Families go through these things together and have these difficult moments. What else can you do but sit down and have breakfast and keep going?

There’s a scene where Allison is hiding money, and I think there’s even a moment where she says something to Rory like “Is this happening again?” There’s a sense that they’ve been through something already and survived it. Can you talk about that a bit?

I think that’s right. I wanted to create a sense that the family is in a cycle, and you see a bit of that cycle. It’s happened before, maybe it will happen again, but also that this is the worst it’s ever been, and there is a revelation that comes out of it. Humans are cyclical and do the same things over and over again. It’s about catching those things and having the ability to recognize it. I’m very interested in those cycles and the repetition of human behavior.

Sean, thank you so much. It’s great to talk to you again.

Take care. Thank you.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.