Parents are pretty much doomed to fuck up their kids somehow. Whether it’s moving the family to a new city because of a big career opportunity or telling them little white lies to try to protect them – or simply not being truthful about what is plain for anyone young or old to see – these sorts of actions take a toll on our children even if our intentions are ultimately good.
Or at least, that was my takeaway from The Nest, the latest film from writer-director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Southcliffe), a brooding family drama starring Jude Law and Carrie Coon as a couple whose marriage and home life increasingly feels like a powder keg ready to explode. The film premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and arrives in theatres on September 18th.
We spoke to Durkin about the spectacular chemistry between his two leads, how the talents of Jude Law can humanize a sociopath, the ubiquity of cigarettes in the 1980s, and how The Nest walks a fine line between domestic drama and full-blown horror movie.
Will Perkins: Congrats on the film! I really liked it, but I don’t know that I can say I enjoyed it. It was very stressful to watch as a new dad. I came away from the film with an increased awareness/paranoia of how parents can really do a number on their kids, whether they mean to or not. I know this project has been a long time coming for you and that you became a father yourself in the course of bringing it to the screen, so did becoming a dad change the project at all? Did it evolve or alter how you approached the film?
Sean Durkin: [laughs] Yeah, I think so. I don’t really know how, but when I was writing the script and then my daughter was born, I took six months off and came back to it. It’s just that knowledge that you have after becoming a parent, from day one it’s different. You start to see everybody as both a parent and a child – I started to see everyone as a parent and as a child once I became a father in this whole other way. And that became an important part to explore in Rory and Allison, where I wanted to have their parents, even just a hint of the family – a single thing or a portrait of the place that they came from – which are very different and have different levels of warmth and expression, to shed some light on seeing them as children.
Yeah, there’s a great scene with Carrie’s character and her mom – Canadian National Treasure Wendy Crewson – it was interesting to see that perspective on her, like you said even just briefly. It illuminates so much about the character. So I obviously have to ask you about Carrie and this role – what I really like about her character Allison was that had this movie been made in the 80s or 90s she might have been just like an obstacle for Rory (Law) to sort of overcome or try to outsmart, like this jilted wife who’s getting in the way of his success. But she’s way, way more than that in this movie and you get the sense over over the course of the story that they’ve definitely been here before. This is a cycle for them. How does a character like this change from your script to production when an actor like her takes on the role? What did she bring to it?
SD: I mean she’s just very, very powerful. I think it’s a tricky role to play and be believable both mucking out horse stalls and wearing that fur coat walking around Soho, you know? Just to be able to seamlessly come in from the stable, put on that outfit, and then go out run a room at some fancy party. It’s a very tricky thing. I think she can do it all, so it’s more about what’s on the page. It was just about her knowing that she could do it with this power underneath it all, for her to get to that place of standing up and wanting to change things. But it’s all about that duality, right? Yes, she’s a very powerful character that you’re seeing in the beginning and then it’s sort of like well, why are you putting up with this? She’s putting up with it and that’s the battle for that duality to get to where she gets here.
So if we’re talking about Carrie then I have to ask you about the depiction of smoking in the movie. You wouldn’t see a character smoking like that if the story were set today, but it just adds such a sting to a lot of her big moments in the movie and even some small ones. So how do you direct smoking? Is that in the script? Is that all Carrie?
SD: I love the smoke. She was smoking while we were shooting, but I think she’s quit since then but I don’t know. But it was a big thing for us, it was something we both talked about. We both grew up in houses that were filled with cigarette smoke, I mean literally filled, so for us it was a no brainer. Of course Allison smokes and she’d be smoking all the time, everywhere. But I think because it was such a no brainer to her and I, we didn’t even think about that it would get a reaction. It’s funny, I never expected anyone to even ever comment on it, but it’s something people really pick up on. It’s interesting! [laughs] I think it’s a great thing that smoking is now so much less accepted, it’s great, but I think it’s just her embodying her character and that time, which cigarettes are probably for both of us just such a memory of that time.
Now let’s talk about the other half of this couple. I feel like we’ve all known or encountered a person like Rory, the guy who’s constantly writing cheques his ass can’t cash but who somehow largely keeps his head above water through a steady stream of bullshit and charm. You kind of root for him and root against him simultaneously. Without pointing to the obvious example of the real-life figure that this character might remind us of, tell me a little bit about Rory and what made Jude right for this role?
SD: Yeah, I mean every character you write is a combination of many people that you’ve encountered and a bit of imagination. It’s many things and also the hand-off to the actor, who brings their experiences to it, the people they’ve known, their individuality and their own things. So it’s this complete process of everyone giving themselves and their experiences to become this thing. With Jude, when we met and I asked him to read it, from the very beginning, he was asking the exact same questions that I was asking, which is like. “How do we keep the heart of this character, the understanding of him as a human and not turn him into something else?” Jude just has the biggest heart and charm, so like you just said, you want to follow him, you want to root for him, you can’t believe he’s doing that! It’s just this constant back and forth, but I think Jude just has that humanity and also energy – he’s got an amazing spark. From pitching to his boss, getting excited at work, and all that stuff, like he’s just great to watch and follow.
And then just the two of them – Jude and Carrie – the chemistry between the two of them is just spectacular. It was just such a pleasure to watch this relationship unfold. They could absolutely go there in the tender moments and absolutely go there in those hard moments. It was like watching a heavyweight fight a lot of the time.
Beyond the really intense family drama there are times when the film feels like it may veer into full blown horror – and that’s largely due to where you’ve set the story. I love that we have this creaky old Surrey estate as the backdrop for the drama – it’s sort of this vessel that’s haunted by all the bad energy that Rory and Allison are putting out and are in total denial about, but that the kids are 100% attuned to and taking in. Why was this the space for this story and how does one cast a house like this?
SD: So we did a wide search, almost like a casting call, and just went and saw every house we could. I think we said that we wanted it to be within three hours of London and we started there. But after seeing a lot of places that were either too big or too ridiculous, we knew we had to find that right balance where it’s just outside the realm of a successful trader working in London and living in Surrey, but it’s not a castle, which was an option! [laughs] And the other thing was that in the interior I wanted to be able to see down the hallways and into the rooms, but a lot of these places, these huge houses, are actually just a series of rooms. They don’t have any hallways. This place was one of the only places we saw that actually had a sense of space and distance within the house. So that was a really important thing to always have like open doors and different hallways and get a little bit lost in the maze of the house. I wanted to use the space and use those genre elements to create a sense of unease that represented the haunting in their own silence, in their own withholding information from each other. It’s that stuff bubbling under the surface that needs to come up – and so I wanted to have the house that atmosphere to represent the emotional situation that they’re all going through.
And did Led Zeppelin actually record an album there or is that another line of bullshit from Rory?
SD: [laughs] No! But I heard that in a couple of different places. It’s pretty amazing when you go and you look around at these houses and they’re like “Oh, Led Zeppelin recorded here!” It’s something that comes up. It became this sort of hilarious recurring thing.
THE NEST opens in theatres on September 18th