Sean Durkin On The Nine-Year Journey From ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene’ To New Sundance Pic ‘The Nest’

EXCLUSIVE: Sean Durkin is back with his second feature after a nine-year gap since the critically-acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene, which starred Elizabeth Olsen as a cult escapee and debuted at Sundance in 2011.

His new movie, The Nest, is a drama with Jude Law and Carrie Coon playing a couple who relocate their family from the U.S. to the UK as Law’s character chases career opportunities. It’s set against the backdrop of the deregulation of the English financial system in the 1980s (the Big Bang), which, while prompting a boom in the market, also had a long-term impact on the country’s culture.

The film premieres in Sundance on Sunday, January 26, where FilmNation is handling sales. On the eve of the premiere we caught up with Durkin for an exclusive pre-fest chat about his long wait between features, why he was keen to tackle a more conventional drama, and why his Janis Joplin project won’t be moving forward.

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DEADLINE: This is your return to directing features after a nine-year gap since Martha Marcy May Marlene. You’ve made us wait! What took so long?

SEAN DURKIN: I started writing this one in 2014, there was a long script process, but I was also working on other things that didn’t pan out. I took the time to nurture The Nest, to wait for the right moment to make it.

DEADLINE: You mentioned projects that “didn’t pan out”, what happened?

DURKIN: I had a few projects that didn’t happen for various reasons. I worked on a version of Little House On The Prairie [with Abi Morgan, Scott Rubin and Sony] for a long time that didn’t pan out. I also spent a lot of time trying to get a film about Janis Joplin made [the long-gestating project had Michelle Williams attached to play the ’60s musician]. That film came with a lot of baggage. After years of trying to work with the producers, we couldn’t get on the same page. It’s not happening anymore.

DEADLINE: In essence, The Nest is a fairly conventional family drama, albeit an intense study of the characters within that setup. In a time when those types of movies aren’t particularly in vogue, why did you go down that route?

DURKIN: Absolutely right. It’s very hard [to make a good family drama], I think. When I made Martha, I wasn’t sure why I was drawn to making a film about a cult, but I understand that a lot more now. It’s in the difference between the family we come from and the family we create. It started with a simple idea about making a naturalistic movie about a cult – that also felt like a challenge at the time.

It was similar with The Nest. It felt like you don’t often see a family drama that just focuses on a moment in time, they’re few and far between and it feels like there should be more of them. There’s rich territory in the details of family, the dynamics. I wanted to dig into a marriage that is very rounded, a couple that are attracted to each other, they fight, they’re in love, they’re complete and complicated. I wanted to bring up everything that was under the surface of a family dynamic and relationship.

DEADLINE: I hear the film was inspired by your own experience?

DURKIN: As a kid I moved between the U.S. and England. I remember the stark contrast and feel between the two places, it was really imprinted on me. I always felt that change [in cultures] would provide a haunting background for a movie.

DEADLINE: How much do you think the movie mirrors the modern day relationship between the UK and U.S.?

DURKIN: I was very conscious of that when writing. Between 2012 and 2017 I was between the two countries non-stop, and thought a lot about the differences between the places then, and also when I was a kid. I’ve thought a lot about when the merging of our two cultures happened, I did a lot of research and traced it back to this moment in 1986 (the Big Bang), that was a huge transitional moment.

DEADLINE: Not only does it feel relevant in Brexit Britain, where the UK is trying to cosy up with the U.S. as much as possible, but it’s also interesting from a film industry point of view. There’s an enormous amount of production coming to UK shores and a lot of the money comes from big U.S. companies…

DURKIN: It’s a good point, I actually hadn’t thought about that. I’ve made my last two projects in England and haven’t shot in the U.S. in a very long time – the UK is a great place to make a movie.

DEADLINE: You’ve got quite a mix of producers involved, how did everyone come onto the project?

DURKIN: It was late 2017 and I had the script but hadn’t worked on it for a year, I was having a conversation with Rose [Garnett, BBC Films] and I’m not sure what happened but we decided to do it right away. We got Element Pictures [Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe] involved and showed it to FilmNation, started building it piece by piece. It was an incredible team. Derrin Schlesinger had been my producer on Southcliffe [the miniseries that he directed in 2013] and stayed involved in my work, she’d also been involved in development. Amy Jackson [former See-Saw exec] got involved right at the beginning of production to be the on-set, day-to-day producer. We found a window in the summer/fall of 2018 to shoot.

DEADLINE: The film is structured as a UK-Canada co-pro, was that complicated to set up?

DURKIN: Element had done that before [on Room] and suggested it. It made sense.

DEADLINE: You attracted a very cool cast – Jude Law and Carrie Coon – how did you get them?

DURKIN: Carrie I met a couple of times, she loved the script and that was a relatively simple conversation. With Jude it wasn’t dissimilar. I sent him the script, we met, we were on the same page about the character. As a filmmaker you get your work turned down all the time by actors, but luckily he responded the way he did and fully committed to the process.

DEADLINE: Law’s character is complex. He’s very charming and at times you react very positively to him, but then at other times it feels like he’s drawing the wool over your eyes and has a sinister side. He’s an interesting character for the #MeToo era…

DURKIN: The film looks at masculinity, gender roles, family structure. I wanted the character to be influenced by the values of the society around him, and those that were passed down to him. At the beginning of the film they’re a non-traditional couple, he works from home and does the school run, and then they flip into more traditional roles. I like characters that are many things, he’s ambitious and has great ideas, but he doesn’t know how to make them happen. He’s looking to chase the American dream and bring that home to the UK, but what is the life he’s chasing? Where does his absolution come from?

DEADLINE: On a tangent [and possibly a minor spoiler]…. where did you find a dead horse?

DURKIN: [Laughs] I have an amazing art team, they found people to make the horse.

DEADLINE: I thought it had to be real, it’s the weight of it…

DURKIN: Amazing. I’m very happy with that.

DEADLINE: You’ve done a fair bit of producing work too.

DURKIN: It looks like I’ve done a lot of producing but I really haven’t. I’ve spent most of my time writing scripts, I’ve got a lot of projects in development. A lot of the producing credits came from my previous company BorderLine Films [set up with Christine director Antonio Campos and James White director Josh Mond after they met in film school], they were advisory roles. We broke it up a few years ago, we had achieved our initial goal and we got older and started going in different directions creatively, we had different ideas from each other.

DEADLINE: What’s coming up for you?

DURKIN: I’m very excited about my next one. It’s another family portrait, about a wrestling family called the Von Erichs. They revolutionized wrestling in the late 1970s/early 80s, and suffered family tragedy. It’s about their rise and fall. I’m doing that with Tessa Ross and also Rose at the BBC. [Read Deadline’s scoop on the pic].

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